Kenneth Goldsmith’s “truly populist” Soliloquy

I would like to start to bring this project to a close by way of a coda on conceptual writing, which will last for the next four weeks and will include two five-page discussions on each of the following four poets commonly associated with the conceptual school: Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Christian Bök, and Darren Wershler. Part of the reason that I have elected to shift these poets from having their own five- or six-plateau section is that I no longer see in conceptualism the postanarchist literary projects I had hoped to uncover. As I developed a postanarchist literary theory throughout my project, it occurred to me that the problematics I found salient in conceptualism at first—eradication of authorship, extreme populism, uncreativity—were ultimately either unhelpful or not actually there at all. What follows then is a working-through of the issues of a vanguard school that opens up some important discussions from a postanarchist perspective, but that ultimately fails to address these issues adequately. In order to do so, I begin this coda with a discussion of one of the most controversial and famous pieces of conceptual poetry, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy. At this point, the process of this text is well-known. As Goldsmith himself describes the piece in its digital inclusion in the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection:

Soliloquy is an unedited document of every word I spoke during the week of April 15-21, 1996, from the moment I woke up Monday morning to the moment I went to sleep on Sunday night. To accomplish this, I wore a hidden voice-activated tape recorder. I transcribed Soliloquy during the summer of 1996 at the Chateau Bionnay in Lacenas, France, during a residency there. It took 8 weeks, working 8 hours a day.

What is perhaps less well-known about the piece is that it is, in many ways, a multimedia text fitting partially and inadequately into numerous genres. The text itself exists as a print-based book of poetry (which closely resembles an immense tome of a prose novel), as an electropoetic artifact, and as a gallery installation. As Goldsmith’s ELC author description expands:

Soliloquy was first realized as a gallery exhibition at Bravin Post Lee in Soho during April of 1997. Subsequently, the gallery published the text in a limited edition of 50. In the fall of 2001, Granary Books published a trade edition of the text. The web version of Soliloquy contains the exact text from the 281-page original book version, but due to the architecture of the web, each chapter is sub-divided into 10 parts.

And, of course, as a transcription of speech, the text walks a thin line between poetry (which is itself always already aural/oral) and drama. Occasionally, the sections of Soliloquy are referred to as “acts.” What interests me in this project is the complex interplay between the print-based and digital versions of the text.

While the print-based version, a massive block of paper and ink, has become much more popular, it would seem that Goldsmith sees more interesting theoretical possibilities for its digital form:

the textual treatment of the web version is indeed web-specific and perhaps more truly references the ephemerality of language as reflected by the book’s epigraph: “If every word spoken in New York City daily / were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, / each day there would be a blizzard.”

The form of the digital text, wherein the transcribed sentences appear and disappear like the ephemera of spoken words, contrasts with the heft of the more than 500-page book filled with pages fully of text. It would seem that the print-based text lacked the consideration of visual form and spatiality, a concern that Marjorie Perloff brought up in her e-mail interview with Goldsmith for Jacket Magazine. Noting that Goldsmith cites the Noigrandres group and other concrete poets as a major influence on his work, Perloff suggests that “pieces like Fidget [a text in which Goldsmith attempts to record every movement his body makes in one day] and Soliloquy have neither the look nor the structural configuration of a Concrete poem: on the contrary, spatiality is replaced by temporal form” (np). Goldsmith responds by saying that these texts “are, by their nature, temporal pieces” (np), but also that the internet collapses the divide between the temporal and the spatial, foregrounding the materiality of even the most ephemeral of online texts.

The materiality of language is a major concern of Goldsmith’s work more generally. In his acclaimed poetics book, Uncreative Writing, he argues that the internet and the proliferation of text that it ushered in, has changed the way we view and understand the materiality of text. “Words,” he argues therein, “are no longer primarily transparent content carriers; now their material quality must be reconsidered as well” (18). And later, “never before has language has so much materiality” (25, emph. Goldsmith’s). These comments make me wonder: when were these good (or bad) old days when language functioned immateriality, or worse, when we understood that that was the case? At the very least, hadn’t the modernists effectively done away with any literary understanding of “transparent content carriers”? If language is more material now than it ever was, then Goldsmith’s attempt to render the ephemerality of a week’s worth of speech into a tome of a physical (material) text, and to destabilize this physicality through digitization and coding, is a complex decision that, at best, says nearly nothing about the space of the literary in an increasingly digitized world, and at worst misreads digital potentials.

Goldsmith himself is a major online presence, both through his own profiles and his work with Ubu Web. The internet is a major feature throughout Uncreative Genius. Soliloquy’s digital form remains one of the most popular texts of electronic literature, even though it is not born-digital in the strictest sense of the term. And yet, it would seem that Soliloquy, no matter the medium, treats the radical potentials of the online text uncritically and ineffectively. Take, for example, his assertion in Uncreative Genius that “[r]eading aloud is an act of decoding” (19), and that essentially all reading is decoding, too. This is, of course, true on quite literal level. But, what happens if, as Goldsmith does, we reverse this process, and render in code (CCS) what is outside of it? What if we take what is already “read aloud” and encode it by writing it down? The result is a text that questions these divisions in the first place. And the result should be, one would think, a text that radically thinks textuality on a level that would be appealing to a wide array of readers. And yet, while praised in (some) academic and (most) avant-garde circles, the text has not met with popular acclaim. Consider, for example, the uproar surrounding this article on conceptualism.

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith calls the uncreative project “truly populist” (100), arguing that “a lot of ‘difficult’ work has been made under the mantle of populism only to be rejected by its intended audience as indecipherable, or worse, irrelevant” (ibid), but that the uncreative escapes these charges. And yet, a quick Google search, or a short discussion with my mother—who now makes her second appearance in this project—confirms that indeed these charges can and have been laid against uncreative, conceptual poetry, and especially against Goldsmith. The uncreative may be “truly populist” in theory, but in practice it reveals itself as destined to follow the avant-garde tradition of public malign followed by popular commodification (see Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Fluxus, Andy Warhol, Sonic Youth, &c). It would be easy to attribute this popular dismissal of uncreative writing to a yearning for the Romantic author, but I do not think it is quite so cut-and-dry. Of course, some of the dissenting voices, like the article cited above, dislike Goldsmith and his contemporaries for their refusal of authorship, expression, and straight-up affect—issues that I will argue in my second plateau on Goldsmith are actually still present in Soliloquy—but, as digital scholar Florian Cramer argues, part of the problem also is that the uncreative is woefully one-sided.

In his article “Post-Digital Writing,” published in the Electronic Book Review, Cramer critiques Goldsmith’s conception of the “uncreative” on two important grounds: “Firstly, [that] it risks treating the Internet as a poetic plunderground without really feeding back into it,” and “Secondly, [that] ‘uncreative writing’ boils down to the dialectical opposite of creative writing. As a mere negation, it does not ontologically question creativity” (par 21). On the first point, the uncreative process of appropriation treats the internet as a place where information is meant to be received and stored, but not as a place of productivity or creation. On the second, by opposing Romantic conceptions of authorial creativity with the uncreative processes of copying, transcribing, and reporting, Goldsmith does not question the creative or the author, but instead provides an authorial anti-hero who ultimately buys into the very processes he seeks to destabilize. What’s more, Cramer notes that for the most part, by now the word “creative” has largely gone out of favour anyway, largely because it has been commandeered by a corporate mandate driving the “creative industries” of advertising and commercial design, moving the term well outside of the “fine arts” domain (par 22). Ultimately, uncreative texts—with Soliloquy as the example par excellence—say relatively little about the materiality of the text save that it exists and must be considered, and as such these texts cannot appeal to a general readership who sees this issue brought up every time they select their clickbait. If postanarchism has, heretofore, required a radical rethinking of authorship and an appeal to a populist readership to make new and innovative readings in the collaborative dissemination of text, then it must also see the uncreative as a missed opportunity for radical recreation.

3 thoughts on “Kenneth Goldsmith’s “truly populist” Soliloquy

  1. Excellent stuff! You set up this discussion very well, and I’m glad to see that you’re “still swinging” this late in your project!

    Perhaps you deal with this more in your next post, but I think you can go further in your critique of Goldsmith’s use of authorship/authority. It seems to me that uncreative writing thrives (and Goldsmith presents it as worthwhile) precisely because it is novel, or, in other words, creative. It’s a “new” way of imagining writing–but how is that privileging of “newness” different in any way from every other artistic movement in the past two hundred years?

    In your discussion of materiality [“These comments make me wonder: when were these good (or bad) old days when language functioned immateriality, or worse, when we understood that that was the case? At the very least, hadn’t the modernists effectively done away with any literary understanding of “transparent content carriers”?”], you might bring in Silliman’s thoughts on rhyme and metre as elements that have always, to some degree, materialized language in poetry. I think he brings up this point in “Disappearance of the Word….”

    A few other thoughts:

    You write “What if we take what is already “read aloud” and encode it by writing it down? The result is a text that questions these divisions in the first place. And the result should be, one would think, a text that radically thinks textuality on a level that would be appealing to a wide array of readers.” Can you explain precisely why you think such a text should radically rethink textuality and why you think such a text should be pleasing to a wide audience? Is it because of the readability, the seeming similarity to Confessional texts, the intriguing premise, etc.? I’m not challenging your premise, but I would like you to clarify and support your assumptions.

    Isn’t it a bit of a sweeping generalization to say that poetry “is itself always already aural/oral”?

    1. Well, I’m of the opinion that all poetry has a kind of orality/aurality, but that might just be me. I suppose that IS a sweeping generalization, and one that needs to be substantiated.

      On the notion of writing down what is typically spoken, I think that would be popular and radical because it is a radical defamiliarization. But, you’re right, that needs to be clearly developped too. Looks like I have too many ideas to squish into ten pages. I’ll either edit out or develop further these ideas in revision.


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