Kenneth Goldsmith and the words problem

A few months ago I wrote in praise of Goldsmith’s transcriptions of weather reports, traffic bulletins and sports reports. At the time, being ignorant, I hadn’t heard of Goldsmith but now I’ve discovered that he’s a regular contributor to the ‘Harriet’ blog on the Poetry Foundation website. Scrolling through his posts, I came across one entitled “Provisional Language” which seems to combine a bit of a rant with a manifesto for his work.

“Where once the craft of writing suggested the coming together — possibly forever — of words and thoughts, it is now a transient coupling, waiting to be undone; a temporary embrace with a high probability of separation. The industrialization of language: because it is so intensely consumed, words are fanatically produced and just as fervently maintained and stored. Words never sleep; torrents and spiders are hoovering language 24-7.”

Goldsmith’s thesis starts from the fact that anyone connected to the net has access to an ever-increasing amount of words and the capacity to store enormous amounts of information. He points out that this has resulted in language itself becoming ‘provisional’ and debased, ready to be randomly discarded.

I’m not entirely sure that Goldsmith considers this development to be a Bad Thing, he points out that we are daily confronted by a blizzard of text and that many contemporary writers are engaged in activity requiring the ‘expertise of a secretary with the attitude of a pirate’. I particularly like his observation that “an electronic Post-It universe imbues the new writing”.

Much of this struck a personal note with me, I’ve worked commercially with the internet for the last ten years and have noticed in the last year or so that the net has come of age- at long last academic and research organisations have learned how to properly store and index material so that it is genuinely available to all of us, sites like have provided me with enough reading to occupy me for the next twenty years and social networking enables me to make connections across the globe. My latest creative project on the BSE and Bloody Sunday inquiries has also involved me in mining the archives for material that can be used in different ways.

I’m also of the view that the ‘too much information’ complaint isn’t particularly new. Newspapers have always created similar anxieties about masses of information which is then discarded so I don’t think the issue is as tied to new media as Goldsmith makes out. Whilst there is a huge amount of language on the web, there’s nothing to prevent us from exercising some discrimination in what we read.

Goldsmith’s creative work may be seen as a way of throwing language back at itself- of accumulating blocks of banal information that must of us don’t give a second thought to and repackaging it as ‘literary’ text for people like me to smile at and think about.  I don’t however think that this should be the only way to appropriate text. Whilst considering the feasibility of my project I sifted through many hundreds of pdfs I came across piece of information that was new to me (mainly about the behaviour of bullets and how proteins fold) which led me in a fairly disciplined way to understand how make the points I’m trying to get across. I would not have been able to do this five years ago without access to university libraries.

So, I don’t see that there’s anything new about the words problem but I do admire Goldsmith’s creative response. New technology is opening up information and knowledge in ways that we don’t yet understand and, with better indexing, the net will provide material for both the ‘new’ writing and greater context for the old.

3 responses to “Kenneth Goldsmith and the words problem

  1. Hey there,

    I remember reading those article’s of Goldsmith’s on Harriet and having some similar thoughts as you bring up here. Because at the time I was discussing his ‘provocations’ with some people I had written down some notes on his essays. Maybe you’ll be interested in them. In the first one my responses to Goldsmith come below the quoted sections.


    “The average American consumes 100,000 words of information in a single day. (By comparison, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was only 460,000 words long.) This doesn’t mean we read 100,000 words a day — it means that
    100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period. … this glut of language signifies a dramatic shift in our relationship to words.”

    – No I don’t think it really does. Or at least, I don’t think we should look at it as a shift for that volume-based reason. The human being as an organism has ALWAYS taken in more unfiltered data than it can process into information, and does so in every sense modality, not just sight or hearing in the case of words. So what if we mechanically taken in more words than ever – let’s say I’m an imagist poet. Do the words I see matter as much as the images I discern in the environment or the words affixable to those images? Where does the extreme of volume come it? Goldsmith is assuming that everyone should care about the materiality of words taken in its bluntest sense; though I am always interested by that idea and think the fear around words being treated purely as material is silly, still, I don’t care about the shapes on the page for the sake of their being shapes. At least, I am not doing visual poetry (neither is he) and I don’t think this phenomenon is at all new for visual poetry. Yeah, I see/intake minimally words everywhere, they’re used to sell shit, and the people putting these words into existence don’t “care” about them in the same way traditional poetics do. Yeah, people take all of this in all the time, sense flows to sense, and the
    words direct us through the day (often meaning is unneeded – they just point to other words). The thing is: I don’t see poems everywhere. If I did then I would not need to write poetry, though of course found poetry and collage elements is surely possible, as is wholly derivative poetry. Finding collage/derivative material to be abundant is not the same as finding “poems” everywhere however. If KG denies that poems exist ANYWHERE and it’s all just text then I really don’t have much to say to him or any reason to listen to him in regards to poetry. What I mean is…I think what he’s saying has more to do with linguistics or hardline cognitivism than it does literary art.

    “Never before has language had so much materiality — fluidity, plasticity, malleability — begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How
    different today when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into
    online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of email addresses and imported into a sound editing program and spit out as music; the possibilities are endless.”

    – Lots of arbitrary value judgments are easy to spot in how KG tells us this, lots of backwards-historicizing: “imprisoned”? Come on. First of all, I’m going to be stingily precise
    about the logic here: NO, the possibilities are NOT endless. If they were then there would be no way we could tell the difference between WHAT IT IS and WHAT IT COULD BE (and since KG does release books as particular texts, and he does put on visual art installations with titles, he seems to differentiate frequently), because otherwise there would be no boundary lines between the infinitude of translation regimes. If that were the case then what he’s saying wouldn’t matter. Translations require at least a shaky framework, and they are not as fluid as he suggests. You cannot just say “I’m
    translating it into THIS” and make THIS be whatever you want – if you did, then it would just be “I’m changing THIS”. Does KG translate when he transcribes directly and ‘uncreatively’? Of course he does. He changes context. He is creating a locus of attention on a shred of content. It is creativity whether he likes it or not, but I imagine he’s being facetious or just provocative when he decries creativity.

    “We need a way to manage it all, an ecosystem that can encompass language in its myriad forms.”

    – No we don’t? Why the hell would I want to manage an ecosystem, to reduce the diversity of phenomena in language according to transcription process or what have you? Who says I know what I’m doing? He should be saying that we need to identify in what ways the ecosystem manages us.

    “How can we discard something that might in another configuration be extremely valuable? As a result, we’ve become hoarders of data, hoping that at some point we’ll have a ‘use’ for it.”

    – This seems to me more to be a capitalist point of critique more than a virtual/textual one. The whole value investment thing. Is he assuming that hoarding is a good thing? Is he saying that we no longer have any justification to say “these are the right words for my poem and not just any other word will work”? Is any of that groundbreaking or surprising to anyone? If so, they need to do more reading/conversing/living outside of conceptual poetry’s texts.

    “The text cycle is primarily additive, spawning new texts continuously.”

    – I’d say that it is primarily synthetic. If we look at the digital and virtual as it really is, a lexical ordering matrix, then nothing is really being added – bare text-possibility is being rearranged or reproduced, but not added to.
    Again this just shows his technological fetishization, which can be seen as a lust for the late capitalist churn of production and its immortality. Does he think that material growth can go on forever? That hard drives will get bigger and bigger? (He’s wrong – there are upper limits for processing speeds and storage capacity dependent on the Columb barrier of the silicon atoms, for one example.) I don’t deny that there’s an additive mechanism at some level – I just think it’s silly to say that it lies IN THE TEXT. It either lies in meaning, or it lies in us. And he’s clearly an anti-humanist (or post-humanist or whatever) so he wouldn’t like that latter option. He’s all about software first, hardware second, and the fact that either exist at all…last? Ignored? Who built the lexicon and for what end?

    “The morass of language does not deplete, rather it creates a wider, rhizomatic ecology, leading to a continuous and infinite variety of
    textual occurrences and interactions across both the network and the local environment.”

    – Let me speak a bit from what I know about ecological theory from my classes. We can picture this flow of energy in an ecosystem’s trophic structure that he’s using as a metaphor for the textual network. But does he know that the vast majority of energy is wasted or rather selected for by the system? In a forest detritus is
    the largest energy sink, and it’s irretrievable by that ecosytem’s higher order species. Perhaps a NEW trophic structure will emerge through new colonizers and their unique way to harvest former sinks – like we did with oil. But he acts as if there is this utopic freedom of movement for energy. Unfortunately, every step up in the trophic structure of consumption signals an average of 90% energy loss, so that a 5th level predator, a lynx for example, is literally the minuscule remainder of what its energetic cycle
    manages to grab onto. Maybe KG is in love with the piss of aphids. (In an orchard you will run into this occurrence quite often.) He thinks we should poke around the stickiness of aphid piss and make everything out of aphid piss. I however also want to able to look to the lynx, the complex and utterly symbol-rich and equally autonomous, free-of-symbol BEING. Or to a cleft in the landscape. Etc. Language is not a morass in terms of meaning. We can be remarkably clear on meaning, what we mean and what others mean, without language. Sensicality is the real morass. And what does he MEAN when he shows an interest in sensicality?

    • Thanks for these responses Colin, I’ ll try to give a bit more ‘edge’ to my own thoughts on this- it seems to me that Goldsmith’s fundamental premise is incorrect and this leads him to make points which are based on that error and are also wrong.
      By ‘wrong’ I mean at variance with the facts and this is odd because his creative work shows that he’s very, very clever. The fact is that for centuries people have expressed doubt and concern about the amount of text in the world and this will continue because it will always seem that there is too much to ‘manage’. The technological advances made over the last forty years have not created that much more text although they have enabled greater efficiency in the storage and manipulation of data and I think Goldsmith knowingly conflates the two.
      If we accept, as we should, that nothing critical has occurred to text in the recent past then all the rest of the points that your rightly dissect fall away. I’m also suspicious of those who use a faux apocalyptic tone when dealing with these issues.
      None of this detracts from my view that some of Goldsmith’s creative work is of high quality and worthy of greater exposure. Someone had to do it……



  2. And here’s the one on the essay you mention…


    First of all – the notion of provisional language as he presents it, as a levelling phenomenon, is not really as new as he purports it to be.
    Heidegger was talking about this in Being and Time (when he talks about “the They”) back in 1926, and he got that from Kierkegaard the century before that. The German mystical schools of the 14th-ish century (Eckhart, Suso, Julian of Norwich, Hildegarde of Bingen) were all criticized for demeaning the power
    of Latin by writing sermons that, being in the colloquial, were substitutable and excessive and temporary (because Latin was the eternal
    language of course). Do eternal languages always spawn provisional ones? Is provisionality eternal as a generative capacity OF the eternal, its seemingly pointless abundance, something that we simply cannot yet approach but are drawn to because of its essential futurism? Provisionality seems to me to be a framing of language that ANY culture at ANY moment is open to, that denies the immortality of the eternal language but allows a future for it at the same time by claiming that provisionality WILL NOW BECOME an eternal character of language. Is a provisional language louder or quieter than its alternatives? If there
    ARE no alternatives (not sure what Goldsmith would feel about that) then I don’t see how it can BE provisional in the sense with which he uses it (standing in for the old).

    Again, the “traditional writer’s solitary lair” he talks about is a stereotypical description of the past that ignores salon literary communities, the communal role of occasional poetry, the birth of literature in in shared folklore: because of this incorrect depiction of the isolated writer he sets up the present as something other than it is. I don’t know of any “solitary writer” who did
    great work while NOT being immersed in language networks of the kinds Goldsmith doesn’t touch on, say, the history of literature as a sort of Valhalla to be drawn upon, or some such non-virtual repository of building blocks for a text. And I find that the concept of virtual is pretty poorly understood as its technological basis goes. People treat it as a gate to nothingness or something. I mean, at bottom, “the virtual” is made of the exact same stuff as the real, whatever that is (leptons in conjunction with baryonic matter most probably) – for example my poem that exists purely as a .doc file isn’t hovering in some sort of nether dimension; it’s suspended in magnetic fields whose continuity around the diodes of my hard drive can be replicated in other diodes given a certain pattern of electric charges.
    The poem on paper is suspended in flat dried pulp with a wooden spine and glue which gives off the right kinds of electromagnetic radiation, which our eyes can pick up. The poem memorized and existent only in the mind is suspended in a neural network whose basic mechanism centers around the alteration of
    salt levels within fatty and proteinous cells that cascades into high level phenomena (somehow). The poem passed around by tongue alone is
    suspended in the specific material vibrations our throats/tongues/lips can make in a bath of relatively solid atmosphere. I mean, I’m just taking it from a materialist standpoint, because that’s the standpoint KG depends on to be remotely interesting.

    What I’m trying to say is that his approach to provisional language acts as if we can say: “Ha! Digital globalization and new virtual mediums have undone everything the old guard thinks these words should do! I don’t quite buy that. I find it interesting that he says that originality is UNTRACEABLE, and not IMPOSSIBLE. But when hasn’t that been the case at some degree?

    I guess I feel like the Goldsmith approach in that article and on the whole considers the world today to be fundamentally different than the world 50 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 1000…I don’t see any reason to think so that is not just a showman’s parsing of events or a question of scale and perspective.

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