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Bill Freind

In the Conceptual Vacuum:

on Kenneth Goldsmith’s Kent Johnson’s «Day»


1

I am writing a review of Kent Johnson’s Day although I haven’t read a word of it. That’s not a problem, since Johnson’s Day is identical to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, which is itself a transcription of an entire issue of The New York Times from left to right, ignoring the divisions between columns, articles and advertisements. In fact, Johnson’s Day is an actual copy of Goldsmith’s Day, with stickers of Johnson’s name covering Goldsmith’s name, as well as some jacket blurbs from Juliana Spahr, Christian Bök, and “Kenny” Goldsmith himself. Not surprisingly, the blurbs from Spahr and Bök were originally for Goldmith’s Day; the blurb attributed to Goldsmith is Johnson’s riff on various comments Goldsmith has made on Flarf and conceptual poetry.

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However, I haven’t read Goldsmith’s Day either. Although I consider myself a big fan of his work, I’ve read almost none of it. (I made it through about 50 pages of Soliloquy, his transcription of everything he said over the course of a week, and thought it was brilliant.) I suspect that, like me, a lot of people who appreciate Goldsmith’s work haven’t even seen it, much less read it in its entirety. And that doesn’t matter: as Goldsmith has suggested, his writing is so conceptual that it’s unnecessary to actually read what’s on the page. Just as Duchamp’s ready-mades presented a challenge to what he called “retinal” art, Goldsmith’s work effectively posits a non-retinal literature. “Uncreative writing” prompts some essential questions about the nature of art, and while Goldsmith is obviously (and admittedly) revisiting the same questions posed by hundreds of different artists throughout the twentieth century, repackaging the avant-garde still carries a certain charge.

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That’s not a cheap shot, especially since one of the central qualities of Goldsmith’s work is its belatedness. Yesterday’s news, traffic and weather reports are clearly untimely, but so is the entire premise of Day: because the circulation of print editions of newspapers was already plummeting in September 2000 when Goldsmith began the book, he commemorates a medium whose significance was headed into the recycling bin of history. Goldsmith’s own medium is similarly (and, I think, intentionally) belated: the physical size of his books echoes the magna opera of Anglophone high modernism such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the Cantos, Maximus, “A.” But that comparison is wonderfully absurd: instead of Pound’s extraordinary and often appalling conception of history or Joyce’s dazzling and encyclopedic vision, we get a semi-coherent transcription of an outdated newspaper.

4

Day is fascinating because it’s so meaningless, so utterly empty of content that there is virtually no inside-the-text; it operates as a kind of conceptual vacuum which practically demands to be filled by the reader. One of the things that many readers have placed in that emptiness is a mythologized figure of Goldsmith himself. Specifically, it has become a commonplace that Goldsmith “typed” the entire edition of the Times that appears in Day, although as Goldsmith himself admits, that’s only partially true at best. Near the beginning of his essay “Uncreativity and Creative Practice,” he writes “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. Today, November 10, 2000, I am approximately half way through the project. I intend to finish by New Year’s Day.” [1] But seven short paragraphs later Goldsmith admits that he was not, in fact, retyping the paper:

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Innovative poetry seems to be a perfect place to place a valueless practice; as a gift economy, it is one of the last places in late hyper-capitalism that allows non-function as an attribute. Both theoretically and politically, the field remains wide open.

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But in capitalism, labor equals value. So certainly my project must have value, for if my time is worth an hourly wage, then I might be paid handsomely for this work.

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But the truth is that I’ve subverted this equation by OCR’ing as much of the newspaper as I can.

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As Darren Warshler-Henry has noted, “OCR’ing” is an acronym for optical character recognition, or scanning. [2] This sets up an interesting discrepancy: Goldsmith begins his essay by explicitly stating that he typed Day, then near the end he admits that he scanned as much as he could, whatever that means. (He also acknowledges using optical character recognition in his essay “Being Boring.”) [3] Furthermore, he suggests that scanning is in fact central to his project, since by substantially reducing the amount of work required to complete the text, Goldsmith also reduces its implicit or theoretical value. If time is money, any labor-saving device will only enhance the valuelessness of his text.

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However, virtually everything I’ve found on Day implies or states that he typed all of it, and many critics have made this central to their reading of the text. For instance, in a review published in Art in America, Raphael Rubinstein claims that “it’s precisely by his devotion to this demanding project that Goldsmith brings new meaning to his material, something that never would have happened if he’d simply scanned the pages into his computer.” [4] Likewise, Molly Schwartzberg writes “[l]ocated somewhere among the materials of Goldsmith’s works — the objects, 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.” [5]

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The problem with these readings is not just that they’re empirically wrong; instead, I think they completely misread Goldsmith’s entire premise. While Goldsmith explicitly states that his goal is to create a work that is as uncreative and valueless as possible, they respond by constructing an “heroic” figure of Goldsmith-as-Author.

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If Goldsmith puts the work of art under erasure, too many readers have responded by putting Goldsmith in its place. I think there’s something nostalgic and even fetishistic about those readings, since they seem to construct a stable author-function for texts that by definition have no author in the traditional sense of the word, and I think they help to explain why so few critics have been skeptical about Goldsmith’s alleged typing of his poem.

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Goldsmith has frequently discussed his enthusiasm for technology, and scanning is a relatively simple process that would have saved him dozens or even hundreds of hours of work. It seems obvious that he would have at least been tempted to use a scanner. I would guess that many readers were too invested in the “heroic” aspect of Goldsmith himself to suspect he’d want to make his job a lot easier.

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Given all of that, I read Kent Johnson’s Day as a return to one of Johnson’s favorite themes: the continued dominance of the author-function in contemporary otherstream literature. Implicit in Johnson’s work is a claim that the assault on the fetishized status of the art work in (for example), Dada, language writing, or uncreative writing has not led to a similar interrogation of the status of the author. If anything, the questioning of the art work has often led to a re-inscription of the author function, as readers look for a locus of meaning in texts that resist traditional explication.

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If Goldsmith has demolished any residual trace of the aura Walter Benjamin saw in works of art produced before the age of mechanical reproduction, many readers have responded by attempting to endow Goldsmith with an homologous aura. Intentionally or not, Goldsmith himself has aided that attempt: with his trademark wide-brimmed hat, he’s easily one of the most recognizable otherstream writers in America. His author page at the Electronic Poetry Center not only includes a link for downloadable photos of him, but also places it near the top of the page, before any writings by or about him.

15

So the logical response — and, I think, the highest tribute — to Goldsmith would be to go him one better, which is exactly what Kent Johnson does. If Goldsmith’s “writing,” consists of merely scanning the Times, Johnson did almost nothing except suggest the idea to Geoffrey Gatza, the editor of BlazeVox Books. (I should add that BlazeVox published my book.) Except for the fake jacket blurbs that he wrote, Johnson exerted no labor in the creation of Day, which makes it almost purely conceptual. Gatza takes Goldsmith’s celebration of valuelessness even further than Goldsmith himself. Gatza has purchased his copies of Goldsmith’s Day from Small Press Distribution precisely because they’re $3 more expensive than The Figures, Goldsmith’s publisher. As a result, Gatza actually loses $1.50 for every book sold.

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One of the most interesting aspect of Johnson’s Day is the production video that Gatza shot of his construction of the book. After a very brief introduction, Gatza begins by pushing aside two stacks of Goldsmith’s Day to reveal and a pipe filled with what presumably is marijuana. He smokes for a while, gets up and returns with an X-acto knife, then smokes some more. Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps plays loudly in the background, or it may be dubbed on top of the video itself.

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It takes forever for Gatza to do anything except get high, which seems to be the point: Gatza demolishes the idea of creativity but pointedly refuses to replace it with an “heroic” creativity. Significantly, he also demolishes the fetishization of the author that is so common in readings of Goldsmith’s work. The camera is fixed so that the only times we see Gatza’s face are at the beginning and end of the video, and even at those points, it’s mostly in shadow. Johnson never appears at all. Near the end of the video, Gatza actually autographs the book — in Johnson’s name. Since the book isn’t really Johnson’s, there’s no reason his signature should be his, either.

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In fact, Johnson emailed me to say: “After viewing Geoffrey Gatza’s video, I realized that Day was no longer mine. I now fully disown my ‘original’ idea and separate myself completely from the book. Day now belongs to Geoffrey Gatza.” However, Gatza himself doesn’t seem particularly eager to claim ownership of the text, since BlazeVox books has a special Goldsmith-to-Johnson conversion kit. It’s a free PDF file that includes the fake jacket blurbs and Johnson’s name that you can download here.


Notes

[1] Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Uncreativity and Creative Practice.” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/uncreativity.html. Accessed 19 March 2010.

[2] Wershler-Henry, Darren. “Uncreative is the New Creative: Kenneth Goldsmith Not Typing.” In Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory. Twelfth Series, Number 7, Fall 2005.

[3] Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Being Boring.” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/goldsmith_boring.html.

[4] Rubinstein, Raphael. “A Textual Vanitas.” Art in America, November 2004 http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/aia_day.html. Accessed 19 March 2010.

[5] Schwartzberg, Molly. “Encyclopedic Novelties: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s Tomes.”In Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory. Twelfth Series, Number 7, Fall 2005.


Bill Freind

Bill Freind

Bill Freind is the author of American Field Couches (BlazeVox, 2008) and An Anthology (housepress, 2000); he is also editing a collection of essays on Araki Yasusada that is forthcoming from Shearsman. He lives near an abandoned golf course in South Jersey.

 
 
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