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.””

Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law

I have an essay in a new book from Duke UP, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law, edited by intellectual property theorist and prankster Kembrew McLeod and dada scholar Rudi Kuenzli.  The essay, “Digital Mana: On the Infinite Proliferation of Mutant Copies in Contemporary Culture” is a pretty freewheeling spin through the work of Philip K. Dick and the late great graffiti sage Rammellzee, amongst others … taking the position that countercultures in the late twentieth century are very much concerned with the concept of infinity and how human beings can access it through various practices and counter-mathematics.  I apply some of Alain Badiou’s work on the politics of how we think about infinity to some examples that probably Badiou would not be interested in … but generally, I think Badiou is right that our ability to imagine and enact social transformation is related to our understanding of number, and that which is beyond number.  “Version like rain!”   Generally speaking, it’s a great collection, with work by Siva Vaidhyanathan, Joshua Clover, Douglas Kahn, Craig Baldwin, Jeff Chang, Jonathan Lethem and many others ….

On the Copies in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

A number of people have asked me what I thought of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, which is about an English writer, James Miller, who’s just published a book arguing that the distinction between original and copy is meaningless, and his meeting with a charming art dealer, identified only as “Elle”, who may or may not be his wife, in Tuscany during a book tour.  The movie is set up so didactically – it more or less begins with a ten minute lecture setting out the thesis of the writer’s book – that one is forced to assume that what follows – a more or less standard European art movie scene of romantic hijinx played out in a picturesque location – is also about copying.  I felt fairly indifferent to the movie while watching it, but it’s growing on me as I think about it.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

If the movie is indeed a copy of a generic European art house movie narrative, then it’s such a correct copy that it’s hard to see where the intervention, or the creativity in the act of making the copy is.  True, Duchamp’s “Fontaine” is also just another urinal, but it achieved it’s power through the shock of being relocated from the bathroom to the art  gallery.  But isn’t this kind of film and role exactly what we expect of Juliet Binoche (playing “Elle”), if not Kiarostami himself?

Perhaps something is lost in translation.   Certainly the film abounds with translation problems: the shifts from English to Italian to French; between lovers and genders; between generations; between those with traditional commitments and those who believe themselves without them.  In every case, something like a copy appears when there’s an expectation as to how things are supposed to be, an expectation which is let down.  Which incidentally describes prevalent critical reaction to the film.

Is anything gained in translation too?  An “Iranian” director making a “European” art house film?  Certainly it’d be worth looking at the way in which non European film-makers are invited to participate in art house cinema only through adopting and reiterating certain kinds of cinematic discourse. But that’s old news at this point, isn’t it? A dysfunctional couple forced to roleplay traditional gender and marital parts in order to revive their relationship? Ditto.  Perhaps translation is the wrong word for what’s happening.

Most reviewers of the film feel compelled to make a decision about who the two main characters in the film are, while the film itself goes to great lengths to resist this.  In fact, the weakness of the film, if it is one, consists in the apparently artificial lengths that Kiarostami is compelled to go to in order to maintain the ambiguity about whether or not Elle and Miller are a long time married couple now meeting up again and acting as if they don’t know each other, or a couple meeting for the first time who find themselves playing the roles of people in a long term relationship.  In other words, a drama of original and copy.

Is the point then that the same claim that Miller makes in his book turns out to be true in real life, that the distinction between original and copy is not so important and that sometimes the copy may be more relevant or powerful than the original?  Just in terms of the narrative arc of the movie this doesn’t sound entirely right.  The movie ends with Elle remembering a moment of happiness and satisfaction on her wedding night, while Miller looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and has a moment presumably of self recognition, marked by the somewhat crude device of the church bells outside ringing.  Is the point then conversely that behind the superficial play of original and copy there is the mark of an original trauma which somehow is revealed by the tracking and repeating of symptoms, which are in a sense copies that disavow the original that is in fact their source.  That would explain the unpleasantly uptight and reactive character of Miller, and equally clueless sentimentality of Elle.

But that also sounds too crude.  After all, there’s no clear explanation or resolution given at the end of the movie.  Even the mirror that one assumes Miller is looking into is not actually seen on screen.  It’s a camera that the actor faces onto, imitating the expression he might have in front of a mirror.  A camera is not exactly a mirror.  So the movie floats in a strange way towards recent films such as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the scaffolding of the film set is itself visible and constitutive of what goes on in the film.  Kiarostami goes a step further than Kaufman or von Trier by exposing the “Real” of the Tuscan town in the movie as a kind of mimetic installation as much as the warehouses and stages of those other films.  The point is driven home by the presentation of the Tuscan towns as tourist destinations, frozen in some image of their own past and cultural heritage, yet still full of people finally just trying to live their lives.

What is disturbing or confusing or even disappointing in the film is the lack of clear directions as to what we are to do with this mimetic impasse.  Is it an invitation to the unleashing of drives as in von Trier’s movies? Or to the multiple personalities or aphasiacs that populate Kaufman’s films?  Perhaps there’s a simpler response: that one of the core principles animating mimetic phenomena is erotic.  Put crudely, the film tracks an amorous encounter through various stages of deflection and displacement to the very moment where the two lovers are finally in a hotel room, about to make love.  Or not.  In other words, copying in the movie is mostly an expression of erotic ambivalence.  The young couples who are getting married in the church are disavowed by Miller because of their supposed naivete about what the future actually holds in store for them, but what’s provocative mimetically of course is that the religious and state rituals around marriage structure the obscenity of sexual reproduction.  The couples are not so much naïve as committed to the mimetic rites that they are going through.  Miller is incapable of this commitment.  As my colleague Ian Carr-Harris said to me in a recent discussion, he’s “afraid of originals”!  And therefore obfuscates the difference between original and copy in his work.

Am I guilty of the same kind of obfuscation?  For me, an original is a kind of copy, since there is no original without an act of labeling or designation that says “this is an original” (at the same time obscuring the processes of imitation and appropriation that make up an object).  But both originals and copies can expose one to the nonconceptual Real, and it’s this exposure to the Real that we are afraid of.  Certified Copy is a film about this fear, about the ways in which cinema can or can’t address it, and in particular about the way Kiarostami thinks it can be addressed, in 2011, in a film funded by European backers.

A Few More Reviews of In Praise of Copying

A busy time of the year for me, but I have a backlog of posts re. copying that I’m working on. In the meantime, here are few interesting recent reviews of In Praise of Copying.  First off Amy Ione in Leonardo Digital.  Then David Banash in Postmodern Culture.  Finally Mark Fisher in The Wire.  All well worth a look …

Buddhism and Copying talk at Center of Gravity, Toronto

I’ll be giving a talk about Buddhism and copying this coming Thursday, March 17th at the downtown Toronto yoga/meditation space Center of Gravity, run by author and teacher Michael Stone.  The talk starts with a half hour of no-talk at 6:30 pm, after which I’ll explore some of the ways in which Buddhist philosophy and practice can illuminate contemporary issues around copying and vice versa.   Center of Gravity is at 123 Bellwoods.

Buddhism After Badiou Talk at Middlesex Philosophy Dept. March 1

I’ll be giving a talk in London at the Middlesex U. Philosophy Department on Tuesday, March 1.  Details here.  This is one of the most progressive philosophy departments around and it’s a real honor to speak there, even more so since the department is under threat of being shut down and the site of a major struggle between faculty/students/supporters worldwide and the administration. I’ll be discussing some of my post-IPOC ideas about Buddhism and what the meaning of the word practice is, within Buddhism, but also more broadly in contemporary life.  More specifically I’ll be reading the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou from a Buddhist perspective, which if you know Badiou’s post-Maoist, rigorously materialist philosophy at all, might sound like a highly improbable thing to do.  The work involves rethinking Buddhism (or at least my own relation to Buddhism) as much as rethinking Badiou.  I’ll save the details, which involve German Marxists Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, Tibetan modernist Gedun Choephel, Chairman Mao, Cantor’s set theory amongst others, for the talk.

Ice Fishing in Gimli

I recently interviewed Winnipeg based writer/artist/architect Rob Kovitz about his epic 8 volume 4500 page novel Ice Fishing in Gimli, for a chapbook published in conjunction with the exhibition of the book currently on show at The Department in Toronto, and curated by Michael Maranda of  the Art Gallery of York University.  The book is almost entirely appropriated from other people’s writings (some of the photos are by Kovitz) and Kovitz says that, amongst other things, he was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s similarly vast Arcades Project, which also consists largely of quotes taken from other people’s writings.

Kovitz’s book is a heroic Melvillean exercise, ice fishing instead of whale fishing, digital text archives instead of pen on paper, a similar sense of extensive intimacy with territories way off most people’s maps (although Guy Maddin and others have also made works focusing on Gimli, a town 75 km north of Winnipeg, originally populated by people of Icelandic descent).  I like the sense of Ice Fishing as an impossible book, far too long to actually read, but what’s strange is that Ice Fishing is a very compelling read, with a powerful narrative drive.  This produces a strong sense of pathos: the book seems to anticipate its own rejection or being ignored, even in the act of you exploring it.

I’ve been meaning to write an essay about the history of copying in Canada for a while, and Rob and I touched on this in conversation: Glenn Gould’s spliced sound recordings; John Oswald’s Plunderphonics; Christian Bök’s dictionary channelling Eunoia; Guy Maddin’s pastiche films; Gail Scott’s appropriated texts like My Paris and The Obituary; Nourbese Philip’s cut up slave narrative, Zong! Not to mention visual artists such as Michael Snow (the Walking Woman pieces for sure, but also the movie Wavelength which over forty five minutes focuses in on a photo of a lake or sea) or Shary Boyle’s perverse porcelains.  And McLuhan. And … there’s a lot of appropriation going on up here!  One might ask: why?

A2K Symposium and Book

I just wrote a short contribution to an online symposium held by legal blog Concurring Opinions to celebrate the publication of Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski’s book, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property.  A2K is an interesting rallying point for folks working globally on a variety of issues related to intellectual property and/or the politics of copying today and the collection gives a broad and generous overview of the topic.  I particularly recommend Amy Kapczynksi’s introduction, Yochai Benkler’s overview of A2K and information commons, and the essays by Lawrence Liang, which were a revelation to me.  A2K resonates in a very clear way with recent events such as the shut down of the Internet during the Egyptian unrest, and WikiLeaks’ appropriation and dissemination of national archives and databases.  It’s part of a shift in IP research towards thinking about IP as a human rights issue.   You can download the whole book chapter by chapter for free from the MIT website.

In Praise of Copying Reviewed in PopMatters and Taipei Times

James Williams just wrote a nice review of In Praise of Copying for PopMatters … and there’s another interesting piece about the book in the Taipei Times.

Buddhism and Critical Theory: New Approaches!

I participated in a very interesting panel at the Modern Language Association meeting in Los Angeles last weekend.  Three of us, Tim Morton, author of Ecology Without Nature, Eric Cazdyn, author of the soon to be published The Already Dead, and I, discussing the relation between Buddhist practice and critical theory.  All of us are responding in different ways to Slavoj Zizek’s comments over the last decade concerning Buddhism. Eric explored the relationship between psychoanalytic cure, Marxist utopia and Buddhist enlightenment.  Tim looked at what he calls Buddhaphobia, and read Zizek against some of Lacan’s comments on Buddhism made after his trip to Japan in the early 1960s. I explored a series of moments in modern Tibetan Buddhist history and literature in an attempt to show the ways in which Alain Badiou’s thought resonates with the history and practice of Buddhism.  You can listen to the audio of the talks here.