UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
Un-Visual and Conceptual1
Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
Kenneth Goldsmith's PennSound Page
Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary
Very little visual poetry is interesting, but all poetry is interesting in its visuality. A somewhat provocative statement, to be sure, but a necessary one since so many still imagine that graphical codes operate only with special kinds of poetry (like concrete poetry). In fact, however, graphical coding is a common and specific feature of poetic work.2 Because it so often appears to be un-visual, or visually neutral, conceptual work offers an ideal example through which to make this case.3
A typology of visual poetry would sort graphic forms into types: icons, pictures, fields, lists, according their specificity as shapes and degrees of mimetic or compositional qualities.4 The typographic codes of production are equally available for description: conventional humanist composition, striking avant-garde geometric forms, typewriter work, contemporary photo-type faces, then digital designs.5 A list of these features links poetry to the aesthetic and cultural systems of production of which literary work is a part.6 But such literalism is only part of what visuality affords and requires. A metalanguage for studying visuality can't be premised on the description of forms, but has to offer an analysis of conceptual premises.
Georges Perec's Species of Spaces provides a useful platform for describing poetry in such apparently logical terms. In Perec's schematic typology, the "species of spaces" exist within an architectural, physically inhabited environment of bed, bedroom, apartment, street, neighborhood, town, countryside, country, Europe, the world and beyond. But at the outset he turns his attention to that most obviously overlooked space of all-the page. "I write, I inhabit my sheet of paper, I invest it, I travel across it." He goes on to say, "We live in space, in these spaces" -which he quickly qualifies as "particularized spaces." 7
These spaces, and even more specifically, his typology of topologies (particularized descriptions of spaces as they are constituted through the conditions of experience and inhabitation) are exemplified in the work itself.8 Perec is revealing the typology of his literary structures. Spatial-temporal-material forms, they are institutionally located (in publishing conventions that are as structural as any architecture) and dynamically constituted (as any reading and writing practice). Space is the literal condition, the physical situation, of text on a page in a book.
Attending to every feature of text, Perec delineates a dialogue of thought and form through his inventory of ways of writing and thinking. "To write: to try to meticulously retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precious scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark, or a few signs."9 Graphicality and inscription are integral to this approach, everywhere in its tropes and imagery. But the core of Perec's Species is attention, awareness. Not just what he is thinking, but how. The spatialized field of literary references and forms calls attention to conditions and instructions for encountering the world. And literature.
His typology is not an inventory of devices or forms. Rather, its "species" slide toward the topological zone, out of hard and rigorous "logics" of form and towards the study of relations. Topology had its origins in the work of the cartographer-geographer
Euler in the early 18th century. Euler's "geometry of position" isn't about measures, but about connections, juxtaposition, sequence, break, order, rupture, and all the many ways spaces and zones relate. As a mathematical field, topology is fundamentally graphical. It provides an exemplary model of description of the temporal-spatialized fields of poetic production. As a study of relations, topology exposes features of composition that are integral to poetry at every level of literal discourse (graphic, semiotic, literary, linguistic, thematic, etc.). By definition, relations are constitutive rather than static, inert, or given. The articulated specifics of such "species" of graphical codes provides a way to position a text within the zones of cultural discourse. A historical axis also opens immediately, of course. And within a contemporary horizon, such specificity locates our predisposition towards reading within a differentiated field (this is or is not a newspaper, for instance, and thus our reading commences). Writing is a site. Documents are specific territories. Their graphic protocols are particular means of expression and exchange. Perec is careful to show us all this, as well as to tell us. The visual form of the text, at least in the Penguin edition (John Sturrock's translation) isn't conspicuously marked. But it is structured and ordered in each section and passage to show how it is thinking about itself. In the section titled "The Street," he begins with a descriptive statement, shifts to analysis, and in subsequent sub-sections, offers instructions for practical exercise and reflection. "Observe the street from time to time, with some concern for system perhaps."10 This combination of rigor and nonchalance provides a continual safety-value escape hatch for otherwise overly determined work. Perec can take up anything once his mode of establishing specificity has framed the enterprise of writing in particular "spaces."
Such process-driven work, executed under constraint, shows up conventions of literary forms. OuLiPo's conceptualism has its own character, but it is part of a longer, broader tradition.11 The boundaries of literature have been stretched before. Cut ups. Found poetry. Computer generated text based on word lists and blank slots.12 Direct observation and excruciating personal narratives of extreme detail. Documentary works indistinguishable from fiction, almost unformed. Rants. Song lyrics. Advertising slogans and manifestos. Musical scores and performance transcriptions. Talk. All the way to the edges and back. Self-conscious examinations and reflections of form as form. Essays as lyric. Ballads without rhyme, lines hung up on walls and suspended from lines, projected randomly onto surfaces and bodies, or spit out from machines.13 No violation of the protocols of literary production or identity can even register as novel. Not now, not any more. Not since the mad dash 20th century self-conscious modern assault on all convention and then the assault on the assault as its own convention and so on enacted endlessly iterative upping of the continual cycle of violence against established protocols.
But that said, a daily life of literature remains oddly intact. Forty years of post-structuralist thought and a century of avant-garde activity haven't slowed the production machines of the literary industry. The private aesthetic property of inner life revealed for commodified consumption according to the laws of fiction, verse, and dramatic tale, still provides the bulk of what is published in the worlds of mass media and high culture. Conceptual poetics is a marginal practice. But it has the strength of convictions, a capacity to make striking gestures that call the rest of literary activity to attention. Not by being "new" but by being a current, self-aware, focused on what is happening now, conceptualism exposes assumptions. Poetry (by which I mean any form of self-conscious writing) is a means to call attention to language. Set it apart. Call it art. And in so naming, preserve the territorial demarcation that says, This Is Aesthetic.
Conspicuously concrete poetry-Emmett Williams's Sweethearts with its elaborate, permutational use of page and book sequence for instance-is often held up as a contrast to the apparently-neutral "regular" presentation of texts. That work is meant to read as a response to the assumed transparency of habitual graphic composition. But of course such oppositions are reductive, wrong-headed. Williams's piece shows the visual potential and condition of all and any work on the page-as Saussure's obsessive pursuit of anagrams reveals the texts within texts that haunt all language. All texts are graphically marked.
But so much of the history of mainstream modern poetry was/is caught up with voice, speech, the attempt to catch "natural" speech that the specifics of writing, of graphical codes, didn't always get attention.14 Modern poetry broke with [from] classical traditions to engage with contemporary life. The appreciation of speech, voice, and vernacular developed along with the appreciation of language across its broader cultural and social histories. The late 19th-century philologist, tracking sound change into the byways and paths of literal and social geography, had an equal enthusiasm for the specifics of speech patterns. But the philologist, like the poets, depended on writing as a way to access that speech, often without attending to its specifics. Typeface? Shape on the page? Whatever convention allowed, or the publisher permitted or could afford. The point is just that writing often serves without much notice.
Exceptions abound. The counter-tradition of modern experimentation is just as boldly, clearly, aggressively interested in graphicality in all its many forms. Modern ways of working in a visually conspicuous manner emerge in the work of a wide range of poets. Walt Whitman, William Morris, Stephane Mallarmé are obvious examples, but literary amusements and games, as well as the art of posters and the proliferation of advertisements change the visual graphic field. A full burst of interest in mass culture explodes the pages of the avant-garde filling it with display fonts and found commercial material. The European and Russian Futurism/Dada/Vorticism movements all engage directly with language as a mass medium and with mass media as a source and inspiration for artistic and aesthetic activity, graphically as well as verbally.15 And the American instance (though it was created in France at Cagnes-sur-mer) of direct dialogue between mass culture media and poetry is the remarkable work by Bob Brown-the Readies of 1932-33-featuring work by Williams, McAlmon, Harry Crosby, Stein, Sidney Hunt, Pound, Hemingway.16 Brown had his poetic inspirations, as McGann points out-the "Black Riders" of Stephen Crane, composed for some reason in all small caps-but he also had his technological-text-production sources, "ticker tape, micro film, moving electronic ads, news headlines, etc." In the long and continuing history of poetry which takes speech as its focus, the Readies are a relatively rare moment of visually based writing aimed at "carrying the word to the eye." Brown harped on this theme, "Literature is essentially Optical … not Vocal." I would disagree, as literature is not "essentially" either as if a choice (check this box) has to be made.
poets are keenly aware of the breaks and arrangements of their lines,
stanzas, groupings and spaces in their verse. At the formal level of
graphical composition, as at the poetic level of versification and structure,
all that understanding of order is within a poetic frame. How can we
understand the history of those forms as graphical forms—and of their
meaning within a cultural field in which they serve to distinguish verse
from news or publicity or prose? I suggest that every poet of my acquaintance
come to the print shop and set some favored work in "wedding text"-
one of the generic forms of god-awful-extravagant-but
Visual conceptual art makes its own compelling case for graphicality. Lawrence Weiner's stencilled letters on the wall, as industrial and un-aesthetic as he can make them, or John Baldessari's otherwise-empty 1967 canvas bearing the words "True Beauty" in block letters are striking instances of self-conscious use of graphical codes. A rough-and-unfussy industrialism, uninflected by the artist's hand, un-expressive of emotion or personal voice, provide the distinctive character to conceptual visual language. Examples can be found across the visual and literary arts (e.g. Jackson MacLow's graph paper based compositions assume a functional appearance rather than a decorative one).17 Carl Andre's typewriter poems, gorgeous minimalist-conceptual works, like Dieter Roth's extensive book-work executions of the same mid-1960s era, by restricting their execution to a set of rules and procedures, offer a stunning demonstration of the graphical richness that shows up under restraint. Conceptualism was never not visual any more than it was not aesthetic. But the choice to distinguish conceptual art from the traditional forms (and formulae) of art conventions went in tandem with the desire to distinguish it from any form of commercialism or entertainment. Why? Because the baggage of high art seemed to get in the way of what conceptual art holds most dear: exposing thought through aesthetic process. The conventions force literary and artistic expression to take a form. They subject experience to rules so formulaic they obscure the acts of apprehension and transformation essential to art making. Think of John Cage, sweeping away all that scaffolding of tradition to clear a space of 4'33" in order to show us the aesthetics of ambient sound. That daring gesture puts itself in contrast with all the traditions of form-making. Composition, melody, fictions, plot lines, characters, conventional rhyme, pictorial arts-any convention at all within the traditions of fine art look like arts-and-crafts by contrast to the stark revelations of process that are the core of conceptualism.
But if forms and formulae get in the way of knowing, then what happens when conceptualism becomes one among many modes of poetic and artistic practice? Are we stuck in dilemma? Only if we are convinced that what made conceptualism work was its novelty, its shock effect claim to newness in that oldest of avant-garde traditions. But conceptualism now? It still serves to call attention to habits of thought by shaking them out of their familiar forms.
This brings me back to visual language and its familiarity. The graphical forms in which literature is embodied took on new significance as forms in the modern era. For the late 18th and 19th centuries that establish the cultural norms of mass-produced graphic language are rife with forms of print publication and popular art that saturate the eye and language field with possibilities for poetic, aesthetic production.18 Jerome McGann begins Black Riders with a discussion of this very point.19 Showing that William Butler Yeats established the Cuala and Dun Emer presses within the tradition of fine print, crafted work, McGann argues that this was part of a "massive bibliographical resistance to the way poetry was being materially produced."20 McGann stresses that attention to materiality was integral to poetic sensibility, not extraneous to it. The "self-consciously created book, the materially produced text" produced "not the dialogue of the mind with itself but the theoretical presentation of such a dialogue."21 In other words, a self-conscious attention to the conditions of production is necessarily predicated on the realization that production is creation. Such recognition emphasizes artifice - that is, the made-ness-inherent in the creation of a work. McGann rolls out instances: W.B. Yeats reformatting a section of prose from Walter Pater to include it in his 1932 Oxford Anthology; the evolution of William Morris's integral visual-verbal aesthetics; and numerous examples of the instantiation of Emily Dickinson's work and its radical alteration from composition through successive editions and printings.
case for material approaches to the study of poetry can be grounded
in the traditions of poetics as well as in critical studies-which
is only to say that visual studies is not imposed on poetry from the
outside.22 Even when the work of a poet apparently "refuses"
to acknowledge this - as in the most ultra-conservative-traditional
As I said above, all poetry is interesting in its visuality. For a striking example, take Darren Wershler-Henry's Tapeworm Foundry. The book is as specific in its use of visual codes as any work of explicit concrete poetry while also being a rigorously (if ironically humorous) conceptual work. Tapeworm's material production shows off much of its attitude by its hip seriousness and uncompromising design. A small chap-book, well-made and cleanly printed, about 48 pages, it is oblong, bound on the short side, and set in uniform bold type cast in solid blocks of text.23 A perfect instance of what McGann has noted: "Much of the best recent … poetry gains its strength by having disconnected itself from highly capitalized means and modes of production (by which I mean large university presses and trade publishers)."24 From the outset, the visual and material features of the work are part of its mediated interaction with a reader. Its cover flaps proclaim the book to be: "A brilliant list of book proposals," "a recipe book for poets and a critical examination of the recipes we've inherited." And indeed, it is. Tapeworm provides an inventory of programmatic commands. It could also be described in its entirety by one of its own lines—as a list of all the ways in which poetry can be made, articulated as one-line instructions derived in a glib analysis of other people's work.
I quote: "imagine a slightly more intelligent universe where joseph beuys plays captain picard andor advance a plan to install rheostats in your urban lighting grid so that the ambient light of the metropolis may be adjusted according to your mood andor write a long poem in the second person andor proceed in your analysis as if neil young not carl jung is the father of archetypal synchronicity andor stuff a copy of the unabridged oxford english dictionary into the hopper of a woodchipper and then read from the resultant spew through a megaphone andor reproduce sepia photographs by carefully using a small butane torch to burn images into pieces of toast andor walk up the coast of british columbia in order to photograph it foot by foot in actual size andor."25 Every one of these can be linked to either the author or artist named or identified-Richard Long's walks, for instance, and Byron Clercx's shredded book objects, or at the very least, similar works whose approaches to conception and production are being made explicit in Tapeworm's account. The title invokes both industrial production and organic parasitic replication equally, and the conviction that art and literature can be reduced to formulaic operations whose terms can be stated is clear.
Tapeworm is a work of exhaustion and play, but also, a work of defeat, nihilism, and hip-ness. An instance of what Alan Liu would call "cool" - the too hip to stake anything work with its rapid-fire, quick/glib/smart/fast commentary on what could be done or has been-rather than a work that takes a chance at doing.26 Is it, as it also claims on its cover, "a powerful artistic expression of defiance"?
Tapeworm's own textual/conceptual production plays out "performance commands" and procedural constraints. This work is about poetry's being "over"-way over, and reduced to its modes of creation/construction as instructions. If the modernist plaint was that "the language is exhausted," the late modernist registers the impossibility of believing in literature at all. Whether or not it is infused with new matter and substance, all of its forms are worn out executions of too-familiar ideas. Modern literary language sought infusions from vernacular sources, speech in the street, life caught unawares. But now the difficulty is to capture language and literature back from the monoculture, mass mediated systems, and the dull-witted terms of literary production as an administered art. In his speed rap rant, is Wershler-Henry obliterating that possibility? To have language and use it to make a poetic zone and space seems impossible, foolish, old-fashioned, naive.
But the struggle to define what poetry and literature might be is inseparable from what they do, what function they perform for the individual and the culture. The problems of the form and identity of poetics (ontology) are caught up in new challenges for being-as-knowing (epistemology). Our existence as reading/writing subjects in mass mediated production has perhaps shifted. The balance of power, agency, as Jed Rasula suggests, has now reversed. Subjects are produced for objects rather than as we once thought in our humano-centric tradition. Poetic or literary objects were once assumed to be produced for/by authoring subjects with agency. But in a radical cognitive constructivism this opposition of mutually defining binaries of self/other, subject/object falls away. The "literature system" has a dynamic capability expressed as a codependent relation of producing. The distinction I'm emphasizing is between attachment to a sentimental idea of personal identity and agency rooted in individual talent and its expression, and recognition of a cultural system in which literature is constituted conditionally within various systems of value and symbolic use. The idea of literature is at least as important as works, because it governs so much of what is conceived, produced, and recognized as that cultural form. Every individual work is an argument about that belief system. But getting hold of the definition of that abstraction is a theoretical (even anthropological) project, not just a critical act based in reading specific works. Tapeworm enumerates the rules that contribute to that idea in our time.
Wershler-Henry works in the orbit of Canadian pataphysical-post-everything. The procedural turn as a method of composition connects his work to OuLiPo, as well as to the more immediate influence of Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, and the theoeretical sources of their work in post-structuralist thought.27 That the once obscure OuLiPo is now central to theoretical poetics seems directly connected to our current confrontation with the codes and code-condition of language, poetry, and digital media.28 We should always be cautious about any sense of techno-determination. Production technologies don't determine our aesthetics, or their content, their mood, or their form. But the aesthetic realm is its own piece of the historical cultural continuum, and just as the wireless imagination signals a moment in poetic time so the digital calls certain aspects of composition into focus more acutely than others. Among these? The materiality of text production and the media/mediated work insist on the realization that there is no natural condition for language at all, not just no "natural" relation between language, words, things, and words/ideas.
Wershler-Henry's inventory procedure is as far from the modern purity of image or speech as "natural" act. But easy as it is to say that poetry is constructed, not natural, this is only interesting if it can be used to address a more immediately relevant and pressing question: what do we want poetics and literature to be for us now? To do? What arguments can we make for poetry today? Not for what it should be about (modernism already bequeaths complete permission), or how it should be formed (ditto), but what it can BE - what its identity as a social, cultural practice is (keeping in mind that it is always a mistake to think in terms of singularities - no "poetry" but "poetries")? And how it is to be identified as such. Graphical codes are central to the answer, since they show how and where a work is sitting in the produced world of texts. The academic and the popular rely on habitual forms, the one to preserve its mission, the other to sustain its markets. Not that different, really. But they avert their gaze from much that is experimental, critical, or else such work often falls beneath notice, out of view, too far from the center even to register in peripheral vision. Or too threatening? This question can't be answered in The Tapeworm Foundry's list of possibilities. It has to be addressed by coming back to the actual executed example of a work that is premised on the simpler conceptual idea that an idea makes the work literary whether it is a literary idea or not.
The "literary" is being busily reinvented by author-functionaries and its reader-consumers. That seems just right. And if it has a different look than it used to, that seems right too.29No one ever accused conceptual artists or writers of over-doing their graphic design.30 The under-stated and un-inflected attempt at neutrality is now as formulaic and recognizable-as-code as any other set of graphical principles.31
Literature and poetry? In many ways, literature as we knew it is over. Preserved in the inherited artifacts and their legacy, incapable of reinvention in those forms. The forms are probably dead. But the "literary" as a category of cultural expression is a moving target of opportunity. Most of the forms used and made are as vestigial as polar ice caps, melting at the same rate into a slushy reminder/remainder of an archaic cultural discourse. Does conceptual work save us from this? Or show the viability of old mythologies (whether those of the avant-garde or the classical tradition) to newly engaging ends? Between the hazards of unexamined legacy activities and the perils of commodity culture, what are the chances of survival? Un-visuality is a way to dialogue with commercial language, just as marked extremes of graphicality are and have been. Neo-conceptualism and "un-creative writing" may not be the only way for "the literary" to prosper. Its methods have a damning combination of self-annihilation and self-promotion at their core. But at the very least, contemporary conceptualism makes practitioners sit up and examine their terms. A useful effect, for sure. Exposing assumptions and premises calls forth awareness. In times like these, that may not be sufficient to save us from anything, but at least it chases some of the illusions from the scene.
1 The term "un-visual" rhymes deliberately with Kenny Goldsmith's term "un-creative." His work forms the subtext of this paper, as will be evident within a Perecian scheme.
2 I use the term "graphical codes" to situate this study among other critical discussions, notably, the idea of "bibliographical codes" in Jerome McGann's work and in the field of bibliographical studies, but also, to distinguish what I'm calling for from attention to graphic design. "Bibliographical codes" was first put into circulation as a critical term in: "Theory of Texts," London Review of Books 10 no. 4 (18 Feb. 1988), 20-21. Semiotic codes in film studies of the 1960s, with their emphasis on the working of a film-text, or in photographic criticism, emphasized an older, Russian formalist idea of the "work" of a text or art as active and of reading as productive.
3 Specifically, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (Great Barrington: The Figures, 2003) read in relation to No. 111 (Great Barrington: The Figures, 1997) provides a contrast in which apparent "neutrality" in design acquires significant character. Both works have a marked and conspicuous generic form. They deliberately refuse any overt graphic artfulness in their presentation, aligning the texts with a tradition of conceptual work-and adhering to its distinction from traditions of fine art and mass culture entertainment. Conceptual art claims the intellectual high ground, and it does so by expelling any hint of material indulgence from its formal expression. The difference between the two works is crucial. The levelling effect of the processing in Day shows the dramatic change of fortunes of graphical code translated from newspaper source to new expression. By typing every letter of the New York Times from September 1, 2000, from top to bottom, left to right, and outputting this in a single uniform type size and face, much more is stripped away than the design of the Times. What was large (headlines) becomes small, and much much smaller in proportion to the visual space once claimed by the display-sized fonts of even the graphically decorous Times. The bulk of "information"-if simple presence in alphabet code printed on the newsprint page can be granted such an identity-turns out to be (no surprise) in the greatly condensed fields of financial pages. In that site graphical relations such as columnar grids are essential to the meaning of the text. Numbers get their value from their place-value (ones, tens, hundreds) as well as from the name of the column in which they are listed. All this is erased by retyping.
The argument made by Day isn't chiefly about graphicality and knowledge, though it serves as a dramatic, incidental demonstration of the significance (signifying power) of this relation. The standard formula of conceptual art is that idea + execution = work. Uncoupling the two activities, idea and execution (for I take ideation to be an act) focuses attention on instantiation. Unintended consequences result. The realization involves all kinds of choices-size, sequence, layout, etc.-and has wonderfully tangible results in the sheer tonnage. This is a striking demonstration of the impossibility of ever thinking of any text as "immaterial." Putting a highly graphically coded text into a single typed stream has the appearance of data processing into ASCII text (almost), and gives lie to the prevalent misunderstanding about the nature of digital code. Texts are stored in some material form. Even data files live in silicon, momentarily inscribed as areas of distinct polarity (positive/negative) held in memory for further processing.
No. 111 uses its graphical neutrality to a different, more familiar end: to let its rules of selection and composition reveal content and substance. The rules were simple and strict: collect all phrases that terminated with "r" or related sounds. Collected in a two and a half year period (1993-96), they were then sorted by the number of syllables. The strength of such a conceptual gesture is that by stripping away the usual conventions of composition, it exposes facts (or acts) of language, providing a very different access to their expressive force. Goldsmith's work has another strength-the scale and extension of his execution. The result, in Day or No. 111, is to monumentalize the conceptual act and give it bulk and heft. Material properties, these support his conceptual undertaking, perhaps making it appear to be more than it would be in another, more modest mode of execution. But of course, that wouldn't be the same work.
4 Goldsmith's work is compositional and procedural, distinctly anti-mimetic, except, perhaps, in the size of the volumes.
5 Goldsmith's digital works take advantage of the programmatic capabilities of digital media, and are more visually dynamic as a result.
6 Jerome McGann takes up the challenge posed by creating such a descriptive metalanguage in his study “Herbert Horne’s Diversi Colores (1981): Incarnating the Religion of Beauty,” New Literary History, 2003, 34: 535-552, though these thoughts weave through The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) as well.
7 Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (NY: Penguin, 1997), originally published in French in 1974 as EspŹces d'Espaces.
8 Perec's work documents and demonstrates simultaneously. So does Goldsmith's Soliloquy (New York: Granary, 2001). But Fidget (Toronto: Coach House, 2000) is slightly different, since it uses the excuse of documentation for exhibitionist purposes. As Würst Spoerner said, "the somatic is not a sentence we be obliged to hear spoken aloud." See his Grapheces (Koln: Uber Verlag, 2004).
9 Perec, p. 92.
10 Perec, p.50.
11 The early 20th century avant-garde is filled with conceptual and proto-conceptual experiments. The self-consciousness of Marcel Duchamp, exposing the rules of the art-game. The compositions prescriptions of Tristan Tzara. The compositional games of Surrealists. The rigors of Russian constructivism and the anti-art sensibilitly of Futurist and Swiss Dada techniques—all of these established the foundation for rule-based (and unruly) work. The later, more "orthodox" conceptualism of the 1960s is tied to artists Joseph Kosuth, Mel Bochner, Sol Lewitt, and a host of others for whom the intellectual high ground of their work provided a needed antidote to the excesses of late-Romantic expressionism and the noise rising to drowning pitch that came from the world of popular culture. Goldsmith's work is squarely within this tradition, but with a significant difference: try imagining John Cage or Mel Bochner as a DJ.
12 The substitution of program and procedure for personal expression of interior life is an already familiar move in 20th century poetics. In Goldmith's work those two strains-anti-subjective subjectivity and generative work-intersect. But again, many precedents exist. Paradoxically, the fingerprint of subjective identity sometimes shows all the more strongly for supposedly being filtered out. John Cage's works composed using combinatoric and "chance" methods are distinct in form, character, essence, and "personality" from those of Jackson MacLow, just as anyone's dice throwing inevitably seems to express who they are as much as they show what the dice can do. Compare Cage’s I-VI, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) the Charles Eliot Norton lectures and MacLow’s Words nd Ends from Ez (Bolinas: 1989). Poetic production (all aesthetic production) is always a matter of combining constraints and instructions with a vocabulary list and syntactic rules framed within the cultural and historical conditions of the age. Variables inevitably register.
13 Generative works long precede this era. Goldsmith's work can be put into relation with many such productions, some of which have their inspiration in the machinic (Tzara), ritualistic-primitive (Schwitters), or the more recent vagaries of code-work and its influence in composition-by-computer or human-encoded-program-for-text. Goldsmith's obvious allegiances show how much can now be taken for granted. Still generative text composition mode-programmatically produced work-has often been confined to a marginal limbo. Even the major contributions of OuLiPians have only now, four decades or so after their initial impulse, started to garner serious critical attention. (See Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, editors, The OuLiPo Compendium (London: Atlas Press, 1998)). The works of early digital writers generating compositions through programs comprise a barely known, esoteric history. The wave Goldsmith is riding had its start awhile back, but it's breaking again on the present shore. His technique won't bear the burden of uniqueness (originality would be a pointless attribute in any case). Instead, it exemplifies a continued commitment to challenge literary conventions in their more normative form-and to do it for a Gen-X audience and in a contemporary idiom.
14 In Radical Artifice,
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991), Marjorie Perloff points out
repeatedly that the idea of “natural speech” in mainstream modern
English work (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Denise
Levertov, through later 20th century poets such as
Charles Olson, O’Hara, Berryman - the list would get long very quickly)
was largely an undisputed goal.
Within this curious lineage, Goldsmith's Soliloquy is a neo-conceptual
15 Dawn Ades, The 20th-century Poster: Design of the Avant-Garde (NY: Abbeville Press, 1984); Jerbert Spencer, Pioneers of Modern Typography (NY: Hastings House, 1970), and Judi Freeman, The Dada and Surrealist Word-Image (LA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), among many others.
16 Bob Brown, The Readies, (Bad Ems: Roving Eye Press, 1931).
17 While making a list of "un" terms, "unediting" should get its due. Useful as a way of discussing Goldsmith's work, it has its origins in the critical writing of Randy McLeod, specifically the article titled "UNEditing Shakespeare: Sonnet 111," Sub-Stance 33/34 (1982), pp.26-55. Happy coincidence of title.
18 Michael Twyman "Emergence of the Graphic Book in the 19th century," The Millennium of the Book (New Castle: Oak Knoll, 1994 first published by St. Paul’s Bibliographies, Winchester); pp.135-179.
19 McGann Black Riders (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
20 McGann, op.cit. p. 5.
21 McGann, op.cit.. p. 21.
22 Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) and Figuring the Word (NY: Granary Books, 1999).
23 Publication information: Anansi, a spider line book, printed and bound in Canada, editor Christian Bök, Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, Govt. of Canada, published in 2000 in Toronto, typeset in Caspari by d W-H, dedicated to Peter Caspari 1908-99.
24 McGann, op.cit. p. 113
25 Tapeworm, unpaginated.
26 Alan Liu, Laws of Cool (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004).
28 Steve McCaffery, North of Intention (NY: Roof Books and Toronto: Nightwood Editions, 1986). bpNichol. The Martyrology, ( Toronto: Coach House Books, 1993).
28 Christian Bök, Eunoia (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001), Steve McCaffery, Rational Geomancy: Kids of the Book Machine (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992), and our work at www. patacriticism.org.
29 We got accustomed to various habits of reading and thinking about what literature should be, and that all came from our training, mainly school-learning. Because we inherited poetry and literature in forms that were marked as "dead" forms we may have unwittingly imagined them to be so. Goldsmith is very much a Gen-X writer—self-absorbed and ego-centric but the force of the expression defines an edge where literariness appears to break down.
30 The graphical character of Day, No. 111, Soliloquy and other Goldsmith texts is as deliberately un-visual as their composition is un-creative.
31 In the case of Day,
its deliberateness registers anew, not as a category of aesthetic activity,
but as an aesthetic act.
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