Review of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age by Kenneth Goldsmith
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Digital technologies have been changing the world of publishing in obvious ways and in not-so-obvious ways for the past several decades. Today, texts and other media can be copied, edited, remixed, and globally distributed again and again with relative ease. Kenneth Goldsmith’s book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, explores a few of the less obvious implications of digital media and asks questions about where the lines between authorship and appropriation should be drawn—or whether they should be drawn at all.
Goldsmith—a poet, author, editor, and writing professor at University of Pennsylvania—is concerned with the fact that “most writing proceeds as if the internet had never happened” (6). But clearly, the Internet has happened. And the examples Goldsmith explores in Uncreative Writing seem to have either presaged or, having appeared more recently, taken full advantage of the techniques the web enables. Goldsmith’s collection forms a kind of anecdotal curiosity shop, displaying fascinating instances of new media composition and shining a thoughtful light on the ways old media—particularly in visual and performance art—have already blazed trails in digital directions. According to Goldsmith, conventional literary practices have some catching up to do. Uncreative Writing presents several examples of ways in which that catching up might be accomplished. Goldsmith attempts to show that sampling, copying, and appropriation have been the norm in other artistic mediums for decades. Taking full advantage of digital remix culture is one way the literary world is following suit.
Remixing, reusing, repurposing, recopying, reframing, repeating, and regurgitating all become themes throughout Uncreative Writing. The focus is on the “Re” here—“doing something over.” Attendant to these ideas of reuse are the ever-present controversies of authorship, ownership, and copyright. Kenneth’s treatment of these ideas is reminiscent of other similarly focused works: David Shield’s Reality Hunger and Austin Kleon’s How to Steal Like an Artist are two examples. These works also explore the creative consequences (good and bad) of appropriation and copyright. Goldsmith’s perspective twists and breaks conventional notions of creativity. He discovers that even in re-enactment, a creative dimension emerges. “Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother's cancer operation. It's just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices” (9). Goldsmith’s musings on “Managing Language in the Digital Age” nudge his readers closer to valuing the choices he says we have not been taught to value.
The book’s twelve chapters traverse topics from the materiality, mutability, and instability of language to the transformation of the mundane and mechanical into legitimate art. Goldsmith’s engrossing introduction situates the main text alongside recent events such as the scandal involving James Frey’s “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, as well as among more established scholarship such as that of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Goldsmith piques his reader’s interest by describing, briefly, some of the odd and intriguing examples he will later discuss in detail: a blog made up of daily re-typed pages from Kerouac’s On the Road, and a defense attorney’s legal briefs poured into poem form, to name just two examples (3).
The first chapter, “Revenge of the Text,” peels away our usual understanding of language and opens up the definition to include code, bits, bytes, and the raw information behind images, video, and sound. This information is its own kind of language, with its own systems of encoding and decoding. It can be handled as mere storage, or it can be manipulated in surprising ways. What do the results of this odd manipulation imply? Does the manipulation mean anything? The second chapter, “Language as Material,” continues this theme of manipulating the very substance of language. Here, Goldsmith makes a point of noticing the “how” of language—the methods, frames, and superficiality of words. Later, in “Provisional Language,” Goldsmith returns to this concept, relegating language to the status of dirt beneath our feet. He says, “Because words today are cheap and infinitely produced, they are detritus, signifying little, meaning less” (218). We are at the mercy of all this accumulating language; its mass exerts an undeniable pull on the way we live, work, and create.
The third chapter, “Anticipating Instability,” explores the mutability of language even further, exploring how the forms of textual representation change due to perception, reinterpretation, adaptation, translation, transposition, disfiguration, infiltration, and arbitrary rearrangement. These possibilities for transformation introduce a (threatening?) instability. What we see one way can be so easily morphed into something different by anyone with any inclination. Are we—as writers, publishers, and educators—comfortable with these possibilities? Why or why shouldn’t we be?
The inherent instability of the creative process is made even clearer as Goldsmith traces the careers of Sol LeWitt and Andy Warhol in the sixth chapter, “Infallible Processes.” Here, Goldsmith explains LeWitt’s use of artistic “recipes”: sets of (often vague) written instructions from the conceptual artist, meant to be carried out by others. The idea of built-in delegation implies a clear distinction between concept and method. The way Goldsmith talks about the artist as mere “draftsman”—following instructions, yet adding randomness where those instructions fall short or display ambiguity—brings to mind monkeys at typewriters. It is as if by merely combining an idea, the right technology, and any ability at all, something interesting is bound to happen. The work of these visual artists and their unique approaches to creation are laid out as precursors to the kinds of digital methods that so interest Goldsmith today.
In the second half of Uncreative Writing, perhaps as a transition from the poly-creative art of LeWitt and Warhol into the more mechanical issues, Goldsmith gives us “Retyping On the Road”—a chapter devoted to one man’s quest to “get inside Jack Kerouac’s head.” The project, carried out by Simon Morris, was actually inspired by Goldsmith’s account of an unimaginative creative writing workshop where students were asked to write in their own words, but in the style of their favorite author. Wouldn’t copying the author’s exact words, as well as his style, be even more effective? Goldsmith ponders. Morris makes a dedicated and ultimately successful attempt; the blog comprised of each day's one-page dose of Kerouac is still available online, and has since been published in print. In a weird example of recursivity, a student named Emily began re-typing Morris's posts in the comments section for about two weeks, having been inspired by her own class assignment. These attempts to “get inside” another author’s head by copying their work may not reflect the motives of most plagiarists, but they certainly raise questions about what might be learned from these blatantly uncreative acts.
Three chapters address the growing tendencies of authors to take the most mundane details from daily life and turn them into poetry. In “Toward a Poetics of Hyperrealism” and “The Inventory and the Ambient,” Goldsmith dives into the minutiae of everyday life, exploring how poets—often assuming voices other than what we might think of as their own—go about cataloguing the quotidian, and by doing so transform those details into statements of beauty and expression. Here the work of Vanessa Place, an attorney who transforms her case files into poetry, is juxtaposed with a 1930s collection of versified court testimonies. With example after example featuring this kind of “documentation as art,” Goldsmith asks us to consider, “How real is too real?” The third of these chapters, “Why Appropriation?” analyzes the myriad reasons for making use of existing, unoriginal content. Here, among other examples—one of which is his own alternate presentation of one day’s newspaper—Goldsmith cites Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project as a “proto-hypertextual work” (115). This early twentieth-century work serves as a road map for the kinds of appropriation that continue today, facilitated so neatly by digital media.
Moving beyond these computer-aided collections of data, Goldsmith transitions on to the idea of computer-authored works. “Parsing the New Illegibility” and “Seeding the Data Cloud” take up the themes of filtration and selection as expression, but this time spin the dial toward the purposefully dense, meaningless, impossibly comprehensive and difficult. Many of his examples here focus on the machine rather than the human. But again, Goldsmith uses pre-digital examples—in this case Gertrude Stein’s novel, The Making of Americans, and other projects of likewise enormous scope—to lend a sense of precedence to the managing and manipulation of massively incomprehensible amounts of data. Goldsmith refers to these texts as ones that are “not meant to be read,” but more “to be thought about” (158). Considering the less conventional ways readers interact with and consume texts, he also observes: “Our reading habits seem to be imitating the way machines work by grazing dense texts for keywords” (158). One implication of this style of text consumption is that our creative and composition habits may be leaning this way as well: copying, pasting, finding-and-replacing. Here we no longer have monkeys at typewriters, but bots and spiders, clicking away to produce the next Shakespeare. These chapters brought to mind the web applications “thatcan.be” and “thatcan.be/my/next/tweet,” where with a minimal amount of user input, the site generates a simple slideshow or a cryptic amalgam of past Twitter statuses, all compiled by machine.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing concepts behind this book is one Goldsmith saves for his penultimate chapter, “Uncreative Writing in the Classroom.” The course description for his Uncreative Writing class nods to the digital trends that are encroaching upon traditional ways of thinking about creation and creativity. Through a series of uncreative exercises, Goldsmith attempts to train his students to be “unoriginal geniuses,” allowing them opportunities to examine firsthand what it means to contribute to the emerging literary traditions of copying and appropriation (217). This class and the book which shares its name are both “attempt[s] to map those territories, define terminologies, and create contexts . . . in which these works can be situated and discussed” (11). The discussions in Uncreative Writing, in combination with Goldsmith’s class at the University of Pennsylvania, make space for further exploration by future scholars inspired by these experimental concepts.
Uncreative Writing is newly published by Columbia University Press, and sadly its composition at times seems careless and its presentation full of distracting typographical errors. Subject/verb disagreements and strange omissions jump out on nearly every page. A more carefully proofread second edition would be very welcome. Overall, Goldsmith balances the new with the old very well, reminding us that changes in how we manage words are inevitable and not to be feared: the ecologies of art and literature have been evolving for generations. Goldsmith may be right in stating that at this moment in history, literature needs to work harder to keep up with “the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time” (7). Certainly his examples succeed in opening up and making transparent the notions of textuality that we take for granted. While many of our current approaches go without saying, Goldsmith invites us to start talking about them and taking them more seriously.
Amelia Chesley assists the editors at Texas Tech University Press while taking classes towards a Master of Arts in Technical Communication. She blogs about her writing and design projects at http://plaidsicle.blogspot.com/.
- Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.