Peter Baldes, Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll, Sliced Vertically (2005)
With the rise of the web, writing has met its photography. By that I mean, writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do, that in order to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence Impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of digital available text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.

Before the web, quantitatively speaking, text had the illusion of being finite. Yes, libraries were available for plundering in their entirety, but the effort of utilizing those texts was enormous. The text was effectively stuck to the page. You could xerox a page but you got a copy with the text still held in tact onto the page. The only way to liberate the text was to retype the text and yet, even then, you got yet another copy with the text glued to the page. How different then is the fluidity of digital texts, easily swiped, rapidly portable and ready to be poured into any desired form. Once freed from the prison of paper, the possibilities are endless. And therein lies the heart of writing's current crisis. While most writing has ignored this and carried on with business as usual, some camps have been trying new tactics: Flarf, Google poems, hypertext and strains of e-poetry have proposed solutions with varying levels of success. Yet, a over a decade into the game, no one possibility leads.
There's a room in the Musée d'Orsay that I call the "room of possibilities." The museum is roughly set up chronologically, happily wending its way through the nineteenth century, until you hit this one room which is a group of painterly responses to the invention of the camera. In this room are about half a dozen proposals for the way painting could respond. One that sticks in my mind is a tromp o'eil solution where a figure is painted literally reaching out of the frame into the "viewer's space." Another incorporates three-dimensional objects atop of the canvas. Great attempts, but as we all know, Impressionism won out.
As writers, are in that room of possibilities now. Where will it lead? I think we can get a clue of not what to do if we look at the history of both video art and net art, two recent forms that grappled head-on with new technology. About a decade or so ago, net art was huge. Programmers were the new art stars; they were regularly featured in Whitney Biennials. But soon, the art public fell out of love with net art. The problem was that the field ended up as the province of programmers, not artists. And these programmers were more interested to see how high they could make a machine jump, rather than infusing a machine with a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility. The problem was also made clear with early video art technology which, too, first became the province of geeks who wanted to see what the machines were capable of. Those early experiments never made it out of the gate, rather the medium needed an artist like Joan Jonas, who simply twiddled the vertical adjust knob on a television set to create one of early video art's most profound works of art. By working against the technicality of video, Jonas made great art. Warhol, too, often claimed that his static camera films -- so against the grain of the 60s avant-garde jump-cut style of his day -- were a throw back to early cinema, where the camera was incapable of even so much as a pan. Today, Warhol's "Sleep" seems much more radical because of what it doesn't do technologically rather than what it does.
Punk rock taught us the lessons of working against technology's allure: "Here's three cords. Now start a band." You can give a guitar player the best guitar in the world, but that doesn't mean she will play with soul; technically adept session musicians are a dime a dozen. Likewise, I feel that writing's challenge right now is not so much making the machines jump, rather it has to do with the embrace of the thing the web does best: distribution and dissemination. Back to three chords. Unlike modernisms, we will not be wowed by new formal innovation; we will be wowed by the way works of various formal stripes circulates and recirculates. The machines indeed will jump -- there are teams of programmers working on that now -- and soon enough, poetry will be the complete province on machines ("Writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it." -- Christian Bök) -- but until then, what's new is old.

Originally Published: July 10th, 2007

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (, and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

  1. July 10, 2007
     Jen T.

    Los Angeles based artist Luke McGowan alleges to have hired fifty Chinese child laborers (mean age 12 yrs.), paying them a mere $2 each (a total of $100) to retype the entire oeuvre of United States poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith, perhaps best known as editor of the online archive UbuWeb ( and as host of a weekly radio show on New York City’s WFMU, is leader and spokesperson of a new literary movement he dubs “conceptual” or “uncreative” writing. In a recent piece for the Poetry Foundation, Goldsmith states that his version of conceptual writing “employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos.” Goldsmith’s better-known works include such uncreative and nutritionless projects as the transcription of one entire issue of The New York Times (Day, 2003) and the transcription of a year’s worth of weather reports (The Weather, 2005).
    Luke McGowan, who describes himself as of the new generation of “post-conceptual” writers, has said that he prefers to “just cut-and-paste rather than transcribe all that shit.” Indeed, McGowan’s Robo Ursonate, 2005, was contructed by way of simply cutting and pasting the score of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate (1932) and letting it rip on a commercial text-to-speech synthesis program. Among other projects, McGowan is known for his spoof on the OuLipo, OuMyPo, which is a MySpace version of experimental constraint writing.
    Of his latest project UnCreative Child Labor, McGowan explains: “It is disgusting what you can do with the internet and what the internet can do to writing. The older generation, for example the Language Poets, and their immediate descendants, including Kenny, are just too enmeshed in a poststructuralist version of academic formalism to combat the implicit bourgeois subjectivity of their webpages, blogs, and emails. I’m just saying that if you want to do something of radical political consequence, you have to say it with its opposite. I mean none of those guys would even add me as a friend on MySpace.”

  2. July 12, 2007
     Katie Hartsock

    This “writing crisis” is perhaps part of a bigger “living crisis” the internet gives us--a different reality where we can technically communicate with everyone and anyone and literally (physically) communicate with no one. I do not have a MySpace page, nor do I plan to; however, when my good friend urged me to take a look at hers, I noticed that she had a sort of anti-internet manifesto there on her homepage, saying something about how today’s technology cuts off the human connection, and she urged her “visitors” to remember that “your computer is not your companion.” I of course couldn’t help noticing the excellent irony there, but didn’t point it out to her.
    Kenneth said Impression won out; yes, but only because it stayed on a canvas? It was the same but different, and people, even artists, can’t help but like that. So while I don’t want to sound like any kind of conservative, I’m sticking mainly with books. Don’t I read online poetry? Aren’t I grateful that I can find poems instantly online, or Google-map the bar where the reading is tonight because I totally forgot how to get there? Yes, yes, and yes to all the obvious gaps in the argument. But I love to hold a book in my hands and read it. Yet here I am, writing about it on a blog. So I guess it makes sense that my friend is my friend.

  3. July 18, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    K: I think you're absolutely right that it has been very hard to separate a spirit of experimentalism and reconstruction from mere techno-fadism; in fact, this breakneck pursuit and presentation of the latest technology still largely reigns in (especially) the European art world, or so I hear. (Locative media was last year.) What is interesting is that a certain wing of the avant garde abandons the devices it has pioneered as "no longer so cool" just as the potential for that particular technology to have a mass user base arrives. Not so? In other words, "net art" is still waiting for its great works, and those great works will come in a context (perhaps that context is almost now) when "net art" is completely ubiquitous and popular (even populist) as a practice, and not a specialised or exclusive activity. What do you think? And what, pray tell, will then happen to "poetry" or, indeed, the word or language itself as a distinct sphere of practice and talent? As someone who, on one hand, still finds it worthwhile to write verse, in ancient metres even, and who, on the other hand, also has inclinations towards experiment and the ever arriving parting of the future (that Rilke reminds us to be ahead of), I don't have much by way of answers. Only a vague sense of excitement, longing, contradiction, doubt and fear, all mixed up together. This is the reality. To make meaningful work the avant or post avant or post post avant or whatever it wishes to call itself would first have to have the comfort to abandon its usual heroic self-projection and embrace the ambiguity of new vs. old. That, in part, is what you seem to be doing here.