Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Meditated Briefly: Kenneth Goldsmith's 'Being Dumb'

Before reading this post, it is recommended that you read 'Being Dumb' from The Awl. Here are some of my thoughts on said article:

Firstly, I think it's important to say straight away that I have a problem with Goldsmith's use of the word 'dumb'. It's not just the judgemental connotations of the word, I'm just not sure that it embodies the dynamics of 'conceptual writing', or indeed ideas in any branch of poetry. I know Goldsmith is trying to be inflammatory (no, I'm guilty myself there of using an incorrect word. I mean to say that he says 'provocative' things, in the sense of getting people talking about an issue. For example, in Radhika Jones' Bookforum piece 'uncreative writing', he is quoted as saying, "Writers don't need to write anything more... They just need to manage the language that already exists." He isn't making a claim about one set of writers, but all writers, thereby encouraging people to either agree completely or feel compelled to defend their position). What he espouses is a form of nutritionless (cf Goldsmith's 'Uncreativity as a Creative Practice'), re-cycled and numbing cultural production (sigh, or re-production... one feels obliged to add these 'ors' in, when really the original word does convey the right semantic weight - it's just alternatives seem more appropriate to those not already 'used to' the idea), but I argue that calling this "dumb" is not only strangely reductive, it is too prescriptive to be accurate. He claims children could do what he does, which is fair enough, so is it not 'easy'? Or perhaps 'processually accessible' is better. 'Dumb' it just isn't. He claims he is an "ill-prepared slacker", but he has set up UbuWeb (a resource of the avant-garde, ethnopoetic and 'outsider' arts), has published many successful books, is MoMA's poet laureate and has been invited to read at The White House. Saying he's dumb and lazy is a deliberate falsity. His methods rely mostly on other people's creative efforts, but his selection, typing, copying and pasting are all valid methods in the conceptual sphere, requiring skill, time and effort for completion.

Yet, to contradict myself again, describing the 'smartness' of poetry such as Bök's seems appropriate. To try and forge your own way through to originality (see what I mean about writing unstable sentences? How can you not forge your own way through to originality? It doesn't seem to make sense, but what I mean is producing original things, rather than re-appropriational originality) requires wider cultural engagement, but then uncreative writing doesn't necessarily exclude the artist from reading what they want. As I've said, Goldsmith is deliberately being overly-deprecatory for effect. I think a semantically 'tighter' term than 'smart' could be... I want to say 'more traditional', i.e. 'that which is not uncreative writing', but that throws up too many problems... The avant-garde is hardly 'traditional' is it? I suppose the best compromise I can muster instead of smart is 'newly original' work, for to classify the work or the workers as 'smart' again falls into prescriptive notions of one group being 'better' than another, on the level of craft and personality, which is not helpful.

Goldsmith then produces an extra dissemination of his 'intelligence' concepts with "smart smart", "smart dumb" and "dumb dumb" (I don't know what happened to 'dumb smart', surely including that would really have put the cat amongst the clarity pigeons...). I think it would have been much simpler and logical to have used these three terms from the start, rather than adding them in when his argument is already underway, but I am in no way suggesting that Goldsmith wanted this piece to be simple and logical. That just wouldn't be Kenneth.

I thought 'Being Dumb' had many interesting personal observations, especially the ones I've mentioned already about Christian Bök and their 'deep admiration' of each other's work. Again, though, this undermines Goldsmith's dumbness; how can he be a, or draw from, a "tabula rasa" when he knows of other people's work? He can't avoid knowing things about culture. But, like I say, he isn't exactly taking all this seriously. He is arguing, I suppose, that the work itself doesn't belong to a 'school' in the sense of people collected together to produce their own material, wherein people often make allusions and adhere to aesthetic and various other uniformities. Because the uncreative writers' work is also other people's, there is a 'blank slate' in the sense that you cannot critically read it (or, indeed, read it at all in some cases) like you would if a 'smart' poet had written it.

Paragraphs that are full of actual examples of what he's talking about - and are therefore more potent and useful - are five, eight, eleven, twelve and sixteen. This rapid-fire accumulation of relevant instances provides a vivid, astute and reasonably concise collage. You get a picture of what 'smart smart' cultural producers get up to, and the references to 'smart dumb' Thelonius Monk and John Cage are spot on, in my humble opinion, as they represent both popular/successful artists who had courage, but they also highlight literature's lack of engagement with this side of art, and explains partly Goldsmith's pursuit of filling this void.

One bone of contention I stumbled across in 'Being Dumb' was the idea that uncreative writing is "free of failure." I don't think one can make that claim of any writing, though the natures of failure and success are highly debatable and subjective. The aim of this writing is to be true to the principles of selection and re-appropriation. There are many ways that can go wrong, and then you have created merely a 'similar piece', where the changes will be assumed to have some meaning that they don't have, which is problematic. It would be baffling if one got it wrong, therefore, and therein failure lies. In writing out many pages, one may correct a mistake that was in the original, out of habit, or perhaps start putting in errors that weren't there, out of transcription tiredness. Maybe one might re-format parts of it, according to the rules you adhere to (possibly something as simple as using "s instead of 's in dialogue, or vice versa). When the movement's major proponent describes proofreading as an activity that causes him to "fall asleep repeatedly" (as in 'Being Boring'), then you can see that adhering strictly to the pure activity of re-appropriation is actually a hard task, certainly in terms of keeping constantly focused.

It is this point about attention to detail and dedication to aims and objectives that leads me onto my next point, that ties the whole article together and sums up (rather reductively) it's ramifications. The overall spirit of this work strikes me as liberating (different to 'inspirational', more like an affirmation of writerliness). His delineation, however contentious, of how being 'dumb' can help you achieve a Christ-like victory over failure is a lovely thought. I'd suggest, though, that this 'freedom from failure', i.e. liberation, can be achieved whenever one totally commits to any ideology. If you don't start a project because you're worried how it'll be received, it's like you're trapped in a prison cell. If you start the project, tentatively, still with anxiety, you're looking out the window of your cell, but you're still locked inside. If you say 'my manifesto (if you have one) is watertight. I believe in my project. This has to be done. This thing must exist, and I am the one to bring it to pass', then immerse yourself fully in its production, you leave behind the earthly concerns of doubt and free yourself from failure by doing it. You have succeeded by bringing truth to others. It may be panned critically, but if you count that as failure then you might have to ask yourself why you're writing (and therefore if you think you're a writer). It's the backing force - whether it be creative manifesto, something political or whathaveyou - that takes you beyond the petty success/failure boundaries and into a kind of invulnerability, because the aim of your project is simply existence (the best you can make it). This message of confidence (or should it just be 'stubbornness'?) is what I took to heart, though this was heavily tempered by Goldsmith's insistence on using semantically obfuscating words. Smartness and dumbness have incredibly little to do with conceptual writing - the idea is always that the concept takes a higher importance than the 'work' of the writer, so why use such connotationally disparate lexis? Either way I found it a stimulating read, I hope you did too.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoyed my (overly long) thoughts on 'Being Dumb'. I'd encourage you to check out the links, especially 'Being Boring', as the use of the word 'boring' has, for me, a less negatively-loaded prescriptive function, allowing for a more direct appreciation of Goldsmith's message.

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