On Brion Gysin, 'Minutes to Go'

Pick up a book    any book     cut it up
slice down the middle    dice into sections
piece together a masterpiece    a week
use better materials        more highly charged words
there is no longer a need    to drum up a season of
the writing machine        is for everybody

This idea both precedes and inspired my own notion of “uncreative writing” by nearly half a century. Gysin’s notion of anti-genius still remains the most radical part of his statement, yet even he can't dispose of that idea entirely, still insisting on the value of  creating a masterpiece. It’s hard to completely debunk our notion of genius. Even Pierre Menard, that great copyist, was an original genius albeit a one with tragically bad timing. Marjorie Perloff’s recent notion of “unoriginal genius” also holds that genius is still very much in play, it’s just an inverted notion of what we generally consider to be genius that is new.

Can we really kill genius, the masterpiece, creativity and originality? In the twentieth century, any number of great artists tried to kill genius — Duchamp, Warhol, Cage, Mac Low — yet all did it in the most exquisitely personal way, killing it with the best of taste. A Mac Low poem, for example, is not bereft of personal choices — it’s just the opposite. His “writing machine” is imprinted with the way he chose to construct it (the set of rules that determine the poem’s outcome) as are the source texts that he selected to dump into that machine. The resultant product, although determined by chance, is entirely Mac Lowian and could not have been done by anyone else.

Gysin couldn’t escape this either. Another section of Minutes to Go reads:

all words are taped        agents everywhere
marking down the live ones     to exterminate

Although the sources are unnamed (Gysin claims that they are from a variety of places, some found, some original), the vocabulary is immediately recognizable to anyone vaguely familiar works with produced in the Beat Hotel: “All words are taped” refers to the source material for recorded cut-ups; “agents everywhere” is taken from Gysin’s “Recalling All Active Agents,” (1960) a permutational sound work dealing with Cold War police states; and “to exterminate” appears throughout the writings of William S. Burroughs’s oeuvre, referring to both his own early stint as an insect exterminator as well as to nefarious criminal activities. Although Gysin advocates impersonal work, this is in fact a “classic,” a signature work of the period.

Yet I’m guilty of the same problem. While I trumpet my work’s “valuelessness,” its “nutritionlessness,” its lack of creativity and originality, clearly the opposite is true. There may, in fact, be a lot of truth when my detractors claim that I’m not that radical, that my name is still on these objects, and all the machinic and “impersonal”  decisions I make in my works are in the service of upholding notions of my own genius. For an egoless project, there sure is a lot of investment in me here, leading Ron Silliman to acutely comment, “Kenny Goldsmith’s actual art project is the projection of Kenny Goldsmith.”

Perhaps it’s best to heed to words of Christian Bök, that constraint-based and performative genius, who proposes bypassing the human quotient entirely, claiming that “If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.” [1] And yet there will still be some human programming those machines, resulting in the crown of genius being rewarded not to the best poet or the best machine, but to the best programmer, leading us back again to our (un)original quandary.

[1] Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics,” Object 10: Cyberpoetics (2002).