Monday, September 28, 2015

On Alec Wilkenson's New Yorker Piece on Kenneth Goldsmith

Alec Wilkinson's forgiving and sympathetic piece on Kenneth Goldsmith has recently made the poetry rounds and came across my various feeds this morning. I read it. The piece raises many of the concerns about the whiteness of the Conceptualism movement, and about the avant garde poetics of North America's past fifteen years or so. The piece also gives Goldsmith ample space to explain his motivations behind the performance of "The Murdered Body of Mike Brown's Medical Report" last March, 2015. 

Goldsmith makes his living as a writer of, as he coins it, "uncreative writing," wherein most text produced is found and resituated. Fair enough. Remarkable insights can be gained when familiar texts get defamiliarized; in fact, any poem that fails to perform that shift fails also to really be a poem. Goldsmith's work has been remarkable in that he strives to defamilarize not only the text, but its media, as seen in his work Day, in which he retypes an issue of the New York Times into a standard (but lengthy) codex book. 

It's this attention to recontextualizing media that not only serves to fuel Goldsmith's work, but also to undermine the work. According to Wilkinson, Goldsmith sought to apply his techniques to a "hot" text. That term explicitly flags Goldsmith's interest in treating such a text as a McLuhanesque media; hot as interactive and as a site of sensory overload. Goldsmith's performance quickly got hot in another sense, as he became a focal point for racialized America's fury over the continued mistreatment of its young, black men by powerful, white men and their institutions. 

Conceptualism sought to replace Modernism as an antiquated mode devolved to analysis of granular units of meaning. By replacing content with context, the Conceptualists draw attention to the inherent fact of 21st Century North American life; that everything known is online, thus granular, thus recontextualized as motes of static and irreducible except as modes, or media. This is the age of both meta- and mega-data, and Goldsmith's work has habitually drawn attention to the way text works in our time, and done so effectively, which has (as Wilkinson points out) valorized Goldsmith in Academia. 

The experiment fails, however, when Goldsmith signals that such out-dated modernisms as hot or cold media provide the motive force behind his work. McLuhan is old, and his work has long since been understood as useful only within a remedial context of understanding media as representative of human communication; the sort of thing one learns in a first-year Communications class. Media no more replace human experience than Baudrillard's simulacra do. 

Race theorists understand this. Feminists understand this. Gender and power theorists understand this. Apparently, however, Goldsmith did not understand this, and in not understanding it, he proceeds to shift his artistic attention from his own cold, white manhood and reading practices, to the "hot," racialized and contentious body of a dead, young man who had been brutalized by white guys with power. 

By viewing Brown's body as a text the same way that he had previously viewed his own body in such works as Soliloquay and Fidget, Goldsmith dehumanizes Brown. By doing so and ignoring his own position of race and institutionalized privilege, Goldsmith dehumanizes Brown. By inserting unflattering comments about Brown's genitalia that appear differently than their context in the coroner's report, Goldsmith dehumanizes Brown and reveals his own insecurities. By doing all of this when Brown's body remains a focal point of trauma, Goldsmith dehumanizes Brown and disregards those for whom Brown's most important contribution to American culture is the very body that Goldsmith dehumanizes, even as that body gets appropriated as a simulacrum by people who self-identify with it because of their own bodies. 

Goldsmith admits making a mistake to Wilkinson, but does not clarify what that mistake is, at least not in Wilkinson's article. One of the great failings of Modernism remains its investment in things, in the concrete, in the quotidian details of lived experience, at the expense of what modernists viewed as the overly sentimental investment in emotion evidenced by their Romantic forbears. Conceptualism sought to reclaim context without investing either in granular things, or subjective emotions, but by disregarding his own context, and by disregarding the lived context of his actual, human subject, Kenneth Goldsmith fails both that context and his own movement. He becomes just another white relic from a context whose time has passed. 

I cannot fault anyone who refuses to forgive Goldsmith this trespass against the body of Michael Brown. Conversely, I agree with Goldsmith's assertion that the role of the artist is to provoke; certainly, as an agent provocateur, he has performed this role with aplomb. Many artists and poets have declared their intention to do whatever is necessary to disrupt Goldsmith's career, of whom the anonymous Mongrel Coalition stands as one singular voice among those many. Is such action justified? It strikes me that, whether they like it or not, whether Goldsmith likes it or not, such continued attention to his work will only serve to enable his provocations further. That, after all, is the nature of media.