Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Part 2: Origins

Kenneth Goldsmith follows a glittering list of New York notables, the purveyors of the avant-garde movement in the 1950s. Poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashberry founded the “New York School of Poets” a society bent on bringing radical changes to the use of language as a mode of expression. Within the tight-knit group, writers and artists worked together, mutually inspired by one another and a common cause. Brooding on the outskirts of the New York movement was a figure straight out of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. William’s interaction with laconic and talented Jackson Pollock probably partially inspired Stanley Kowalski and most certainly inspired the “drunken and dissolute” painter Mark Conley in The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.[1] Pollock’s dark, reclusive nature made the appearance of his paintings all the more startling. His work was as large and boisterous as he was introverted and silent, though both could be equally explosive. David Lehman comments,


The Abstract Revolution hit New York hard in 1948 when Jackson Pollock produced the first of his “drip” paintings. Number One had no center, no perspectival depth, no illusion of mirror or window, but had such fierce energy and motion that it needed no other subject but itself.[2]



Jackson Pollock became a soldier of the Abstract Revolution with Number One, a five foot by eight foot canvas slashed into ribbons of black, white and silver. Each successive piece was a more confident expression of Pollock’s artistic vision and one more blow to the concepts of “traditional” painting. Pollock’s pieces pushed the limits, taking the painting right up to the edge of the canvas as well as to the fringes of the art community. At the brink, his paintings became increasingly larger in scale and more complex in manufacture. Pollock’s work expressed an intense distaste for the constraints and conventions of the art world. His personal fury came out in the texture of his paint, the frenzy of his line and the absolute abandon of the results.

         As artists, Pollock and Goldsmith share a slice of common ground. Goldsmith became disenchanted with the art community, and as a result his frustration flowed into his work driving a wedge further into the crack he created for himself. As Goldsmith’s work became progressively more expressive and at times more angry, the scope shifted. What started as a small irritation at the reception of his word-art pieces became in the following years a full-blown hatred of the system that snubbed his work. In that time Goldsmith’s work began to expand, not only in number of pieces but also in their physical size. Like Pollock, he needed a super-sized display of his unique and ever-evolving method. Goldsmith explodes the frame with the chaotic abundance of words in No.111; he does with phrase what Pollock did with paint.

Pollock’s work illustrates the sensual and mesmerizing joy that comes with large-scale work. The painter used thousands upon thousands of lines to give his work startling depth. The magnitude of Pollock’s work affects the viewer on a visceral level, overwhelming in its sheer size and vitality. Viewing Pollock’s massive “Blue Poles” for the first time is like walking into a room breathing with color. (Figure 3.)[3] Goldsmith’s No.111 provokes similar imagery, as the reader is immersed in a “sea of language,” trying desperately to process it all, sort it out and make some sense of its intention.[4] Pollock and Goldsmith illustrate similar understanding for their respective

media. In No.111 there are instances of complicated and beautiful passages that seem thrown together out of the thin air, a jumble of text that resonate on many levels. For example in chapter XV:

A complicated irregular interior structure, a cucumber and a tomato meet in a saladbar, a disgruntled reader gets up and leaves via the front door, a female figure used in architecture as a pillar, a horizontal structure vs. a vertical structure, a kitchy choir of double-speed munchkins oh-oh-oh yeah-yeahs, a roast beef sandwich with horse radish dressing is in order, a total embrace of the world and its chaotic order, a true iconoclast an intellectual skateboarder, a varied black brown mineral with a shiny slick texture,[5]


What seems to be a random conglomeration of phrases becomes, with careful reading, a mesmerizing example of Goldsmith’s unique sense of style. Jackson Pollock admitted, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.”[6] However, Pollock’s compositions show an incredible internal structure, an intricate mapping of line and color that illustrates that little about his work was random. Like Pollock, Goldsmith used an unorthodox technique to create vigorous, yet refined works.

As seen by previous reactions to Goldsmith’s work, magnitude is of extreme importance to literary and artistic communities. His work is large not only in scale, but in volume as well, the utter number of words impossible to comprehend. Pollock’s paintings filled rooms, and today, enrapture gallery audiences with their unmistakable energy. In both cases composition and size go hand in hand. In order for Goldsmith to have readers understand his method he had to enlarge it, make it tough to avoid, and therefore easier to understand. Unfortunately his first attempt to display his method was in an art gallery setting. Whereas Pollock’s paintings are easy to digest framed and hanging, Goldsmith’s text pieces like No.109 felt disjointed and out of place to gallery goers, because in that setting they are preconditioned for color and line. As it turns out Goldsmith was simply looking for a new audience.

In order to understand the origins of No.111 2.7.93-10.20.96 it is essential to look at its “parent” text more closely. No.111 is the direct result of Goldsmith’s frustrating gallery failure, No.109. In fact, No.109 and No.111 share the same start date, February 7, 1993. Unsure of what to do with the massive amounts of text he gathered for No.109, Goldsmith decided to filter it into a larger piece, something that could not be mistaken for a work of art. No.109 was spawned from a love of the rhyming dictionary. (Figure 4.)[7] The entry for the ending –are yielded No.109’s initial material, and from it Goldsmith took the structure for his next book; “one syllable rhymes A to Z, then a semi-colon, then two syllable words, etc.”[8] As seen in the previous section the rhyming dictionary is an important source for Goldsmith’s work.

The reference book sorts words according to corresponding ending sound, but seems to show no discrimination in what words are included and what words are not. The groupings are random, dependent on syllabic and alphabetic criteria, and the disparity between the words is often comic.  For example in the entry for the ending     -are, you get words like, “care, chair, Claire” and “dare.” Note that in this particular entry “Frigidaire” falls between the likes of “Delaware” and “laissez faire.”[9] Goldsmith noticed that proper nouns, names, brands, and phrases regularly cropped up throughout the entries, and decided to experiment with collecting random phrases of his own. The result was the action-packed, edge-of-your-seat No.109, with its “Rocky Horror, Roto-rooter, salmonilla, Sandinista, Sgt. Pepper” jingle.[10] What was an unruly tumult of words in No.109 became a more sophisticated and leisurely literary experience in No.111.

Goldsmith wanted a text that could not carry the label of “art,” or “poem,” or “novel.” Instead he was looking for a way to document his obsession with language and “encompass the whole of speech and aural experience,” not a light task for an author just getting his footing outside a gallery setting.[11] Because of his extensive artistic background Goldsmith tends to frame his text in ways that are as intriguing to look at as it is to read. Questions of genre come up numerous times in discussion of Goldsmith’s work. When a reader picks up a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone, he/she knows that it is tragedy, and is already prepared for the tone, the texture, and the resolution. With familiar categories, comedy, romance, etc., readers know beforehand what is in store, whether or not they know the story. The same can be said of more general categories, such as fiction and poetry. Goldsmith’s work, however, defies all of these preconceived notions about literary genre because it is not so easily filed under any one heading.

Influenced heavily by James Joyce, Goldsmith began to create a work that was sculptural as well as literary, a work that carved tangible language out of the ether of ephemera. In the spirit of Finnegans Wake, Goldsmith wanted “to write a book so large and complex, that [he] could open it at any time and be surprised.”[12] Noticing “that any reference book worth its salt was at least 600 pages,” Goldsmith

made that his goal.[13] His affinity for a “Joycean” approach to language will continue to frame the way one looks at Goldsmith’s writing.

Through No.111, Goldsmith explores his own growth as a writer, from his first attempt to create rhyming “Raps” to his final foray into the art world with the massive panels of No.109. The first dozen chapters of No.111 resemble Goldsmith’s first timid steps as a writer, like an infant just learning to walk. From these baby steps, Goldsmith trots into longer and longer phrases, and finally rushes headlong into a massive appropriation of syllables. Born as a sculptor, Goldsmith made the transition to author over a period of several years, a process as natural for him as growing up.

Ahead of His Time

Goldsmith’s journey is comparable to that of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen’s narrative begins as a child in Dublin while in “baby lisping and mispronunciations” he struggles to wrap his limited vocabulary around the important events in his life.[14] He uses repetition as a learning device, discovering the depths of the words through constant manipulation. As Stephen grows so does his vocabulary and his power over its use. Stephen’s more mature narrative also contains word repetitions, though unlike his childhood self, the older Stephen is more concerned with the cadence and complex texture of the words and phrases. Specifically, Stephen finds himself responding to “the intimacy between the cadence of the voice, the sounds of the words it speaks and the meanings that he assigns them.”[15] Life experience and physical maturation help Stephen on his artistic odyssey, facilitating his growth from rambling boy to contemplative man.

No.111 illustrates a similar journey without the constraints of a driving narrative, stripping away all reference points and concentrating on the information involved in the process. The formula of No.111 looks at the rhythm of speech, concentrating on the syllable count of the words and the ending sounds of each phrase. Goldsmith, like Stephen, was enchanted by “siren voices-- parental, political, religious, sexual, literary” though Goldsmith relates to each as though from a single source without identifying features.[16] Portrait is “full of repetitive patterns, pleated phrasings [and] reiterated cadences” all working together to give its narrative the texture of the spoken word and internal thought.[17]

Looking at No.111, we discover that even when deprived of a narrative structure everyday words form “poetry” as readily as sculpted sentences. T.S. Eliot reinforces the idea of common language as an art form. He says in The Music of Poetry,

...there is one law of nature more powerful than any [other]... the law that poetry must not stray too far from the ordinary, everyday language which we use and hear. Whether poetry is accentual or syllabic, rhymed or rhymeless, formal or free, it cannot afford to lose contact with the changing face of common intercourse.[18]


As evident through his work, Joyce listened for patterns in the language around him, understanding that everyday speech is rhythmic and holds a poetry all its own. He incorporated the patterns into his body of work, using them as a kind of formula to create an authentic representation of an expanding mind.

Since Stephen Dedalus is a composite for a young James Joyce growing up in Ireland, he acquired Joyce’s habit of listening closely to the world around him.  Stephen absorbed through the “channels of the ear...the talkative world of Dublin.”[19] Like his fictional counterpart, Joyce recreated his life experience using this aural dimension, for both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. While listening to his father converse with his companions, Stephen “lent an avid ear. Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.”[20] Goldsmith employed a similar approach in the construction of No.111.  He took notice of the voices around him, of his own voice as a part of that concord, and of the life of the culture in which he lived. In fact, critic John Strausbaugh commented, “if all Dublin could be recreated from Ulysses, America could maybe be rebuilt from [No.111].”[21]

Though not directly influenced by Portrait, No.111 reflects Goldsmith’s understanding of what Joyce was attempting to do with language. Joyce left behind the conventional constraints of novel writing in 1916 with the publication of Portrait, and the novel was simply the beginning of thousands of pages of literary deviation. The author untangled childhood memories using the musical quality of his collected language as a guide to give his tale substance and texture. He managed to make poetry-prose and prose-poetry, concentrating more on the texture of the words and how they produced feeling in the reader rather than the literal meaning.

Henry Miller muses that, “genius is always ahead of his time. True, but only because he is so thoroughly of his time.”[22] The same can be said of Kenneth Goldsmith, a man immersed in the hip-hop, internet-savvy, computer-age philosophy of the twenty-first century. Goldsmith recognizes that in our age of digitized media that we are only just catching up to the way Joyce thought about language. In a decade of dot-com fads and domain name advertising, words like “” make perfect sense to the internet savvy, and resemble something “right out of Finnegans Wake,” according to Goldsmith.[23] He compares Joyce’s view of language to that of early rap artists who “started slamming words together to create compounds like funkdoobiest.”[24] Goldsmith adopted the hip-hop feature of sampling; picking and choosing sounds from other sources to place into a different work, and using this concept made No.111 a random sampling of everyday life.

Goldsmith was consumed with the work of James Joyce. His ideas about language, as well as his unadulterated joy in creating, parallels the Irish author. No such parallel is more apparent or important than that of No.111 to Joyce’s famous final work, Finnegans Wake. Mystifying in its construction, Finnegans Wake defies all literary convention, but does so with no hint of malice. No.111 and Finnegans Wake share the particular distinction of being works of literature that are both challenging and endearing at once. Though many authors might shudder with either awe or disgust at being compared with Joyce, Goldsmith freely admits that his work is influenced by a healthy respect for the great author. Interestingly, Seamus Deane’s Introduction to the Wake could very well be cut and pasted into a review for Goldsmith’s No.111. Examine the following passage…

The first thing to say about [No.111] is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable. In order to pay it the attention it so impertinently and endlessly demands, the reader must forego most of the conventions about reading and about language that constitute him/her as a reader...It is a book that opens itself up to all of history, culture and experience; yet no book is more closely imprisoned within a conception of art…[25]


The text of the passage fits Goldsmith’s book like a glove.  Both books require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, a loosening of literary constraints. In traditional prose or poetry a work composed by an author is given a specific meaning by that author, leaving the reader very little room for interpretation. No.111 and Finnegans Wake beg for each individual reader to find his or her own story within the work, to wade through endless amounts of information absorbing what means most to them. 

A Rapidly Expanding Mind

Though No.111 appears to be merely an epic undertaking of counting and organizing, it transcends its own restrictions, becoming a text that also emulates the unseen transition from infancy to adulthood. John Strausbaugh comments, “Kenneth Goldsmith’s new book begins at what looks and sounds like the beginnings of language itself.”[26] From the first page, No.111 literally looks like the “beginnings of language,” starting at the first letter of the alphabet with the smallest possible count of syllables, but it also has the appearance of the monosyllabic babbling of a small child. While he was writing Goldsmith was very aware of the fact that No.111 would evoke images of language development, though he had no idea that it would resonate in his own life some years later with the birth of his son, Finnegan.[27]

The infant mind is attuned mostly to sensation, rhythm, touch, smell, and hearing. In the earliest stages of development spoken words have no particular meaning to babies, however they recognize sound repetition and resonance.[28] Hearing Goldsmith read the first page of No. 111 gives the listener an idea of how an infant aurally absorbs information through timbre and cadence.[29] His voice slips around the syllables and molds them into one long sound, devoid of any individual meaning, but soothing in its rhythm. No.111 is a project of formula, its patterns falling nicely into sync with the process of language acquisition and acting as a timeline documenting the development of human intellect.

In the cognitive study of language acquisition the first three years of life are the most influential in the development of speech and syntax. The way in which babies go about acquiring language has intriguing parallels in the set-up of Goldsmith’s book. According to psycholinguist Steven Pinker, language development can be divided into three or four distinct phases. The chapters of No. 111 mirror these particular stages of development. For example, in chapter one of No. 111, phrases are jumbled together in a riot of half-words like, “mors, moure, mwa, myre, myrrh, na,” reflecting a stage that Pinker calls “Syllable Babbling.”[30] In this phase an infant typically aged seven to eight months begins to develop its language muscle in strings of distinct syllables such as “ba-ba-ba,” “neh-neh-neh,” and “dee dee dee.”[31] This baby cooing is eerily resonant with the syllabic conformation of the early chapters in Goldsmith’s book. Next are the “One-Word Utterances” and “Two-Word Strings” phases in which children begin to play with language, stringing words together to form phrases like, “airplane allgone,” “all messy,” and “see pretty.”[32] Chapter four of No.111 contains phrases of the same consistency, “a female deer,” “clever Trevor,” “cover your ear,” and “park a tiger.”[33]

The stage after two-word strings, according to Pinker, “should be called All Hell Breaks Loose.”[34] Infant language capacity and vocabulary grows exponentially from this point to approximately age six. Accumulation of data becomes the sole form of entertainment for many precocious children, with their frequent chants of “what’s that?” At this stage language becomes a plaything for children, they begin to tell jokes, a sure sign that words are no longer an obstacle.[35] The chapters of No.111 are like a transcription of a child’s rapidly expanding mind. The process becomes less sound recognition and more content oriented, linking previously learned words to new additions to form unique thoughts. From chapter six to the end of No. 111, Goldsmith does not return to his sound oriented gathering of small syllables. His variety of words and phrases explode into a thousand different meanings, leaving behind single syllable babbling for something more complex.

In a particular example of language acquisition a young boy by the name of Adam was observed once a month for one year. His speech while under observation was recorded and then compiled into segments according to Adam’s age at the time. The accumulation looks very similar to Goldsmith’s collection of data, and reads in almost the same fashion. The banter of the child goes from, “play checkers, big drum” at two years, three months, to “can I put my head in the mailbox so the mailman will know where I are,” at three years, two months.[36] Adam’s syllable count escalates from three to four to six, and then finally in the last month of observation, Adam rattles off phrases of eighteen syllables. Eerily, the structure of Adam’s language development is similar in construction to Goldsmith’s writing technique.

Though infant language is nothing more than a series of stutterings and monosyllables, it serves as a starting point on a human’s journey to intellectual maturity. Looking closer at this phenomenon, the transition from infant to adult is startling. At first words pour forth in a stream of unintelligible gurgling, mostly gibberish and mainly imitative of the environment in which the infant lives. As an infant grows and matures his/her speech patterns and vocabulary also mature. The gibberish gives way to polysyllabic words and the phrasing of semi-complete thoughts such as repetition of sentences and the asking of questions. As we grow the questions become more complex and harder to answer. Curiosity is not so easily staved off as we become older. Hidden in chapter fifty-four of No.111 is the strangely relevant statement, “Language is the questioning we do in order to find out the answers (and not the repetition) of that which we already know.”[37] Words take on a new depth, and as readers, we begin to search for that depth in everything we read, assuming that writing on the page has some underlying significance. With No.111 the line between meaning and nonsense is a fine one indeed, and very easily blurred.



Intention and Interpretation

Though it seems random, there’s nothing accidental about No.111. The book is a carefully prepared formula, a highly logical design, and an elegant container for information that Kenneth Goldsmith over-loaded with hand-clapping mirth. With its release, No.111 raised questions of authorial intent and the effect that intent has on the meaning of the work. The words and phrases in the work were collected from myriad sources, and compiled according to sound content, not connotation. The author was unconcerned with the random connections within the chapters, but more attuned to the conceptual reality of No.111. Therefore, Goldsmith did not bestow meaning on the words in the book, as an author would, but he did intend for the work to have significance as a whole.

If individual words are neglected, where does this leave Goldsmith on the “author” scale? In their article Against Theory, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels give the following example:

Suppose that you are walking along a beach and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand. You step back a few paces and notice that they spell the following words:[38]


A slumber did my spirit seal;

    I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

   The touch of earthly years.[39]


At first the words appear to be a natural phenomenon, some kind of freak accident, but on closer inspection they suddenly take on a meaning, a rhyme scheme, a pattern. The viewer/reader can infer that some manipulation of the elements caused these patterns to appear in the sand. The question arises: did this manipulation of elements have some intended purpose? Can the reader determine those intentions just by reading the words? Knapp and Michaels claim that in this instant the “reader” could write off the squiggles as purely accidental, without meaning or intention, and without source. However, they go on to say:

Suppose that, as you stand gazing at this pattern in the sand a wave washes up and leaves in its wake...written below... the following words:


No motion has she now, no force;

    She neither hears nor sees,

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

    With rocks, and stones, and trees.


The appearance of a second stanza means that the words were no accident, but an attempt at communication. Though the reader still has no clue who has controlled the fabrication of the words, he now recognizes that an author intended them to go together. From this example, it is possible to derive that Knapp and Michaels’ definition of an author is any force that manipulates the appearance of words in any context. Only by expanding Knapp and Michaels’ theory to this point can Goldsmith slide easily into the role of “author” of No.111.

Goldsmith wanted a patterned but random sampling of sounds and syllables, taking his idea from the set-up of the rhyming dictionary. He asserts that he had no prejudice when collecting his data. Even within No.111 he points out that, “none of it is mine to start with. I steal it from everywhere.”[40] If, in fact, Goldsmith intended nothing when he compiled No.111, where does his lack of intention leave the meaning of the words he collected? Goldsmith stakes no claims on the words written in his book, therefore for all intents and purposes his title of “author” is loose-fitting at best. According to Knapp and Michaels, “to deprive [words] of an author is to convert them into accidental likenesses of language. They are not, after all, an example of intentionless meaning; as soon as they become intentionless they become meaningless as well.”[41] In light of this statement, Goldsmith must accept authorial intent whether he likes it or not. If Goldsmith’s intention was to create a work with the scope of an encyclopedia and just as appealing to read, he succeeded admirably on only one count. You see, Goldsmith’s words work against him.

Knapp and Michaels did not bank on a piece like No.111 when they devised the ground rules for their theory, so when setting No.111 against the formula the threadbare points are unmistakable. No.111 staggers Knapp and Michaels’ theory of intentionless meaning, because it is quite possible to look at the work as a series of arbitrary configurations, like lottery numbers drawn randomly and set down next to each other. Singly, they are merely numbers, meaningless without context, but when linked together they suddenly signify that someone has won a million dollars. Goldsmith expounds, “open any book to page 50 and they all look pretty much the same- it’s the way that the words are used that distinguishes one author from another.”[42] Though the words are randomly placed the meaning of the work as a whole can be determined by the framing. Because of its unconventional structure, Goldsmith’s illustrates that a work of literature can differentiate between intention and meaning and still function as literature. No.111 exists within two different spheres of interpretation at once, the author’s intention and the meaning of the words.

How does appropriation factor into the significance of Goldsmith’s work? James Joyce says of Finnegans Wake, “Really it is not I who am writing this crazy book. It is you and you and that man over there.”[43] No.111 contains many such sentiments interspersed through its pages, illustrating that Goldsmith was thinking about the very same artistic issues. Marcel Duchamp’s installation Fountain by R.Mutt, an ordinary urinal turned upside down, raises the debate of the appropriation of mass-produced articles as original artwork.[44] Like Fountain, Goldsmith’s work has an “over-the-counter” feel, because his sources are all around us, on billboards, in bars, old books, and correspondence. Can No.111 be considered entirely Goldsmith’s, or must credit be given to the society that contributed the data? Technically, Goldsmith copyrighted his work, but he also readily admits that none of it is actually his. However, can any author truly claim that his/her language is truly original? Prior Walter, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America puts it best, “the limitations of imagination? It’s something you learn after your second theme party: It’s All Been Done Before.”[45]

The question of  appropriation arises even in No.111 itself. An interesting sentence fragment crops up in the middle of chapter LVIII: “or the wrongful appropriation or purloining and publication as one’s own of the ideas or expression of the ideas (literary artistic musical mechanical etc.) of another.”[46] Obviously a definition of plagiarism, it makes one wonder what prompted Goldsmith to look up, or take in a phrase such as this. Many segments in No.111 are from outside sources, including the entire text of D.H. Lawrence’s short story The Rocking Horse Winner at the end of the book, which is not documented nor acknowledged. What then is fair game for Goldsmith’s appropriation? The answer appears to be “everything.”  No.111 functions well as a complete unit, despite the appearance of phrases from other sources, but it also works as a strange kind of guidebook, or encyclopedia of popular culture. It seems rash to write off No.111 as anything but an original work of literature. Goldsmith does not reveal any of his sources, one could read No.111 as if the author wrote every word. Because the outside sources are anonymous, Goldsmith is forced to take full responsibility for his collection. According to critic Geoffery Young:

These selections bear the stamp of their maker’s hand. They are Goldsmith’s. His gatherings have a way of preserving memory without imposing a particular story for that memory... words accumulate, and in their precision sprawl we can see our world, ourselves in the mix.[47]


Though Goldsmith may have “stolen” these phrases, he in turn gives them a new significance as well as a new story. The value of preserving many of these ephemeral phrases far outweighs the drawbacks of appropriation.

An Author’s Voice

No. 111 says something about the growth of a literary society, as well as the growth of an individual language capacity. Inherent in the literary tradition is the need to infuse everything we read with meaning. No.111 holds all the mystery of traditional verse, but its allure has a twist. Though the work demonstrates a unique style of composition, the sentences and passages that appear next to each other are entirely controlled by the constraints of the project. Though Goldsmith’s No. 111 seems on all counts to be an “anti-narrative,” it cannot escape the unity that a reader assigns, a unity that is hard to objectively overlook in writing about the dynamics of the project. Goldsmith even admits in an on-line interview about No. 111, “I used to care so much about sound, but now as I go on towards the back of this book it’s getting extremely content oriented.”[48] As the phrases get longer, cohesive thoughts appear and content becomes more evident. The original concept of the work was sound oriented, however, readers cannot help but be drawn to the meaning of the sentences on the page.

Goldsmith reproaches avant-garde musician John Cage for being overly sensitive to his material-- believing that Cage was too worried that the themes of his work fit neatly into his own beliefs. In his appropriation Cage admits that, “the materials...were chosen as one chooses shells while walking along a beach. The form was as natural as my taste permitted.”[49] The author claims that his own work does not suffer from that particular shortcoming because he tried “to tap into a bigger mind, a universal mind and take things and accept things that are not to my taste.”[50] Goldsmith might not have been discriminating about what he put into his collection but he was definitely selective to a certain degree. The sounds he chose to collect (the schwa sound) are not only common but can be infinitely manipulated, leaving endless possibilities of things to be read and overheard. Goldsmith relates that during the three-year process of compiling data that he got into a mode of intent listening, he “had his antenna up,” for his chosen sounds, trying to “collect without judgment.”[51] Since he was being selective about the sound patterns of words, it makes sense that he would also be unconsciously careful about the voice of the text, whether he intended to or not.

“To make sense of the world around us, indeed to function at all, we have to select what we pay attention to. The human brain can register, analyze and process only a fraction of the total information available at any one time.”[52] In order for Goldsmith to focus on the sound pattern he wanted to compile he had to specially concentrate on listening to what was going on around him, therefore he was consciously weeding out phrases that did not catch his attention. “Yet even when attention is being focused on just one source of information, the other sources are under constant surveillance, and a novel, intense, or personally significant event will capture attention involuntarily.”[53] Therefore, the phrases in No. 111 are passages that stood out in one way or another in Goldsmith’s perception of the world around him.

An extension of personality, voice is an “instrument or medium of expression,” that is uniquely formed within each individual. As a part of personality, each person’s perception and their way of dealing with the world is entirely different from that of anyone else.[54] Artists who work on canvas or with words are known for their uncommon sense of perception and their expression of style. On occasion, the “voice” of an author is so strong that conclusions can be drawn about their personality from the body, tone, and style of the text at hand. Goldsmith’s collection of data for No. 111 was not without pattern; he listened for a particular sound type and noted these phrases in his compilation.

Though Goldsmith claims to have been non-discriminatory, the unity in many of the passages points to the author being unconsciously selective of the material that he heard and saw in his collection process. The fact that many of the phrases in the latter chapters are in the first person also gives the illusion that Goldsmith is speaking on the page. He loves to catch his reader unaware with phrases like the following: “So what if the rest of this book (there is approximately 225 more pages to go) were simply stories from out of my own life? No more appropriation no more borrowed quotes no more words that are not mine no more.”[55] Would a reader even be able to tell if Goldsmith suddenly inserted his own language instead of words from the collection? Would it matter? As argued previously, none of the material in No.111 belongs to Goldsmith anyway, not even his own voice, according to the formula. Everything becomes appropriated and therefore anonymous, even the words that Goldsmith wrote or said himself recorded from phone calls, e-mails and conversations. This being said, No.111 takes on a personality all its own, mainly as a result of Goldsmith’s collection process, a residual of the author’s characteristic voice.

As the brain accumulates language it begins to form a distinct style of thought, which is then projected into speech and personality. With the formation of voice comes a set of prejudices or constraints that factor into the selection of words, and images for use. An author’s style is distinct because of “selective hearing,” and the way that he/she chooses to put words together on the page. As the compilation started, “[Goldsmith] began to jot down phrases that somehow crossed over in his consciousness from background hum to be memorable enough for [his] notepad.”[56] Thus, No.111’s later chapters display Goldsmith’s own voice to a certain extent, no matter how randomly they were recorded and systematically put together. The collection and display of information can give the reader some insight into the mind of an author. Though Goldsmith spills onto the page all the random quotes his mind processed in a given day, the reader can still take away at least a tiny impression of what the author was thinking as he compiled his work. At moments, the quality of the randomness is strangely moving, creating distinct bits of poetry throughout the compilation.

                  Why should I write about this affair any longer?, wildly vivid dreams last night of home paranoias, Will I simply sit here and discuss literature?, women sometimes are the type who hate to muss their hair, words and phrases butted up against one another, words whose sound pronounced resembles the sound of laughter,[57]


For the most part the author’s voice has a cynical air, a dry humor, and a rankling wit that is easy to pick out in most chapters. Much of the humor produces a mischievous chuckle on the part of the reader as surely it did on the part of the collector.

Do babies think that adults are cute? If you unscrewed your bellybutton would your ass fall off?, If you melt a pool full of dry ice can you swim in it without getting wet?, If Barbie is so popular why do you have to buy all of her friends?[58]


No.111 paints a whole picture of Goldsmith. The words and phrases are not controlled by a narrative, nor are they limited to the manifestation of only one emotion or idea. Working within the constraints of the project, Goldsmith opened the floodgates of expression; infinitely contributing to “voice” of the work and uncovering the beauty of the language he collected.

The Formula of Reading

Marjorie Perloff says, “Goldsmith uses [his] “rules” to expose the reader/listener/viewer to the marvels and vagaries of language of the twentieth century.”[59] Goldsmith presents his complex language to mature readers in the way that language as a whole is first presented to children. Educated adults rarely take anything they read at face value, being conditioned for sarcasm and irony, unlike children who listen for sound and repetition. No.111 “operates on the principle of anticipation whereby the reader is “led on” in a relationship from one sentence to another.”[60] A reader of No. 111 takes in the six hundred pages of information in small bits and pieces, skimming thorough the first ten chapters to get to the “meat” of the text. Even according to the author skimming is the best way to read No. 111, discovering phrases that are hidden within the rest of the book. According to behavior scientists, people have a propensity to find “similarities within a category” and to presume that these categories, especially in language, are concrete.[61] Readers have a difficult time believing that any words put together on the page could be entirely random. “Nothing is coincidental everything is significant,” shouts No.111.[62]

The links between any two phrases are close enough to be read as a whole paragraph. According to Goldsmith when confronted with any form of language, “we feel we must jump through hoops to make it ‘poetic’ or meaningful.” [63]The relevance becomes even more odd when the reader realizes that the two sentences could have been compiled at any point over a three-year period, and randomly came together according to their place in the alphabetical and syllable order. As staggering as the amount of material may be, as a reader, one cannot help but feel a certain amount of familiarity with the text and the author as it progresses through the syllable count.

The intimacies of formal language, especially that of poetry, allows a reader to find similarities without relying solely on the literal meaning of the words. For instance, there are three levels of perception involved between the human mind and the poetic word. “On the surface the sound pattern and rhythms of the words themselves may convey some information,” and this information is used to establish the context in which the phrases are being used.[64] Just after the mind adjusts itself to the context, “there is the ‘literal’ or obvious meaning of the phrases, picking out the apparent topic,” during which time the words are broken down into useful categories.[65] Finally, there is the level that is a bit harder to explain; neurologically, part of the brain allows us to determine “other deeper meanings and associations…which work on our unconscious minds to give them evocative power.”[66] The words of No. 111 are easily read as poetry, for they do carry hidden interpretations for every reader. The combinations of meaning in any given passage is as infinite and extraordinary as the number of ways to combine expressions within human language, given a limited number of words and significant rules.

Walter Abish talking about his work 99: The New Meaning said, “These works were undertaken in a playful spirit-- not actually written but orchestrated. The fragmented narrative can be said to function as a kind of lure-- given the constraints, anything else would be beyond its scope.”[67] The sentiments of Abish are not lost on Goldsmith’s work. Abish relied solely on literary sources, but also chanced the random configuration of phrases on the ninety-ninth page of each edition. He arranged the material into a coherent pattern, connecting each phrase through a pre-established formula of emotional language. What makes 99: A New Meaning interesting in terms of Goldsmith’s work is the improbability of reproduction. In order to reconstruct Abish’s narrative one would have to know the name of each author, the title of the work and the specific edition from which the quote was lifted. Without documentation, only Abish’s formula is present, from this we see the method but not the madness.

Since the original information is elusive the work becomes the property of the collector, a new piece, separate from the textual sources. Abish gave old words new life. In a similar vein Goldsmith gives ephemera a solid textual existence. Even if an enthusiast knew the chatroom that Goldsmith visited and the street corners he stood upon or the books he read, the vast amount of factors involved negate even a small chance of reproducing No.111. Like Abish, only Goldsmith’s formula remains, the way he organized the material he collected. Does the presence of a formula beg for an attempt at reproduction? Overnight, a new genre springs into being, collection poetry, the novel of stolen phrases.

If three people in New York City undertook the same project as Goldsmith, within the same time frame and sound restrictions, each six hundred page book would be completely different. Art critic Raphael Rubenstein says, “the work is also a weirdly constructed Baedeker to the late 20th Century American society, as well as a compendium for an autobiography of the artist.”[68] Though No. 111 is not a narrative of the author’s life written in his own words it reflects all of the outside stimuli that he encountered in his everyday dealings. The piece of work that Goldsmith created not only captures the essence of modern society, but also lives it moment to moment, serving as a timeline for three years of the author’s life.

 From the birth of the concept using monosyllables, to the explosion of dialogue and syllable count as the project grew, to the final days when the poem reached its goal of six hundred pages, Goldsmith lived his book. According to Bill Arning, No.111 “could be read like a diary, a history of listening intently to words that otherwise would have passed into the ether.” He essentially created a life for himself within the constraints of his project and made the way he lived reflect his confinement. The effect of being constantly and overly aware of all outside impetus makes the notion of the future somewhat staggering. Goldsmith’s voice comes through in No.111,  “in order to get it truly right I will have to rewrite this for the rest of my life day after day month after month and year after year.”[69]


The Rocking Horse Winner

One hundred eighty-two chapters of No.111 defy the imagination. The last two, however, defy even the stringently kept rules of the previous. When No.111 was ready for publication the last chapter contained two thousand seven hundred thirty-seven “syllables,” the largest phrase compiled. However, Goldsmith wanted to throw a proverbial curve ball at his projected and completely unsuspecting reader. He took his beloved formula, the system that in six hundred pages would become familiar and comfortable to an involved reader, and pitched it out the window. Chapter MMDCCXXXVII consists of transcribed “hacker” speech, chat room cyber-speak that uses symbols and numbers in addition to letters and words:

If someone calls you a st00p1d n4r|< w4nn4b3 l4m3r d0rk, and makes the above stated accusations, then just say “1 iz 2 3l33t t0 3v3n t4lk t0 y0u, s0 1 4m 0ff1c14lly iGN0R1NG u n0w, 4nd \/\/0n’T  4nSw3r U 4nyM0r3.[70]


Goldsmith slated the “nark” chapter to be the plot twist in a book with no plot, an ending that students and reviewers would agonize over for months. The ending of No.111 was meant to be a complete backlash at literary convention, more nonsense than sense, more artwork than writing. Whereas the rest of the book falls into a certain category, the final pages were meant to remind the reader that language does not need formula to be a work of literature. Ultimately, MMDCCXXXVIII would be trumped by an even more perplexing addition.

Goldsmith brought the “finished” No.111 to lunch with his publisher on October twentieth, the same date in the title of the manuscript. During the course of the meal Goldsmith brought up the subject of appropriation, it seems that he had really wanted to take some large chunk of text from a single source to put into the work.[71] The publisher agreed, and even offered up a short story for Goldsmith’s use called The Rocking Horse Winner, by D.H. Lawrence. The seven thousand two hundred twenty-eight syllable “phrase” ends in the requisite “r” sound, so Goldsmith counted it up and tacked it on to the already complete manuscript. He left the text of the story intact, punctuation and all, though punctuation was deleted from the rest of the phrases. Though he claims to have paid no attention to the plot of the story, Goldsmith’s late addition eerily sums up the experience of the entire project.

Lawrence’s tale is of a little boy named Paul growing up in a house where phantoms of lavish spending constantly whisper, “there must be more money!”[72] Suffocating, Paul seeks any kind of relief from the heavy dread of a household with no prospects. He turns to the playroom, a land of magic and make-believe, and there he discovers that astride a large wooden rocking horse he can predict racehorse winners. So, he rides, “charging madly into space,” pushing his horse to the brink of reality. [73]

At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.


“Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy legs straddling apart.

“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.


“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back at her.[74]

It is appropriate that this story, which serves as a kind of testimony to the ultimate complexity of language, should come through the eyes of a mad child. The young boy grasps the idea of searching for the perfect words and it inevitably consumes him. Goldsmith, like the boy in the story, pushes his work to the edge and then one step farther, listening too intently to the echoes of the world. Looking back over the six hundred pages of No. 111, it is easy to see Goldsmith’s seeming pathos.

         The little boy in the story uses material from the world around him to determine the future. At the edge of reality Paul catches a glimpse of words stitched together like the lines of a matrix, he sees the web of language draped over world. The boy struggles to grasp the ephemeral, to capture a word out of the ether and make it concrete, lasting, and true. He has a formula, racing his rocking horse, and using that formula Paul succeeds in illustrating for the reader the very nature of Goldsmith’s work. Repeating his formula, young Paul amasses quite a fortune, just as Goldsmith accumulates more syllables and more information as he goes along. The problem with all formula is that it soon runs its course, the stakes change and the formula no longer works, the little boy falls from his horse. The final chapters of No.111 are testament to Goldsmith’s formula playing itself out, they represent a change in the matrix, a shifting towards a new way to look at language.

The Rocking Horse Winner is an appropriate conclusion to the phenomenon that is No.111. It concludes the quest for language by presenting an entire story, a complex look at the sophisticated development that humans undergo from stuttering child to reader. The Rocking Horse Winner also presents an astonishing metaphor for Goldsmith’s project, a staggering appropriation of syllables that enchants the reader while at the same time changing the way they read. In a surprising book, nothing could be more startling than finding an eerie and poignant story of a mad little boy determined to get lucky.


He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to ‘luck.’ Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about in a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it.


He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it.[75]


Goldsmith took a chance on words, and he got lucky. He discovered that with enough pushing he could mold his ideas about language into something walking the line between art and writing. No.111 would prove to live in both spheres, a link between two worlds, just like the wooden rocking horse.

As seen previously with No.111, difficulty lies in drawing conclusions. The literature and method that Goldsmith employs is unique and hard to explain, without label or category. Throughout No. 111 the language points to a sophisticated control of the process of writing. The words themselves fall into place, stacked one upon the other, in a massive conglomeration, attesting to the incredible amounts of information the human race processes in a lifetime of learning. Goldsmith’s No. 111 brings into perspective the struggle that all people face who attempt to tackle the problem of words and language. His work initiates a journey through the barriers of understanding into the realm of questions and unanswerable questions. Goldsmith’s drive to bring together a veritable textbook of modern culture actually drags us back to very beginning of learning itself. No. 111 speaks to our generation and society as readers, and Goldsmith understands that as a community we have a need to find meaning in everything, from words to the universe-- the greatest void of all. From the first halting words of a child to the last staggering realization of a frenzied older child, one realizes that the path to understanding is always longer than it first appears.

Notes Part Two

[1] Landau, Ellen G. Jackson Pollock. New York, NY: Henry N. Abrams Inc., 1989. pg. 16


[2] Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1999. pg. 299.


[3] Note from my “museum journal” January 1999. I viewed Pollock’s paintings at a special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1999. I had no idea that the images I saw there would resonate in my senior thesis two years later, and I was lucky enough to have kept a record of what I saw.  (Image from Beat Museum on-line.


[4] Belgum, Erik. Kenneth Goldsmith Interview. New York, NY: Read Me, 2000 Issue 4. pg. 1


[5] Goldsmith, Kenneth. No.111 2.7.93-10.20.96. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1997. pg. 207


[6] Landau. Jackson Pollock. pg.14.


[7] The Rhyming Dictionary. New York, NY Random House 1960. Reprinted 1989.


[8] Goldsmith. No.111. pg. 342.


[9] Rhyming Dictionary. pg.22.


[10] Goldsmith, Kenneth. No.109 2.7.93- 12.15.93. New York, NY: Bravin Post Lee, 1994. pg.4.


[11] Belgum. Kenneth Goldsmith Interview. pg.1.


[12] Bessa, A.S. Exchanging E-mail with Kenneth Goldsmith. New York, NY. zingmagazine pg.2.


[13] Bessa. Exchanging E-mail. pg.2.


[14] Deane, Seamus. Introduction. A Portrait of the Artist as a Yong Man. by James Joyce. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1992. pg. xvi.


[15] Deane. Introduction Portrait. pg. xxvi.


[16] Deane. Introduction Portrait. pg. vii.


[17] Deane. Introduction Portrait. pg. xxvi


[18] Perloff, Marjorie. Radical Artifice. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,


[19] Deane. Introduction. Portrait. pg..xxvi.


[20] Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1992. pg. 64


[21] Strausbaugh, John. Sculpting with Words: It Figures. New York, NY: New York Press, May 1997. pg.1.


[22] Miller, Henry. Preface. The Subterraneans. by Jack Kerouac. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1971.


[23] Bessa. Exchanging E-mail. pg.3.


[24] Bessa. Exchanging E-mail. pg.3.


[25] Deane, Seamus. Introduction. Finnegans Wake. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1992. pg. vii.


[26] Strausbaugh. Sculpting with Words. pg.1.


[27] Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith. January, 2001. When discussing my idea about No.111 being like a child’s language development, Kenny agreed, saying that he was looking at the book an entirely different way now that he had children.


[28] White, Burton L. The First Three Years of Life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975. pg.85.


[29] Goldsmith, Kenneth. Reading from and discussing No.111. 1998. Accessed Fall 1999. See also Appendix.


[30] Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1995 pg.269.


    Goldsmith. No.111 pg.1.


[31] Pinker. The Language Instinct. pg.265.


[32] Pinker. The Language Instinct. pg.268.


[33] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.28.


[34] Pinker. The Language Instinct. pg.269.


[35] A special thanks to my Astrophysics professor, Dr. Neil Tyson, for an anecdote in class about his five year old daughter telling a joke. He said, “when little kids start to tell jokes you know that suddenly language has become a play thing, and no longer an obstacle.”


[36] Pinker. The Language Instinct. pg.269-70. See Appendix.


[37] Goldsmith. No.111. pg. 389.


[38] Knapp, Steven and Walter Benn Michaels. “The Impossibility of Intentionless Meaning.” Intention and Interpretation. ed. Gary Iseminger. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992. pg.52.


[39] Note in Intention and Interpretation:  “Wordsworth’s lyric has been a standard example in theoretical arguments since its adoption by Hirsch. See Validity in Interpretation p.227-30.”


[40] Goldsmith. No.111. pg. 373.


[41] Knapp. Intention and Interpretation. pg.55.


[42] Bessa. Exchanging E-mail. pg.2. Also No.111. pg. 359


[43] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.331.


[44] In Radical Artifice, Marjorie Perloff argues that Duchamp “negates the category of individual production,” thus mocking “all claims to individual creativity.” According to Peter Burger, “Duchamp’s ReadyMades are not works of art but manifestations.” I disagree, believing that conception of art has a lot to do with framing, and the stance of the viewer, but the example of Duchamp’s Fountain, found in Radical Artifice (pg.6.) nicely fits both arguments.


[45] Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. New York, NY: Theatre Communication Group, 1993. pg.33.


[46] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.396.


[47] Young, Geoffrey. No.105: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Text Art. New York, NY: Lingo, Spring 1993. pg.2.


[48] Goldsmith. Reading from and discussing No.111.


[49] Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. pg.19.


[50] Goldsmith. Reading from and discussing No.111.


[51] Goldsmith. Reading from and discussing No.111.


[52] Beaumont, J. Graham ed. Encyclopedia of Personal Relationships: Human Behavior. Vol. 9: Absorbing Information. New York: Marshall Cavendish. 1990. pg.1042.


[53] Beaumont. Absorbing Information. pg.1042.


[54] Definition from The American Heritage Dictionary. New York, NY: Houghton Milton. 1999.


[55] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.396.


[56] Arning, Bill. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Textualities. New York, NY: Poliester, Fall 1998. pg.1.


[57] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.193.


[58] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.517.


[59] Perloff, Marjorie. back cover. No.111.


[60] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.345.


[61] Beaumont. Absorbing Information. pg.1073.


[62] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.493.


[63] Belgum. Kenneth Goldsmith Interview. pg.3.


[64] Beaumont. Absorbing Information. pg.1074.


[65] Beaumont. Absorbing Information. pg.1074.


[66] Beaumont. Absorbing Information. pg.1074.


[67] Abish, Walter. Preface 99: The New Meaning. Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1990.


[68] Rubenstein, Raphael. Visual Voices. New York, NY: Art in America, April 1996. pg.3.


[69] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.338.


[70] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.583.


[71] Related by Kenny during an Interview at his home. January 24, 2001. New York City.


[72] Goldsmith.  No.111. pg.589.


[73] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.591.


[74] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.592.


[75] Goldsmith. No.111. pg.592.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Back to Kenneth Goldsmith's Author Page | Back to EPC