Walter Benjamin

Kenneth Goldsmith unpacks Walter Benjamin’s library

Kenneth Goldsmith and Walter Benjamin
Kenneth Goldsmith and Walter Benjamin in the library

When Dmitri Prigov explores the relationship between the book as material object and endlessly repeating copy, he anticipates a similar interest in the relationship between copy and singular material instantiation in Anglophone conceptual writing. One of the leading figures in conceptual writing, Kenneth Goldsmith, began his artistic career, like Prigov, as a sculptor. Among his early work, Goldsmith’s iterations of Steal This Book illustrate his interest in the book as both copy and unique material object. His two versions or copies of the book are both monumental copies of Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 counter-culture classic. One was made of lead and weighed 150 kg, the other was seven feet tall — both were too big to be stolen.

Goldsmith has since then produced a number of works that explore the iterations of the book through conceptual writing. For example, in retyping the New York Times and publishing the result in book form, Goldsmith transforms the disposable newspaper into a monumental brick-sized book on a par with the largest of the modernist long-poem masterworks, such as Pound’s Cantos or Olson’s Maximus Poems.

Deceased Verse

Dmitri Prigov's Little Coffins

Dmitri Prigov, A little coffin of rejected verse
Dmitri Prigov, Odna tysiacha trista semʹdesiat sedʹmoi grobik otrinutykh stikhov [The one thousand three hundred and seventy-seventh little coffin of rejected verse], n.d. Paper, staples, typescript text, 14.7 x 10.5 cm. Photo courtesy of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dmitri Prigov.

The tension between the book as individual copy and as mass reproduced object is reframed and even collapsed in samizdat literature, the illegally copied and circulated typescripts that created an entire world of literary and intellectual life in the late-Soviet period. Samizdat texts were reproduced, four or five copies at a time through the act of retyping and the use of carbon copy. In these works, the acts of writing, copying, and publishing effectively fuse.

Beginning in the 1970s, conceptual writer and artist Dmitri Prigov sought to investigate the relationship between text and copy in laboriously reproduced samizdat texts, which in spite — in fact because — of their poor quality became fetishized objects for members of the Soviet samizdat community. Prigov exploited the nature of the samizdat text to produce singular works in which the materiality of the book plays a key role. At the same time, he stressed the relationship between the writer and copyist, between unique work and reproduction in samizdat book culture.

Individual copy

Unpacking Walter Benjamin's iterations

J. J. Grandville, "Mélodie pour 200 Trombones"

Walter Benjamin is perhaps the writer we most commonly associate with the recognition of the changes induced in the work of art by the “age of mechanical reproduction” in the modernist period. In that essay, Benjamin’s focus is primarily on visual and auditory reproduction, but he begins the essay with “The enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproducibility of writing.” He then goes on to state:

Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it had also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.

Benjamin has in mind here phonography, lithography, photography, and cinema. But, as a quotation from Paul Valéry immediately prior to this passage suggests, these changes––along with those directly bearing on print, such as the rise of the typewriter––affected the way writers like Stein, Valéry, and Benjamin approached the printed book’s already established place among literary processes.

Editions and additions

Gertrude Stein and the iterations of the book

Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably
Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably (Paris: Plain Edition, 1930)

In our digital age, the printed book is often seen as resisting the immateriality and inauthenticity of the digital text through its “aura,” “singularity,” “authenticity,” “materiality,” and “bookness”––to cite some key terms from a conference on the future of the book that I attended last year. Even book versions that sit alongside versions in other media––what Marjorie Perloff terms “differential texts”––seem to stress the differences between the book and digital media and so each medium’s materiality.

Yet in a range of poetic practices developed in response to the age of mechanical reproduction and to our digital age, the book becomes a site for exploring––rather than resisting––reproduction and iteration. In the final posts in my “Iterations” commentary, I want to focus on the dual role of the book as both material object and copy, beginning with the work of modernists such as Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein before turning to some recent iterative texts that challenge the commonplace contrast between the singularity of the print and paper book object and the repeatability and mutability of the digital text.

The rise of new technologies of mechanical reproduction in the modernist period heightened attention to the book as copy, both in terms of the aura and materiality of the individual copy and as a reproduced non-original object. Gertrude Stein played with these two possible ways of looking at the book through her own press, the Plain Edition, which she used to publish a number of her works in the 1930s.

Kac, Cayley, and Kargl on translation

on translation || Michael Kargl
on translation || Michael Kargl

If you are reading this text in a browser window, you are reading it in translation. Right click right here. View Page Source. This is the original text, composed in and of the internet’s native languages. Note the head/body page division, a convention carried over from print. The < head > is primarily preoccupied with the text's contextual issues. It tells the browser what its title is, offers the search engines clues as to its contents, provides a required reading list of other texts it refers to, and outlines instructions on what to do in the unfortunate event of IE. The < body > is more concerned with appearances. It tells the browser what the contents of the text are and how best to present them. Why HyperText Markup Language continues to textually embody the Cartesian mind-body split I do not know.

Walter Benjamin objected to the binary nature of traditional translation methods, advocating for transparency between an original and its translation. In his influential 1923 essay The Task of the Translator, he wrote: “It [the translation] does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” The creators of following three works take the task of translation beyond the binary by creating transparencies between the original language and its original medium through intermediation and the application of what I am calling triple language systems, in reference to the translator of all translators, the Rosetta Stone.

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