This will have to be quick.
On the evening of March 24, 2014, Kenneth Goldsmith arrived at The Reading Room, “a project space which, through occasional readings, performances and installations … explore[s] the many ways in which text and image interact.” The Reading Room is located in the Fair Park neighborhood of Dallas, TX, across the street from the historic (you know, preserved) art deco exhibition halls and pavilions of the Texas State fairgrounds.
(Special gratitude is owed to Karen Weiner, curator of The Reading Room, and to Terri Thornton, Curator of Education at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, for making Kenneth Goldsmith’s Dallas appearance possible.)
Kenneth Goldsmith’s personal appearance involved but did not consist wholly of his reading from his most recent book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters. More to the point, Goldsmith’s appearance was personal—if one is to believe the statements issued by Goldsmith (very conversationally, I might add; very amiably) prior to his reading— in the sense that it fulfilled a specific desire on his part: to read the “JFK section” of Seven American Deaths and Disasters in the city where the events of and surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination took place. (But I thought we all knew cities are discontinuous.)
Goldsmith’s performance began with a handful of apologies. Even if they weren’t guileless these apologies would have been endearing. Sorry, Dallasites (the assumption there somehow not off-putting, charming even… oh, Kenneth, not everyone who lives in Dallas is of Dallas, just as not all Angelos are from Los Angeles and a native New Yorker must be qualified as such), sorry to bring up the whole JFK thing again, you just lived through it all last November, the 50th anniversary, the culpability, the weird tension between celebrating the man’s life / legacy and acknowledging the irresolvable tragedy of his death. Sorry, too—I’m paraphrasing Goldsmith—that I know nothing of your topography, the difference between DFW International Airport and Love Field, where Market Hall is or was. “Is it still there? Was it the World Trade Center building I saw on the way in down Interstate 35?” And, joining his chorus, this desire of mine own, one I would project into collectivity: a desire to there-there Goldsmith: “Oh, but why should you know these things?”
Another aspiration, then, Goldsmith’s wanting to inhabit a certain touristic cluelessness.
This is already not quick enough. My goal here is to discuss Goldsmith’s work (travail et ouvrage) while avoiding all reference to Conceptualism, save this mention of that topic’s avoidance / exclusion. For to acknowledge Conceptualism here would be to bow to Goldsmith-the-purposeful-aesthetician: that subject he’d care to disperse, and only maybe as far and wide as oblivion.
The reading itself lasted an hour. 55 minutes, given, taken. Goldsmith apologized further, for the length and “tiresome” nature of what he was then about to read. This felt like an attempt to claim authorship for the work, but by means of surrendering final responsibility for the work’s saying. “That I am not entirely in control of this material is proof of its inspired nature.” Too Biblical? Hold that thought, or let it get away fast. Goldsmith even encouraged any attendees who felt their endurance wearing away or out to head down the street for a drink; he was very complimentary of the Meridan Room, a bar where my wife and I almost always host new visitors to Dallas. Is it possible to be invaded by charm? I want to say, yes, if that charm is Literary.
The “JFK section” of Seven American Deaths and Disasters is a transcription of a transcription, KLIF radio (a station still extant here in Dallas) personalities reporting on the events of November 22, 1963, from roughly 12:30 to 1:22 PM. Interspersed among all the information and speculation and reassurance and eyewitnessing are commercial advertisements, pop songs; surprisingly little interruption, actually. Unless one considers repetition of the same sound bites (an anachronism in the context of this Kennedy’s assassination) a kind of interruption. A hiccuping in the news’ notional flow.
The Reading Room, an intimate if never clubby-feeling space that also happens to be one of the most important galleries operating in our region, was packed. Packed meaning that this could not have been any mere poetry reading; it was, instead, an event. Some of us who arrived early in anticipation of such eventfulness had claimed chairs, but the supply of chairs was soon exhausted, and many attendees stood or sat, criss-cross-applesauce, on the floor.
Goldsmith performed. The most remarkable aspect of Goldsmith’s reading was that it was a full-bodied performance. You could imagine (couldn’t you?) this work I described being read as drily, as flatly, with as little affect as possible. For that is how the text feels to the first glance: a texture connoting impenetrability, pages and pages of attention in despair. Or Goldsmith might have methodized his performance, satirized the very idea of a performative poetics via exaggeration and gestures aimed at breaking down the separation between audience and actor. But no. Goldsmith read “his text” as poetry, and as the oldest, most traditional kind of poetry. I mean, Goldsmith’s reading was liturgical, more overwhelming than engrossing. He hunched, straining to breathe through the long, frantic DJ phrases. He swayed to a rhythm only he could accentuate in the constant revisiting of the same details: names, places, physical descriptions, meta-redundant “I repeat”s. “A priest has been called to Parkland Hospital.” Spittle growing on his lower lip, in his black pseudo-tanûra, Goldsmith declaimed like Ginsburg, accenting to effect levitation, not pausing hardly at all, not even to sip any of the bottled water he had so carefully cracked open for himself before the reading ever began. I was impressed by how much I was being asked not to notice these aspects of the performance, to find my being impressed by them natural, that is, surprising… accompanied by an inner “huh.”
TL;DR ≠ TL;DL. Only at poetry readings.
A good reader can make any poetry succeed. This is cliché, compliment—not always back-handed—and confession of mistrust all at once. For shouldn’t the language function independently of any given voice? Shouldn’t the language be its own voice? Maybe only in old-school virtuality of the workshop. What would have been really interesting is if Goldsmith would have lip-synched, and expertly, to an audio recording of the actual KLIF broadcast.
I assume this is typical of all Goldsmith’s readings. That he bakes for you a pre-digested cake. Both: “On the page, this is not-poetry, all that poets would not want poetry to be. This is transgressive.” And: “In the air, this is absolutely poetry. This is sound for you to wrap yourself up in.” So his is a seductively delicious cake even though its ingredients are often not thought capable of mixing. And the trick is you don’t bite down on any of it, unless you eat with your ears, for it is really only the authorial Goldsmith who ends up nom-noming on the ostentations of icing and having and eating. Got it; it’s a wedding cake.
About midway through Goldsmith’s reading / test of physical endurance (do always let them see you sweat; every artist who traffics in authenticity knows that), I looked up. Damn it, I did have to; damn it, you do have to “be there.” That is, I had defaulted into my poetry-reading body: looking either into my lap or at The Poet, modeling an intent and active listening, a shutting-out of extraneous stimuli. I’m not sure what made me want to break that poise, or even if I knew it as a poise imposed. But look up I did. And the faces and arraying of those assembled, their absorption in their own seriousness, unconscious or conscious not for me to know… I looked up and saw refugees, mobbed, intent and still and so suggestive of a somber consensuality. Or those attendant at an actual vigil. The text of Seven American Deaths and Disasters follows its procedures through real time, but was the JFK assassination really happening for us? Again?
Fucking poetics-as-shamanism. But, as far as this ancient cosmology can be stretched into a Goldsmithian analogy, can one simply substitute “the academy” for “the spirit world”? That otherworldly sphere of influences both benevolent and malevolent, but never indifferent? I do think that, behind Goldsmith, a way may be opening.
“You know this, you’re sick of it by now.” No, Goldsmith didn’t bake a cake, or leave one out in the rain. He served us our own sickly sickness. We are accustomed to the taste of ailment, and that’s a problem.
What must be admitted gains admission. Kenneth Goldsmith is an adult, and so a focus of a certain amount of my resentment. Because I am not a grown-up. Or because my difficulties are those of a truant, whereas Goldsmith’s burdens, being both opted-for and institutional (corporate?), are mature. Undeniably, crushingly so.
I wish I had photos to share, but a static image of us all, huddled and grim, ignoring our cell phones, all ears, awash in a generalized melancholy only a tragedy from which you are actually quite distant can elicit, such a picture might trick you. For the insistent reflection, the nattering hush of Goldsmith’s reading had to be experienced on a synaesthetic level, and as an intervention not in perspective but history. I have no photos. But I did talk with a friend (and fellow editor) afterwards about Goldsmith’s reading, as we were both in attendance, although there was no real opportunity in our attending to acknowledge each other. In lieu of photos, take as your picture that this friend-turned-confidante noticed and agreed with me, that what I suggested was my experience was also more than partially their experience.
Pink noise. Room sound. As poets we should be observant of if not devoted to these phenomena.
I walked into Goldsmith’s reading firm in one opinion which I had hoped was also a suspension of any actual judgement. Kenneth Goldsmith’s work is about salvage. Is archaeological, with a caveat. His is not the Foucault-like archaeology of that which hides in plain sight. Rather, Goldsmith’s is the archaeology of plain sight itself. His books are the vitrines in which his invaluable reproductions (think about it) are set, available to every eye but untouchable by any hand other than his alone. This is not me theorizing up any thin air. This is a matter of the exertions Goldsmith, to his credit, is prone to interjecting into the conversation. And remember (this is for me, slowing down to hurry up) archaeology simultaneously desacralizes and resacralizes, but only within the context of context.
Confirmed? Yes, because I see it now. I have long felt that Kenneth Goldsmith is more of a spiritual (I hesitate to say religious) figure than an artist as either popularly or academically defined. Now, watch me fail. For if we read a book like Seven American Deaths and Disasters as an expression of a Conceptual (anti-)aesthetic, we are subjecting ourselves to a meta-intent, are we not? That is, to perceive a Conceptual Art Object ideally, purely, as a first and thorough impression, we have first to recognize the point-of-view of the artist declaring it as such. And this is authority, even if that authoritative figure “Kenneth Goldsmith” declares himself most in pronouncing his apparent absention. “I wrote all of this, but I made none of it.” But if we were to read Seven American Deaths and Disasters in a conventional sense, as if it were a novel with recognizable characters, events, etc. (not to mention an intelligible plot), this endeavor would rapidly melt into absurdity, if not self-refutation. Such a reading would be perverse. But such a reading would also shift the Concept and “work’s” focus from the subjectivity of the author to that of the reader. And I would submit that such a reading— essentially conservative, yes, but, in this hypothesis, revolutionary—is no less perverse and no more original than creating a book that fails to meet one of the basic criteria for books: to be read.
So, sifting through his performance and work and advertisements for his work, I see how Goldsmith is obsessed with the problem of self, and the extinction of the same. And I perceive how doctrine is one of the media in which he works. There’s a weird Godhead in everything he executes. And what he executes, over and over again, is the myth of the Author. But the authored authorlessness of myth itself remains, rearing, whatever Goldsmith’s efforts.
This will have to slow down. Is selflessness the end of the subject? Or is instead a mindless, not automatic but robotic generation and regeneration of the self? Selflessness as a disappearing into undifferentiated selves? An infinite persona-ing? This later seems more 21st Century, especially so in it’s tortured economics. And yet Goldsmith’s own economics seem to be very different, not expulsive / explosive but retentive. Collector-y if not hoarding. In love with artifacts, and who isn’t? Ah, but are they relics? Is it not the point of religions to make converts, whether or not souls are saved, much less acknowledged? One of the complaints against Goldsmith’s pursuit of authorial nirvana (“When I reach 40, I hope to have cleansed myself of all creativity.”) is that the only subjectivity that he knows and thus finds to be of interest is a privileged subjectivity. Or maybe it is better to say that we need to remind ourselves that, poet or president or journalist or jingle writer or police dispatcher, subjectivity itself is a form of privilege. What if you, by reason of your skin color or ethnicity or language group or sex or sexual orientation or simply “belonging to” a discerned subset of persons, have historically been denied your own individual subjectivity? Might selflessness be a hard sell for you? Might it not be far more reasonable and meaningful for you to spend your life announcing, advocating for, and otherwise making damn sure your sovereign subjectivity is not violated or appropriated out from under you?
Wait. We must be careful here not to ignore how the privileged subject is nevertheless maimed in the process of his or her subjectivization. Maimed might be too Lacanian. Oppressed? Entered into divisions, itself entering the self as it is: a shambling conglomeration of shoulder-to-shoulder divisions. A porous armor.
There is in me that younger person pursuing his own selflessness, the kind propagandized via patchouli and Pharoah Sanders LPs. But that selflessness-obsessed me tore his jeans last in those pre-grunge early American 90’s, a transition-time when the decade’s chief alternative appeared to be a right-siding-up of those 60’s that the 80’s had turned upside-down.
The me that remembers that other me, that post- everything subject, asks: are the Kenneth Goldsmith books of today the Windham Hill records of tomorrow?
“Look up and around you at all this poetry.” I complied with Goldsmith’s request. And perhaps what I saw was not an audience I could step away and even out of for a moment—and so swim back into myself, churning out of my wading in the waters of differentiationlessness—was not a nostalgia act but an acting out of nostalgia. Goldsmith’s event was as much directorial as it was poetic. As opposed to endlessly divisible meme and niche, these seven deaths and disasters are incontrovertibly American experiences, continent-vast and epochal, even when epically trivial. (Goldsmith told us, he did, that European audiences don’t care for this material at all, and the implication is that they simply cannot or will not disappear themselves into a consideration of “American” as a subject susceptible to tragedy. Self-inflictions, yes.) But this nostalgia for a “we” is actually a nostalgia for the “us” in the “us and them”, for an antagonistic and measurable mainstream of American life and thus the imaginary space for an efficacious Alternative. So this is a true nostalgia, a rueful pining for a time when the forces to resist were more or less monolithic. For those systems I read about in Frederick R. Karl’s American Fictions: 1940 – 1980 back in the summer of 1990. (“Slacker” wasn’t the right nickname for us, not quite. “The Belated Ones,” maybe.) Nostalgia for an era in which a radicalism in artistic production does not feel to be in direct inverse proportion to our ability, individually as well as collectively, to change anything about how power is actually wielded and exercised “in the world.” Nostalgia for the idea of artistic production as productive labor, as the manufacture of new manners of being. Not artistic production as a service industry: as commentary, recap, sponsorship. Not a theatrical avant-gardism, David Byrne making movies in Crocus Behemoth’s (aka David Thomas’) oversized suit. (But look how nostalgic this reference is!) We should be wise enough to recognize this wishful, wistful efficacy to be a Modernist efficacy. And we need to know it to be a fascism that believes itself to be benign. Consider Brecht.
Great apparati like the opera, the stage, the press, etc., impose their views as it were incognito. For a long time now they have taken the handiwork (music, writing, criticism, etc.) of intellectuals who share in their profits–that is, of men who are economically committed to the prevailing system but are socially near-proletarian–and processed it to make fodder for their public entertainment machine, judging it by their own standards and guiding it into their own channels; meanwhile the intellectuals themselves have gone on supposing that the whole business is concerned only with the presentation of their work, is a secondary process which has no influence over their work but merely wins influence for it. This muddled thinking which overtakes musicians, writers and critics as soon as they consider their own situation has tremendous consequences to which far too little attention is paid. For by imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them they are supporting an apparatus which is out of their control, which is no longer (as they believe) a means of furthering output but has become an obstacle to output, and specifically to their own output as soon as it follows a new and original course which the apparatus finds awkward or opposed to its own aims. Their output then becomes a matter of delivering the goods. Values evolve which are based on the fodder principle. And this leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work.
(Brecht on Theatre; the Development of an Aesthetic. ed. & trans., John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. 32-33.)
To quote Brecht? Nostalgic. And to even attempt to write the word “fascism” is itself to indulge in nostalgia. To have written “benign” is exponentially nostalgic. To want to protect myself from slipping into nostalgia? Let’s not even go there.
OK, Goldsmith’s reproduced repetitions, fine, let’s accept them according to his definitions, as emblematic of the entropic. As information-death and death by datum. Why or how aren’t these repetitions also an index of trauma (these priests always being called to JFK’s side, but too late; these wolf-cries that nothing has been confirmed yet)? Because of the repetitions’ refractivity? Does trauma break apart in being bent upon itself? Is the possibility of actual trauma precluded by aesthetics? I mean, any aesthetics and not just Goldsmith’s? Aesthetics may address trauma, just as I might address a letter to the President. But, for having done so, my capacities are thus no more commensurate with a President’s power than any putatively ugly or savage aesthetic is to actual trauma. This is not a genuine analogy. Right? How Classicist is this? As Platonic as the truth-indifferent poet Goldsmith would frankly imitate?
Goldsmith, in conclusion, talked some more. He was not talked out, not yet. And poets must explain their work. But is Seven American Deaths and Disasters, as he told us, Warholian? Is it a critique (and the best kind, the one made for you / us by the object of the critique itself; “easy” that way) of how media consumes itself? The book a peeling back of the process by which iconic images are made? So the historical argument here is not the one the content thinks for you. It is more true that the book begins, not with Kennedy and Camelot and all that, but with radio.
Calling in isn’t a option. But what about a poetry reading in the form of hate radio? Would Kenneth Goldsmith plunge that deep into performance? To take offense or the capacity to be offended for trauma is to level trauma or transform it into some universal currency of constant and nonreciprocal exchange. Trauma as speculative quantity, heaps of it, valueless if realized much less cashed-in, like the Bitcoin of pathologies. Trauma as its symptoms and not its sadly endless variety of etiologies, thus trauma as contentless as the sighing articulations of a drone that drones no matter how loud or long or what instrument sustains it.
The Kenneth Goldsmith books of today are the Windham Hill records of tomorrow. Assuming “Windham Hill” is a genre. New Age was avant-garde once too. In a revision of nostalgia, New Age music sheds its palliative connotations and becomes experimental again. (Cf., I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990, Light in the Attic records, 2013.) Isn’t it? Aren’t they?
I want to be generous. I want to say: Kenneth Goldsmith is not so much of an author that he isn’t OK with the with the accidental, with the, “Whoops, I’m feeling something.” In fact, my falsified generosity aside, I think that is precisely what he would elicit. Goldsmith would deliberately draw an oblique path to catharsis. Hence “poetry.” As if to communicate to us: “You can’t want what you would expect from these forms. You have to reject those expectations for the sake of achieving what they, in their most sublime expressions, surprise us with.” This all feels very Zen-ly nuanced to me.
I want to be mean for a minute. Goldsmith’s optimism, it partakes of Silicon Valley solutionism. Meaning, it fails to distinguish the technology we thought we were to have gotten vs. the technology we have been given. What happens when the dream of an Alternative—hell, Underground—turns out just to be a small-scale (and thus hip; thus, putatively, less destructive, less Evil in the Google sense of the term) reproduction of the established order? An account created?
Poetry is the vociferation, the poet-tongue. The declaiming charisma. The affable ghost of the imperative. The Voice, by way of the of the mouth savoring diction. Poetry is getting people to pay, like the subjects of an auditing, for their own karaoke-d clarity.
A week later, killing time, making notes to shore up the lucrative business of whatever my professional (but fundamentally more sloppy) writing facilitates, I keep going back to Kenneth Goldsmith. I know this song, I know it. I’ve heard it before. And I need to pin it down. I wish “a ha” and “eureka” were synonymous, but they aren’t. The end of FM radio’s pride holds the key. In reading about JFK in Dallas, was Kenneth Goldsmith doing anything different, essentially, than Don Henley in “The End of the Innocence”? Better: in his VMA-winning video for “The End of the Innocence”? Because I hate my fellow Dallasite Don Henley, I answer myself, “How appropriate that, procedures aside, Goldsmith isn’t.”
I pull up the video, a black-and-white photography whose slips into slow motion are more sepia than any tone. The nostalgia of thematics themselves, the nostalgia of having anything to bemoan, much less a “way.” There’s Henley, his hair a long frazzle “dancing in the sun” (but that’s another hit, and they keep on coming), trying to hide his jowls behind Ray-bans and moody lip-synching. And whose camera is that Andrew Wyeth-ing the sepulchral diorama of an “old-fashioned” mailbox’s vacancy, Edward Hopper-ing an aproned lady behind stripes cropped free of stars, Robert Frank-ing a brass band in front of the Texas School Book Depository building? David Fincher’s. The branding is unbelievably retroactive; cognitive whiplash. What I had most repressed in my memory about this quintessence of Boomer solipsism, however, was how its spacious and memorial skies are shattered by a Wayne Shorter saxophone solo that I’m convinced Henley and co-author Bruce Hornsby wanted us to hear as Icarus-like but which I can’t help but picture as resembling a spi(e)ll down the basement stairs. I listen to Wayne’s solo, old weird Wayne’s few bars, again and again. Is this innocence’s last flourish, or cynicism’s first babblings? It’s the wrong question, for it’s the songwriters’ question, or a question only to be posed according to the songwriters’ cadences. The answer is to cast about for a different question. But one never asked before? That seems impossible. Ambiguity won’t settle anything either, but at least it offers compromises. On the one hand: this being America, the experience of the American Experience, of course the wordless lament of a designated Black Man is the closest the song comes to owning an actual Conscience. On the other hand: this being Wayne Shorter, Wayne won’t play it like a mere player. Wayne will make poetry out of this, but it’s not like he is going to turn around and, after Kenneth Goldsmith, just recite the poetry he has fashioned. Wayne’s going to demand a half-a-poem of you up-front.
Weeks later, I am driving to work and the now-very-probably nonexistent Baltimore band Wilderness is singing straight from a pre-Obama 2008 to my presently steering absentmindedness. With a martial sarcasm, or maybe a simmering urgency you’re invited to interpret as a tribute to how uncompromising the singer is, the song (called “Silver Gene”) goes like this: “Here is a storyline for you / here is something to relate to.” And what is the song’s second chorus? “We have become” something. The conclusion proves unintelligible. It’s not the car’s fault, or the car’s fault is also a malfunction of Youtube. I hear overtones in these slippery syllables of “obvious” but there are more always more feet there than are needed to accommodate that sense. “All of us”? “The air itself”? “The calmness”? “Our own end”? (“Autonomous”? It never occurred to me.) That I cannot disambiguate how I from how the Internet knows not which, that is the volume I would speak. Were I a poet.
Consider this venerable demo/meritocratic lineage: Major Bowes Amateur Hour, The Gong Show, Star Search, American Idol, The Voice.
The title of Goldsmith’s lecture at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Tuesday, March 25? “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution.” I was not able to attend this lecture. With a little poking around, I think I could find a transcript of it, as it is a lecture which has been delivered several times before, and will undoubtedly be delivered several times again.
The President is dead, but not The King. Only stricken. I am moving on, and writing never remembers. I looked up from one helpless Kenneth Goldsmith… the one I like, and I do like him, I can’t help but find his deeply American pragmatism immanently likable; he is as Emersonian a “writer” as our times will permit… and I looked into the averted postures of so many Kenneth Goldsmiths who need not have been. (As if I were any better.) This trauma I return to, in the way of all trauma, even though this trauma is a trauma of artifice, and so no less acute: the generic trauma that follows from the realization that, while genre may not be everything, everything but everything is itself genre.