Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Michael Gottlieb

Googling Flarf

Die 1 When it comes to sorting out the various slaps and slams that have been administered to this thing they call Flarf, as a poet who was deeply involved in chance-generated practice for years, all of whose first-published work, and first book, was produced via chance operations, some questions arise:

If we stipulate that is it is indeed a corrupt, capitalist, contrived and suborned activity to make use of Google (if it is in fact Google itself that is being employed) as an engine or facilitator in the poetry in question, then we are making at least two assumptions that on the face of themselves, at least, seem difficult to get one’s arms around, the first, existential, the second more literarily problematic:

 — First, that it is acceptable to make use of Google or similarly debased tools in certain situations but not in the production of poetry. Or are we not to make use of these kinds of tainted products or services at all? How different is this from the similar, on the face of it equally totalizing arguments: if you own a car you’re supporting the oil companies and the extinction of the planet. Which leaves us where? Taking Amtrak to Chicago? And what other assumptions lie behind this kind of argument? What or how does it valorize our practice, our work, rightly or not, above other sorts of labor?

 — Second, the arguments go, there is something about the choices that Google offers up that is delimiting. Because it is a commercial enterprise, there is something intrinsic in its algorhythms which somehow debases the language that it ‘produces.’ It is tainted, tinged, tilted to some commercial, keyword-AdWord-corrupted impulse.
Die 1
On the face of it, this is a more compelling argument. It contends or implies that there are other links, other texts, that could be served up by a mechanism that did not have at its heart a profit-driven impulse; that there is an entire world of other… other sites, other language, whose authors or hosts don’t have the wherewithal or inclination to a) ‘optimize’ their html so as to ensure that a search engine’s ‘spiders’ reach out and find it, and find it interesting, and keep returning, and keep finding it sufficiently cool, updated, etc. to pop it to the top of its listings, or b) pony up the fees that Google and the other engines demand to position paid links near their search findings, the ones that appear (if there is anyone left who doesn’t understand that those are paid listings and not generated by the engines themselves) next to the ‘regular’ or ‘natural’ listings.

There are however two substantial problems with this argument:

 — We live in a world – at least I think we do – wherein at least some artists have long since figured out a way to live with/interact with/abide with/surmount/critique those same corrupt, commercial impulses, those politico-economic forces of which Google is presented to us as merely the latest, more hi tech and, consequently the most insidious iteration of. It could be posited that while a considerable body of art produced, say, in the last one hundred years has attempted to eschew or ignore those impulses and forces there is an equally substantial body of work that embraced that world – this world – if that be an appropriate term, and through an examination, dissection, etc. of it and its commercial expressions, fashioned an art that proved to be the most devastating, thorough-going, uncompromising of it or any other time. Pop Art, and Cubism as well, spring to mind. What, in the final aspect, is the qualitative difference between incorporating the front page of a copy of Le Monde in one’s painting or a few frames of a comic strip or a soup can label and making use of an equally commercial ‘product’ like a profit-based search engine? Is one use more critical, more knowing, more sarcastic, than the other? If that is the case, one would like to see the buttressing arguments that would support a finding that, for example, “Chicks Dig War” is less conscious of its antecedents and its compromised status than, say, “Double Elvis.”

On a personal note, when I cast my mind back to the tools I found myself making use of when I was making work that depended so much on the ineluctable, irrevocable, generous, earth-shaking and fantastically liberating mysteries of chance, back when I still knew to find my copy of the I Ching (and at a time when up to not too many months previously, that book was the only one I’d ever heard of the Bollingen Press), I made use of two particular tools. The first was dice (or, rather, one die – I never seemed to require a piece of arithmetic that obliged me to parse, or sequence or randomize more than six units or pieces or words or sets at any one given time) and, more to the point for the purposes of this conversation, the second: coins.

I used coins all the time, for months, for years. It never occurred to me, at the time, that I was entering into a corrupt compact with any social-political-economic superstructure. As far as I was concerned, I was attempting to join up with, to show allegiance to a particular band of saints, Cunningham and Cage and Burroughs and the ineffable Mac Low, who had clearly cracked one of the great codes of creation (of creating and Creation, both). They had figured out a way to give this world back to us in a new way, a way that was terrifyingly new and altogether familiar at the same time. And it was all in keeping with the rest of the art was being produced all around them – at the same time – the Lichtenstein and the Johns and the Rauschenberg and the Warhol, for example, that appeared on the same stage as the dances Cunningham choreographed to the music Cage had composed.

And it never occurred to me for a moment – and I wonder if it ever occurred to them – to Jackson, for example, that committed socialist and pacifist who remained true to his convictions for decades upon decades, until his dying day – that making use of a coin, money, capital in its most crepuscular form, filthy lucre itself – that act would, could compromise us. After all, what could be more debased than currency itself? What is more oppressive, more corrupt than money? I thought I was just making use of a convenient, binary chance-generating engine. Little did I know. This was money. And money is the root of all evil. Isn’t it?

Does poetry have a job? Is there something that is it supposed to do? Do for us? To us? I would suggest if what we are now calling Flarf has a role in our life, jointly or severally or individually – in, say, our literary life, its role is not, cannot be substantially different than that which previous methodologies or schools or movements have taken upon themselves. Its job – and I do think I believe that poetry indeed does have a job – is to crack open this terrible world and give it back to us in a way so we see it – at once, whole, entirely anew and, simultaneously, completely familiar. Its job is to enable us to see it in a way that we never could before, and never could now — without the aid of this new work. If we can adduce that this is art’s, poetry’s job – or, better perhaps – its responsibility, in every age, then we can, we have to, perhaps, stipulate that with every age poetry must needs find new tools to make it — as someone dead once proclaimed — to make itself new, to make itself over, anew. The old tools don’t work anymore, at least for the time being – they are tired. The terrible vistas they once revealed now seem merely pretty. This is a commonplace: it is virtually impossible to look at Van Gogh or Matisse or read Eliot or Williams and grasp how uncompromising – how ugly, brutal, honest – they once seemed. It is our curse, is it not — as artists, to become picturesque? We should live so long.

That’s why we need these folks, and every tool they can lay their hands on.