Self-serving Neo-avant-garde?

This made my stomach churn a bit, then had me laughing. Kenneth Goldsmith writes a lengthy discourse or manifesto on “Uncreative Writing” in which he basically justifies his practice of not writing as a poetics of sorts; or, in his mind, an actual poetics.

This is how it works. A writer – say, Kenneth Goldsmith – notices some other writer doing an odd thing with words – anything, as long as the writer avoids telling a story: in general, a sure sign that someone cannot write a good story. Say, for instance, Craig Dworkin, parsing someone else’s book. [Parsing: breaking a sentence up into its grammatical parts and labelling those parts.] A funny, witty, literary idea – yes, even a commentary of sorts on writing, but a brief, witty, literary little commentary, an aphorism perhaps; a book that you might want to have on your bookshelf to show your friends that you are hip to witty literary ideas, but not a text anyone would want to read. Here’s a short example from Dworkin’s Parse:

solicitude positive degree adjective of qualification positive degree adjective of qualification genitive preposition implied definite article plural direct objective case noun genitive preposition definite article Singular Noun comma conjunction of exception third person singular masculine subjective case pronoun intransitive passive voice indicative mood indefinite past tense singular verb adverb of negation and passive incomplete participle as part of a passive voice verbal construction…

And so on and so forth…

There have been many such ‘interventions’ in art. Most memorable must be Dada; most sustained must be Modernism overall, of which the former can be seen as a frontrunner. Renewal is thus not a new thing in the history of art. And in general, these artistic revolutions go hand-in-hand with fundamental changes in the world or in how we see the world. Dada and Modernism can be seen as responses to such changes in Europe at the turn of the century. Dada, especially, can be read as a response to the absurdity of World War I – the first conflict of mechanised warfare, and thus of mass destruction.

How does Kenneth Goldsmith see his generation of conceptual writers in terms of such artistic revolutions? In terms of a cultural revolution commensurate with changes in the world?

The simple act of moving information from one place to another today constitutes a significant cultural act in and of itself. I think it’s fair to say that most of us spend hours each day shifting content into different containers. Some of us call this writing.

How’s this for hubris? I sit at a computer all day long; it must mean that the rest of the world does as well. What I do with a computer can thus be universalised and elevated into importance, into significant cultural acts.

What baffles me – and what makes me laugh – is the self-importance of which these sophisticates of irony and self-reflexivity are not aware. And that their sense of the importance or authority of their writing is dependent on… themselves.

How does conceptual writing, for instance, qualify as poetry? Well, it is read and criticised and studied and quoted. No sense of irony that the readers and students are students of the writer, or that criticism and citations are by friends and even the writer himself. This is poetry because I say it’s poetry. Duchamp did that already; it’s old-hat.

Yes, tracts of contemporary American poetry is boring realism, or, in Walcott’s memorable phrase, ‘tight-sphinctered’, but that is the culturally significant part: it is perhaps, among other things, that most of it dare not look at and know the world. An adjunct to its foreign policy. If American poetry is in decline, it is because it is a society in decline – if not economic decline, although indicators point the other way, then in cultural decline.

Goldsmith’s manifesto of conceptual writing points to a poetics that isn’t only ‘tight-sphinctered’, but one that has its head in there as well. Take some newspaper, reframe it, say a la Duchamp that it is now a poem, then tell the world again that it is a poem because you’ve said it’s a poem and friends of yours read it as a poem.

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