Kenneth Goldsmith

Perpetuating myths of originality (Goldsmith responds)

screen shot from "paper mill" web site offering papers on Wallace Stevens for sale

Kenny Goldsmith responded to my blog entry from a while back, entitled "5-page paper on Stevens, yours for just $59.75." Here's what Kenny writes:

Some time ago, you blogged about the conundrum of finding a paper mill selling an interpretation of Steven's poem "Mozart, 1935," which might have incorporated your own work on this subject into it, a remix of your own words. You say, "Is it possible that I would have been buying a hack-job remix of my own article on the poem?" You then go on to say that "I think I would have asked for reimbursement from my university-sponsored research fund for this expense. After all, it would have been research. No? How desperate would a student have to be to use one of these sites?"

My answer is not desperate at all. In fact, each semester, I force my students to purchase a paper from paper mills and present it as their final project as if they wrote it themselves. Each student must stand up in front of the class and present it with such irrefutable conviction as if they themselves wrote it and truly believe every word of it. Failure to do so convincingly results in group censure from the class, and ultimately in a lower grade.

The kernel of how we must teach today is embedded in your quandary. By reifying the old lines of "this is mine" and "this is not," we perpetuate myths of originality. Was your research sprung completely from your own genius? Most likely not. You sourced it from dozens of places. What is original -- and genius -- is the way you wove those sources together. But isn't that what good research always has been? It's just that the digital makes this process transparent and eminently elastic in ways that were hidden before.

Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" (the title of her forthcoming book on the subject) to describe a new tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the internet, our notion of genius -- a romantic isolated figure -- is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine.

It's time to let go of notions of propriety and ownership of language, particularly in university situation where there is a subsidized economy. None of us are writing for profit -- we are subsidized by research funds and university positions -- and are thus obliged to take the most theoretically radical and experimental positions possible. Imagine if other research wings of universities such as science labs took the safe and known ways? They certainly would be upbraided for not taking chances. Why can't we do the same?

- - -

Now my reply to Kenny's reply:

I'm sort of hoping that the parents of our students will see the $59 charge on their sons' and daughters' credit-card bill, and a discussion of this purchase will ensue. In such a conversation--I'm imagining it taking place over the Thanksgiving dinner, with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Schloime listening in--Kenny's teaching will spread like waves across the pre-postmodern generations, the tuition-paying traditionalists who thought that by sending their kids to an Ivy League school they were escaping unoriginality rather than venturing to its center.

Anyway, the tone of my blog entry was all wrong, as I can see upon re-reading, and I think threw Kenny off. I find the fact of a $60 five-page paper on Wallace Stevens absurd and I'm not primarily concerned about the fate of my own academic writing in the world of digital copying. Really. I don't disagree with Kenny--as he knows--about remix. I don't fear it and I have very little concern about owning my interpretation of a poem by Wallace Stevens. It was my hook, my start on writing about the topic. Already not a fan of the grade-giving and grade-getting system of higher education (a view to which this blog amply testifies), I'm bemused by the lack of consciousness and laziness of people in that system feeling the need to pay top dollar for a dumbed-down academic remix. A little bit of work of could have produced the same (I mean even a remix) for free. You see, that's where we begin to see differences between Kenny's uncreative writing course and the paper mills he seems to favor (he doesn't really favor them--imagine him and the purveyors of such a venture in the same room!--but his position necessitates that he be annoyed by people annoyed by them). Kenny's students are (to say the least) extremely conscious of the aesthetic or anti-aesthetic (but that's still an aesthetic) of the sampling, and the violation of conventional values--a violation felt as such by the giant middle on the spectrum running from cool anti-authorial stealing to lazy pirating advantage-taking profiteers--is material for his pedagogy and their learning. He "forces" them to engage in such violation and it's the beginning of their venture into the art world. Kenny and his students, brilliant in their creative uncreativity, are doing one thing, which I admire and literally support. And his world is energized by its all being free. A gift economy thriving on the new digital world in which authorship has happily disappeard. I'm there too. But the purveyors of the paper mill have created something that is the opposite of the gift economy, and the result is an uncreative uncreativity that only very very superficially befits the world Kenny enjoys living in.

To me, this is all about pedagogy and the fate of higher education. I adore the energetic, intense, resourceful (that's, by the way, another word for creative) not-lazy students who are self-consciously participating in the lazy buy-your-papers economy. I don't adore students for whom this process is a matter of sheer unselfconscious ease. The former is learning, being part of a community of learners (such as in Kenny's amazing classes), and it is always, always a rigorous uncreativity. The latter are mere corner-cutters, seeking the easy. I have little time for them. What Kenny and his students do is not easy--seems easy, but isn't. Let's make that distinction.

Bodies in classroom

Goldsmith on pedagogy

Kenneth Goldsmith
Kenneth Goldsmith

Years ago Jim O'Donnell - a pioneer in internet-age teaching - said that the role of the teacher would change from that of provider of knowledge... to that of "front end to the universe": from be-all/there-all giver in a room full of receivers and final arbiter of what constitutes relevant knowledge to medium or gateway or traffic cop gently guiding but never blocking the learners' pathways outward to a world of information and knowledge and text that made the teacher a speck on the horizon yet still great in importance if she or he would thrive in the role of medium. Not maker or giver of the medium, but medium itself. There are classrooms today (and it has not much to do with computing hardware available, though a minimum is required...namely a good wireless connection for everyone) in which the new role is possible and the teacher loves playing it. From time to time here I have mentioned Kenneth Goldsmith's teaching, in part because I adore what Kenny does and in large part because I happen to have access to it, a close look at its development. Kenny's artwork did all this before he taught regularly, but now the pedagogy is catching up with the rest of the project. Here are a few paragraphs Kenny sent me not long ago about what the hell is happening in his classroom:

During a recent classroom visit of a visual artist, it occurred to me that we've reached a new paradigm in radical pedagogy. The artist entered the room, greeted the class and began his lecture with a PowerPoint presentation about his work. While he was speaking, he noticed that the class -- all of whom had their laptops open and connected to the internet -- were furiously typing away. He flattered himself that, in the traditional manner, the students were taking copious notes on his lecture, devouring every word he spoke. But what he was not aware of was that the students were engaged in a simultaneous electronic dialogue with each other about what the artist was saying, all played out over the class listserv, which they all had instant access to. During the course of the artist's lecture, dozens of emails, links and photos were blazing back and forth to each other; each email elicited yet more commentary and gloss on the prior emails to the point where what the artist was saying was merely a jumping off point to an investigation of such depth and complexity, that the artist -- or any ideal of traditional pedagogy -- would never have achieved. It was an unsurpassed form of student's active and participatory engagement, but went far astray from what the speaker had in mind.

When later told about this, the artist was very disturbed. His ego was mauled and when shown the blizzard of gloss, was more dispirited as he felt much of what had transpired was irrelevant and even irreverent (hastily Photoshopped detournments of images and concepts he brought up). He was flabbergasted that all of this "conversation" was happening and he, the authoritative speaker, was not privy to what was being said.

"Goundhog Day"

A section of Kenneth Goldsmith's "The Weather"

A few years ago, when Kenny Goldsmith's book The Weather was still in draft--or should I say, was still being typewritten--he read the "Groundhog Day" section of it at the Writers House (for our annual "Mind of WinA few years ago, when Kenny Goldsmith's book The Weather was still in draft--or should I say, was still being typewritten--he read the "Groundhog Day" section of it at the Writers House (for our annual "Mind of Winter" event), and here's the audio recording: (mp3)

Listen to the recording and then read Marjorie Perloff's essay on The Weather, called "Moving Information". Here's a passage:

Take up The Weather as you might any other book, and you will soon find that what seems to be boring, straightforward, and incontrovertible fact is largely fiction. The book's division into four chapters, one for each season, is already an artifice, for of course we don't experience the seasons this way. Nothing happens on December 21st that couldn't just as well happen on December 20th, the last day of fall. The seasonal cycle, moreover, is, as David Antin notes in his jacket comment, presented as "a classical narrative," moving from the bitter freeze of Winter 2002 through a moderate New York spring, to the summer season of thunderstorms and hurricanes threatening the coast, to the autumn of World Series weather (fortunately, fairly dry), back to a winter that seems, at least so far, not as cold as the previous one. The larger narrative thus mimes the familiar myth of "in like a lion, out like a lamb."

Is Flarf corrosive? (PoemTalk #33)

Sharon Mesmer, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington”

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon and Steve McLaughlin gathered in Al’s office/recording studio at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Sharon Mesmer’s flarfy gem, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington.” The recording we used was made at the Writers House in February of 2007, at a mini Flarf Poetry Festival organized by our own Steve McLaughlin. We’re pretty sure that the poem was first posted to the flarflist – a listserv of flarf practitioners (and a few nonpracticing advocates) that serves as a medium for trying out all sorts of improvisational and quasi-improvisational poetic “bottom-feeding” (to use Kenny G.’s positive phrase). Is flarf poetic, non-poetic or anti-poetic, or, anyway, what combination is it of those three? That turns out to be the crux of our discussion. What “poetic” elements and devices does Mesmer retain and employ, and to what effect? Gary Sullivan originally defined flarf writing as, among other things, “corrosive,” and when Al asks the group whether Mesmer’s poem is corrosive, a fascinating discussion ensues: in part, we seem to move away from Sullivan’s notion. And since this is a poem, at least at first (at least superficially [superficially?!]) about Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot during a boondoggling hunting trip in Texas, it seems reasonable to ask about the political meaning or import of the piece. The answer is hardly straightforward. At one point Steve pulls out the smoking gun (as it were), proving that Sharon Mesmer took most of the poem verbatim from internet sources. And what about taste? Al puts it straight to Kenny, who has sometimes argued that one conceptual work is effective, while another work is not--the key being, the quality of choice of of concept. So what, Al asks, is the role of aesthetic distinction and valuation? Nada adds some possibly quite relevant biographical information, so we are led to ponder: What does Mesmer’s family of blood-on-apron butchers and her own principled vegetarianism have to do with the politics of the poem – its critique of a culture in which everything, actually and figuratively, tastes like chicken? It is, of course, a culture that includes this poem and makes it entirely (and specifically) possible.Here is Sharon Mesmer's PennSound author page, and here is a direct link to a recording of the poem. Here is a link to one of Mesmer's internet sources.

Our engineer and director for this program was James LaMarre.

Is Flarf corrosive? (PoemTalk #33)

Sharon Mesmer, 'I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon and Steve McLaughlin gathered in Al’s office/recording studio at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Sharon Mesmer’s flarfy gem, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington.”

The recording we used was made at the Writers House in February of 2007, at a mini Flarf Poetry Festival organized by our own Steve McLaughlin. We’re pretty sure that the poem was first posted to the flarflist – a listserv of flarf practitioners (and a few nonpracticing advocates) that serves as a medium for trying out all sorts of improvisational and quasi-improvisational poetic “bottom-feeding” (to use Kenny G.’s positive phrase). Is flarf poetic, non-poetic or anti-poetic, or, anyway, what combination is it of those three? That turns out to be the crux of our discussion. What “poetic” elements and devices does Mesmer retain and employ, and to what effect? Gary Sullivan originally defined flarf writing as, among other things, “corrosive,” and when Al asks the group whether Mesmer’s poem is corrosive, a fascinating discussion ensues: in part, we seem to move away from Sullivan’s notion. And since this is a poem, at least at first (at least superficially [superficially?!]) about Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot during a boondoggling hunting trip in Texas, it seems reasonable to ask about the political meaning or import of the piece.

The answer is hardly straightforward. At one point Steve pulls out the smoking gun (as it were), proving that Sharon Mesmer took most of the poem verbatim from Internet sources. And what about taste? Al puts it straight to Kenny, who has sometimes argued that one conceptual work is effective, while another work is not--the key being, the quality of choice of of concept. So what, Al asks, is the role of aesthetic distinction and valuation? Nada adds some possibly quite relevant biographical information, so we are led to ponder: What does Mesmer’s family of blood-on-apron butchers and her own principled vegetarianism have to do with the politics of the poem – its critique of a culture in which everything, actually and figuratively, tastes like chicken? It is, of course, a culture that includes this poem and makes it entirely (and specifically) possible.Here is Sharon Mesmer's PennSound author page, and here is a direct link to a recording of the poem. Here is a link to one of Mesmer's internet sources.

KWH'ers in Banff

Here at Banff last night: immediately after Charles Bernstein's stunning performance of his poetry there was a bit of a group hug among the Penn/Kelly Writers House-affiliated people at the conference. From left to right they are: Julia Bloch, Al Filreis, Rebekah Caton, Charles Bernstein, Kimberly Eisler, Sarah Dowling, Nick Montfort, and Kenny Goldsmith. (Thanks to Erin Moure for taking the shot.)

New writing practices at Banff

I'm in Banff, Alberta, attending a long-weekend-long conference called "interventions"--focused on new writing practices.I'm in Banff, Alberta, attending a long-weekend-long conference called "interventions"--focused on new writing practices. The best thing about it is that most of the presenters are practicing artists. This morning, for instance, Jen Bervin showed us several of her textile/weaving projects--one a brilliant weaving of Emily Dickinson's fascicles. Lance Olsen (an old graduate school chum) and Steve Tomasula on various forms of digital/hypermedia fiction. Fred Wah starts a talk about collaboration by talking about using tea mold for a mealtime art project. I'm meeting many Canadian writers whom I'd not known before. Erin Moure and J.R. Carpenter among them. Maria Damon riffs on connections between schmata and schema-ta, a raggy poetics, in response to the matter of the state of the sentence. Craig Dworkin (best paper, to my mind, of the conference) starts with the Poundian/imagist compression of the sentence and does exemplary literary history in a short paper. There's a ton there.  I moderated a panel on the state of reading today and tomorrow I will present a manifesto in 6 minutes. Hearing tales of the Wah-bash (the celebration of Fred Wah's retirement from active teaching near here in Calgary). Finally, after all these years, met Derek Beaulieu--a treat. Kenny Goldsmith found a moment to insert his stump speech about uncreative writing, and he chose the perfect moment. Charles Bernstein started his talk by being absent, then showed us some stunning slides of his collaborations with painters over the years. Met a young man, Mike, who lives in a cabin in northern Northwest Territory, has a satellite-enabled WiFi and uses PennSound recordings as a lifeline to the world of poetry in the provinces and states below. John Cayley yesterday used the (Brown University) "cave" (3D virtual textual environment) to draw the distinction between our seeing objects floating before us (not "on" a surface) and our seeing words in such a scene. We just can't see the words as things. Chris Funkhouser performed the other night, sheet over head, as a dancing bounding text reflector, and played a one-string instrument his mother had bought him years ago. He's finally found a use for it. Christian Bok unveiled his new project: infecting can't-be-killed microbial life with text so that it will survive the death of readers. Writing that really lasts. As someone observed, he's gotten so far past the traditionalist's lament about writing for the ages that he's back to it. Humanism rears its viral head.

Julia Bloch and Sarah Dowling are taking good notes on everything and intend to write an article. Steven Ross Smith, organizer, says he will get us recordings so that we can put a selection on PennSound.

Americans read or hear 100,000 words per day

Americans on average read or hear 100,000 words per day.Americans on average read or hear 100,000 words per day. Anyone who has read Kenneth Goldsmith's Soliloquy can compare that figure against one talkative avant-gardist's one-way talk (just Kenny going out, leaving aside what's coming in and not including his reading) for a week; just divide by seven. Here is your source for the factoid. The media "reporting" of the study that produced this information implies that it's all a disaster and that it's qualitatively as well as quantitatively new.

Oh, yes, and despite all the doomsaying about the end of reading and writing: people are reading and writing more than they did in 1980. Reading somewhat more and writing a whole lot more.

Hold your breath and gag (PoemTalk #6)

Jaap Blonk, "What the President Will Say and Do"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

It's easy to imagine that when Tracie Morris (the performer and musical poet) and Kenny Goldsmith (father of Ubuweb, proponent of uncreative writing) joined me and Joshua Schuster as PoemTalkers there would be some noise, pure noise, and indeed there was. So why not go all the way and make our poem a sound poem: Jaap Blonk's insistently sounded performance of the phrase that is the title of a book by Madeline Gins. What the president will say and do. What, indeed?

Joshua and Kenny and I had seen and heard Blonk perform the piece in the very room where we recorded this episode of PoemTalk; Tracie and Kenny had heard him do it for the first time, at a conference in L.A. where Gins was in the audience. So we had this one covered from all sides.

"So," I asked, "what do you think is the deficiency of having only an audio recording of this?" thinking of Blonk's strained reddening face and neck toward the end of the piece: a giant of a man holding his breath and choking on words. Kenny's response to this question: "I don't think there's any deficiency, because he's such a good performer that the audio component of the performance carries the day. And if you're lucky enough to see him it's even more incredible in a different way, but I don't think anything is lost without him being there." Tracie agrees: "You listen. You just listen. There are so many great things he's doing with that piece."

So do, please, listen. Listen to us, yes, but listen especially to Blonk.

Tracie hears patriotic marching in the percussive deformation of the sound of the words (and specifically hears Sousa). Josh hear resonances with presidential politics (to which Tracie adds that she also hears chickens). That leads Josh and me to take some advantage of an apparent split in the soundy camp between the overtly political music poet (Tracie) and the pleasure-seeking all-words-are-already-political gatherer of verbal ambience (Kenny). The political/aesthetic binarism collapses rather quickly, but it's fun (and edifying) while it lasts.

Hold your breath and gag (PoemTalk #6)

Jaap Blonk, 'What the President Will Say and Do'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

It’s easy to imagine that when Tracie Morris (the performer and musical poet) and Kenny Goldsmith (father of Ubuweb, proponent of uncreative writing) joined me and Joshua Schuster as PoemTalkers there would be some noise, pure noise, and indeed there was. So why not go all the way and make our poem a sound poem: Jaap Blonk’s insistently sounded performance of the phrase that is the title of a book by Madeline Gins. What the president will say and do. What, indeed?

Joshua and Kenny and I had seen and heard Blonk perform the piece in the very room where we recorded this episode of PoemTalk; Tracie and Kenny had heard him do it for the first time, at a conference in L.A. where Gins was in the audience. So we had this one covered from all sides.

“So,” I asked, “what do you think is the deficiency of having only an audio recording of this?” I was thinking of Blonk’s strained reddening face and neck toward the end of the piece: a giant of a man holding his breath and choking on words. Kenny’s response to this question: “I don't think there's any deficiency, because he's such a good performer that the audio component of the performance carries the day. And if you’re lucky enough to see him it’s even more incredible in a different way, but I don’t think anything is lost without him being there.” Tracie agrees: “You listen. You just listen. There are so many great things he’s doing with that piece.”

So do, please, listen. Listen to us, yes, but listen especially to Blonk.

Tracie hears patriotic marching in the percussive deformation of the sound of the words (and specifically hears Sousa). Josh hear resonances with presidential politics (to which Tracie adds that she also hears chickens). That leads Josh and me to take some advantage of an apparent split in the soundy camp between the overtly political music poet (Tracie) and the pleasure-seeking all-words-are-already-political gatherer of verbal ambience (Kenny). The political/aesthetic binarism collapses rather quickly, but it’s fun (and edifying) while it lasts.

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