- Kenneth Goldsmith's American Trilogy
I can't help it: trilogies are nerd Kryptonite. My childhood library was chock-full of science fiction and heroic fantasy books organized into epic troikas, all of which made grandiose claims about their ability to forever change my sense of literary genre, if not of consensual reality itself. As a result, any three books that self-consciously present themselves as a trilogy have for me an aura of importance about them, one that requires further interrogation. Kenneth Goldsmith's American Trilogy-The Weather, Traffic, and Sports-is no exception.
In the first half of the last century, Ezra Pound claimed in his ABC of Reading that "artists are the antennae of the race" (73). In a global digital economy, though, both wireless and networked signals come at such speed and quantity that a set of rabbit ears will no longer suffice. In 1980, Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney updated Pound's metaphor in "Parasite Maintenance," comparing contemporary artistic sensibility to the satellite dish. From such a perspective, artists are devices for the accumulation and concentration of cultural data, cool and dispassionate. The quality of the objects and texts that they produce depends in part on what "Parasite Maintenance" refers to as "the will to select" (77). The individual's ability to receive and process the ambient signals that constantly bombard all of us helps constitute contemporary criteria for a successful artistic career.
As Craig Dworkin notes, self-declared "Word Processor" Kenneth Goldsmith's ongoing personal project-which Goldsmith has successively dubbed "nutritionless writing," "uncreative writing," and "conceptual writing"-falls squarely into this tradition of poetry as a sort of technologized, high-volume appropriation (34). This is especially true of recent works such as the massive, audacious Day (Figures, 2003): a volume that transcribes an entire issue of The New York Times and presents it in book form. In this context, even Goldsmith's curation of the decade-old UbuWeb <www.ubu.com>, a large digital archive of avant-garde sound recordings, concrete poetry, video, outsider art and related critical materials, is arguably part of the practice of uncreativity-perhaps even Goldsmith's greatest work.
Goldsmith normally proceeds by identifying a neglected (because mundane, or, in Goldsmith's terms, "boring") repository of cultural discourse, such as an average edition of The New York Times (Day), or the names of artists and albums from his extensive LP collection (6799). He then transcribes the contents of that repository meticulously, reconfigures the resulting digital manuscript as a book, and attaches his name to it. Though such projects have been common in the art world since the heyday of Conceptualism, they are relatively rare in what Charles Bernstein refers to as "official verse culture" (246), where even Jackson Mac Low and John Cage (two of Goldsmith's muses) occupy an uneasy position. By porting an established practice for aesthetic production from one field of cultural endeavour (gallery art) to another (poetry), Goldsmith has simultaneously constructed himself a career and staged an intervention that has changed the stakes of contemporary poetics.
As a kind of briefer epic, The Weather, Traffic, and Sports serve collectively as a formal denouement to Day, because they codify and professionalize the practice I've just described. The similar size, shape, and design of these books suggests what even a cursory read will confirm, that the same basic dialectical move is at work in all of them: a reframing of the "everyday" that defamiliarizes it and allows us to return to mundane moments in order to reexamine them in a new light. As such, The American Trilogy succeeds admirably, but also suggests that there are limits to the artistic shelf-life of the "uncreative" moment (more on this notion shortly). These books are united formally by more than their explorations into a series of neglected but omnipresent cultural forms (the weather report, the traffic report, the sportscast). They all have a specific relationship to a specific medium: the radio-and, for the last two books in the trilogy...