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Journal, Day Four

By Kenneth Goldsmith

Boredom

I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.

Over the past 10 years, my practice today has boiled down to simply retyping existing texts. I’ve thought about my practice in relation to Borges’s Pierre Menard, but even Menard was more original than I am: he, independent of any knowledge of Don Quixote, reinvented Cervantes’ masterpiece word for word. By contrast, I don’t invent anything. I just keep rewriting the same book.

John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” He’s right: there’s a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy. And then there’s the other kind of boring: let’s call it boring boring. Boring boring is a client meeting; boring boring is having to endure someone’s self-indulgent poetry reading; boring boring is watching a toddler for an afternoon; boring boring is the seder at Aunt Fanny’s. Boring boring is being somewhere we don’t want to be; boring boring is doing something we don’t want to do.

Unboring boring is a voluntary state; boring boring is a forced one. Unboring boring is the sort of boredom that we surrender ourselves to when, say, we go to see a piece of minimalist music. I recall once having seen a restaging of an early Robert Wilson piece from the 1970s. It took four hours for two people to cross the stage; when they met in the middle, one of them raised their arm and stabbed the other. The actual stabbing itself took a good hour to complete. Because I volunteered to be bored, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.

The 20th century avant-garde liked to embrace boredom as a way of getting around what it considered to be the vapid “excitement” of popular culture. A powerful way to combat such crap was to do the opposite of it, to be purposely boring.

By the ‘60s and ‘70s in art circles this type of boredom—boring boring—was often the norm. I’m glad I wasn’t around to have to sit through all of that stuff. Boredom, it seems, became a forced condition, be it in theatre, music, art, or literature. It’s no wonder people bailed out of boredom in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to go into punk rock or expressionistic painting. After a while, boredom got boring.

And then, a few decades later, things changed again: excitement became dull and boring started to look good again. So here we are, ready to be bored once more. But this time, boredom has changed. We’ve embraced unboring boring, modified boredom, boredom with all the boring parts cut out of it. Reality TV, for example, is a new kind of boredom. An American Family, broadcast in the early ‘70s—strutting its ennui—was the old boredom; The Osbournes—action-packed boredom—is the new. There’s no one more tedious than Ozzy Osbourne, but his television presence is the most engagingly constructed tedium that has ever existed. We can’t take our eyes off the guy, stumbling through the dullness of his own life.

Our taste for the unboring boring won’t last forever. I assume that someday soon it’ll go back to boring boring once again, though for reasons and conditions I can’t predict at this time.

I don’t expect you to even read my books cover to cover. It’s for that reason I like the idea that you can know each of my books in one sentence. For instance, there’s the book of every word I spoke for a week unedited. Or the book of every move my body made over the course of a day, a process so dry and tedious that I had to get drunk halfway though the day in order to make it to the end. Or a book in which I retyped a day’s copy of the New York Times and published it as a 900 page book. I’ve transcribed a year’s worth of weather reports and a 24-hour cycle of one-minute traffic reports every 10 minutes, resulting in textual gridlock.

Now you know what I do without ever having to have read a word of it.

I think that there were a handful of artists in the 20th century who intentionally made boring work, but didn’t expect their audiences to fully engage with it in a durational sense. It’s these artists, I feel, who predicted the sort of unboring boredom that we’re so fond of today.

Andy Warhol, for instance, said of his films that the real action wasn’t on the screen. He’s right. Nothing happened in the early Warhol films: a static image of the Empire State Building for eight hours, a man sleeping for six. It is nearly impossible to watch them straight through. Warhol often claimed that his films were better thought about than seen. He also said that the films were catalysts for other types of actions: conversation that took place in the theatre during the screening, the audience walking in and out, and thoughts that happened in the heads of the moviegoers. Warhol conceived of his films as a staging for a performance, in which the audience members were the Superstars, not the actors or objects on the screen.

Gertrude Stein, too, often set up a situation of skimming, knowing that few were going to be reading her epic works straight through. (How many people have linearly read every word of The Making of Americans? Not too many, I suppose.) The scholar Ulla Dydo, in her magnificent compilation of the writings of Gertrude Stein, remarked that much of Stein’s work was never meant to be read closely at all, rather she was deploying visual means of reading. What appeared to be densely unreadable and repetitive was, in fact, designed to be skimmed, and to delight the eye (in a visual sense) while holding the book. Stein, as usual, was prescient in predicting our reading habits.

John Cage proved to be the avant-garde’s Evelyn Wood, boiling down dense modernist works into deconstructed, remixed Cliff Notes; in his Writing Through “Finnegans Wake” he reduced a 628-page tome to a slim 39 pages, and Ezra Pound’s 824-page Cantos to a mere handful of words.

At a reading I gave recently, the other reader came up to me after my reading and said incredulously, “You didn’t write a word of what you read.” I thought for a moment and, sure, in one sense—the traditional sense—he was right; but in the expanded field of appropriation, uncreativity, sampling, and language management in which we all habit today, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Each and every word was “written” by me: sometimes mediated by a machine, sometimes transcribed, and sometimes copied; but without my intervention, slight as it may be, these works would never have found their way into the world. When retyping a book, I often stop and ask myself if what I am doing is really writing. As I sit there, in front of the computer screen, punching keys, the answer is invariably yes.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, January 25th, 2007 by Kenneth Goldsmith.