THE BELIEVER: With the vast amount of written and recorded material now available online for the taking, is there no need to create any original content? Can we get by with only remixing from here on? Has everything there is to say really been said?

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: We’re living in a time when the sheer amount of language has exponentially increased. As writers, if we wish to be contemporary, I think we need to acknowledge that the very nature of the materials that we’re working with—the landscape of language—is very different than it was a few decades ago. It seems to call into question the way we write and the environment into which we’re writing and distributing our works. Not only that, but our entire digital world is made up of alphanumeric language (the 1s and 0s of computing). You know sometimes when you receive a JPEG in an email and it comes in wrong, appearing as garbled text instead of an image? It’s a reminder that all of our media now is made of language: our films, our music, our images, and of course our words. How different this is from analog production, where, if you were somehow able to peel back the emulsion from, say, a photograph, you wouldn’t find a speck of language lurking below the surface. The interesting thing is that now you can open a JPEG in a text editor, dump in a bunch of language, and reopen it as an image, and you’ll find that the image has completely been changed—all as a result of active language. This is so new, and the implications for writing are so profound and paradigmatic. Suddenly, language is material to shape and mold, not only a transparent or invisible medium for communication, business contracts, or telling stories. Language has many dimensions; we’re seeing the materiality of words emerge in new and interesting ways. But I don’t wish to be prescriptive here. Of course, wonderful stories remain to be told and new ideas to be written. After all, for all my talk of “uncreativity” and “unoriginality,” isn’t what I’m pointing out here in conventional language something new and original? Paradoxes abound.

BLVR: Well, it’s really a historical accident that when we look inside a JPEG, the visual representation of the file is a long string of letters. But this reminds me of Hebrew, where the same characters are used to represent numbers and letters, and that chance relationship (I guess some people would question whether it’s really chance) has been explored or exploited by mystics and numerologists. Do you see similar possibilities here for hybrid texts—images that have verbal messages encoded in them, or texts that also form images or pictures when viewed with the right software?

KG: Absolutely. It’s a favorite method of encryption: chunking revolutionary documents inside a mess of JPEG or MP3 code and emailing it off as an “image” or a “song.” But besides functionality, code also possesses literary value. If we frame that code and read it through the lens of literary criticism, we will find that the past hundred years of modernist and postmodernist writing have demonstrated the artistic value of similar seemingly arbitrary arrangements of letters. For example, here’s three lines of a JPEG opened in a text editor:

ˆ?ÎjÔIfl¥d4 ̇‡À,†ÑÎóajËqsõëY” ̋/ å)1Í.§ÏÄ@ ̇’JCGOn aå$ë¶æQÍ ̋5ô’5å p#n›=ÃWmÃflÓàüú*Êœi”›_$îÛμ}Tß‹æ ́’[“Ò*äˇ §s}é{_ Í=äÖ;Í’’Õ ¢ø¥}è&£S ̈Æ›ëÉk©ı=/ Á ̋/” ̇ûöÈ>ad_ïÉúö ̇Ì—éÆ’aø6aÿ-

Of course, a close reading of the text reveals very little, semantically or narratively. Instead, a conventional glance at the piece reveals a nonsensical collection of letters and symbols, literally a code that might be deciphered into something sensible. Yet what happens when sense is not foregrounded as being of primary importance? Instead, we need to ask other questions of the text. Now, here are three lines from a poem by Charles Bernstein, called “Lift Off,” written in 1979:

HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineocpcy i iibalfmgmMw er,,me”ius ieigorcy¢jeuvine+pee.)a/nat” ihl”n,s ortnsihcldseløøpitemoBruce-oOiwvewaa39osoanfJ++,r”P

The poem is intentionally bereft of literary tropes and conveyances of human emotion, and Bernstein chooses to foreground the workings of a machine, rather than the sentiments of a human. In fact, the piece is what its title says it is: a transcription of everything lifted off a page with a correction tape from a manual typewriter. Bernstein’s poem is, in some sense, code posing as a poem.

BLVR: For conceptual writing, do you feel that one source of material is as good as any other? Will the choice of material, or for that matter the form of recontextualization, become the new artistry?

KG: In the 1960s, Sol LeWitt said something like “Conceptual art is only good if the idea is good.” I think that conceptual writing would agree, at least the best of it would. Like anything else, conceptual writing is looking for that “Aha!” moment, when something so simple, right under our noses, is revealed as being awe-inspiring, profound, and transcendent. I think that writers often try too hard in the name of expression, when often it’s just a matter of reframing what’s around you or republishing a preexisting text into a new environment that makes for a successful work. Of course this is nothing new: think of John Cage’s notion of silence or Duchamp’s urinal. But when it comes to writing, these approaches have rarely been investigated.

 From an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith (October 2011).

Tomorrow, July 26th, marks the start day of Kenneth Goldsmith’s project to print out the internet, which you can see more about hereAlso see him on last Tuesday’s Colbert Report

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