Poetry News

Garrett Caples Calls Kenny Goldsmith to Account

By Harriet Staff


Yes, abandon all despair ye who enter here: Garrett Caples, has once again blown our minds at the City Lights Booksellers & Publishers blog.

In his blog post all about Kenneth Goldsmith's work-in-progress, Printing the Internet, (which we've covered to some extent here, and here) Caples argues against Goldsmith's claim that the internet, "comprised completely of text-based alphanumeric language—is the greatest poem ever written," and Caples argues against Goldsmith's choice to dedicate the work to recently-deceased activist Aaron Swartz.

Caples writes:

You can call the Internet a poem, but that’s not what people mean, generally speaking, when they use the word “poem.” And this is what, from a Wittgensteinian viewpoint, makes the statement meaningless, because it relies on our ordinary senses of the word “poem” in order to have any punch, even as it says something that contradicts these senses. Another way to think about this error: if the word “poem” is called into question to so fundamental a degree, how can we know here what “Internet” means? Or “language”? Or “comprised”? Or even “—”? There’s a tacit assumption on Goldsmith’s part that only the unstable term is the one he wishes to be. To say “I feel that the Internet is the greatest poem ever written” is thus to express one’s confusion and superstition, and ultimate conservatism, about how language works. Which, of course, calls the very beginning of the statement—“I’m a poet”—into question. Certainly one should have a more solid grasp of the medium in which a poet works before self-applying that title.

A third way to think about it: if you understand all of the other words in the sentence “I feel that the Internet is the greatest poem ever written,” then you’re free to respond, “your feeling is incorrect.” And this response doesn’t depend on your having any precise definition of “poem.”

Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t actually make this statement as an expression of literal belief, but rather as an expression of attitude. This is clear from his follow-up observation that “As users of the web, we are all contributors to this poetic project—let’s call it the ultimate crowdsourced poem.” Buzzword time! Whatever you want to say a poet is, there’s a kind of baseline minimum that you need to do something interesting with language, so if we needed further cause to suspect that Goldsmith isn’t really a poet, it’s this penchant for trendy marketingspeak, uninflected with any subversive element save, perhaps, a knowing cynicism. In this he is Jeff Koons, even as he claims to distinguish his brand of conceptualism:

In the [change.org] petition [asking him not to print the Internet], people are saying the following: “While it is appreciated that Mr. Goldsmith plans to recycle the paper used in his art exhibit, reduction of usage is more important than post-usage recycling.” Do you think that your project bring [sic] damage to the environment? If the answer is yes, is that something that should be taken in consideration?

All art is spectacle; all spectacle is material; and all material must come from somewhere. Relative to the rest of the art world—the spectacle of the Venice Biennale with its global carbon footprint, hideous yachts and private jets or the $35 million Jeff Koons strip-mined aluminum sculptures, created by one person for one person of the 1%—Printing Out The Internet, with its all-inclusive democratic attitude, nothing for sale, and a recyclable ending looks pretty good by comparison.

The rationale by which Goldsmith spurns this plea to not waste what he calls “shitloads of paper” in order to fill a massive gallery space in Mexico City with printouts is entirely specious: logically, it amounts to gouging out someone’s eyes and saying, “isn’t it great I didn’t kill you?” The picture of “the rest of the art world” sketched out between dashes only indicates how narrow Goldsmith’s purview is, as well as where his sights are set. There’s something for sale here alright, but I don’t buy it.

Caples's argument expands to consider Goldsmith's dedication of the project to Aaron Swartz, and then examines the claim by a Yahoo! News writer that Goldsmith has liberated much of the internet, to a degree comparable to Swartz.

Caples also shares his personal experience of reading a poem out loud to the hip-hop artist Saafir, whose language he had incorporated into one of his own poems. Caples meditates on how it felt to wait for the artist's response, and then considers the difference between his own and Goldsmith's ethics.

Read more from Caples's whip-smart brain at City Lights's blog.