Cultural Theory and Concepts

Learning from Kenneth Goldsmith

By Jan Baetens

In 1972, Robert Venturi helped us to “learn from Las Vegas”, and architecture was no longer the same. Since more than two decades, Kenneth Goldsmith forces us to rethink writing, and one cannot insist enough on the necessity to learn from him.


But who is Kenneth Goldsmith? First of all a pioneer of digital archiving. The “Ubuweb” (Ubu being both an institutional reference –University of Buffalo– and a nod to Alfred Jarry’s “merdre” character) he created – almost singlehandedly – is the most important multimedia archive of historical and contemporary avant-garde documents (all in open access, all for free). Second, one of the most outstanding practitioners of “uncreative writing” –a term coined in collaboration with Marjorie Perloff, the author of a groundbreaking study, Uncreative Genius (Chicago UP, 2010), on all those who invent by reusing, reappropriating, and reshaping existing textual material. Goldsmith has made important theoretical contributions to this strand of theory and criticism as well, but he is best known for the stunning “uncreative” works he produced himself, such as for instance Seven American Deaths and Disasters (Powerhouse books, 2013), in which he transcribes historic radio and television reports of national tragedies as they unfurl. The result appears to be dramatically different from what we expect, for these reports are discussing much more than just the actualities: they offer an inside view of ways of speaking and thinking that go unnoticed but that here come to the forefront. Third, he is also one of those who have radically blurred the twin fields of writing and imaging, refusing to make distinctions between our way of making pictures (with cameras) and texts (with word processing machines).

But what does Kenneth Goldsmith actually do when he starts copying and pasting texts? The most important rule he follows is that of completeness. Instead of taking out fragments or excerpts, he tries to reproduce complete files (he is infamously known for having transcribed literally every word of a single issue of the NYT in his book Day (Figures, 2003). Exhaustive? Yes. Exhausting? Yes. Boring? Yes. Fascinating. Absolutely…

Goldsmith’s reuse of a given archive, which is of course never chosen at random, involves a double shift. The first one is formal. Normally, when we reuse archives, we are looking for items that we can put after that in lists. This approach is mainly lexical. Goldsmith, on the contrary, emphasizes issues of syntax, the main problem being the rearranging and reordering of the material. The second one is semantic. Normally, archive fans are always in search of “jewels”, be they aesthetically or historically rewarding and exceptional or just weird or bizarre. In short, the archive is a kind of reservoir of masterpieces, and once these masterpieces have been identified one is allowed to forget about the rest. Unlike this anthologizing approach, Goldsmith’s work is interested in the crude repetition of what is apparently and untenably banal, yet this very repetition often produces totally unforeseen and surprising effects.

No one goes as much against the grain as Kenneth Goldsmith, even in an era where everybody claims to do something with ready-mades, sampling and reappropriationist art. What his work teaches us, is not to look for the “exceptional”, but to produce it by looking very closely at the totally unexceptional.

A concluding remark: does all this have something to do with “big data”? Not at all? For “big data” research does not ask the questions Goldsmith is asking. It does not work with the archive as a real text (a big data archive is just a reservoir for something different, which by the way offers only rarely surprising findings). It does not take risks, for example, of being boring.

(this text is the complete “transcription” of a pitch given at the Leuven hackathon of “E-Space Photography” on Feb. 25th 2016)