Brain Pickings

Uncreative Writing: Redefining Language and Authorship in the Digital Age

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“An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.”

“And your way, is it really YOUR way?,” Henry Miller famously asked. “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Mark Twain consoled Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism. Even our brains might be wired for the necessary forgettings of creativity. What, then, is the value of “originality” — or even its definition?

A recent interview on The Awl reminded me of a wonderful book by Kenneth Goldsmith — MoMA’s first poetry laureate, founder of the massive grassroots audio archive Ubu Web, and professor at my alma mater, UPenn’s Kelly Writers House — titled Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (public library; UK). Much like Vannevar Bush did in 1945 when he envisioned the future of knowledge and presaged the value of what he poetically termed “trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Goldsmith examines the importance of sorting existing ideas and makes a case for the cultural value of stealing like an artist, particularly as we’re building our new literary canon.

Goldsmith writes in the introduction:

In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as ‘The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through the thicket of information — how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it — is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

He samples a beautiful concept that broadens our definition of genius:

Literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term unoriginal genius to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic isolated figure — is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, moving information, to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

(Though, one might argue, information is only valuable when it’s synthesized into knowledge, which is then in turn transmuted into wisdom — so, perhaps, an even better concept would be moving wisdom.)

Goldsmith goes on to examine how technology has sparked a new culture of transformation as authorship:

Today, technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing … inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name but a few.

[…]

There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, i would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creators.

Except, of course, none of this is new. We already know that as far back as the Middle Ages, authors were making remarkable florilegia, the Tumblrs of their day, by literally cutting and pasting text from existing manuscripts to create entirely new contexts.

Still, Goldsmith is careful not to disparage traditional literature but laments the stale values it has instilled in us:

I’m not saying that such writing should be discarded. . . . But I’m sensing that literature — infinite in its potential of ranges and expression — is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment — and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn’t imagined.

Perhaps one reason writing is stuck might be the way creative writing is taught. In regard to the many sophisticated ideas concerning media, identity, and sampling developed over the past century, books about how to be a creative writer have completely missed the boat, relying on clichéd notions of what it means to be ‘creative.’

For the past several years, Goldsmith has been teaching a Penn class after which the book is titled, inverting the paradigm of traditional “creative writing” courses. His students are penalized for any semblance of originality and “creativity,” and rewarded for plagiarism, repurposing, sampling, and outright stealing. But as counterproductive and blasphemous as this may sound, it turns out to be a gateway to something unusual yet inevitable, that certain slot machine quality of creativity:

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. 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. After a semester of forcibly suppressing a student’s ‘creativity’ by making them plagiarize and transcribe, she will approach me with a sad face at the end of the semester, telling me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being ‘creative,’ she produced the most creative body of work writing in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity — the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training — she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Goldsmith echoes legendary designer Charles Eames, who famously advised to “innovate only as a last resort,” and writes:

Having worked in advertising for many years as a ‘creative director,’ I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity — as [it has] been defined by our culture with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films — is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the ‘creative class’ but also as a member of the ‘artistic class.’ Living when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time to question and tear down such clichés and lay them on the floor in front of us, then reconstruct these smoldering embers into something new, something contemporary, something — finally — relevant.

In addressing the most common contestations to his ideas about accepting all language as poetry by mere reframing — about what happens to the notion of authorship, about how careers and canons are to be established, about whether the heart of literature is reducible to mere algorithms — Goldsmith seconds a sentiment French polymath Henri Poincaré shared more then a century ago when he noted that to create is merely to choose wisely from the existing pool of ideas:

What becomes important is what you — the author — [decide] to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and — more important — what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by mere reframing — an exciting possibility — then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best. I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all the words may be created equal — and thus treated — the way in which they’re assembled isn’t; it’s impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication [don't] eradicate authorship, rather they simply place new demands on authors who must take these new conditions into account as part and parcel of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: if you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online.

Ultimately, he argues that all of this is about the evolution — rather than the destruction — of authorship:

In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting. And he might still be right: in the art world, since impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Yet the conditions of digital culture have unexpectedly forced a collision, scrambling the once-sure footing of both camps. Suddenly, we all find ourselves in the same boat grappling with new questions concerning authorship, originality, and the way meaning is forged.

The rest of Uncreative Writing goes on to explore the history of appropriation in art, the emerging interchangeability between words and images in digital culture, the challenges of defining one’s identity in the vastness of the online environment, and many other pressing facets of what it means to be a writer — or, even more broadly, a creator — in the age of the internet. Complement it with the equally subversive How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Photographs: Cameron Wittig (top); Grand Life Hotels (bottom)

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