UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
Encyclopedic Novelties: On Kenneth Goldsmith's Tomes
Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
Kenneth Goldsmith's PennSound Page
Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary
Defamiliarization should be
declared dead, even though it's not. Over the past few weeks
I've been reading through reviews of Day and Kenneth Goldsmith's
earlier books, and have been surprised to see that several base their
positive judgments upon the weary claim that these works help make us
newly aware of some everyday convention. For example, Raphael
Rubenstein explains in his review in Art in America that
Reading the actual
paper, we are trained to follow a thread from one page to another and
keep several stories half finished in our minds as we scan a page.
By eliminating the countless, usually unremarked graphic hints that
help this process, Goldsmith makes us aware of the strangely disjunctive
nature of a newspaper's contents.
In case his readers have not quite grasped this idea, he restates it in the review's concluding paragraph: "Even more important, though, is how awareness of Goldsmith's efforts makes one pay a different kind of attention to these quotidian documents. After all, what is art if not a way of getting people to focus on phenomena they would otherwise ignore?"
There's something peculiar going on here. Is Goldsmith's experiment so radical that Rubenstein must walk us through it by reviewing the basic concept of the readymade? Or is he pointing out, implicitly, that it is simply a one-trick pony in the increasingly creaky traveling carnival of conceptual art? Is Day just another iteration of something we have seen many times before?
writings imply that this might be the case. Stephen Cain says
what many likely think: that in Day, "the gesture is perhaps
more enjoyable as a concept than as a reading experience." Here,
redundancy again rears its ugly head, for Day's basic point
has been made before. In the Toronto Research Group's 1973 "The
Book as Machine," for instance, the first entry in a list entitled ""TWENTY-ONE FACTS THAT COULD ALTER YOUR LIFE (send for illustrated
booklet)" reads as follows:
The front page of a
newspaper is the paradigm of typographic cubism. Considered as a multi-page
whole, the newspaper is founded on a model of structural discontinuity
and a principle of competitive attentions. Front-page stories
seldom end on the front page, nor do they all end on the same interior
page. The front page is an opening made up of many openings terminating
on different pages and which themselves contain other openings-to
read a newspaper as a consecutive experience leads to extreme discontinuity."
(McCaffery and bpNichol 63)
Goldsmith himself repeats another extant idea when describing the project "Year" that became the book The Weather, "a transcription of the one-minute weather forecasts on a New York all-news station" ("Statement on Year"). Ulises Carrion offered up the concept in his 1975 manifesto "The New Art of Making Books": "The text of a book in the new art can be a novel as well as a single word, sonnets as well as jokes, love letters as well as weather reports" (41).
Of course, Goldsmith is more than aware of such redundancies, and perhaps even puckishly cultivates them. Even more to the point is his emphasis in interviews and articles of late on his desire to be as utterly uncreative as possible: "If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal....I don't invent anything. I just keep rewriting the same book" ("Being Boring"). But despite this emphasis upon the fact of gesture, Goldsmith's works are not best understood as reframings of the materials he begins with. Something else is going on in Day and his other books. This something has less to do with newspapers than it does with revising the idea of "conceptual poetics," by way of Goldsmith's unique ability to produce, from spartan procedural constraints, complex and original systems of process, tone, genre, and bibliographic coding. In this essay, I will look at how four major books- No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, Soliloquy, Fidget, and Day-constitute just such a system.
Day is, as Chris Goode points out, "both an 800-plus pager and a one-liner." As Goode eloquently articulates later in his review, its size stuns us Goldsmith fans, demonstrating as it does the worrying fact that he really has intentionally wasted a monumental amount of time in writing-that is, typing-it. Though Goldsmith often talks the serious, philosophic talk of experimentation, his books, manifestoes and interviews all contain some quantity of brash irreverence, even adolescent smugness. I find my own response at the publication of each of his new books to be accordingly self-contradictory: I am on the one hand excited by the (dare I say it?) mysterious power each work seems to hold, and on the other hand suspicious that behind the curtain is a little boy saying, "ha! she bought it again!" By constantly shifting his tone, Goldsmith courts this type of suspicion-a suspicion that his work may not only be derivative conceptualism, but that each book is simply a corrupted version of the one he published the year before.
"Even though I construct boring works, I wouldn't dream of forcing you to sit through an extended reading of my work," states Goldsmith in his brilliant essay on Day, "Being Boring." Redundancy is a kind of weariness, an exhaustion that in Goldsmith's case tilts over to a decadence. Many critics have noted that Goldsmith's recent books seem compellingly appropriate to our own fin de sicle moment. Paradoxically, that moment of exhaustion seems also to be a moment of epic: countering Goldsmith's calculated irrelevance/irreverence is the fact of his tomes' serious weight, both physical and conceptual. Christian Bk calls No. 111 a "titanic, rhyming poem in the process of being written by everyone," a "core sample extracted from the everyday, millennial language of capitalism," and in Goldsmith's entry in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry, No. 111 is described as "the last significant epic poem of the twentieth century" (Cain); Marjorie Perloff notes that Soliloquy "create[s] a very vivid image of life in Manhattan at the Millennium, in all its craziness and value"; Brad Ford notes that Day is "a picture-in an unfortunate coincidence-of life right before 9/11"; Raphael Rubenstein's phrasing captures pre-9/11 decadence: " the entire book can be read as a kind of textual vanitas, a picture of an ordinary day in a city whose inhabitants don't guess what we know now." Viewed as a unit, Goldsmith's bibliographic works from the last decade contain an extraordinary amount of information, and the manners of collection and organization across these volumes produce a magnificent range of possible interpretive paths. Goldsmith's three big books, Soliloquy, No. 111, and Day, along with their relatively diminutive sibling Fidget, make up a quartet of millennial intensity that contrasts strongly with Goldsmith's deflationary tone. And yet somehow, this tension produces not dissonance, but complementariness.
I saw the beginnings of an explanation for this effect when I sat down to re-read No. 111's final entry, D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner." The story brilliantly describes the ultimate "one-trick pony": a toy horse-and a boy-that can only do one thing over and over again. Just as the boy helps his uncle win massive purses at the racetrack, Goldsmith produces massive books. And like the Goldsmith of Day, Lawrence's unnamed boy is utterly uncreative; his revelations of winning horses do not create the conditions for the horse to win. The name of the winning horse is merely a fact that he knows before anyone else. This uncreativity is disturbingly sexualized in Lawrence's familiar manner: the boy's frenzied riding on the rocking horse produces nothing but the name of a racehorse that already exists. This product brings money to the family only at the expense of the family's male heir and the story's hero: the boy himself, who dies. An almost parodically Freudian character, Lawrence's race-winning boy attempts to distinguish himself from his unlucky father to gain his mother's affections. In turn, Goldsmith's own performed anxiety of influence is to be found throughout his books: in the nastily self-conscious dismissals of fellow artists and writers in Soliloquy, in the overly unabashed descriptions of bodily functions in Fidget, and in the brash appropriation of the entirety of the New York Times-the ultimate cultural father figure-in Day. These are just a few of the links to be found between the psychosexual plot of Lawrence's story and the complicated rhetoric of Goldsmith's experimentations. Goldsmith and the boy are doubles of a sort; like the boy, Goldsmith rides his hobbyhorse, and yet at the same time, seems to be undertaking a deeply serious project.
Goldsmith claims to have never "read" Lawrence's story. I won't argue this point but will say that its inclusion in No. 111 is serendipitous in more than one way. Parallels between the boy and Goldsmith, as listed above, are at first glance useful frameworks for understanding the wild swings between seriousness and play, creativity and sterility, ephemerality and monumentality that range throughout Goldsmith's work. But they also suggest two more paths of investigation, which will be my focus for the rest of this paper: first, that beyond the thematic and narrative parallels between Lawrence's protagonist and the real person of Kenneth Goldsmith is a more fundamental one: that the title of "protagonist" might be applied to "Kenneth Goldsmith" as he performs-and describes-his epic bibliographic projects. And second, that the drama of these undertakings, which so forcefully wedges itself into the embrace of avant-garde traditions, becomes a kind of narrative in its own right. The result is something that looks at least as much like a novel as it does conceptual art. Located somewhere among the materials of Goldsmith's works-the objects,1 the initiating constraints, and Goldsmith's actions-is a tale inhabited by a peculiarly traditional hero. Goldsmith's performance of his experiments is not just the story behind his works, it is the Work.
What would it mean to imagine Soliloquy, No. 111, Fidget, and Day as chapters in a single novel that extends out beyond the limits of page and book, into the reality show of Goldsmith's procedural poetics?2 This heuristic does explicitly what many critics have done implicitly with Goldsmith's works: reads them not just as a group, in which each project frames our reading of the others, but also as integral stages in a single process. It also prompts a closer look at these works' elaborate textual apparatuses, ranging from book design to jacket copy to the Electronic Poetry Center's useful website of critical responses, interviews, and Goldsmith's own manifestoes (somewhat ironically, it is those initiated into the study of avant-garde poetics, those who know all the works and where to read about them, to whom the conventional "novelistic" experience is most available). Here, three novelistic qualities come into view: a complex, sympathetic protagonist who holds our interest; the experiences of that protagonist-significant life events, quotidian details, and moments of self-interrogation; and a narrative arc that concludes in a momentous climax. What is less clear is the kind of protagonist our hero is. Is he the budding truth-seeker of a bildungsroman, for whom each experience leads to a more complex vision of the world that we readers consequently absorb? Or is he a picaresque jokester traipsing ironically through the avant-garde countryside, episode by episode?
As the details of Goldsmith's process indicate, the answer is probably a bit of each, a duality that is just one part of the novelistic system that Goldsmith constructs. The first novelistic quality of Goldsmith's imagined grand Work is simply his choice to carry it out. A number of critics have pointed out that his decision not to stop at Oulipean "potential literature" is a productive one, if only because the results reveal how utterly subjective even Day must be when realized. More importantly for us here, Goldsmith's decision produced not just the tangible, unique objects we hold in our hands, but the differently tangible, equally unique story of the hours, days, months and years that Goldsmith spent realizing these books. Significantly, each book's jacket copy explains the constraint under which the work was composed. This means that readers understand, before beginning to read, how the text came into being. So while we read, two narratives are underway in our minds: the narrative in the book and the narrative of Goldsmith making the book. We imagine how Goldsmith worked, picturing the act of collecting language for No. 111, the process of listening to oneself on tape for Soliloquy, the ways that speaking into the recorder must have disrupted the fidgeting in Fidget, how the newspaper must have yellowed as the months of making Day went by. If each work taken individually "defamiliarizes" something we thought we knew, taken as a group they do the exact opposite: they familiarize us with the constructed persona of Kenneth Goldsmith and his writerly processes.
Goldsmith emphasizes, in essays and interviews, how profound the experience of making the books was, most dramatically in his discussion of the complicated levels of "boredom" brought on by Day. ""Believe me, you've never really read the paper," he states in ""Being Boring," though it is important to note that in pointing this out, he wants to stress what he learned in the process of typing Day, not encourage us to read it. On the contrary, he repeatedly reminds readers that they do not need to invest in the process as he has: "as I've said before, I don't expect you to even read my books cover to cover. It's for that reason that I like the idea that you can know each of my books in one sentence" ("Being Boring"). Elsewhere in the same essay, he says, "You really don't need to read my books to get the idea of what they're like; you just need to know the general concept." But he, in contrast, definitely ""needed" to undertake each project and suffer through its realization. Statements that emphasize this difference serve to exaggerate the gap between the time of writing and the time of reception-the first takes months or years, the latter a few moments.
violently skews our focus away from the works and toward the process
of their making, urging us to think at least as much about Goldsmith
as a character with a story to tell as we do about the books themselves.
For example, writing about No. 111, he calls the project "a
failure" because the specifics of the process meant that he, the writer,
couldn't read it properly when it was completed:
I wanted to write a
book that I could never know. The approach I took was that of
quantity. I'd collect so many words that each time I'd open
my book, I'd be surprised by something that I had forgotten was there....And
in the end, the project was a failure. I got to know every word
so well over the four years that it took me to write it that I am bored
by the book. I can't open a page and be surprised. Perhaps
quantity was the wrong approach. ("I Look to Theory")
This statement seems strange-who cares whether Goldsmith knows his own book too well, since that has no bearing on our reading of it? It has resonance only if we are invested in the experience of Goldsmith and see the "project" as located in his edification.
Goldsmith writes, "I'm interested in quantifying and concretizing the vast amount of 'nutritionless' language; I'm also interested in the process itself being equally nutritionless" ("Uncreativity as a Creative Practice"). He uses the language of nutrition elsewhere in the same essay, again emphasizing the importance of the writing process, but here he also points out the unimportance of the reader suffering through something similar:
Retyping the New
York Times is the most nutritionless act of literary appropriation
I could conceive of....I took inspiration from Warhol's "Empire,"
his "unwatchable" 24-hour film of the Empire State Building.
Similarly, imagine a book that is written with the intention not to
be read. The book as object: conceptual writing; we're happy
that the idea exists without ever having to open the book.
Again, Goldsmith exaggerates each position. In this and the previously cited passages, it seems that the only person who he feels needs to learn from the massive size of each project is Goldsmith himself. We sense that each time he learns something quite profound, despite-or perhaps because of-the ""nutritionless" content of his procedures: "After transcribing Soliloquy, I've never heard language in quite the same way" ("I Look to Theory"). Such passionate descriptions of his own transformations appear throughout his writings.
All this is not to say that Goldsmith is unconcerned with his readers, or that he doesn't realize or expect that there are many people out there who will in fact read his books. But the passages above are noteworthy for taking such care to provide us with a window into Goldsmith's process, as if this were the "nutrient" he wants to make sure we absorb. These efforts serve to transform the books we hold from works into plot-points that get us to the heart of the story-"Kenneth Goldsmith" and the experiences he had in making these books-a story that is not just engrossing, but, like many novels, scandalously easy to consume.
The surprising thing is, so are the texts of No. 111, Soliloquy, Fidget, or Day. This takes us to the next stage of Goldsmith's "novelistic" tendencies, for despite Goldsmith's comments about the irrelevance of our reading his books, lots of people seem to read and enjoy them. Many critics note that the texts are exciting, not simply as conceptual experiment, but as "absorptive" literary texts. Not all readers would agree. Brian Kim Stefans calls Goldsmith's books "impossibly long," though in comparison with, say, Middlemarch or Don Quixote, even Day is definitely possible. Stacy Levine qualifies her discussion of No. 111's content with the aside, "Not that anyone will read No. 111 front to back, or even at large stretches." Or, as Doug Nufer puts it, "You jump around Day from one section to another, as if it's understood that nobody would ever read such a thing straight through." But is it understood? I have read No. 111, for instance, front to back, fascinated by the way its accretive structure paints a picture of a very "real," dazzlingly heterogeneous, linguistic world.
Even Day is surprisingly interesting. Charles Lamb once wrote that ""Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever lays one down without a feeling of disappointment" (147). The opposite is true of Day: when one picks it up, one is initially disappointed to learn on the back cover that all it is a transcription of the newspaper. But as one begins to read, Day becomes curiouser and curiouser, coming alive in the most old-fashioned, unfashionable way. Goldsmith says, "I'm interested in a valueless practice. Nothing has less value than yesterday's news," and he's probably right ("Uncreativity as Creative Practice"). But though the events of September 1, 2000 were perhaps "yesterday's news" when Goldsmith was in the early stages of typing, that day was ancient history by the time the book was published-history ancient enough to provoke many reviewers to linger a long time over the content of this interwoven mass of stories from pre-9/11 New York.
I find Day to be utterly compelling, but not for the reasons I expected to when I first received my copy. When I first opened it, I assumed that all my years of reading contemporary poetry that is densely linguistic, often affectless, and frequently long, would help me; we readers of contemporary poetic practice know hard reading, we know intentional boredom. But it turns out that it's not my avant-garde training that came in handy. My own willingness/drive/capacity to read all of Goldsmith's books straight through has at least as much to do with my traditional literary background; as I reread the books this spring, I was most helped by just having finished a year of teaching a "Great Books" curriculum. After nine months of classics like Inferno, Don Quixote, Capital and The Plague, Goldsmith's books are familiar-both in their physical size, and in the kind of sustained attention-concentration upon multiple layers of plot, language, and argument over hundreds of pages-that they require. Certainly my eyes glazed over as I worked through Day's stock quotes, but not much more than they did as I attempted to follow the denser bits of Marx's complex economic theories. A number of critics have noted that Goldsmith's books have the heft of reference books. But when I look on my own bookshelves, I see that they are closer in size to my copies of Magic Mountain, Moby Dick, and Remembrance of Things Past.
the content and dimensions of each of Goldsmith's books recalls classic
novels, an even more significant novelistic element subsists in the
relationships that begin to appear between all four as we look at them
more carefully. In the progression from No. 111 to Day,
our hero's quests grow-or shrink, depending on how you look at them-in
difficulty and in scope. This narrative progress may be seen with
surprisingly clarity in the jacket copy. As I mentioned earlier,
the jacket copy makes explicit to readers the process Goldsmith underwent
to produce the books. In addition to describing the relationships
between Goldsmith and each project, it also describes relationships
among the projects themselves. Listed chronologically, here
are the sentences printed on the back of each book that describe the
No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96
(1997): "The text adheres strictly to its chosen rules: all
the phrases collected between February 7, 1993 and October 20, 1996
end in sounds related to the sound 'R'..."
(2000): " Fidget is writer Kenneth Goldsmith's transcription
of every movement made by his body during thirteen hours on Bloomsday
(June 16) 1997."
Soliloquy (2001): ""An unedited document of every word Goldsmith spoke during a week
in 1996, Soliloquy quantifies and concretizes the sheer amount
of language that surrounds us in our daily lives."
Day (2003): ""I am spending my 39th year practicing uncreativity.
On Friday, September 1, 2000, I began retyping the day's New York
Times, word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand
corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page."
A surprisingly smooth, stepwise narrative is plotted in these peritexts: the descriptions, when read chronologically, allow our protagonist to emerge from background to foreground. The story begins with a focus upon the finalized "text," then shifts to the "transcription" and "document," and finally, centers definitively upon Goldsmith himself. Goldsmith's presence in these peritexts also shifts grammatically. Each book's jacket after No. 111 takes a step to realign our attention away from the object we hold in our hands and on to Goldsmith himself. In the first book, we are informed that the words are "collected," in a phrase constructed in passive voice, which renders the collector's name unspoken. In the second, Goldsmith's name and the fact of his body creep in, but still only in passive voice. In the third he appears as an actor in the past tense (he spoke). Finally, in Day, he makes a grand, fully developed entrance. Represented by a large dropped capital "I," Goldsmith himself, rather than a dispassionate editorial voice, tells us not what the book does, but what he was doing three years ago while undertaking the project. We are plunged into the process; the finite past tense that dominated the previous descriptions is replaced by the participles "I am spending" and "I began retyping." A first-person narrator speaks intimately to the reader, setting up the conditions not just for a confessional, comfortable read, but also for a quest narrative: can our hero practice uncreativity? What obstacles will get in his way? What will he learn?
most interestingly of all in this narrative drama, Day's back
cover retroactively frames the three earlier volumes not as objects
but as the parenthetical byproducts of experiences that "Kenneth
Goldsmith" has gone through-trials, perhaps, preparing him for the
grand quest of the final volume, Day:
Long an advocate of
extreme writing processes-recording every move his body has made in
a day (Fidget), recording every word he spoke over the course
of a week (Soliloquy), recording every phrase he heard ending
in the sound of "r" for four years (No. 111)-Goldsmith
now turns his attention to quotidian documents.
This final blow knocks the books squarely off center, solidifying the sense that our attention should be displaced from the inert objects and onto the protagonist-driven story of their making.
These multiple insistences upon the centrality of Goldsmith himself of course echo the intentional self-absorption that characterizes the two middle volumes of the group, Soliloquy and Fidget. As I will show, closely related to this theme of self-absorption is the seemingly distinct theme of uncreativity that also runs throughout Goldsmith's descriptions of his process. Though it is only upon the composition of Day that Goldsmith fully embraced uncreativity, he certainly calls attention to it in these earlier books, which emphasize the hours upon hours of word-by-word, linear transcription. Uncreative self-absorption is a major theme in Goldsmith's works, and brings us to its relation to a more specific category than just "the novel." This is a theme that Goldsmith first introduces explicitly in No. 111, with the inclusion of "The Rocking Horse Winner." Lawrence's protagonist, like Goldsmith, becomes more and more self-absorbed as the story moves on, and his work on the horse ultimately sterile; it is not just uncreative, but unprocreative. The language used to describe the boy's riding has often been described as masturbatory; his frenzied riding in the secret, dark bedroom, the subject of oppressive silence and furtive glances among the family members, has provided fodder for generations of undergraduate papers on the subject. By including this story, rather than any number of texts he might have found that end in "r," Goldsmith "unintentionally" emphasizes the anti-creative side of his writing, while also linking it directly with the fact of narrative fiction.
Uncreativity seems a straightforwardly "conceptual" move, running counter to the expressive qualities of storytelling. But Goldsmith here, and elsewhere, brings the two together. He intentionally aligns masturbation and fictionality in a later work, in allusions not just to a short story like "The Rocking Horse Winner," but also to the ultimate modernist novel, Ulysses. Fidget was not only composed on June 16, Bloomsday, but also like Ulysses, follows the actions of one man on one day. The characters Goldsmith and Bloom share a characteristic rarely represented in any text, fiction or nonfiction: both masturbate, a fact noted by multiple commentators on Goldsmith's work.
broader self-reflexivity of each of these works is emphasized in the
inclusion of masturbation passages, and Goldsmith's in particular
seems a carefully plotted commentary on the reflexive, intentionally
redundant qualities of his transcriptive projects. Goldsmith re-produces
without reproduction, births huge books out of his utter isolation:
My entire production
is predicated on distance. I sit in a room by myself and communicate
to many people. I write books and they are read by people unknown
to me. I do a weekly radio show and I am heard by 10,000 people
at any given time, but it's just me alone in a room. I build
websites for a living and communicate with people all over the world,
without ever engaging in a conversation with them. ("I Look to Theory")
As is seen most dramatically in Soliloquy, Goldsmith is no less than a master of the one-sided conversation. But though he performs himself as solipsistic to literal excess, in the form of great big self-involved tomes, Goldsmith somehow transforms that solipsism into epic feats of successful communication: he is not, in the end, sterile like the family in Lawrence's story, but linguistically fertile in the manner of Ulysses.
But how does this combination of self-absorption, uncreativity, and fertility relate outward into the larger intertextual Work I have been attempting to describe? The answer begins with Day, which seems to be quite the opposite of Soliloquy in its disallowal of any of Goldsmith's one-sided conversation, but is in fact self-reflexive in a similar manner. More importantly, Day also resembles Ulysses. It is a book whose "action" takes place on a single day-not Bloomsday, of course, but a day in a great city, framed through the transcription experiences of Kenneth Goldsmith, protagonist. But the parallel with Ulysses is less complete, since it doesn't contain a masturbation scene as Fidget does. Ironically, its utterly un-originating constraint makes such a scene impossible-one is not likely to be found in the text of the New York Times.
such a scene does exist, just not in Day's text proper.
It exists as part of the bigger novelistic Work, and more specifically
in the relationship between Goldsmith and his day-to-day procedures
as conceptual poet over the course of several years. In the following
description of the process of transcribing Day, we are made privy
to the onanistic culmination of our hero's years of experiment, his
moment of utter absorption and utter transformation presented in appropriately
Far from being boring,
it was the most fascinating writing process I've ever experienced.
It was surprisingly sensual. I was trained as a sculptor and moving
the text from one place to another became as physical, and as sexy as,
say, carving stone. It became this wild sort of obsession to peel
the text off the page of the newspaper and force it into the fluid medium
of the digital. I felt like I was taking the newspaper, giving
it a good shake, and watching as the letters tumbled off the page into
a big pile, transforming the static language that was glued to the page
into moveable type. ("Being Boring")
Here, all the elements seem to cohere as the text he describes falls apart: the "wild sort of obsession" of Lawrence's rocking boy, the masturbatory acts of Ulysses and Fidget, the reorganized language of No. 111, and the transcription procedure of all his books. His world unmasked, the hero is transformed. Teetering on the line between profundity and absurdity, the passage almost giddily dismisses both in favor of the ephemeral pleasure of vision.
"The project of encyclopedism, the complete codification and cross-referencing not just of all forms of knowledge, but of the consciousness experiencing knowledge, must be simultaneously reified and mocked," writes the critic Richard Hardack in his study of the genre of the encyclopedic novel (133). This genre emerged some time ago as the quintessence of a certain brand of literary postmodernism, and in it we see more than just glimmers of Kenneth Goldsmith's own project. Most compelling when we imagine Goldsmith's projects as one unified Work is Hardack's description of the tension inherent in encyclopedic narratives:
In these works the
male protagonists undertake reflexive and often doomed journeys seeking
some form of chivalric or absolute knowledge. In the process,
their bodies become subject to the most extreme forms of disproportionate,
satirical representation. The encyclopedic male protagonist thinks
he can account for himself from origin to extinction, for all the facets
of his individual development, along with the development or progress
of his entire species, its whole encyclopedic catalog of knowledge.
But as anatomies of discord, encyclopedic texts advance a particular
kind of satire. (131)
Eerily appropriate to Goldsmith's long-term project, this description reframes the "uncreativity" of his works, shifting it away from the sterility that arises from the success of ""The Rocking Horse Winner"'s winnings and towards the productive ""doom" of failed grand ambition.
Ulysses is considered to be an encyclopedic novel, a category, as Edward Mendelson defined it in his foundational 1974 essay on the subject, composed of long fictional narratives written by authors who "set out to imitate epics, but unlike epic poets, they write about the ordinary present-day world around them instead of the heroic past" (1268). Self-conscious yet endlessly ambitious, narratives like Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy and Gravity's Rainbow are
encyclopedia[s] of narrative, incorporating, but never limited to, the conventions of heroic epic, quest romance, symbolist poem, Bildungsroman, psychomachia, bourgeois novel, lyric interlude, drama, eclogue, and catalogue.... each encyclopedic narrative is an encyclopedia of literary styles, ranging from the most primitive and anonymous levels of proverb-lore to the most esoteric heights of euphuism. (1270)
Into this stream we place not just the "core sample" of millennial experience in No. 111, but the fantastically disparate languages of the performatively "natural" speaker in Soliloquy, the professional newspaper columnists and ad agency writers who keep getting interrupted in Day, and the weirdly atmospheric, self-describing fidgeter in Fidget.
Gazing from four different angles at the urban New York of a single decade, 1993-2003, Goldsmith's masterwork of process, books, and associated secondary materials can only be inconsistent, moody, and elusive: "No one could suppose that any encyclopedic narrative is an attractive or comfortable work....all encyclopedias are monstrous. (They are monstra in the oldest Latin sense as well: omens of dire change)" (Mendelson 1272). "Bloated" and "extravagant," Goldsmith's Work is an undertaking that must take such a form if it is to be what it is, a forward-looking memorial not just to an historical moment, but to Goldsmith's own ephemeral experience (Hardack 133).
the author of and protagonist in this drama, Goldsmith gets to stand
both outside it and right at its center. In a sense, he asks his
readers to do the same. His careful construction of a persona
pushes us to look beyond the solid physical boundaries of the conventional
object of our attention, the heavy book sitting in front of us, and
out into the endless possibilities of intertextuality. Once we're
there, we find a new organization structured around the experiences
of Goldsmith's processes, an organization that resembles the contained,
if bulging, space of the encyclopedic novel. Goldsmith's
decision to move beyond conceptual gesture and into conceptual practice
recenters his work, shifting its focus off of the unit of individual
books and onto the truly ephemeral fact of making them.
What this generates is something vital and, for Goldsmith's readers,
infinitely productive: a Work whose boundaries are unclear. What is
most compelling about Kenneth Goldsmith's oeuvre of the last
decade is not what it shows us about yesterday's news, but what it
makes us wonder about the next generation of protagonists of the avant-garde.
refer throughout this paper only to the printed editions of Goldsmith's
works, since differences between these physical objects and the digital
versions, though not in conflict with my points here, are beyond the
scope of my argument.
2 This notion, of a multi-volume "novel" not unlike a Victorian triple-decker, is not incompatible with Goldsmith's poetics. In an interview in 2000, he mused, not without humor, about the conceptual possibilities of a "52 volume work-one book for each week-with each book about 350 pages long (the length of the printed edition of Soliloquy) giving me a total of approximately 18,000 pages. It'll literally be an encyclopedia, a reference book of what one average person said for an entire year in the early part of the 21st century. It'll not only make a great artwork, but every library in the country will have to have a copy, due to its sociological relevance" (Bessa).
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Boring." (2004). 7 May 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
---. Day. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 2003.
---. Fidget. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000.
---. "I Look to Theory Only
When I Realize That Somebody Has Dedicated Their Entire Life to a Question
I Have Only Fleetingly Considered." (2002). 2 April 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
---. No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1997.
---. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001.
---. "Statement on Year."
(2003). 2 April 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
---. "Uncreativity as a Creative
Practice." 7 May 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
Goode, Chris. "What's It
For?" The Gig 16 (February 2004). 2 April 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
Hardack, Richard. "Going Belly Up: Entries, Entrees, and the All-Consuming Encyclopedic Text." LIT 7 (1996): 131-51.
Lamb, Charles. "Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading." The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb. New York: Random House, 1935. 146-50.
Levine, Stacey. "Snickering
for Joy: Kenneth Goldsmith's No.
111 2.7.93-10.20.96." American Book Review (Jan.-Feb. 1998). 2 April 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
McCaffery, Steve, and bpNichol. ""The Book as Machine." Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book Machine. 1973. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992. 59-96.
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Racket." Muse Apprentice
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Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith." Jacket 21 (February 2003). 2 April 2005 <http://jacketmagazine.com/21
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Vanitas." Art in America November 2004. 1 April 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors
Stefans, Brian Kim. "Little
Reviews." (2003). 2 April 2005 <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors