What's It For?
The Figures, 2003
ISBN: 1-930589-20-4

(The Gig 16, February, 2004)

Initially there's something ravishing about the retrograde qualities of Day, Kenneth Goldsmith's latest sportive foray into "extreme writing." From now on, whenever I get my poor old dial-up ass kicked by some bells-and-whistles web site and have to concede the peculiarly ignominious defeat that comes with clicking "text only version," I shall be consoled by this book: by its fantastic solid weight, the bravura relentlessness of its plain-text content and appearance.

For the uninitiated, Day is both an 800-plus pager and a one-liner: it's the New York Times of 1 September 2000 retyped, all six sections from cover to cover. One size fits all, from headlines ("Bush Ad Mocks Gore Character") to the smallest print in the small ads ("Other conditions may apply"). This cavalcade of human life - from Wal-Mart to NAMBLA via Keanu Reeves - all goes past in a fixed point size that, save for the odd dim vestige, collapses all hierarchies and disables the sophisticated apparatus of contradistinction that allows any newspaper normally to roll out in the morning rather slimmer than Richardson's Clarissa.

Goldsmith compounds these promotions and reversals with rigorous obedience to a procedural logic in translating layout, leading to some vertiginously bathetic interruptions - of news reports (mid-sentence) by advertising copy, say. Everyone will have their favourites; I'm very fond of:

        Mr. Cheney spent most of his career in government, but the arrival of the Clinton administration left him very

        They also toil who very

        fluff the carpets.very

while other juxtapositions seem like mordantly satirical derangements: "A great gift idea! / British Begin Human Testing of H.I.V. Vaccine"; or too-good-to-be-accidental pinpoints of wordplay: "Despite an unusual two-year suspen- / Continued on Page D5."

In the context of these daunting slabs of cosmetically uniform prose, the reader falls gladly on the "found poems" into which advertisements, weather reports and arts listings are alchemised. Viewed more coolly, though, aren't such incidents the very least we can expect from this project? For example, United Airlines' statement regarding its negotiations with pilots who have been working to rule over a pay dispute, beginning

        A first, but very

        important step in the

        right direction.

happens to be, throughout, beautifully and delicately lineated - certainly a better and more sensitively written poem than anything yet contrived by Britain's laureate. But our response to it tells us next to nothing new or useful about how we read, and nothing progressive about the specific classification of poetry, about the conventions that indicate it and the covenants that underlie it.

Day is not, then, "about" literary or informational frames and their apprehension and transgression. Presumably if it were, we would be left alone with the book, to read and re-read, to play and to argue among ourselves. As it is, this work arrives glossed to within an inch of its life: located - on its back cover - in a number of strikingly dissimilar traditions (somewhat disingenuously grouped around "appropriation") and situated in relation to so many big droppable names it's not so much a blurb as an Academy Awards acceptance speech.

One might normally try, at least, to disregard such fulsomeness; but Day is, for all its incidental pleasures, itself an inert lump of a thing: so one can't help but be interested in what Goldsmith appears to think this book is for, aside from its function as a record of a weird, half-macho half-geeky, virtuosity (a New York intellectual counterpart, if you will, to the Young British Autists of list-fixated "bloke lit").

To some readers and commentators, it has been enough to note Goldsmith's training and activity as a fine artist - particularly as a sculptor; Day is, they aver, an object, or objet, and, as such, self-sufficient. Well, certainly the awesome and sensational transcription of NASDAQ prices - running across nineteen pages and previously issued separately as a chapbook - is a materially substantial and aesthetically compelling interlude (though, while it's notable that the business section clocks in at a whopping 253 pages, I was more astonished and encouraged to find that the arts section - albeit on a Friday - is exactly the same length). But where some other recent seminal works of transcriptual text art, such as Fiona Banner's "Top Gun" (1995) and her 1000-page volume THE NAM (1997 - "not so much a coffee table book as a coffee table"), or Emma Kay's "Worldview" (1999), allow for some limited subjective inflexion by routing the process through description or recall, leaving us daunted not just by the physical scale or size of their works but by the unravelling of perception and cognition they describe, Goldsmith's absolute determination to minimise the betrayal of his own presence within the laborious manufacture of this text leaves Day curiously remote: we get both sculpture and pedestal, all in one. But what is the nature, and the final import, of that remoteness?

The ambivalence that I have begun to feel about this work is, I think, seeded in that blurb: Day is, it says here, "a monument to the ephemeral . . . a fleeting moment concretized." I find, in trying as ever to understand how writers and artists may participate in a wider cultural argument, a tension currently in the idea of the monument. On the one hand, all "concrete" monuments seem now to reach back only as far as a relatively recent fault; at present they are unable to commemorate anything more than a prior belief, now largely vacated, in the capacity of fixity and likeness to concentrate and summarise locally a particular trend in the distribution of social and political capital. They are all, even those yet to be built, "out of date": the intention behind them puts them there. On the other hand, the idea of memorial as a storage device for usable information remains vibrant and suasive. Picking up Day for the first time I immediately recalled the counsel of the celebrated folksinger and IWW poster-gramps, U. Utah Phillips: "I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know, bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn't go anywhere, did it?"

The uncomfortable circumstance within Day is that Goldsmith's levelling (apparently with the best utopian intentions) of text size and typeface, his disinterested deletion of photos and graphics, his dismantling of the architectonic features of the newspaper sheet - all of these taken together effectually withdraw also the principal mnemonic technologies that potentiate the legibility and utility of the Times. There are certainly pertinent questions to be asked: whose technologies are those? Who controls the contents of popular memory, and to whom are they accountable? But in uncoupling the monumental from the memorable, does Day not explicitly act out the refusal to contain and endorse those questions, let alone pursue possible answers?

Goldsmith has previously indicated, in an interview for zingmagazine, his anxiety about the role memory might play in weakening, rather than enriching, reception processes. Discussing "openness" in art, Goldsmith more or less elides "memory" and "nostalgia"; while this may seem over-hasty or careless, it mirrors (for example) Morton Feldman's acute concern regarding the way in which memory stokes a stupefying familiarity: as he famously notes in "Crippled Symmetry": "What Western musical forms have become is a paraphrase of memory."

Fair enough: but in the particular context of Day, a designated monument apparently loaded in opposition to functional memory (not just its merely decorative or propagandistic outputs), we come back to re-stating our earlier question: what is this book, this monument, this concrete moment, for?

There is something further disarming - intentionally so - about Goldsmith's invocation (in his blurb) of "uncreativity": that is, process-driven work wherein the artist's utmost challenge is to resist the temptation to intervene. His (brilliant and fascinating) previous archive works have been shaped in part by editing choices - such as the deliberate inclusion of D.H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner," sampled whole, as the concluding entry in No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 - or the gradual intrusion of an implied narrative into Fidget, when the process proved to be so uncongenial to Goldsmith that he got blind drunk towards the end of it, a telling feedback loop that changed the work as it was being made. Here there is no obvious sign within the eventual work of the artist responding to the process. That doubling of restraint might seem present in the book, to some readers, as a trace of implied tension or a thread of unspeakable anxiety (which can only resonate impressively within a textual rendering of a pre-9/11 camera obscura); Day could even be seen as a coolly executed kidnapping and holding to ransom of a whole ethical narrative around self-sacrifice and (broadly) moral obligation, values that previously might have obtained in an arguably religiose discourse of "public service" - manifestly an equal and opposite kidnapping to that of "national interest" and patriotic duty, forcefully accelerated by the Bush administration since the WTC attacks.

Taken, however, in the context of Goldsmith's most powerful achievement to date - the massive online resource base UbuWeb (at ubu.com) - Day seems to emblematize a less bracing and altogether more introverted conservatism. If Day is, as we are told it is, above all a monument (which in this particular case, I would argue, means not much more in the end than "a big book"), and moreover a monumental act of "uncreativity," we are left, ultimately, holding the product of a desire, systematically expressed, to confiscate. Every copy of Day - and there are 750 such in the world - is a ream of paper defused, a kilo of blank sheets (each the primed index of an unmanageable wealth of possibilities) decommissioned. Day uses the built-in prolificacy of rigorously constrained, task-based art to create a massive and exemplary statement in support of Dorothy Parker's rather more succinctly articulated fear (in "A Well-Worn Story"): that she can but "spoil a page with rhymes."

Goldsmith's unparalleled eminence as the Howard Hughes de nos cirque, the grand master of self-storage - the cannibal to be weighed against so many starving artists - is not by any means to be despised. It speaks of a huge, and presumably inevitable, buckling of confidence in everything Day can be taken to reject: particularly, the possibility of specific, authored assertion, as a token of participation in a wider conversation about value and about the vulnerability of both conviction and evidence. Though their effects are quite different, and there is little to be said in opposition to the latter, both Goldsmith's textual archives in extremis, such as Day, and the UbuWeb project are exercises in the marshalling of collateral. If nostalgia is - and we know it is - a kind of homesickness, Day properly avoids it, as Goldsmith insists we must: but replaces it instead with agoraphobia. The lesser evil, it seems, is to not leave home in the first place. The larder is full and the TV's on: so, where do you want to go today, and why the hell would you risk it?

This isn't just Goldsmith's thing. Though they oppose each other's ritual encodings of the exchange value of remembrance, Day and UbuWeb are both museums of a kind (though there's a delightful paradox in Goldsmith's use of the web - all flux and mutability - to store information, and the book to disorient it: he's worshipping at the bazaar and filling the cathedral with bric-a-brac). The point is, especially here in Britain, we know how closely over the last 250 years the periodic upsurges in museum culture and activity, and their corollary pursuits of programmatic acquisition and taxonomy, mirror contemporaneous spells of political disquiet and social neurosis especially to do with imperial control, theological doctrine and scriptural authority, epidemic disease, and, quite variously, the domestic experience of foreignness. The museum is an enormous controlled and insulated environment for thinking about difference; as such it is ideologically complicated (to say the least) but not irretrievably distorted or facetious.

Viewed in this way, there is something distinctly millenarian about Day: and of course, strictly speaking, the year 2000 is, like, so last millennium. Perhaps this book is really an acutely timely, tight-lipped panoptic survey of a Western tradition in which, most lately, eschatological and teleological ends have been first conflated and then levelled and reduced to clear. Maybe, though, if such a jumble of vaguely apocalyptic narratives seems absurdly mismatched to the genial bureaucratic carnevale (or, we might say, McGoodbye) of Day, we might at least consider it as a classic fin de siècle stigma, a last-gasp recapitulation of one of the old century's most hummable themes: that there's more nutrition in the carton than the burger; that (to your audience, as to your analyst) the throwaway line reveals more than the sweated sestina; that the very last thing you want to do with the trash is, God help us, take it out.

Still, where an inveterate garbage-botherer such as, oh, let's say, J. H. Prynne will eventually - as in Svankmajer's riffs on Archimbaldo - reanimate that rubbish, electively intervening again and again to choreograph its fractional divulgences, Goldsmith merely and hygienically reframes, re-bounds, all the crap and the crises of yesterday's news. And if "merely" seems unfair, given the desk-work that went into the production of the manuscript: well, there, perhaps, is my beef.

At the end of the Day, Kenneth Goldsmith - a truly popular, distinctive and increasingly distinguished artist - has not just gone "beyond the call" (his apparent vocation); he's wound up behind it. While, as he knows and his blurb demonstrates, "uncreative" appropriation is now recognisably an established and honourable artistic tradition, it is obviously not, as a practice, equally honourable all the time.

I've written elsewhere about a web-published response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 by Goldsmith's "extreme" ally Brian Kim Stefans, noting in his comments a tentative but palpably urgent desire for bodily presence and personal statement, as opposed to the ironic seclusion of the virtual. In this context, what I still like most about Day is what I liked from the start: it's a book. You can hold it in your hand and feel the weight of events; you can't swat flies with this newspaper, but you can stun an ox.

What I dislike, what makes me wince, is the time it took Goldsmith away from us - just like I winced at that taunting sing-song Chumbawamba refrain a few years ago: pissing the night away . . . At this critical and complex time when we need every visionary artist we can gather, on the ground, listening in, paying attention, bringing us tomorrow's news (from nowhere, from everywhere) and telling it to us straight, it seems a matter of certain regret that someone of Goldsmith's intelligence and perspicacity should choose to absent himself, re-staging instead old art battles that were won long ago and once and for all. Perhaps it's crass to want to ask an artist of Jewish provenance such as Goldsmith about the momenta of appropriation projects in a broader context; but we have to be able to put those questions to each other, respectfully and in friendship: an artistic temperament is not a doctor's note, it never was. Ultimately, Day is, pace Nauman, more real fun than funeral; "out of date" in several ways, it's a one-line novelty in the form of an 800-page novel, and as such, plainly harmless: but harmlessness is not, right now, is it?, a sufficient aspiration.

-- Chris Goode

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