Conceptual Coda / Kenneth Goldsmith

The Wizard of Soliloquy: Affect and the Digital Conceptual Text

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith cites Marjorie Perloff’s idea in Unoriginal Genius that an updated concept of literary genius would account for “one’s mastery of information and its dissemination” (1), and would thus have nothing to do with the dissemination or transport of affect, emotion, or feeling. In many ways, Goldsmith’s numerous poetic projects carried out under the name of conceptual poetry are practices in the mastery and dissemination of information rather than the expression of emotion[i]. Despite his insistence on the power of uncreativity and of relinquishing as much authorial control over the text as possible, he maintains throughout Uncreative Writing that it is not possible to avoid expression on the part of the author. That is, “the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways” (9). Later he explicitly concedes that no matter what, language is expressive (85). In light of this, the uncreative or conceptual text conveys a meaning and a message, but not explicitly or clearly. Instead, “[t]he philosophy of the work is implicit in the work and it is not an illustration of any system of philosophy” (“Sentences on Conceptual Writing” par 7). In this second section on Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, I would like to interrogate how expression and authorial intent function in this text, looking explicitly at the capacity of the text for affective engagement of its readers.

It is perhaps surprising that issues of affect surface a number of times throughout Uncreative Writing. In it, Goldsmith argues that the uncreative text still “delivers emotion,” but does so “obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process, rather than by authorial intent” (4). I wonder, though, how true this really is. Certainly it is true that, as Goldsmith goes on to write, “[w]ords are active and affective in concrete ways” (24), and that we as speakers and as readers have limited control over the ways in which we engage with the affective functions of words. But, I believe that Soliloquy actively engages its readers in affective relationships on a quite deliberate and calculated level. In order to discuss this, however, I must first concede that the issue of affect in the conceptual poem is a heated debate right now, and one that has garnered some quite combative critical attention.

As a testament to this, quite recently (13 February 2014) I went to see Marjorie Perloff deliver a talk on Ryerson University’s campus here in Toronto. The talk was titled “Conceptual Poetry and the Question of Emotion,” and was relatively well attended, and Perloff spent a large amount of time surveying the emotional potentials of various conceptual projects. But, she also quite passionately worked to combat Cal Bedient’s article “Against Conceptualism” (an article that is already quite scathing). In this article, Bedient points to what he terms conceptualism’s “stonewalling of the affects,” wherein concept replaces feeling in the literary text. I won’t attempt to combat Bedient’s claims because I think Perloff has done a good job of that on her own. Instead I want to focus on what she said in her talk justifying the emotional potentials of the conceptual text. For Perloff, the methods of producing the conceptual text undercut affect, and thus allow emotion to function in the text in a manner outside of authorial control, echoing Goldsmith’s claims about uncreative emotion quoted above. At her talk she used Goldsmith’s more recent piece, 7 American Deaths and Disasters, to expose the ways in which the personal and the historical intersect, ultimately arguing that there is affect in this very intersection. This is, for Perloff, a positive move in that the conceptual text thus resists the moralizing of other lyric responses to trauma—not unlike the argument about moralizing that surrounded the Duncan/Levertov debate.

While I’m not sure that Soliloquy is a particularly moralizing text, what I would like to argue about it is that it is certainly affect (much to Bedient’s chagrin), but that it is there deliberately, encouraging the reader to enter into a literal dialogue with a literal author, and inviting him or her to experience the text as at once voyeur and intimate. Moreover, I would like to argue that the digital form of the text (more so than the print-based one), in its reader engagement and its insistence on the ephemeral, actually functions as a more affective (and more deliberately affective) vehicle for authorial intent. As opposed to John Cage’s “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” which encode its intimate love in a manner than can never really be decoded by the reader (who is thus forced to recognize his or her externality to it), Soliloquy encourages the reader to take part in the emotion and feeling of the text at the same time as it persistently flaunts its own construction.

To begin, the digital text is, perhaps strangely, a much more intimate way to experience Soliloquy than the print based one, despite the fact that the print book is something tangible without a technological medium, something I can literally hold in my hands. The digital text courts the reader into engaging with the actual text in a way that the print book does not and cannot. Though mediated by the technology of mouse (or touchpad) and cursor, the reader must hover over each sentence—save the first one of each section—in order to have it appear on the screen. Otherwise, the page is blank. This stands in stark contrast to the print book where the reade’rs fingers touch the book’s cover and the deliberately empty margins only; our fingers are never really meant to touch the ink. Additionally, the ephemerality of the phrases appearing and disappearing with the cursor’s hovering mimetically reproduces the ephemerality of the speech act. This is, I would argue, much more intimate of a relationship between reader and author. It is almost as though we are hearing Goldsmith speak these words, and they then disappear soon after they are read. Finally, because only Goldsmith’s words are reproduced—and not the words of those he is addressing—the reader is also invited to fill in these blanks, mimicking an actual conversation in which the speaker can only control the words s/he speaks, and not the words that are spoken to him or her. The result is visually, spatially, and temporally, a chaotic page that resists the linearity of printed (ie. ink on paper) prose. But, does the chaos of the digital page actually mimic the unpredictability of social engagement? Or, does it perform it?

The reader of the digital text is invited to navigate his or her way through the text much more freely than he or she is invited to engage with the printed text. As a reader, I can move my cursor wherever I want throughout the page, revealing sentences at what appears to be my own whim. And, though the text mimics narrative prose in its appearance, the lack of storyline encourages me to read pieces at random. I am not at a disadvantage if I choose to read part three of Monday, and then part four of Tuesday. I don’t need to follow a story at all. That said, there are elements of the digital text that gesture towards a causal linearity: the days of the week are presented in order, each section is listed numerically (also in order), and the lines follow linearity in a sort of chronological narrative that seems to guide the reader to read in a traditional anglophone left-to-right, top-to-bottom fashion. Nonetheless, the page is difficult to read and to control in this fashion. It basically invites a linear reading but then makes that linear reading difficult and ultimately undesirable; in the mass of blank (white) space, the reader cannot see where the “page” ends, where the next line begins and ends, and as a result the reader constantly accidentally hovers over sentences and thus “sees into the future[ii]” of Goldsmith’s week. Because of this reader engagement, part of me is inclined to read the digital form of Soliloquy as less a manifestation of an egocentric author obsessed with his own speech—a charge often laid against Goldsmith—and more an intimate setting, extremely affective as the reader is pulled into the literal daily life of the author. Courting this, the text begins with the conversational “Good morning, how ya doin’?” This phrase, as the first of its section, remains visible without a hovering cursor, as if reminding the reader of the conversation throughout.

Additionally, while the text is filled with discussions of poetry, the avant-garde, and the art scene in New York, it is also full of the intimate relationship between Goldsmith and his wife, Cheryl. In fact, the very last words of the text are “Good night, Cheryl. I love you.” In this way, I wonder occasionally if the text means to suggest that we as readers occupy a similarly intimate relationship with the author. Are we Cheryl when we read this text? Part of me wants to say yes, but a close look at one of the text’s most intimate of scenes, a supposedly a sexual encounter, makes me realize that because the text foregrounds its construction and its materiality, the reader is prevented from ever really achieving that coveted intimate position. The sex scene appears on pages 336 and 337 of the printed book, and reads as follows:

Can I put my finger in your ass? All the way up? That’s on tape. Just to spice the tape a little bit, right? I said that just to spice up the tape. … Really? Really stop or, yeah? … OK, alright, I’ll turn it off. I’ll turn it off. I’ll turn it off. I can’t turn it off. We already had had one! Of me! Getting blown! That was all on tape . … No, and I’ll tell you another thing, there’s no part of you that’s on this tape. Your voice or your actions or nothing will appear. It’s all me. … Oh, well be on the tape. I can’t turn the tape off. But you’re gonna get anything cause there’s no language. The tape will shut off if there’s no language. I have it programmed. … It won’t catch you. I mean, why? Come on, this is art! I mean, look at what I do for your art! Look what you do for your art! … you do for your you get naked in front of audience of thousands and you’re crawling around and you can see your pussy and here she says I don’t want to be on the tape. It’s so contradictory! And it’s O.K. for your art but it’s not O.K. for my art! … These tapes, nobody will ever hear these tapes, Cheryl. How can you say you’re self-conscious when you’re like the nude artist of the century? It’s pretty close. And Head? So, this is simulated to. It’s it’s mediated by the tape medium.

The performance of Goldsmith’s first request loses its erotic intimacy almost instantaneously; Kundera this is not. Instead, we are forced to recognize the text’s construction, and to realize the amount of authorial intent and performance involved in Goldsmith’s decision to speak crudely in order to “spice the tape a little bit, right?” The result is, instead, an extremely intimate moment of marital fighting. As Christopher Schmidt says of the scene in his article “The Waste Management Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith,” it “opens up an obvious place to make a feminist critique … with Goldsmith using his wife’s body as a kind of host or platform for the improvement of his project” (33). It also forces us to feel a kind of shock and a feeling of being used by the text, a moment when the reader does feel intimately linked to Cheryl.

Our voices, too, do not appear in this text. We, too, are self-conscious about our position, there. We, too, are used by the text, whose deception is made worse because of its façade of intimacy and truth (those are really the words Goldsmith genuinely spoke). And, our bodies, too, are controlled by the text; our movements are used to create its experiments and to lend to its shock value. Like the lines of the page that exist and govern our reading while making us think we are free, the text and its author (the man behind the curtain, really) control our reading process, and control our affective engagement with it. We are voyeurs in this sex—made perverse by our appearance—and, worse, voyeurs in this fight. Goldsmith as author-God, then, controls this text and our engagement with it on a level that perhaps a more traditional narrative could not, and there’s nothing “oblique” or “unpredictable” about how it makes us feel.


[i] Though Goldsmith does state elsewhere that he does not believe that the conceptual poem is the only kind of poem to account for this new authorship. He writes, “I do not advocate a [sic] uncreative form of writing for all authors. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of writing; other ways suit other writers. Nor do I think all uncreative writing merits the reader’s attention. Uncreative writing is good only when the idea is good” (“Sentences on Conceptual Writing” par 15). I would argue, however, that this is yet another example of the way that Goldsmith’s work is, in fact, extremely personal and hinged on authorial intent.

[ii]This is the exact phrasing my partner, Jesse, used to describe the reading process. The phrase both connotes causality/chronology and resists it, which is why I find it particularly enduring.

6 thoughts on “The Wizard of Soliloquy: Affect and the Digital Conceptual Text

  1. Some interesting food for thought here! I have two questions:

    What’s the difference between mimicking and performing “the unpredictability of social engagement” (either in your conception or in this text)? I mean, the former has a referent that is more significant in some way, but both have scripts, so to speak. I’m thinking here about people messing around with Siri, hoping to piss her off … or, for that matter, trying to get a helpful response out of Emily, Bell’s “virtual agent.” As programs designed directly to interact with people, they’re mimicking a real person, with hundreds or thousands of scripts; even Goldsmith’s opening line, “Good morning, how ya doin’?” is something of a rote response (“fine thanks, and you?”). Even, super-pessimistically, “Good night, I love you” can be interpreted as an almost-meaningless reflex, mimicking significant interaction. The sex scene you’ve quoted seems like a different case, but is Goldsmith “performing” for the tape (as you note). I guess that’s part of the point of Soliloquy, but I’m wondering if there’s a pattern to one type of recorded speech to another.

    On another note, are readers all automatically “intimately linked to Cheryl”? She’s asserting herself against the “scripted” scene, which readers could be more invested in than any one of the silent characters. She shapes herself as an impediment to the expected action, and ends up being the prime object of attention in the unexpected argument: by resisting her husband’s advances, she’s also distancing herself from the voyeuristic readers as well. I think that we the voyeurs are the third party in this scenario, projected differently by both active people, so aligning our standpoint with Cheryl’s seems like it could use more justification.

    • So, I love the way you’re reading into scripts here. Especially because one thing that Soliloquoy does is remind us how much of our lives are scripted. We can fill in the blanks of the speakers not recorded in a lot of places without trouble. An ardent Butlerian might say that there is no difference between mimicking and performing. I think that we both agree that there is. I’ll clarify this in my revisions.

  2. Jonathan raises some good points. I don’t really have anything to add, because I really like this plateau. Having said that, I think you should think about adding a paragraph or so explicitly relating your thoughts on Goldsmith to your postanarchist ideas–be direct: how do your criticisms of his text remove it from postanarchism (the ideas are there implicitly, I think, but moving them to the explicit would help).

    P.S. Your comment that “Kundera this is not” would be an excellent subtitle for Soliloquy!

  3. Pingback: Conclusion Part Two: What Can We Learn from Digital Poetics? | [generic pronoun] creates

  4. Pingback: State What: The Anarcho-Conceptual Syndicate’s Politically Responsible Conceptual Writing |


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