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13 FEBRUARY, 2013

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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13 FEBRUARY, 2013

High Times: An Illustrated History of Aviation

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From Icarus to the Wright Brothers, by way of hot air balloons and dirigibles.

After their wonderful illustrated chronicle of the Space Race, British indie press Nobrow — who gave us Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land, one of the best art books of 2012 — have tapped Berlin-based illustrator duo Golden Cosmo to bring us High Times: A History of Aviation (public library; UK) — a gorgeous fold-out panorama tracing the evolution of human flight, from the mythical attempts of Icarus to the technological breakthroughs of the Jet Age, by way of hot air balloons and dirigibles.

If Golden Cosmos — composed of German artistic couple Daniel Doltz and Doris Freigofas — seems familiar, it’s because they regularly contribute to the op-ed pages of The New York Times. Their style, at once singular and evocative of mid-century children’s illustration, imbues the historical timeline with whole new levels of vibrancy.

High Times comes from Nobrow’s wonderful Leporello series, which also includes Bicycle, inspired by the 2012 Olympics, and the forthcoming Worse Things Happen at Sea, inspired by the tales of doomed voyages passed down across generations of sailors.

Images courtesy Nobrow Press

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12 FEBRUARY, 2013

A Graphic Biography of Darwin

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The evolution of the father of evolution, illustrated.

Charles Darwin — father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, occasional grump — was born on February 12, 1809. From Smithsonian Books comes Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library; UK) — a fine addition to outstanding graphic nonfiction, joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs. Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

Complement Darwin: A Graphic Biography with the legendary naturalist’s original list of the the pros and cons of marriage, then revisit the best graphic novels of 2012.

Images courtesy Smithsonian Books

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11 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Quicksand of Existence: Sylvia Plath on Life, Death, Hope, and Happiness

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“The present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead.”

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, “an addict of experience” — took her own life at the age of thirty. Though some have argued that Plath has been “flattened into the prototype of the mentally tormented poet, the betrayed woman, the tragic literary blonde,” and suicide is always challenging to talk about in causal terms, Plath’s private writing reveals a complex and, indeed, tormented woman whose constant struggle to understand the meaning of life took an increasingly melancholy turn.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library; UK) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life — also gives us a record of her incessant oscillation between hope and hopelessness. In an entry from the summer of 1950, 18-year-old Plath adds to history’s finest private moments of everyday happiness:

‘We only begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy…’ W. B. Yeats

‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…’ James Joyce

[…]

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…

But in the fall of that year, in a despondent and peculiarly punctuated stream-of-consciousness passage, Plath ponders:

Not to be sentimental, as I sound, but why the hell are we conditioned into the smooth strawberry-and-cream Mother-Goose-world, Alice-in-Wonderland fable, only to be broken on the wheel as we grow older and become aware of ourselves as individuals with a dull responsibility in life? … * to go to college fraternity parties where a boy buries his face in your neck or tries to rape you if he isn’t satisfied with burying his fingers in the flesh of your breast. * to learn that there are a million girls who are beautiful and each day that more leave behind the awkward teen-age stage, as you once did, to embark on the adventure of being loved and petted. * to be aware that you must compete somehow, and yet that wealth and beauty are not in your realm. … * to learn that you can’t be a revolutionary. * to learn that while you dream and believe in Utopia, you will scratch & scrabble for your daily bread in your home town and be damn glad if there’s butter on it. … * to have won $100 for writing a story and not believe that I am the one who wrote it. … * to know that millions of others are unhappy and that life is a gentleman’s agreement to grin and paint your face gay so others will feel they are silly to be unhappy, and try to catch the contagion of joy, while inside so many are dying of bitterness and unfulfillment. * to take a walk with Marcia Brown and love her for her exuberance, to catch some of it, because it’s real, and once again love life day by day, color by color, touch by touch, because you’ve got a body & mind to exercise & use it as much as you can, never mind whose [sic] got a better or worse body & mind, but stretch yours as far as you can.

Another entry bespeaks her dissonant, conflicted relationship with life and death in increasingly poetic, if heartbreaking in retrospect, language:

With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.

But perhaps most poignant of all is this meditation on the ineffable:

There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me, as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding, waiting for me to grasp it. It is the same tantalizing sensation when you almost remember a name, but don’t quite reach it. I can feel it when I think of human beings, of the hints of evolution suggested by the removal of wisdom teeth, the narrowing of the jaw no longer needed to chew such roughage as it was accustomed to; the gradual disappearance of hair from the human body; the adjustment of the human eye to the fine print, the swift, colored motion of the twentieth century. The feeling comes, vague and nebulous, when I consider the prolonged adolesence [sic] of our species; the rites of birth, marriage and death; all the primitive, barbaric ceremonies streamlined to modern times. Almost, I think, the unreasoning, bestial purity was best. Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.

To celebrate Plath’s life and legacy, I asked my ineffably talented friend Wendy MacNaughton — whose hand-lettered drawings of Susan Sontag on art and on love you might recall — to illustrate Plath’s vortex of literary influences, in the vein of our prior Circles of Influence collaboration. Enjoy:

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