Thursday, 11 October 2012

"A Form That's Already Replaced You": Against Kenny Goldsmith

This short piece will argue against Kenny Goldsmith’s post-‘death of the author’, post-Warhol celebration of unoriginality, of banality, in which the statement of the individual artist is fed through and spat out by the images and discourses of advertising, celebrity, spectacle; it will argue that Goldsmith’s position is, at best, politically naïve, and at worst, grotesquely complicit with the exploitative modes of techno-capitalism. Goldsmith’s most recent theoretical statement is entitled ‘Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age’ (Columbia University Press, 2011) – note that telling ‘managing’ in the title, as if poetry had been delivered entirely into the hands of institutional apparatus, of some management consultancy model; and note the final chapter, with its call for writers to be secretary-pirates, appropriating that whole digital piracy thang from Hakim Bey (a usage which was fairly empty in the first place) and incorporating it into some ghastly bland celebration of office space as neutral or even as some good. Goldsmith, in both his theoretical work and those texts in which he puts these ideas into practice, would seem to celebrate the swamping of the human by technological processes bigger, better, brighter than the human – all this trendy talk of ‘the cloud’, digital networks, cyborgs – and thus, ultimately, to fetishize the endless proliferation of modes of digital technology in a manner which overlooks the very real, physical, and non-digital modes of labour exploitation and oppression (the outsourcing of the proletariat) on which these modes depend. For example, how’d you like them apples™? We await Kenny G’s text based on transcripts from the foxconn factory, but that’s not gonna happen (in terms of using sources that take the text from out of the author’s sole domain, a more interesting, and more politically-engaged model might be that of Mark Nowak).

((Well OK, no doubt the same applies to the laptop on which I’m typing this, to the institution in which I’m permitted the time to write this, right down to the clothes I eat and the food I wear, but what I’m arguing is not that I can escape the tacit hypocrisy of which Goldmsith is tactically unaware, but that an awareness of this hypocrisy and complicity is at least some grounds towards a mobilisation that would begin to desire to resist and change that situation. And I’m not going for some Luddism either, some anarcho-primitivism, some model of little tribal farming communities close to the earth yada yada yada – technology mobilised against power structures is also a necessary part of resistance, even if the role of social media in recent revolutionary movements (Arab Spring et al) too easily translates, at least over here in the relative comfort of where I am, as mere slacktivism, constructing a persona of righteous outrage on that facebook screen through which we mediate and create our selves in any case – a digital ‘signature’ as the agglomeration of photos, wall posts, statuses, links, identity parade, self sold through spectacle spectacles and even back to ourselves, so that we don’t realise this construction as anything other than what we ‘really are.’))

Goldsmith’s model of feeding texts through html coding processes, regurgitating traffic reports, or re-typing Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ on a blog – or, for that matter, the ‘flarf’ poets’ re-combinations of internet spam texts as ironic parody / celebration of a kind of virtual spectacle in which all discourses are equivalent – might appear similar to the collapse of specialisation and separation into a collage of discourse in much modernist poetry – from Pound’s or Olson’s mytho-historical projects to the ‘rubbish theory’ of J.H. Prynne, in which the language of high finance comes up against the other languages it conceals: discourses of pain, hurt, environmental despoilage, wounds and damage. But these poetries involve criteria of judgement and thought very different from Goldsmith’s jocular / boring ease. William Burroughs believed that, by cutting up the discourses of power (political speeches, manuals, etc), these discourses would reveal their true messages, their true nonsense and inanity (cf. Sean Bonney’s ‘Tony Blair Speech’ for a more recent example of this). Goldsmith, by contrast, finds found material, or material that has already been cut-up by bots (the endless linguistic detritus of spam emails and web pages) fun and kooky. Pound, Olson, and the early Prynne aim for a philological project that seeks alternative and revitalising histories in language as a measure of where we now are and where we have come from, while the later Prynne sees a radical lack of innocence within language, a lack of innocence that must be reproduced, questioned, distorted, exaggerated and dialectically worked through. Goldsmith, in his post-modern celebration of the failure of such grand historical projects, and his happy-go-lucky lack of concern for issues of innocence or guilt or moral responsibility, could give a (virtual) shit. In ‘Uncreative Writing’, he excitedly proclaims that, though he’s come late to the techno-party, he thinks it’s, gee, just great–sort of,‘I’m older than y’all, y’know, but goddamm it I dig this stuff as much as you do.’

Essentially, what he wants to celebrate is that info-panopticon decried in Kevin Davies’ ‘Lateral Argument’ – “a young-adult global / civilization, a meta-literate culture with time on its / prosthetic tentacles, at this point slightly more silicon / than carbon, blinking vulnerably in the light of its own / radiant connectedness”. This is a panopticon that maintains the notion of the self and its signature just so that we still feel that little bit in control – there is “a special area, a little rectangle, for you to add your own comments.” I can see everyone on the google-ized globe and they can see me, and they can see me being my ‘own’ self, which is near-exactly the same as all the other selves constructed through advertising and all the other forms of propaganda all the more insidious because they pose so often as ‘non-ideological’; which is exactly the same as all the other selves because it is constructed by and through the gaze of the others. Thus mediated, melded, shaped, surrounded by surveillance even in sleep, I go and make my point on twitter, my raised middle finger, I make my point at the base of the news article, at the base of the youtube video, fuck this and that and fuck you and fuck them, you fucking faggot, bitch, nazi, nigger, etc, and this is how I express my ‘individuality’, this is my signature, imagine if all the books you wrote were the conglomeration of all those comments and posts, digital ether, information-propagation, self-duplication, endlessly patterned out, the presence of very real hate speech and keyboard-spat bile, hardly innocent, hardly democratic digital wonderland.

As Davies again puts it, it’s “easier to fill out a form that's already replaced you. Information / wants to be me. O / K.” And here the ‘information’ that wanted to be ‘free’ – that slogan of the post-hippie S. Jobs generation which was against totalitarianism in its obvious apparatus, against the visible violence force of oppression and for a deterritorialisation which ended up simply concealing those same, essentially unchanged means and ends of oppression and exploitation – has become so free (like that ‘freest’ of things, the free market) that it possesses me in my continuing and actual unfreedom. Freedom for markets, for info. Free for the price of a cable, a battery, an LED light, a screen. Motherboard confection. Sign on the dotted line: type it, because it doesn’t have to be your hand now, physical registration of yr presence, disembodied virtually yr identity / it cd be assumed by anyone. (Identity theft is merely the most obvious manifestation of this manipulation). And so Davies’ gesture at the end of these lines is tiny but crucial – the line-break that splits the ‘O’ and the ‘K’ re-invests that banalized word, ‘ok’, with a measure of emotion, however conventionalized and poeticised, through the ‘O’ that slips out of the human mouth of the de-humanised subject – that cry, at once de-personalized because ‘universal’ (the cry of pain or sorrow or anguish) and felt at the deepest core of my feeling being. It’s not as if this cry is being posited as something that will succeed against or even be heard through the white noise of free-running info, the ‘form’ that forms you, that fills you out, that uses you up – but to register that cry, that human note is still some recognition at least against total blind indifference. Douglas Kahn, in ‘Noise Water Meat’ (p.345): “Screams demand urgent or empathetic responses and thereby create a concentrated social space bounded by their audibility[…]They are resolutely communicative and meant for others…”

Of course this cry, as it occurs in Davies’ poem, could in turn be (is already?) fetishized, the scream reduced to a sound and fury that does signify nothing, standing in, in its inarticulacy, for a meaning it does not have but pretends to (‘O’ as mark of ‘profundity’). Indeed, cries / screams already do signify nothing, or nothing precisely, in that they are not language as such: their meaning is generalized signal more than fully-developed idea (though arguably this is little different to much of language per se, at least as it exists in the actual exchange of words between humans, w/ all the attendant paralinguistic edges to that field). Yet that signification of nothing registers as a refusal of ventriloquising ‘meaningful’ banalities and as a revealing of the inarticulate rage and pain and non-compatiblity at the hurt heart of the alienated subject – not John Cage’s ‘nothing to say and saying it’, but wanting (desiring) to say something and not being able to say it, communicating the failure to communicate as a means to (inarticulate) communication.

((I should state here that I’m always a little suspicious of the surely limited and ultimately defeatist stress on ‘inarticulacy’, stammering, etc, as some kind of resistant strategy, that we find, for example, in a recent article by Judith Butler – “at that point it may well be that we are silenced by existing authorities, but we have also become, paradoxically, subjects whose muteness and political stammering come to define a mode of being." (Butler, ‘Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity’ (Critical Inquiry / Summer 2009)) Perhaps what I mean is that inarticulacy, the scream, stammering etc are all fine as critical tropes in relation to the kind of art that explicitly explores those kind of areas – the screams of Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas, Patty Waters, and Ami Yoshida, for example – but that when they’re transferred to a sphere half-way between the political and the academy-critical (as in Butler’s article), their limits start to show. So I’d stress the limits of this approach – but in the context of Davies’ poem, I’ll let the point stand.))

At the back of all this seems to lie the notion that conventionalized forms of utterance, such as ‘O’, cannot be personally meaningful, cannot be imbued with signature – yet the most ‘personal’ moments of music in particular are very often those which use tropes for the expression of the personal – imperfection, slippage, true, the cracks in Billie Holiday’s voice, Charlie Parker playing ‘Lover Man’ with less than technical perfection but with a feted emotional honesty.

“The popular singer adopts many levels of conventional utterance-structures in order to communicate with an audience. It is usually assumed, however[…]that at some level the singer is not ‘acting’, that the conventionalisation stops and that the singer is presenting his or her personal utterance. […]Often such personal utterances will be expressed through widely-known popular and often totemic song-structures. This is taken to an extreme in the case of the blues, where an almost claustrophobically rigid structure of music and text is used as a vehicle for sophisticated gestural expression. This is akin to the highly articulate gestural articulation of ‘stock phrases’ in vernacular speech where the linguistic content can be the least significant communicative element.”

(Trevor Wishart, ‘Utterance’, from ‘On Sonic Art’, p.259)

And OK, so Davies’ ‘O’ does not function in the same way as a slurred or bent note from Miles Davis or a pitch slide from a blues singer might function – as personal expression / signature through at least partially conventionalized formal trope. (Perhaps there is more scope in music than in poetic language for this kind of manoeuvre.) Indeed, its use would seem essentially pessimistic: by anticipatorily ironizing that ‘O’, as merely half of the banal ‘OK’, and essentially turning it into a joke, Davies recognizes its conventionalized usefulness (used-up-ness) – recuperated into a discourse which mutes it, as merely another particle of a language that will not register the realness of hurt. Yet one might also argue that, precisely through the mimetic reproduction of this recuperation, Davies enables us to move beyond that recuperation, into a discourse where that scream could be attended to, not mediated by the distance of the screen, the TV’s mute button, the acceptance of trauma as mere background noise. Indeed, the wrongness (to use Keston Sutherland’s term) of the ‘O/K’ joke is precisely what might restore that ‘O’ as something with agency, with an urgent desire towards meaning or the registration, at least, of the presence of the other through the ‘signature’ of voice (see Adriana Cavarero’s ‘For More than One Voice’ on this).

Back, then, again, to Goldsmith, and KG’s attempt to escape the notion of ‘signature’ is, like John Cage’s, a false and a de-politicising escape from the responsibility that comes with the notion of self, and of self’s translation into image, sound, text. (This apparently insubstantial attack on Cage is developed at greater length in a forthcoming essay, so I won’t reproduce the arguments here.) But if Cage’s attempt to transcend self is informed by queered cultural climates and by a certain anarchistic model of community that is increasingly posited in political terms, Goldsmith’s a-political abdication is an overexcited and uncritical facebook/ twitter/ myspace/ youtube/ linkedin mashup-celebration of technologies which are humanly and historically harmful – both in terms of the exploitation that enables us to believe that ‘we’ve never had it so good’ (& fuck everyone else), the mysticised concealment of means of production, and in terms of the environmental damage that, whatever its consequences for some romanticised ‘mother nature’ is, let’s face it, of human impact also. To remove and diffuse the self into the ‘electronic arms’ of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, all watched over by Richard Brautigan’s ‘machines of loving grace’ is to ignore the way in that self still acts within systems which are, OK, intimidatingly large, institutionally-bulked, capital-soaked, backed by guns and cops and private ‘security’ forces – but this kind of religious trust in a system bigger than one is not predicated on any real idea of solidarity or of communities of justice and reciprocal relation. I get my laptop and my dinky html-coded-poetry-play or the found sources I can make a decent dollar off (‘hey! so humble, I lost my ego!’), thus bulking up my institutional / critical cred as a famous author while simultaneously and supposedly celebrating the death of the author, the fact that we’re all creators, man. It is the choric participation of bodies and minds (which aren’t separate, ok) in consensus and dissensus and collective action that changes things and that enables us to get out of situations of systematic injustice – and that choric participation is the collective signature of all our individual signatures, all our individual selves – as Benjamin puts it, “the collective is a body too.” [“Only when […] all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto.” (Benjamin, ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intellegentsia’)] The de-personalized machine-self or diffusion into realms of neutralized ‘text’, suspension of judgement, endless allowed and luxurious play (turning out, it must be said, texts that are singularly non-joyful, dull, repetitive, blank banalities) shudders us into no sense of the inadequacy of our present mode of existence, the desire for self-(and thus collective-)realisation that is entirely necessary if we are to do more than celebrate what we have as we hurtle towards the real end of what we have. Wake up and smell the meltdown.