Affect and Autism: Kenneth Goldsmith's Reconstitution of Signal and Noise
Raymond McDaniel


There 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. 

It 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 Asperger's Disorder.  

The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders characterizes the diagnostic criteria for 299.80, Asperger's Disorder, as follows: 

A. Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:

  1. marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial _expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
  2. failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  3. a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  4. lack of social or emotional reciprocity

B. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:

  1. encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
  2. apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  3. stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
  4. persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

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.

This 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

Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow. Head lifts. Bent right arm brushes pillow into back of head. Arm straightens. 


At eight twenty-five eye damage custard. And silence is guide. Lips fall down, except on pavement. Body only river. Second body is gone to river. Over probablestone. A plash." 


"Thandclapsle. Extend out in sled. Brokenicular clap in scent of body. In the chive leash forward. Stay stay, no. Rightut. Arched egg. Feet and egg platforms. I mean then a platformed body as does leave somewhat unsteadily."  

and finally

".etarapes regniferof dna bmuht thgiR Hac thgir sehctarcs dnah thgiR ydob dniheb tsiF .." 

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. 

A 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:

"Um, well, I actually have a great meeting, um, I'm having lunch with, uh, one of the most powerful literary critics you know in the in academia in the country. It's her, Marjorie Perloff and, uh, I'm meeting her actually at the MOMA Members Dining Room for lunch today. And she's deeply powerful and I'm going to get her, I hope, to write a blurb for the back of my book and promote it." 

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 alien: 

"Yeah, if you were if you were taping you'd have 5 times as many tapes as me. I have very few tapes from this week. No, it's much better than it was. It's way better. Yeah. I don't mind, you know, it's just an industrial noise right now it's just it used to sort of scream and whine and, you know, no, it's a lot better." 

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. 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."

Goldsmith's 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., 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 following: 

The Bride Stripped Bare, the buck stops here, The Carpenters, the coast is clear, The Cockateer, the cold shoulder, the comfy chair, the crack of beers, the crack of rears, The Deer Hunter, the diluters, the dirt master, the girl next door, The Godfather, the gondola, the great ickster, the horned screamer, the last supper, the letter "r," the life after, The Mad Hatter, The Marx Brothers, The Mouse that Roared, The New Yorker, The Pound Era, the reader hears, the room is awed, the same letter, the scent of her, the "seeded" draw, the skinwalkers, the slim reaper, the third gender, the unseen seer, the voice quaqua, The Watchtower, the . . . whatever, the who don't care, the Wonder Years, the working poor, the Yakuza... 

Amber Valetta, be a wallflower, digging the fucker's, Welcome Back Kotter, lick chops and basta... 

Einstein once asked with sadness and wonder, either of the higher or the lower, Emily Dickinson worse than ever, emphasize how glad you are to see her, endure no light being themselves obscure...

nothing's gonna change my clothes every anymore, now get your meaty paws away from that buzzer, now there's a question that ought to get us somewhere, Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, objects of desire that once defined their eras, of course {NAK} (sense 2) i.e. "I'm not here", oh my sagging gonads, aching pulsating sore, "Oh!" she exclaimed "It's like a dick but much smaller!", On the next Phil: Real Incest and Real Survivors... 

Eeeaaarrrghh! I pictured smashing his face in...kicking his scrotum back into his torso...digging the fucker's eyes out...going for a field goal with his head over and over..., even if it is not good for us we become addicted. And we become enslaved. And when we become enslaved we are constantly thinking of that thing wherever we are, from the mountains to the prairies...FUCK MISS the oceans...NO NO HO CHI MINH...white with foam...1 2 3 4 WE DON'T WANT YOUR FUCKING WAR...God bless Amerika, grab me Chewie. I'm slipping--hold on. Grab it almost got it. Gently now all right easy easy hold me Chewie. Chewie! With a little higher just a little higher... 

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., as Goldsmith himself admits, is that the text, for all its superficial randomness, is nevertheless heavily edited.

In 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: 

Elsewhere today, a bomb exploded 

near a public market in the southern 

town of Kabacan, wounding at least 13 

people, officials said. 

The police said they suspected that another Muslim 

rebel group, the Moro Islamic 

Liberation Front, was responsible.  

the original razor scooter 



A great gift idea!

British Begin Human Testing of H.I.V. Vaccine 


Despite an unusual two-year suspen-

Continued on Page D5. 

In the following description of Day, Brad Ford communicates the difficulty of registering the full measure of Day's cumulative effect:

"Yet the reader has to look deeper than the articles. More is happening than words coming together to tell a story. I suppose if I were of a certain ilk and had read straight through, the first jump would have warned me. But also, the ads are obvious admonitions. Day's format takes most typography and visual clues away from the reader. The ads are clearly not ads-they are copy and have no pictures, which is a different experience. The eye-catching tricks of Madison Avenue are stripped of all but caps and exclamations, and it deflates them or makes them comedy. Maps become columns of place names and a line for scale (0 miles 300). This is not quite the New York Times."

But 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 - Day astonishes. 


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.

This 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 Œcreation' - 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.


A couple of breaks of sunshine over the next couple of hours, what little sunshine there is left. Remember, this is the shortest day of the year. Looks like the clear skies hold off till later on tonight. It will be brisk and cold, low temperatures will range from twenty-nine in some suburbs to thirty-eight in midtown. Not a bad shopping day tomorrow, sunshine to start, then increasing clouds, still breezy, with a high near fifty. Couple of showers around tomorrow night, er, tomorrow evening, into early tomorrow night, otherwise partly cloudy later on, low thirty. For Monday, windy and colder with sunshine, a few clouds, high forty-two. And then for, er, Christmas Eve, mostly sunny, but with a chilly wind, high near forty degrees. For Christmas itself, cloudy with a chance for rain or snow, high thirty-six. Forty-three degrees right now and cloudy, relative humidity is fifty-five percent in midtown. Repeating the current temperature forty-three going down to thirty-eight in midtown.  

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.

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