Affect and Autism: Kenneth Goldsmith's Reconstitution of Signal and Noise|
exists an old Situationist dream: the concept of a book bound in sandpaper,
that when placed or removed from a bookcase contributes to the destruction
of the books between which it is shelved. It's hardly the model of
poetic community, but an experimental impulse is also often a corrective
one; an almost moral sense that what has been done ought to be undone,
or at least done less. So nested in this fanciful suggestion
rests a radical ambition: that within the trappings and tropes of literature's
conventions lies the means by which writing itself may be utterly reconfigured,
at the expense of the previous configurations whose terms both delimit
and invite the possibilities of dramatic restructuring. Both despite
and due to his origins as a fine artist, Kenneth Goldsmith's commitment
to "uncreativity" realizes the Situationist project and invigorates
art by striking directly at
artifice. What distinguishes Goldsmith from his forerunners
- Dadaists, Situationists, Concrete poets, Fluxus adventurers and Oulipo
madmen - is his commitment to literalize - to make fully manifest --
the idea of literal-mindedness, and thereby "purge" his art of the creative
impulse which each of the above movements identified as the specter
by which art is haunted.
is the literal-mindedness that suggests the most useful entrance to
Goldsmith's work. Literal-mindedness, of course, is easily confused
with simplicity - a state that is itself subject to grievous misapprehension.
Otherwise astute observers of Goldsmith's writing rely upon the apparent
simplicity of his methods: in their respective reviews of
Day, Lucy Raven and Brian Kim Stefans note "This discrepancy
between the simple idea and its dictionary-size manifestation marks
the fulcrum of Day's complexity" and that "Kenneth Goldsmith
has made a career out of creating, through masochistically tortuous
writing practices, impossibly long, but very simply conceived books
that follow through to the bitter end on some writing tick." While each
comment correctly identifies the conceptual elegance of Goldsmith's
formal parameters, we will initially examine the relationship between
simplicity or literal-mindedness and the hint of pathology implied by
"masochistically tortuous writing" that bespeaks "some ... tick." In
short, we will address the frequency and ease with which Goldsmith's
practice evokes the language and aura of psychological disorder, especially
the wavelength of the spectrum of autism syndromes now identified as
most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders
characterizes the diagnostic criteria for 299.80, Asperger's Disorder,
We must of course be cautious when we apply diagnostic criteria originally designed for one sphere to a completely unrelated area; this caution is necessarily compounded when the criteria at hand are originally meant to address medical and psychological conditions widely perceived as liabilities in important areas of social functioning. Yet the urge to rely upon psychological descriptors is not an accidental one, and useful still if we maintain strict efforts to avoid pathologizing the objects to which we turn medical and psychological descriptors. And it is also worth noting that psychological diagnoses are themselves not static, are equally subject to potential abuse and potential evolution. It is particularly useful to consider the evolution of the spectrum of conditions now known collectively as autism, the general category into which Asperger's falls. Once we regarded autism syndrome behaviors as the likely result of insufficient and/or inappropriate maternal attention, and institutionalized individuals who demonstrated those behaviors. But we now perceive these behaviors with a far greater degree of subtlety as regards both their origins and their consequences, and it is this more sophisticated imagination that lends itself to an examination of Kenneth Goldsmith's "uncreative practice" and non-interventionist writing. The most telling shift in our collective imagination is exemplified by the following specification of Asperger's, that "There is no clinically significant general delay in cognitive development or in... adaptive behavior... and curiosity about the environment."
This is a critical and relatively recent acknowledgement for the American Psychological Association to make, that Asperger's children and other persons who display certain autism behaviors possess the full measure of cognitive capability. What this acknowledgement reveals is that we now appreciate that our prior measurements for determining the base criteria for intelligence over-valued what we mistook for intuition - for instance, the ability to discern the meaning of a smile or a grimace or any of a countless number of context-dependent cues we once cavalierly assumed were natural and inevitable expressions of meaning. This shift is important for the instruction of those with Asperger's, because it suggests that they can learn social cues they same way they learn multiplication tables or musical scales. Indeed, many of these children not only find it easier to learn the likes of mathematics or musical notation, they sometimes retreat to these methodologies because they offer a more genuinely intuitive system of meaning than the base social cues we normally assume to be foundational. And what this suggests in turn is that we distinguish between categories of sense-making that encompass self-replicating and self-limiting laws (such as mathematics) and those that do not (such as language as expressive of shared, social, community "nodes" of meaning). The utility of this distinction for purposes of locating Goldsmith's work in the experimental "tradition" is that deliberate pursuit of derangement of the senses - both the literal senses and the conventions and norms to which they correspond - has been the foundation stone of experimental poetry since Rimbaud, at least.
The irony of this pursuit, and the discrepancy upon which Goldsmith has so precisely played, is that the very methods upon which the quest depend have served only to reinforce the conditions derangement is meant to unsettle. If creativity is the focusing of language to the object of the poet's will, but that poet is necessarily immersed in the same meaning-lattice as the language itself, then exits to derangement cannot be achieved via any "creative" act. What we need is not more creativity, but less; and since the consciousness from which creativity springs also contains the language to which the artist might apply that creativity, what we finally need is less artist.
is hardly a sophisticated construct, but the peculiar genius of Kenneth
Goldsmith is his dogged, insistent effort to eliminate from his methodology
any fold or complication of the construct in which an indulgent artistry
might hide. When he speaks of purging his work, he transmits
his understanding of the invidious means by which auctorial will asserts
itself at the expense of true derangement. Goldsmith is becoming relentlessly
literal-minded in the conception and execution of his writing, and what,
finally, is Asperger's Disorder but a neurologically hard-wired literalism,
an ability (as opposed to a curse) to apprehend data without the filters
in which auctorial will become inevitably trapped? Goldsmith has declared
his devotion to "the practice of non-interventionalist writing: transcription,
retyping, copying; moving information from one place to another as a
valid writing practice," but the nature of information itself is utterly
at question in this practice. To deliberately occupy the literal, to
dissolve the normally invisible boundaries upon which meaning rests,
is to finally allow language itself to wreak its own derangements.
Each of Goldsmith's projects for the last several years participates, with greater and lesser degrees of success, in this project of literalization; each of these projects echolocates intriguingly against psychological descriptors. Relevant to the DSM criteria listed above, consider the following affinities: "Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial _expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction": this criteria evokes the latter sections of Goldsmith's Fidget, his record of the physical details of his thirteen hours of consciousness on the 16th of June, 1997. The volume documents his efforts in eleven sections, clearly correspondent to the hour-by-hour chapters of Joyce's Ulysses; Goldsmith's exhaustive methodology, set as it is on Bloomsday itself, reproduces much of Bloom's preoccupations. In the latter sections of Fidget, the burden of his task begins to erode Goldsmith's ability to maintain faithful reportage, so we decrement from text like
which is from the final chapter, a duplicate of the first chapter, rendered backward.
Goldsmith explains this deterioration, or loss of reproductive fidelity (which most closely resembles the condition of "marked impairment"), as the result of drunkenness forced upon him by the originating pressures of the project itself. But Goldsmith's own explanation of Fidget belies this explanation. Attached to the text of Fidget itself is the following qualification:
I attached a microphone to my body
and spoke every movement from 10:00 AM, when I woke up, to 11:00 PM,
when I went to sleep. I was alone all day in my apartment and didn't
answer the phone, go on errands, etc. I just observed my body and spoke.
From the outset the piece was a total work of fiction. As I sit here
writing this letter, my body is making thousands of movements; I am
only able to observe one at a time. It's impossible to describe every
move my body made on a given day. Among the rules for
Fidget was that I would never use the first person "I"
to describe movements. Thus every move was an observation of
a body in space, not my body in a space. There was to
be no editorializing, no psychology, no emotion-just a body detached
from a mind.
body detached from a mind: a claim notable first for its impossibility,
and also for the degree to which it enters the space of diagnostic possibility,
since the apparent divorce between the intricacies of the autistic mind
and the normative mind solicits the diagnostic endeavor to make clear
the relationship between the collective mind and the
social body. Goldsmith's capitulations to both his body's demands
and the demands of the project also prove directly proportional to what
we more easily recognize as creative description - "poetry" - but the
consequence of these passages, taken in the context of the work altogether,
is not to glorify the latter entries with the gilding of poeticized
language but to induce our suspicions regarding the assumed "plainness"
of the earlier segments. If that language is as artificial as the language
of drunkenness, "creatively" decayed, then the entire book becomes suspect
as a naked record of physical motion. And this only proves Goldsmith's
paranoia that creativity is not something that requires pursuit and
invention, but rather requires vigilance, since it will creep unannounced
into any text that does not rigorously declare and defend its boundaries.
The second and fourth of the DSM's criteria for qualitative impairment also enjoy analogues to Goldsmithian projects. "Failure to develop peer relationships to appropriate levels" and "lack of social and emotional reciprocity" are telling descriptors of Goldsmith's Soliloquy, which consists of every word Goldsmith spoke in one week. Because Soliloquy faithfully records Goldsmith's utterances in multiple social contexts, but to the exclusion of the language of the other parties with whom Goldsmith conducts his social exchanges, the text defines lack of reciprocity, and thereby reveals the exhaustive vacuity of quotidian discourse. More importantly, this withdrawal of the dialogic element renders the standard markers of conversational discourse strange. Because the text is wholly unedited, this vacuity and estrangement also documents the fragility of so-called "peer" relationships. Consider this excerpt, pertaining to Goldsmith's meeting with Marjorie Perloff, who has, ironically enough, been one of Goldsmith's most lucid and elaborate defenders:
As mortifying as this is, those fragments
of necessarily one-sided conversations that do not expressly offer opportunities
for social treachery are no less banal, and in bulk become transformingly
Multiply by X, and the default ease of reading - second only to our unaccountably flippant facility with speech itself - approaches perfect opacity. Extrapolated from the plainest elements, the most complex effect. But again, as with Fidget, Goldsmith's justification of his self-imposed formal structures complicates the effect of the text itself even more markedly. Of Soliloquy, he writes that "If every word spoken daily in New York City were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard" - which indicates that Goldsmith is less interested in the immediate social and emotional effect of the language as it becomes fragmented than he is in the texture and volume of the fragments themselves, as they literally fill the vacuum constructed as neutral or otherwise valueless. Or, as Gordon Tapper puts it, "Like the practitioners of concrete poetry, Goldsmith wants us to look at language so as to confront it as abstract visual images that represent utterance. He also wants us to see that language occupies space, and lots of it."
Off-handed descriptions of Goldsmith's work that draw upon psychological diagnoses similar to what we've done here are not uncommon - John Strausbaugh describes Goldsmith's No. 188.8.131.52-10.20.96/6 as "a 606-page tour de force of ... something. Linguistic OCD maybe?" Given that the text to which Strausbaugh refers is a book-length poem that itemizes Goldsmith's reading over the course of three years, from Feb. 7, 1993, to Oct. 20, 1996, this description, while glib, is hardly inexact. The precision of the recording frame satisfies most criteria for compulsive, in that it allows no apparent room for manipulation but does not account for or justify its own precision. But the obsessive elements appear in Goldsmith's arrangement of the texts, according to alphabetical order, all phrases rhyming with the letter R, sorting these entries by number of syllables, starting with entries of one syllable for Chapter 1, progressing through entries of two syllables, three syllables, and further, concluding with a complete transcript of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner", the 7,228 syllables of which end on the word "winner."
No. 111 approximates the DSM's criteria for restricted
repetitive behaviors, especially the "restricted patterns of interest
... abnormal in intensity or focus" and "apparently inflexible adherence
to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals." In his pursuit of
the schwa phoneme, Goldsmith could not have elected a more seemingly-random
quest, but it is this variousness that allows him to introduce a version
of the "space occupation" that fulfills social dimensions even more
fully than does Soliloquy. Goldsmith's interest in conventionally
neglected texts has a sometimes-polar quality: there's the
New York Times transcribed in
Day on one end, and then there's the individual's every utterance
of Soliloquy on the other. We can think of these cultural poles
as hard ephemera and soft ephemera, respectively, and
Goldsmith routinely applies digital technology to reconstitute the ephemeral
properties of each -- via the transfer of data to a digital "larval
stage" from which he manages the text to its new form. But as an
advocate for the potential of the reconstitutive medium itself, Goldsmith
insists (quite logically) that digital media can be at least as hospitable
to poetics as print, whose material properties allow Goldsmith perpetual
opportunities for manipulations that draw attention to the whole disorienting
range of words as space-complicating objects. But Goldsmith seems progressively
disinterested in exploiting those digital media he has done so much
to otherwise celebrate. Correspondent to this,
No. 184.108.40.206-10.20.96/6, Goldsmith's most successful fusion
of hard and soft ephemera to date, is ironically also the text whose
methodology most powerfully resists the facility of digital manipulation.
Goldsmith counted and allocated his syllable-ziggurats by hand and eye,
and the reward for this labor is the unpredictable fecundity of the
It is difficult to imagine a more catholic collection, equally evidential of the complex and unpredictable interweaving of ephemera from which language is constructed. While this persuasively documents that unalloyed language contains greater potential for creative affect than more traditionally tooled "creative" writing, the drawback to No. 220.127.116.11-10.20.96/6, as Goldsmith himself admits, is that the text, for all its superficial randomness, is nevertheless heavily edited.
a move away from this reliance on editorial intervention that simultaneously
inverts the DSM's criteria for "persistent preoccupation with parts
of objects", we must consider Goldsmith's
Day, a full transcription of the complete contents of the Friday,
September 1, 2000 edition of the New York Times
in 9-point Bookman Old Style font that dissolves the very "parts" that
make a newspaper intelligible:
In the following description of Day, Brad Ford communicates the difficulty of registering the full measure of Day's cumulative effect:
in fact, Day is precisely the
New York Times. The deletion of "visual clues" forces the reader
to apprehend the girth and perversity of the
Times as assemblage, as a monolith that - via the refusal of
the literal that context-dependency secures - manages to hide its miraculous
properties in the shallow labyrinth of its everyday use. Goldsmith describes
his goal as "to be as uncreative in the process as possible. It's one
of the hardest constraints an artist can muster, particularly on a project
of this scale; with every keystroke comes the temptation to "fudge,"
"cut-and-paste," and "skew" the mundane language.
But to do so would be to foil the exercise." True enough, if we appreciate
that at this point in his evolution, Goldsmith has collapsed into the
category of "skew" all that creativity that orients as it wriggles to
unnerve. With Day, Goldsmith's success in containing the editorial/creative
urge frees the text proportionately: read straight through - a feat
so taxing relative to context-reliant reading that few of the text's
commentators admit to being able to do it at all -
It's easy to mock Goldsmith's books before you've read them; even at the level of the hook, they readily appall, as Goldsmith will admit. Of his transcription for Day, he confesses, "never have I faced a writing process this dry, this extreme, this boring." He then proceeds to quote John Cage: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." Corollary to this boredom-as-defense-against-disorientation, there are peppered liberally throughout reviews of Kenneth Goldsmith's writing notices of how funny it can often be; how the juxtapositions that accumulate through the processes of his literalized projects become both odd and ha-ha. But juxtaposition as a means to achieve disorientation reaches a point of diminishing returns very quickly: note the original effect of Duchamp's Fountain, and the speed with which it has become a kind of visual shorthand for the cheap obviousness of modern and postmodern "tricks". The disorientation Fountain once achieved depends upon an enjambment of contexts. What is this, but the language of metaphor writ large, and what is metaphor but the exhausted handmaiden of creativity itself, the self-defeating impulse Goldsmith strives to quash? Metaphor functions by unmediated conflation of objects derived from uncommonly situated contexts. But the limited utility of metaphor regarding the inducement of disorientation rests in metaphor's reification of the contexts it otherwise seeks to manipulate. Here is X and here is Y - while we may not be familiar with the juxtaposition of the two, and while that juxtaposition may open the door to an observation or apprehension of both objects that deviates from the observations more commonly associated with their original contexts, it cannot but re-assert the legitimacy of the contexts it manipulates. This is because the effect of disorientation - its blast radius, as it were - is delimited by the perceiver's ability to determine what does or does not belong. And that ability, rather than being undermined by that apparent and initially radicalizing effect of juxtaposition, is rather reinforced by it. This is why the appropriate appreciation of Goldsmith's achievement lies not in its incidental and accidental metaphors, but in the much more discomfiting effects of its cumulative estrangements.
Those who encountered Fountain for the first time, enjoyed (or at least felt) the jolt provided by the superimposition of the hidden quotidian - the sub-social space reserved for bodily functions - on the tableau of high art, of refined cerebration. But that jolt was bought at the expense of cementing the disjunction between the two contexts. In order for Duchamp's effort to disarm his audience's suppositions to work at all, it had to confirm that audience's belief in their collective ability to discern high and low, public and private. Disorientation by juxtaposition pulls the rug out from under the victim of art only to remind them of the solidity of the ground on which the rug rests. The victim stumbles, but does not really fall.
By now, of course, juxtaposition's tricks are more than exhausted - they've become a trope, more obvious in their effect than the supposedly obvious assumptions they are meant to illustrate. If the visual arts are, as * says, always fifty years ahead of their literary counterparts, then poetry has more than compensated for the gap by way of its long dependence on metaphor as both technique and, in large measure, defining property.
does not, however, mean that the original function of metaphor and juxtaposition
- to restore the strangeness of the specific - has or can be abandoned.
What it does mean is that more extreme strategies are required for the
achievement of the condition juxtaposition once aspired to induce; Kenneth
Goldsmith and his "extreme writing" successfully secure the strangeness
his forebears sought but failed to fully to reach. In place of juxtaposition,
Goldsmith practices a form of textual amplification. By virtue
of pathological loyalty to the textual consequences of his originating
designs, Goldsmith's work regularly injects text not into a field by
which it can be compared to other texts, but into a vacuum, in which
the dimensions and properties of the text simultaneously swell and shrink.
Day, for instance, may initially be read against the more common
newsprint format from which it is derived, but the
whole of Day soundly defeats any such comparison. Similarly,
Fidget tempts the reader to interpolate from the text the circumstances
that prompt Goldsmith's speech, but again, the cumulative effect of
the text proves too distinct to indulge such shortcuts and temptations
to "successfully" re-contextualize the language.
In its transparent dependence upon concept, Goldsmith's work resembles the project- and process-based conception of Oulipo, but differs in one obvious yet radical fashion: Goldsmith executes what Oulipo merely posits.
This execution represents more than mere perseverance on Goldsmith's part, and establishes the necessary importance of literal-mindedness as practice. Oulipian experiments deny practice not as matter of intransigence, but as a matter of principle: theoretically speaking, once articulated, the idea of a writing project has achieved everything that the project itself ever could. From the Oulipian perspective, to apply an Oulipian conceit defeats the very purpose of contriving the conceit itself. The artist who pursues the conceit's execution therefore adopts either a deep misunderstanding of the conceit itself or a willful naiveté. Goldsmith clearly falls into this latter category, and his deliberate "naiveté" has proven consistently resourceful, and puts the lie to the Oulipian dis-emphasis on actual product. Indeed, his efforts in this area are reminiscent of John Cage's famous response to the criticism that anyone could do what he did: "Of course they could," he replied, "but they don't." Goldsmith shares with Cage a conviction that for all the elegance of the conception, the pluralities engendered by the concept's application are worthwhile in their own right, indeed of redemptive of the concept's promise.
Several of Goldsmith's more recent works demonstrate the dual means by which the product redeems the act of production. With projects such as 1.11 or Fidget or Soliloquy, Goldsmith describes and executes methodologies that, as he himself notes, result in texts that in no fundamental way resemble alternative executions of the inspiring methodology. This bespeaks one kind of product-based utility, which is the virtue of specificity as unpredictable by methodology. Any effort to reproduce the particular effect of works like Fidget or Soliloquy would fail, regardless of fidelity to the general rule from which each is derived. It is important to note, however, that this "failure" is limited only to the Oulipian standard of concept-over-product, and thereby suggests the flaw in the Oulipian imagination. Indeed, works like Fidget demonstrate that the specificity of the product can elicit far greater degrees of provocation than their conceptual inspirations. Of course, the extreme nature of these projects (record and transcribe your every word for a week; transcribe your every gesture for a day) also dovetails neatly with the amplification effect introduced above. The very excess of the conceptions results in text that, injected into a context-vacuum, approaches a quality that disorients simply by scale, or confusion thereof. This is the disorientation that redeems the promise of juxtaposition, but without the circuitous dependencies that hobble metaphor.
While his inheritance of Cage's concerns is obvious, and his adoptions of some Oulipo precepts equally clear, Goldsmith is geometrically more than poetry's analogue to Cage or Oulipo's idiot-savant son. In fact, Goldsmith is on record as having a "peevish" response to the gap between the promises of Cage's rhetoric and Cage's willingness to adhere in practice to the demands he made at the level of theory: by claiming Cage "whose mission it was to accept all sound as music, failed; his filter was on too high. He permitted only the sounds that fell into his worldview. Commercial sounds, pop music, lowbrow culture, sounds of violence and aggression, etc. held no place in the Cagean pantheon," Goldsmith tacitly presents himself as the cure to the affliction even Cage was unwilling to completely cure. Goldsmith particular criticism of Cage's unwillingness to follow to the full extent of its logical consequence the claim that all sound, including its absence, should be thought of as constitutive of music, manifests in Goldsmith's own marriages of hard and soft ephemera. Fully applied loyalty to Cagean standards leaves little room for the kind of performative specificity for which Cage was well-known, and Goldsmith strikes directly at this disjunction and identifies the privileged position of compositional or auctorial control - of creation' - as that which interferes with a full realization of Cage's claim. It is this interference that the arc of Goldsmith's art seeks to eliminate, and within that arc Goldsmith himself is not immune to the suasions of interventionalist writing. In Fidget, for instance, he proves incapable of adhering to the rigors of his prescribed task; as mentioned previously, the drunkenness to which it drives him provides only the most explicit opportunities in the text for more traditionally auctorial modifications. Soliloquy, likewise, creates a perpetual opportunity for interventionist manipulations, for though while Goldsmith remains committed to the transcription of his every spoken word, the occasion of the project proves as fluid a provocation as any of the other social contexts for which Goldsmith appears willing to tweak his language.
The position at which we finally arrive is one at which Goldsmith seems forced to choose between methodological demons. On this axis, there is the threat of principled inconsistency, a la Cage, and at the other, a dis-emphasis of product, a la Oulipo. Works such as Fidget and Soliloquy ably demonstrate the flaws of Oulipian hyper-conceptuality by tendering infinitely diverse degrees of specificity, but also invite the kind of manipulation of material that Goldsmith finds so irritating in Cage. What to do?
Goldsmith resolves this dilemma by placing his greater faith in Cage's principles than did Cage himself. The result is the full advent of his "uncreativity", and the ascension of his amplification strategy. Unlike his previous works, the newer projects of Day and Year do produce texts that would maintain uniform properties regardless of the multiplicity of their executions. So this virtue of product-and-process is lost, but the effects of amplification undiluted by auctorial temptations more than regain what is thereby compromised. These products more closely resemble those of Warhol (especially the Warhol of Empire, his eight-hour film of a static shot of the Empire State Building) than they do of Cage, and Year in particular promises to synthesize the sometimes-contradictory impulses of Goldsmith's work.
Goldsmith himself: "I'm intrigued with
the simplest and often overlooked aspect of situations. With the web,
people tend to be dazzled (blinded) by the more complicated aspects
of the web -- from data-driven artworks to Flash -- whilst tending to
minimize the social, political, and artistic implications of that upon
which the whole system is built."
To return to situations, simple, overlooked: the Situationists, who derived their name from this superficially modest yet hyperbolically ambitious goal, believed that art as understood to that point interfered with, rather than facilitated, this dream. The text from Year is nothing as exalted as the weather itself; approximations of that perpetually ineffable phenomenon are among the oldest of poetic, "creative" enterprises. Year is less and more. It is our accumulated narrative, our speech about and not of, and as such places the failure of description, the impossibility of ever containing that in which you are immersed, at the focus of our attention. In its scale and humble specificity, its admixture of alertness and unconsciousness, the text promises the most elemental properties of the world will be sufficient to the demands the poetic impulse makes upon that world. And in his enormous and detailed erasures, Kenneth Goldsmith whisks away clouds in favor of their sky, which he proves to be anything but empty.