Our last CommQuote of the year is an interview of two years ago with Kenneth Goldsmith at the Centro de Cultura Digital. Professor Goldsmith has recently stirred up a lot of controversy in the general culture and among poets since this interview. His provocative comments here are worth contemplating for anyone studying media and audiences in the digital age. In keeping with the spirit of this piece (“…I just get interested in something, and I either transcribe it or I copy it”) I’ve chosen to transcribe the interview that you can also watch at the link way below.
Q: You teach a class called Uncreative Writing. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’ve designed the class (how does it respond both to the technological panorama, and to tendencies in literary criticism, academic and creative writing)?
KG: Well, it’s a class where students must be uncreative and unoriginal, and if they are creative and if they are original, they get marked down in their grades. So they quickly learn how to be uncreative. So they must appropriate, they must plagiarize, they must not write anything original, they must not pretend anything they’re writing is original, they must claim texts for their own that aren’t theirs. My students are very good writers already, so I don’t need to make them better writers. But they’re very bad stealers, because they’ve been stealing for so long that they’ve never thought about what they’re stealing and why they’re stealing it. And so this forces them to theorize their theft and make them smarter and better. Because really at this point, nobody is original. Nobody should be original anymore. It is the way they are putting together pre-existing information that is really moving forward in the future. There is no turning the clock back.
Q: Tell us about your process for Uncreative writing.
KG: It’s the same thing. I don’t write my own books. No, I just get interested in something, and I either transcribe it or I copy it.
Q: Do you believe the concept of author stands in the digital age?
KG: Well, the author is no longer– the notion of genius has changed. The genius is no longer an isolated figure in a garret. A genius is now someone who is assembling things in the world that have already been made and putting them together in new ways. You know, I actually think of it like a hip-hop DJ; nobody ever says to a hip-hop DJ: “you didn’t play the drums.” Right? Of course he doesn’t play the drums, but he’s got the best drum samples, and when he puts them together with the best bass samples it’s going to make him the best DJ. And that’s actually kind of the way people are writing now. No need to write anything new. I think the paradigm of the hip-hop DJ is the way writing’s moving forward.
Q: Do you think that poetry, or rather, literature in general, belongs now to the realm of contemporary art? Does it still belong in a printed book?
KG: Well, in 1959, a poet named Brion Gysin said that poetry was 50 years behind painting. You know, the art world has long been open to other strategies that writing has never even experimented with. Say, appropriation: that’s very old-fashioned in the writing world or even the music world with samples. And now literature is just getting to it, say, 100 years after Marcel Duchamp, literature is finally taking a Duchampian strategy. So I’d say it’s pretty slow, pretty far behind right now.
Q: Do you make a distinction between the practice of uncreative writing, reappropriation, recycling, and plagiarism?
KG: No, they’re all part of uncreative writing; they’re all different strategies within uncreative writing. What isn’t part of uncreative writing would be pastiche, or, taking a line from here or there. That’s not plagiarism. Plagiarism is actually taking something in its entirety, again like Duchamp, and moving it from this place to this place. And therefore it’s new and it’s different, even though you didn’t do anything to it– you changed its context. So appropriation moves in wholes, not fractions and not fragments. Fragments are no longer interesting.
Q: Does encouraging plagiarism and uncreative writing put you in a difficult position in the academic environment where you work?
KG: No. It’s consensual. It’s like an S&M club; we all agree to play roles. And we play those roles. So, it’s consensual and nobody gets hurt. No animals were harmed in the making of an uncreative writing. It’s all fantasy.
Q: How do you think the diversification of writing practices and media platforms has impacted the concept of audience?
KG: I don’t think we can understand audience anymore. I think there was a time in which one could assume that there was an audience. I think that now the audience is so big and so thin that we don’t really have any sense of who we’re speaking to. And don’t really think we are speaking to anybody. I don’t think anybody’s paying attention, really. I think we’re paying attention to headlines and tweets and things that are moving very quickly, but I don’t think that we’re engaging with content in the same way that we once engaged with content. And I don’t think that’s good or bad, I just think it’s a new situation, and there’s no point complaining about it, because that’s the way it is.So I just prefer to try to adjust myself to it, and — it’s my problem, not the media’s, the culture’s problem.
Q: If you were to write a text of your daily online routine, what would it read like?
KG: Oh, I mean, I do write the text of my daily online routine. I think the new memoir is our browser history. You wanna know anything about me? Look at my browser history; you’ll know everything about me. So, you know, I’m just online all the time. I’m never offline. I get depressed when I’m offline. I feel dead when I’m not connected to the web.
Q: What about memorability?
KG: Well, it’s all stored, isn’t it? All the memory is on my hard drive, or it’s on the cloud, or on my Twitter feed. You know, I’m not worried about it, because unfortunately, or, for better or for worse, you know, everything’s archived now. And, you know, every performance is archived, everything is photographed, there’s gonna be no problem with remembering. I don’t have to remember, because the web does it too well for me. If I need them I can Google them. I can Google my memories better than I can remember them, and, so, now I don’t have to keep it here; it’s all there.
(You can watch the interview here.)