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Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age by Kenneth Goldsmith (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 399-402 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0020

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There is really no reason that Joyceans should read Uncreative Writing by poet and conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith because, in many ways, James Joyce’s work has served as the model and inspiration for myriad “creative” writers who seek to produce the magnum opus of a Ulysses or Finnegans Wake and who long for the timeless fame bestowed upon the so-called singular, original genius who is a writer like “James Joyce.” These “creative” writers primarily study and perfect their craft in the burgeoning Master of Fine Arts market and seek to publish their work with reputable mainstream presses whose imprint will be a key to the writers’ claim to jobs and career advancement, if not fame and fortune.

Yet Goldsmith’s book draws our attention to a coeval and lesser-known lineage coming out of modernism to which Goldsmith (and I) would like Joyceans to pay attention. Joyce, Goldsmith argues, along with his contemporaries like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, and others, laid the foundation for a kind of writing devoid of originality, intent, beauty, or genius. Stein’s perpetual present, Pound’s calligraphic Cantos, Duchamp’s ready-mades, and Benjamin’s ideas of mechanically reproduced art reflect a way of thinking about and producing writing that emphasizes process, the moment, and the materiality of the text. Each work, in a Heideggerian sense, portrays “the artist” as a mere conduit who disappears in the unfolding of a world. This legacy, as Goldsmith points out, is realized across the twentieth century in later work like Andy Warhol’s commercial screen prints, William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups, and the writing of concrete and language poets, as well as in the projects of many contemporary single and collected conceptual artists. A sense of these shared values is why one sees a growing number of writers and scholars of contemporary poetry and media at the Modernist Studies Association conference; they draw their water from the modernist well of “uncreative writing.”

Aligning his concept of “uncreative writing” with modern and postmodern traditions, Goldsmith again returns to Joyce for a model of this kind of aesthetics and linguistics: “If we think of words as both carriers of semantic meaning and as material objects, it becomes clear that we need a way to manage it all, an ecosystem that can encompass language in its myriad forms. I’d like to propose such a system, taking as inspiration James Joyce’s famous meditation on the universal properties of water in the Ithaca episode of Ulysses” (27). Goldsmith draws an analogy between Joyce’s musings on the forms of water to the many forms that digital information can take. Comparing the leveling flow of water to this bit torrent, he remarks that the role of the author is not the creator of the flow, any more than Joyce created water; instead, the writer’s task is to manipulate and manage the flow of digital information with endless possibilities for compilation and composition.

The fleshing out (if that is the appropriate metaphor) of this ecology concerns the first few chapters of the book. These examine in detail the main theoretical values alluded to in the analogy with Joyce: “textuality”—the work of the artist now involves more the ability to sift through and select information from the mountain of digital documents available online; “materiality”—language is not merely a vehicle for communication but has its own opaque properties; “instability”—the slippages that happen in the play of vision and linguistic reference result in a kind of productive and liberating instability that can reinvigorate literature as emblematized in what Goldsmith calls “nude media,” digital files stripped of their context and easily recontextualized that can then deconstruct conventional notions of vision, reference, subjectivity, authorship, and ownership, among others; “hyperrealism”—practices that privilege process over product and reflection over expression can better capture what it is like to be alive in the twenty-first century; and “appropriation”—the copying and self-acknowledged claiming of others’ work as one’s own becomes the central gesture of “uncreative writing” and the future of art.

These chapters, along with others dedicated to particular movements or artists, explore the connections of the...

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