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To Be (Un)Real

By Kenneth Goldsmith


koons.jpgmadonna.jpg

I recently gave a lecture recently to a group of poetry MFAs on uncreative writing, appropriation, information management and unoriginality. During the Q&A, a student declaimed, “C’mon, man, be real. Drop all that stuff and be real, you know, artist to artist.” To which I responded, “If you can give me a definition of what real is then I can be real with you.” I thought to myself, wow, writing is so far behind other art forms in this regard. Could you imagine after a lecture someone say to Jeff Koons, “Hey, Jeff, drop all that stuff and be real.” Never. No one expects Jeff Koons to “be real.” Jeff Koons has made a career out of being “unreal.” Likewise, during a pop concert — say, a Madonna concert — it’s hard to imagine someone shouting out to Madonna to be real. No one expects Madonna to really sing, rather they revel in the image of her while listening to a pre-recorded vocal track. Would the “real” Madonna please stand up? For the past two decades, “realness” has ceased to be an issue in music, art and fashion. But in writing we’re still expected to “be real.” Twenty five years after Baudrillard, these poetry students were still prioritizing Romantic notions of authenticity — “truth”, “individuality” and “honesty” — over any other form of expression. My god! Is it a case of naivety, amnesia or just plain ignorance?


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These students’ arrows should be pointed in many directions instead of one, with fear rather than smarts, leading the way. They should know better: they came of age in a digital world and fully inhabit it today. Their reactionary attitudes could be interesting if they weren’t so obsessed with ‘being real” and instead, like Messrs. McDermott & McGough, took on the complexities of another time by actually embodying that time:

“Messrs. (David) McDermott & (Peter) McGough are a pair of artists who, like Dugdale, favor the 19th century. Living in New York and Dublin, they attempt to divorce themselves from this century through their dress, mode of travel, furnishings and manners. As dandies, they have created an elegant and engaging style of life and art, merging the two almost seamlessly.” (http://www.gregkucera.com/mcdmcg.htm)

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Now is the time of possibility we can be everyone and no one at all. With digital fragmentation any notions of authenticity and coherence have long been wiped. When we’re everywhere and nowhere at once — pulling RSS feeds from one server, server-side includes from another, downloading distributed byte-size torrents from hundreds of other shifting identities — such naïve sentiments are even further from what it means to be a contemporary writer. Identity politics no longer have to do with the definition of a coherent self, rather it has to do with the reconstructed distributed, fragmented, multiple and often anonymous selves that we are today. We’re infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute. Shouldn’t our notions of art expand once again to include these as well?

Comments (11)

  • On July 26, 2007 at 6:22 pm becca wrote:

    I came to some sort of personal aesthetic peace when I began to see poetry as a way to get to truth through artifice (so close to deceit, yet not quite). So that you don’t dismiss the idea of emotional truth, for example, but you still recognize that poems will always be made and manipulated, as identities are.
    I also think it’s possible to go to college or grad school and study some Derrida or Butler and feel that the fractured, multiple nature of your own identity is so real and so right on, and yet still not want to live there in your daily life, as you say. But maybe you don’t always want to live there in your art, either. Or maybe you want your art to wink at these things and then move on toward something like truth, even truth with a lowercase “t.” And besides, shouldn’t the work of the poet differ from that of the scholar or critic?
    I have been recently MFA’d, and so I partially want to come to these students’ defense, I’m sure, but also wonder if their attitude marks the only place to go after postmodernism. Bold statement, yup, and I’m not suggesting that regression is the direction to take, but that this might be seen as some sort of “higher” Romanticism. Innocence –> Experience –> Higher Innocence. The New Sincerity? In any case, I think we are somewhere else now.

  • On July 27, 2007 at 9:43 am Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    I have been recently MFA’d, and so I partially want to come to these students’ defense, I’m sure, but also wonder if their attitude marks the only place to go after postmodernism. Bold statement, yup, and I’m not suggesting that regression is the direction to take, but that this might be seen as some sort of “higher” Romanticism. Innocence –> Experience –> Higher Innocence. The New Sincerity? In any case, I think we are somewhere else now.
    Wishful thinking. If only students had the sophistication to pull this off (which is why I brought up McDermott & McGough). Sadly, so many MFAs I meet with these days are wildly uniformed about such possibilities.

  • On July 27, 2007 at 1:10 pm JJ wrote:

    It seems that you dismiss Becca’s point too quickly. She seems to be not as much defending MFA programs (“I PARTIALLY want to come to these students’ defense”) as saying, to you, that the sort of points you (continue to) make show of are understood, and have been understood for almost a generation now.
    We get it, Kenny! Can’t we take our new understandings and move on, rather than performing the same rote-modernist movement ad nauseam?
    This is not to disagree with your theoretical points, but by now, save for a few conservative holdouts, you’re just preaching to the (long ago) converted.
    Enough with the clown act and let’s move on to some “real” issues.

  • On July 27, 2007 at 3:30 pm J. Bryan Shoup wrote:

    Hey, can we put the sexual images behind a cut instead of making them so prominent? At least give a warning?
    I check this thing at work, which I’m allowed to do. But I teach among students, and I tend to just check sites at work that I assume won’t be offensive.
    Not saying taking the images down, necessarily, I just thought the first time I saw this post there was no sexual imagery attached to it.

  • On July 27, 2007 at 3:30 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Like DNA, there are Dynamic Narrative Archetypes. As Joseph Campbell described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the path of the hero is threefold: Departure, Separation, and Return. We see it in Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Buddha, ourselves, all over the place. Or Aristotle’s call for beginning, middle and end. That reminds us of cell division: there is one cell that takes departure, it divides or separates, and then returns. It mirrors the origin, but the origin is changed utterly. Or, if you like Eliot:
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    The suggestion is that with mystical visions of heaven and utopia, an idea of being whole and held still may not point to the heavens or outside where Berryman’s “incredible panic rules,” but inside. What we are looking for is actually our oldest and first memory, humbling as that may be. As a zygote we were one cell for a very short while. And then we divided and we were torn into as many selves as there are cells. And Whitman said, I contain multitudes. And he was right.
    Carl Jung said:
    What we are to our inward vision, and what a man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis [from the perspective of eternity], can only be expressed by way of myth. Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science. Science works with concepts of averages which are far too general to do justice to the subjective variety of an individual life.
    DNA is like the thread in what Campbell said:
    “The little we need is close at hand. Most curiously, the very scientist who, at the service of the sinful king, was the brain behind the horror of the labyrinth, quite as readily can serve the purposes of freedom. But the hero-heart must be at hand. For centuries Daedalus has represented the type of the artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested, almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of his time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought—singlehearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.
    And so now we may turn to him, as did Ariadne. The flax for the linen of his thread he has gathered from the fields of the human imagination. Centuries of husbandry, decades of diligent culling, the work of numerous hearts and hands, have gone into the hacking, sorting, and spinning of this tightly twisted yarn. Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of out own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with the world.”

  • On July 27, 2007 at 7:30 pm JJ wrote:

    JJ — if you can tell me what “real” is, perhaps we can move on to some “real” issues. Any suggestions?
    That’s a good question, Kenny (even though your response quoted above seems to have now disappeared from the comment stream?). . . . I don’t have a particular definition in mind, hence the quotes around “real.” In any event, I don’t think that a discussion of terms is beneficial in this case. My comment was more of a critique of your expressed frustration with the student desiring some schema outside of the one you present. As a means toward the facilitation of a solution, I’d like to focus on that desire to step outside of your rhetoric (or as close to “outside” as may be possible). That is, I don’t necessarily think that the student’s question can be simply characterized as being motivated by “naivety, amnesia or just plain ignorance.” Even if that is the case, I think that the naive, amnesiac, and ignorant student stumbled upon a very good point.
    I’d like to again pose the same question that the student posed to you, but perhaps in a manner that might be more helpful: What is it that we can do, utilizing the ideas in your uncreative writing spiel*, that does more than simply propagate the idea of uncreative writing, or that functions in a way that is distinctly outside of the realm of conceptual poetics / art? While shifting further toward the territory initially opened up by the Cartesian cogito may provide an easy answer, I’m more concerned about that territory which is supplemental to the conceptual side of things, that is: the physical as commonly agreed upon.

    *(I’m assuming the one you presented to the students is the same or is at least similar to the one we’ve seen you present here and in other venues–if it turns out that it was one which is radically different, for the sake of argument we’ll just have to pretend it was similar, lest we run into an immediate dead-end.)

  • On July 28, 2007 at 9:27 pm Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    JJ — I’m not so sure your comment is any more helpful or informed than the student’s. Your pejorative use of the word “spiel” in relation to my poetics implies some sort of hucksterism at play. The tone of your critique seems to say that conceptual poetics is not enough and in some way needs to move outside of its own discourse in order to validate your own sense of worth, which is something that conceptual poetics may never do: might be a case of round pegs in square holes. Moreover, I deny the premise that we commonly agree on anything, particularly something as vague as “the physical.” So, if you can tell me what “physical” is, perhaps we can move on…

  • On July 29, 2007 at 1:11 pm becca wrote:

    That is, I don’t necessarily think that the student’s question can be simply characterized as being motivated by “naivety, amnesia or just plain ignorance.” Even if that is the case, I think that the naive, amnesiac, and ignorant student stumbled upon a very good point.
    Yes, this is in part what I was trying to say, too. Jumping to the conclusion that the students’ perspectives are “ignorant” appears condescending to those of us who didn’t sit in on that lecture (perhaps a few more details from the Q&A would have us agreeing with you, but so far we have little reason to).
    I’m suggesting that like any good teacher, you allow for the fact that you may be able to learn from your students (even those you only encounter briefly) before rushing to judge them. Like JJ says, the student may not have had theoretical ammo to back him/her up, but he/she still seems to — perhaps unwittingly — embody a shift that has occurred.
    Some of us studied postmodern theory and even Madonna herself in college — by the time we got to grad school we were pulling ourselves out of a very seductive whirlpool of theory that was leading us nowhere emotionally. We were reveling in the multitudes that theory afforded, but we were also asking, What next?

  • On July 30, 2007 at 10:19 am S.M. Syracuse wrote:

    Reality combines that which we ["individuals"] view as true as well as that which we view as false. One might argue that “true” individualism does not exist; for those with whom we associate [or are unwittingly associated with] across and amongst culture(s), shape who we were, are, and will become. Hence, we cannot view ourselves as living in historical, institutional, or social “vacuums”; reality is defined and shaped by our very presence. And so, one may conclude that “reality” exists only in the mind of s/he who ponders its divergent truths.

  • On August 1, 2007 at 7:29 pm Jim Finnegan wrote:

    I could imagine that question being asked of Jeff Koons. And the pics posted are a perfect example of the unreal. It’s not a question the art-provocateur can easily hear. Because s/he’s not a artist per se, s/he’s interested in only in teasing out the conceptual boundaries of art.

  • On October 6, 2007 at 12:40 pm JP wrote:

    It’s hardto imagine anything worse for the literary word than it being imbued by the same fraudulent, cynical hucksterism Jeff Koons possesses. You know who likes Koons? Douglas Coupland. That’s Koonsian literature for you.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, July 26th, 2007 by Kenneth Goldsmith.