Deleting Digital Collections Reading at Lake Forest Literary Festival, March 5

I’ll be reading a paper called “Meditations in an Emergency: On the Deletion of My MP3 Collection” on Tuesday, March 5 at the Lake Forest Literary Festival at Lake Forest College, outside of Chicago.  Thanks to my pal Davis Schneiderman, who I’m working with on a new edition of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s collage manual The Third Mind, for the invite.  The festival will also feature the awesome work of Cecilia Corrigan and Lisa Robertson.

2011 Annual Report on Drugs and Creativity

Jeremy Shaw, Unseen Potentials (2011).

Creative Capital/The Warhol Foundation just posted the audio of my keynote talk at the their Arts Writers convening in Philadelphia last August.  They asked me to speak about drugs and creativity, and this gave me an opportunity to revisit the work I’d done on drugs and the arts in my book The Roads of Excess: A History of Writers and Drugs in the early 2000s.

As you can hear on the audio recording, mostly my argument was that the heroic age of literary and artistic experimentation with drugs is over, even if many of the questions provoked by the existence of psychoactive substances remain unanswered.  You can see it in Vancouver based artist Jeremy Shaw’s fascinating installation piece, DMT from 2004, where the gap between the noumenal quality of the experience and the banality of the images of those perhaps under the influence or their narratives is a vast one.  Whatever the quality of the experience, it is basically unrepresentable, and thus beyond the sphere of art.  Contrast this if you like with someone like Henri Michaux’s attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to write and draw under the influence of mescaline.

In place of this kind of art, the most interesting drug cultural artefacts have been TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Weeds.  But there’s little attempt to represent drug experiences in those shows, and all the excitement and drama comes from the fact that drugs are an economic and legal proposition.  It’s almost as though people now get high on business or the law, the way they used to on drugs.  I find that an amazing and troubling proposition.  In the talk, I looked at some of Ryan Trecartin’s recent video pieces, which are strikingly psychedelic, but whose psychedelia mimics and amplifies the self-distorting fx of corporate training videos and reality TV, and is without reference to drugs.

Talk of drugs and economy brought me back to research I’m currently doing on William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s collage manual, The Third Mind, and Burroughs’ still unassimilated argument that the broader lesson of drug addiction is that we almost always build our reality pictures based on what he calls “the algebra of need”.  And that need can be and is manufactured — this corresponding to what Zizek and others today call ideology.

For me this opens up an interesting way of thinking about the contemporary impasse of the arts, whether writing or visual arts or for that matter music.  If the presentation of reality itself happens mostly through the manufacture and manipulation of need, what can art be, other than one more form of participation in the manufacture of our need for certain kinds of reality picture?  Is it a question of distinguishing between false needs and real ones? Or do “real needs” become the primary site of ideological capture … i.e. the thing that you submit to believing.  Conversely, would an art that refused any discourse of need have any meaning or function whatsoever? Do we need to have needs, even beyond the biological imperatives that seem so fundamental?  David Levi-Strauss asked me: why “need” and not “desire”?  It was a really good question … maybe this is a very 2012 answer but it seems very difficult to think about desire today without also thinking about what limits or structures desire.  It unsettles me to think about need and I think that’s a good thing.

Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith in Bomb magazine


I have an in depth interview with conceptual poet and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith in the latest issue of Bomb magazine. You can listen to audio from it and read an excerpt here.   Here’s the intro to the piece for those who are curious: “”Kenneth Goldsmith is a trickster for sure, not just because his work takes place on the crossroads between legal and illegal, between digital and real life, between word and image, but because he’s a man who wears a lot of hats, metaphorical and otherwise. He’s the founder of UbuWeb, the largest archive of avant-garde art on the Internet, and an incredibly rich and dense resource for anyone interested in the history of experimental writing, music, film, and visual arts. He was a radio DJ on WFMU for many years, producing a prank-heavy show of experimental horseplay called Unpopular Music. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on what he calls “uncreative writing.” He’s a visual, sound, and text-based artist and poet, author of a number of remarkable books, including No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), Day (2003), the radio-appropriation trilogy The Weather/Traffic/Sports (2005–08), and is currently working on a history of New York in the 20th century built around Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. His new book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, sets out much of the thinking behind these projects and proposes a manifesto for writing in the 21st century, while the recent collection Against Expression, co-edited with poetics scholar Craig Dworkin, brings together key literary texts that enact what Dworkin and Goldsmith call conceptual writing—writing built around specific processes of experimentation (i.e., concepts) rather than the demand for self-expression.

Interviewing Goldsmith is a slightly unnerving affair, even for someone such as myself, who’s known him for many years. Goldsmith has brought many of the techniques of appropriation-based visual art to literature, and then multiplied the power of these techniques again through his provocative use of digital technologies and the Internet. The result is that anyone speaking to Goldsmith knows that anything said to him might be appropriated, transformed into a text of some kind, and made part of one of Goldsmith’s strange and beautiful textual mirrors. I met Goldsmith in the West 20s Manhattan loft he shares with his wife, visual artist Cheryl Donegan, and sons, Finnegan and Cassius. The loft’s walls are covered with books, CDs, and vinyl—relics of the predigital age. The main apartment window, which used to offer a view of the wonderful Chelsea Flea Market, where Goldsmith acquired many of his treasures, now looks onto a vast apartment building. We talked for an hour before lunch. My recording device died halfway through the interview. Goldsmith’s didn’t. A small detail, but important, especially today, because as William S. Burroughs said, and Goldsmith understands very well, there’s “nothing here but the recordings.””

WikiLeaks as a Culture of the Copy

Plato wanted to keep imitation out of the Republic, even as he copied the words of Socrates to write his text.  The WikiLeaks affair reminds us how improbable that dream of a world without imitation remains today.   With WikiLeaks’ recent publication of 90,000 secret US military documents describing the day to day operation of the war in Afghanistan over the last six years, we can see familiar claims being made about the danger that the distribution of copies poses to the polis.  But it’s equally clear that the way that we make use and share copies forms an essential part of the functioning of a genuinely democratic republic.  Intriguingly, WikiLeaks’ logo is itself an image of the world being copied, duplicated: the real world perhaps leaking out of the false, spectacular “original”.

The stories about illegal copying that we’re most familiar with today concern intellectual property law: pirated copies of consumer products that break copyright, trademark or patent law in one way or another. Setting aside those cases where a company’s entire production and distribution system has been copied (see Adrian John’s recent book Piracy on NEC’s corporate doppelgänger), the issue is also usually connected to mass distribution of copies: filesharing of music and video being the most obvious example.  With WikiLeaks, the issue is state property and state secrets — just as it was with the event that people are comparing WikiLeaks with: the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 (itself a fascinating episode in the history of copying).  Sensitive or classified information is precisely state-owned information whose reproduction and distribution is controlled by law. It would be interesting to compare and contrast intellectual property law and laws governing classified information. The obligations of the state to its citizens are different to those of private property owners to the public, yet in both cases, particular historical notions of property, rights, ownership and copy are key to how things play out.

As Mark Rose tells it in his essential history of the birth of copyright law, Authors and Owners, there’s an intriguing link between laws governing copyright and “sensitive information”.  The censorship of the press, established and maintained through an agreement between the Crown and the printers guild known as the Stationers’ Company, broke down during the English Revolution of 1641-1660. When the monarchy was restored, the censorship of the press resumed, and journalist/authors such as Daniel Defoe were imprisoned for seditious writings.  The first calls for a copyright law which would give authors the right to claim their work as their property were made at the end of the seventeenth century.  One of the arguments made by Defoe, when he was released from Newgate prison in 1703, was that if a writer could be punished for saying something seditious, with the implication that the seditious writing belonged to him/her, then surely he or she should be rewarded for more acceptable writings by being recognized as the legal owner of his/her work.  Questions of responsibility were resolved within the emerging capitalist marketplace by being framed in terms of ownership.  The Statute of Anne became law in England in the spring of 1710.

What is new in the WikiLeaks situation is the sheer scale of the copying of state secrets, the ease with which the public can access these documents, and the possibility of a highly public debate on the WikiLeaks website that can build on and examine the documentation.  The notion of producing a copy of a war is not itself new.  As Paul Virilio has shown us, many of the key developments in twentieth century military technology aimed at allowing those conducting war to obtain as detailed a realtime picture as possible of a battlefield that could have many simultaneous geographical fronts.  This picture is already a copy, a representation of a war, and forms an archive of data that can be drawn upon in various ways.  While for obvious reasons the focus with the Afghan War Diary has been on the content of the revealed documents, it would be interesting to know how exactly these copies were copied: we know that they were often transcripts of radioed reports from the battlefield presumably entered into a database, but how exactly did such data make its way to Wikipedia’s website?  How do particular kinds of mediation by “copies” foreclose or enable different political possibilities?  Of course, it is precisely this kind of information that WikiLeaks will not be releasing, in order to maintain the anonymity of its sources.

WikiLeaks is a good example of what I mean when I say that the future of copying lies in depropriation. The word is not too elegant, it’s something I discuss in the last chapter of In Praise of Copying which is about appropriation. It’s clear that most of the crises and struggles around copying are about appropriation: I make a copy of x, x is not mine, by making a copy of it, I appropriate it.  But everything is in some sense appropriated, including x before I make a copy of it.  So the problem is: who has the right to appropriate something, or: who has the right to make a copy?  This is basically the question Marx asked. The problem with Marx’s answer — see the history of communism, as well as Marx’s own explicit remarks on the subject – is that it still assumes that appropriation is unavoidable.  When appropriation may precisely be the problem.  The notion of depropriation – which I take from feminist theorists such as Hélène Cixous and Avital Ronell – attempts to name the possibility of letting go of appropriation, of living without appropriating.  That’s very challenging since we appropriate with every mouthful of food we eat, every breath of air we take.  Buddhist texts recognized this problem and attempt to address it in a variety of ways, from extreme asceticism to continuous ethically focused exchange with the environment.  Depropriation seems to be a practical impossibility.   Yet we signs of it happening around us today, both in events and the circulation of ideas.  It’s something we can work towards: a world in which we minimize appropriation and maximize what Hardt and Negri call “the common”.  But we have to learn as individuals and as societies how to do that, which means addressing our own desire to appropriate.

I imagine that a lot people are suspicious of a “Buddhist” logic of depropriation since they assume that it means an attempted “quietist” withdrawal from mainstream society that lets capitalist appropriation continue unchecked.  But the history of Buddhist societies, for better and for worse, is not really one of quietism. Anyway, it’s not a question of idealizing those societies, whose faults are obvious to anyone who opens a history book. The issue is whether there is something within Buddhism that remains unrealized, or only partly, temporarily, occasionally realized, that can prospectively help us make a different world.,  Active depropriation … an ethics of engagement that means allowing oneself to be appropriated into a situation so that one can participate in transforming it without having to appropriate it again.  This is something we can learn a lot about from Buddhism.

William S. Burroughs called his incendiary 1959 novel Naked Lunch to mark “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”.  But what would that really mean?  The word we usually use for “appropriation” is “steal”, and the conventional narrative about WikiLeaks is that these secret documents have been stolen, appropriated.  What’s interesting though is to consider whose property they have become.  Unlike spy agencies who steal national secrets which then remain secrets, these documents have become visible without exactly becoming property.  They don’t belong to a nation-state; since they are published anonymously, they don’t belong to a particular person; they don’t belong to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, though he is obviously in danger of becoming the face or designated spokesperson for the documents.  They also don’t belong to the mainstream press, who, despite WikiLeaks’ collaboration with the New York Times, Der Spiegel and Guardian, probably stand to lose the most in the current situation.

WikiLeaks heralds a new kind of journalism, if indeed you can call it that. Thanks to the particular way that WikiLeaks has organized the presentation of the documents, they are truly depropriated copies, belonging to no one yet accessible to many.  It’s a great example of the way the politics of open source goes beyond questions of proprietary software code.  Assange rightly suggests that there might be legal proceedings that develop out of what is found in the leaked documents, and in this sense, we find ourselves in a familiar tho necessary struggle to reappropriate the meaning of this event. But perhaps that puts them back within a framework of appropriation which WikiLeaks has already done considerable damage to …

Thanks to Eric Cazdyn for pointing out the copy related nature of this story.

Brion Gysin at the New Museum

Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum in New York City is the first US retrospective show of the Beat multimedia pioneer.  I have yet to see the show, so I’ll save a review of it until that time. For me, Gysin is a major figure in the history of the theory and practice of copying and it’s great to see him getting attention via this show, Nik Sheehan’s excellent documentary Flicker, and John Geiger’s recent biography, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted and the collection Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age.

Most of Gysin’s work involves the exploration of the power of repetition – sound poems like “I Am What I Am”, the large paintings with their waves of script, the light loops of the Dream Machine.  The cut up, which Gysin invented according to William S. Burroughs, is not just the act of cutting up a text, but the repeated attempt to reconfigure and rearrange the fragments through permutation into a new whole which speaks the hidden truth contained in the original.

While it’s clear that the cut up has a long history in art, Gysin, along with Burroughs, may well have been the first to explictly claim that this practice exposed the nature of reality itself: that reality is “nothing but the recordings”.  Gysin claimed that the idea of the cut up came to him in Tangier, where he was running a nightclub and discovered one day that disgruntled employees had placed a spell on the restaurant in the form of an object with a text and various magical substances mixed together.

One of the core claims of In Praise of Copying is that all copies are “objects made out of fragments of other objects”, and since indeed all objects are “made of out of fragments of other objects”, everything is, in a specific sense, a copy.  While I take this insight in the direction of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy, which makes this argument in a very rigorous and disciplined way, I think I first became familiar with it from early Industrial musicians such as Cabaret Voltaire, writers such as Burroughs and John Giorno, the turntablist experiments of early hip-hop — and Gysin, who I saw in England in the early 1980s.

The aesthetic practice of collage, montage, cut up, has mostly been absorbed into the fabric of contemporary capitalism, where Dell’s post industrial assembly line will build you a computer that is a montage of Your Choices.  But the fundamental emptiness of everything that Gysin and others intuited through the practice of the cut up (which is mistaken today for a fascination with “multimedia” — another reification) remains in some sense the political problem today. It raises the question for example of property including intellectual property.  For a few years in the 1960s, the art object dematerialized (as Lucy Lippold puts it). But the commodity didn’t.   We don’t know how to talk about emptiness, or how to live in a universe which is an assemblage of temporary fragments.  Gysin, Burroughs, Giorno and those who worked through the cut up were trying to understand how best to relate to, align ourselves with this emptiness.  That’s still a work in progress …

Brion Gysin w. John Giorno, I Give You/You Give Me, 1965