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Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics


scott pound

Language is easy to capture but difficult to read.

John Cayley, Terms of Reference & Vectoralist Transgressions


refers to himself as a word processor, makes mundane yet
strangely enthralling poetry out of transcribed speechworks
that testify to both the monumental tedium and the incredible vital
ity of what he calls the wide world of available language (Con
versation).1 His method of composition is simple transcription. He
identifies the species or form of language he wants to use, and then
instances of it are collected, collated, or captured on tape and par
layed into textual form, as is. The only thing I need to do before I
die, Goldsmith has said, is to capture and transcribe all the varie
ties and amount of available language around the world (Stepping
Out 96). In the most basic sense, his aim is to freeze authorial sub
jectivity by automating composition, allowing the author, not just
the artist, to live Andy Warhols dream (I want to be a machine).
In place of authorial subjectivity, Goldsmith extols uncreativity
and being boring as new benchmarks of literary achievement.2
No doubt, there is some gimmickry to these claims. How boring
are Goldsmiths books? Not very. Bookforum describes Goldsmiths
poetic project as utterly intoxicating (Jones). Eric Belgum describes
SCOTT POUNDis associate professor of No. 111 as a page-turner; Craig Dworkin notes that Goldsmiths
Eng lish at Lakehead University and a
transcriptions often make for terrific reading (12); and, as Molly
founding coeditor (with Darren Wershler)
of Amodern. He is completing a book
Schwartzburg observes, [e]ven Day is surprisingly interesting (28).
manuscript entitled On Speech: Inter Nor, for that matter, is uncreativity necessarily uncreative. Uncre
media Poetics and the Reinvention of the ativity may be, as Darren Wershler puts it, the new creative (161).
Literary, from which this essay is taken. As for mechanizing composition, Goldsmith knows that in practice it
2015 scott pound
PMLA 130.2 (2015), published by the Modern Language Association of America 315
316 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
is impossible. The agency of the author always and serious investigation into the meaning of

creeps in. Transcription, seemingly a mechan art and writing in the 21st century. A sense
ical act of data entry, involves countless deci of Goldsmith as (possibly) a confidence man
sions that affect meaning. Even in the context and (surely) a mischief maker is prevalent
of an artist who sees himself as a word pro among critics, prompting us to ask, how does
cessor, creativity is not eclipsed so much as it one separate the serious investigation from
is relocated, from the act of composing to the the complete mischief, the lucid from the lu
act of reframing: What becomes important dic? We seem left with a choice between the
is what youthe authordecides to choose, persona and the project, the audacious provo
Goldsmith argues. Success lies in knowing cateur and the text itself. For a literary critic,
what to include andmore importantwhat that choice is clearthe text always wins.
to leave out (Uncreative Writing 10). Dworkin and Marjorie Perloff both resur
The apparent gimmickry of Goldsmiths rect Walter Benjamins warning Never trust
methods has prompted critics to sidestep the what writers say about their own writing to
showmanship and argue in favor of a seri cast doubt on Goldsmiths conceptual high
ous accomplishment. Dworkin suggests that jinks and single out the text as the necessary
topics like uncreativity and boredom have central concern because, as Perloff cautions,
worked as decoys, distracting readers from [n]othing but an actual reading of the text
what may be more central concerns (10), can clarify the questions of choice and chance
while Schwartzburg says that Goldsmiths that arise in Goldsmiths work (Dworkin 10;
three big books, Soliloquy, No. 111, and Day, Perloff, Unoriginal Genius 151).
along with their relatively diminutive sibling All this makes sense from a literary-
Fidget, make up a quartet of millennial inten critical point of view, but what if it is precisely
sity that contrasts strongly with Goldsmiths Goldsmiths attempt to conceptualize and
deflationary tone, adding that Goldsmith practice poetry as information management
rides his hobbyhorse, and yet at the same that deserves critical examination? Here I de
time, seems to be undertaking a deeply seri velop the idea that what at first looks like an
ous project (2324). But what is this deeply empty provocationthe idea of the poet as a
serious project, and how do we see beyond word processoris in fact the site of a serious
the stylizations that are said to cloak it, and and important investigation of the stakes of
are these two things as opposed as the critical media change for poetics.
conversation suggests? Goldsmiths project exploits the misalign
The critical discussion about Goldsmiths ment of and tension between information
work remains caught up in this apparent con culture and literary culture, and implicit in
flict between the text of the work and the au his sloganeering is a serious inquiry into the
thor. Schwartzburg speaks for many when impact of the former on the latter. The ques
she writes, I find my own response at the tions posed are clear and compelling: To what
publication of each of his new books to be ac extent do the language-handling capabilities
cordingly self-contradictory: I am on the one of networked digital media require us to re
hand excited by the (dare I say it?) mysterious think what it means to write? What happens
power each work seems to hold, and on the to literary culture when new methods of text
other hand suspicious that behind the curtain production introduce new and competing con
is a little boy saying ha! she bought it again! ceptions of authorship, literacy, and reading?
(23). According to Ron Silliman, Goldsmith What, if anything, happens to our language
has found the perfect mix between complete when it crosses the threshold between print
mischiefa little deadpan, with a big wink and digital networks? The results of Gold
130.2 ] Scott Pound 317

smiths investigation are disquieting, to say the unique individual who creates something

least. Sound recording and networked digital original (Rose 2).3 That something original
media provide Goldsmith with access to a new is a singular, distinct object: the text. The text
resource and new understanding of language, is a piece of writing, but it is, just as impor
a new view of the literary and new take on au tantly, not speech. As Bill Readings observes,
thorship, and the methods of text production The notion of literature emerges when writ
that result from these discoveries travesty lit ing is analyzed in terms that leave public
erary culture as we know it, which is exactly oratory behind (72). In this way, literacy rep
the point. Goldsmiths indifference to literary resents a cultural threshold and an obvious
culture yields methods for generating text that condition of possibility for literature. Unlike
are as instructive as they are shocking because speech, literacy must somehow be achieved,
they require us to face the strange prospect of Michael Holquist argues; it is the product of
a literature that chooses information culture work. It is the labor that makes us civilized
over literary culture as its ground. by making us denatured (571).4 As William
Goldsmiths project is especially beguil Paulson describes it, Literary culture in this
ing, and to some galling, because it passes respect has long identified with constructiv
through the bottleneck of literary print pub ism and freedom against naturalism and ne
lication but summons through that gateway cessity, choosing to attend to the made rather
what is, relative to literary norms, a glut of than the found, to the fictive, to the inven
unprocessed language. Its format, the book, tive, and the imagined rather than the mea
is venerable, but its cultural logic could not sured, the encountered, and the unavoidable
be more contemporary. When Goldsmith (6). Literary writing in turn begets a special
describes himself as a word processor and kind of reading, a rigorous mode of critical
refers to the writing process as informa and interpretive engagementa superliteracy
tion management, he offers a largely lit that answers to the intense constructedness
eral description of his practice. By infusing of the literary artifact. More than informa
the literary field with massive quantities of tion, more than speech, literary works com
speech captured live, Goldsmith makes a plicate the act of reading by foregrounding
spectacle of the abundance and cheapness of the writingness of writing (Holquist 571).
language-cum-information at the same time This goes double for poetry because, as Per
that he monumentalizes it as literature. From loff notes, poetry is the language art: it is, by
a literary-c ritical point of view, this often all accounts, language that is somehow ex
comes across as avant-garde chicanery and traordinary, that can be processed only upon
smug irreverence, but, as I will argue here, rereading (Screening 143).
there is much more to it than that. Goldsmith jettisons all this in favor of
an informational conceit: the idea of captur
The most distinctive features of Gold ing and repurposing used language (speech,
smiths projecta writing practice that dis mostly) in texts that make a spectacle of their
avows originality, a reliance on speech as own unreadability. As an artist, Goldsmith
poetic material, and a sense of writing as val chose poetry, but not a literary poetry in
uelessdramatize formidable breakdowns which the poet selects and combines words in
in the basic parameters of literary culture. intentional arrangements that are meant to be
At issue is the sanctity of authorship, literacy, original and valuable. Instead, it is a poetry
and reading. In literary culture, copyright that treats language like so much data or in
safeguards authorship as a site of origination formation, chosen for its quantitative rather
and ownership, advancing the concept of a than its qualitative allure, prized for its mass
318 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
and availability rather than its originality or text. The fluidity of language that Gold

aesthetic value. Here is a poet so uninterested smiths writing demonstrates, Wershler

in the literary that he forsakes the practice of continues, is a function of the behavior of
writingthe holy crucible of form and inven language under the conditions of networked
tionand outsources it to everyday speech computing (162, 165). I want to extend and
and the news. The result is a series of books qualify Wershlers idea by adding a crucial
designed to inundate readers with streams caveat: Goldsmiths work assumes networked
of subliterary language. The compositional digital media as a cultural condition, but not a
methods these books employ are calculated to clean break with the literate apparatus of typ
disable literary agency (in all his major works, ing. It may be an investigation of language
the act of selecting and combining words in under the conditions of networked comput
intentional arrangements is verboten). Conse ing, but that investigation is carried out, if
quently, there is little to interpret in the text, not always first, then certainly foremost, in the
and the language does not invite explication.5 format of the book by means of a poetics made
It does not even invite readerly attention.6 possible by, of all things, sound recording. His
What qualifies it for use is its availabilityit is texts take many formsbooks, performances,
there in all its nonglory waiting to be captured. Web sites, gallery exhibitions, and a musical
All this would amount to little more than scorebut in each case the book is the works
cultural vandalism if it were not for the fact marquee. Understanding Goldsmiths project
that Goldsmith presents himself as a writer, a therefore requires recognizing not just its en
poet, and part of a literary tradition that ex gagement with networked digital media but
tends from Gertrude Stein and James Joyce also its more complex status as a cultural hy
through Allen Ginsberg and David Antin to brid, a body of work that defends print literacy
the language poets (particularly Bruce An and the book as cultural sites while at the same
drews) and beyond.7 Goldsmiths orientation time completely reengineering authorship, lit
toward language and the book indicates an eracy, and reading to reflect media change.
obvious and deep commitment to writing as
a cultural site, but his use of conceptual con Goldsmiths understanding of mediality
straints to disable literary agency signals a deserves careful consideration. His work is
desire to tap a different, larger resource: the not an attempt to champion digital media as
endless streams of language that circulate right a newer and better cultural platform. His ori
under our noses as information. The result is a entation toward digital media is neither pro
literature composed, not according to any lit gressive nor instrumental. He does not make
erary method, but through the prolix genius electronic literature. His work is not born
of language itself captured live, sent streaming digital, nor is it meant to be read solely on the
through familiar channels, and finally piling screen. It does not take the form of hypertext,
up in heaps the shape of books. How does one and, although he tried without success to pro
make sense of something like that? gram the task of counting syllables for No. 111
Wershler has opened the door to a prom and a Java applet was developed to animate
ising approach. Distinguishing Goldsmiths the text of Fidget, the composition of his work
work from the cultural logic of print literacy, does not involve programming.8 It embraces,
he writes, What Kenneth Goldsmith does rather than excludes, print literacy, and it does
when he writes is not typing. It operates ac not have, as electronic literature is supposed to,
cording to another logic altogether, a logic an important literary aspect (Hayles). Gold
delineated by the disciplinary constraints smiths work is as beholden to sound record
of networks, software and the flow of digital ing as it is to the book, and, by his estimation,
130.2 ] Scott Pound 319

none of his major works could have been writ lica of Abbie Hoffmans Steal This Book (fig. 1).

ten without the computer (Conversation). He likes the durability of books (books seem
This is no quantum leap into a new digital to have an eternal shelf life; its hard to get rid
workflow. It is more dramatic and more com of them and they seem to remain in circula
plex than that: a merging of old and new media tion forever [Conversation]) but most of
procedures, a convergence poetics as opposed all their size. He is particularly drawn to for
to a revolutionary poetics, one that shows us
mats that bridge information and literature:
what happens when one cultural apparatus
anthologies, compendiums, and reference
collides with another, when the book slams
books. Goldsmith has described reading Ulla Fig. 1
into electronic media and then the Internet.
The idea of a revolutionary new cultural Dydos 600-page The Gertrude Stein Reader as Kenneth Gold
smith, Steal This
order emerging as a consequence of digital a life-changing experience and exults about
Book, 1988.
media is necessary yet inadequateneces receiving the collected works of Jackson Mac Wood and paint,
sary because, as Adelaide Morris points out, Low, a massiveand massively important 481 feet.
new technologies are not readily assimila tome, a great big book of graphical scores, Kenneth Gold
ble in terms of current cultural codes (3) sound poems and experimental performance smith. Photo cour
tesy of theartist.
and inadequate because new technologies
also remediate old technologies. Geoffrey
Nunbergs observation that [t]here will be
a digital revolution, but the printed book
will be an important participant in it is apt
(510),9 as is Jessica Pressmans recognition
of what she calls the aesthetic of bookish
ness, whereby the threat posed to books
by digital technologies becomes a source of
artistic inspiration and formal experimen
tation in the pages of twenty-fi rst-century
literature. Another thing that Goldsmiths
encounter with mediality shows us is just
how robust the book continues to be as a
cultural format, even for a poet who likes
to say, If it doesnt exist on the Internet, it
doesnt exist (If). Since 1994 Goldsmith
has been a pioneer and promoter of the
World Wide Web as an archival and artis
tic medium. He started UbuWeb, the largest
archive of avant-garde art on the Web, in
1996, and all his literary work is available
online. At the same time, Goldsmith retains
a steadfast affiliation with the book, a for
mat he began exploring with gusto when he
was a sculptor, and books are a significant
part of his mental and physical landscape.
Goldsmiths earliest mature works were
large sculptures of books, among them an
eight-foot-high, three-hundred-pound rep
320 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
texts (King). In the documentary Sucking the history of recorded speech as a cultural

on Words, Goldsmith is interviewed in his ground for literary practice.

loft flanked by stacks of huge books. When I Goldsmiths use of speech as poetic source
wrote my 600 page No. 111 2.7.93 - 10.20.96, material and his blurring of the boundary be
he says in another interview, I wanted to cre tween speech and writing are two of the most
ate an object that couldnt be named, catego beguiling and important aspects of his poet
rized, or identified. I looked on my bookshelf ics, but they have received limited attention
and saw that any reference book worth its from critics (fig. 2). Dworkin offers a sugges
salt was at least 600 pages. Hence, I stopped tive discussion of what he terms the inter
writing my book when I reached 600 pages val vis--v is written and spoken language,
(Kenneth Goldsmith and AS Bessa). A fas but then he offers the discrimination that
cination with the literal mass and materiality Goldsmiths work is finally a species of writ
of language continues to inform Goldsmiths ing rather than speech. He writes, Here [in
work. Soliloquy, at 490 pages, and Day, at 836, the mouthwork of No. 111, Fidget, Soliloquy,
rival No. 111 for size. Its the accumulation of and The Weather], despite the obvious empha
language Im interested in, Goldsmith says. sis on speech ... is the point at which Gold
How much does an actual weeks worth of smiths work announces itself as writing, as
language weigh? Its about concretization of criture (14). From there Dworkin proceeds
the ephemeral (Conversation). with a reading of the spatial interval as domi
nant and separate from the temporal interval,
Goldsmiths bibliomania is one thing, concluding, Ultimately, Goldsmiths spacing
but the way he fills large volumes with lan creates a kind of non-rhythmical metrics (16).
guage is another matter. While his books Whereas Dworkin aims to purify Goldsmiths
sanctify the monumentality of print literacy, work as writing, Christian Bk takes the op
his writing methods are designed to cap posite approach, paying tribute to Soliloquy
ture ephemeral language, primarily speech. for the purity of its commitment to unadulter
As a poet, performer, archivist, teacher, and ated speech and for what he reads as its cor
quintessential New Yorker, Goldsmith is fully responding refusal to stoop to literary device:
engrossed in speech. In Fidget and Soliloquy,
he uses his own tape-recorded speech as the When Wordsworth wishes to articulate
sole source for texts that capture and tran spontaneous expressions in a plainer, sim
scribe a lived record of his movements and pler diction, closer to actual, rustic speech,
talk. In The Weather, Traffic, and Sports, he he still subordinates such colloquialism to
captures and transcribes the speech of ra the rules of clear prose, adorned with rhyme
dio announcers, summoning specific forms and meter. When Williams demands that po
of verbal reportage through the constraint etry must validate the concrete language of
of broadcasting and a host of environmen quotidian existence, he still subjects his ba
nal idiom to the formal rigour of concision
tal and cultural imperatives. On UbuWeb,
and precision. When Ginsberg argues that
Goldsmith hosts an immense audio archive
an original thought is a supreme thought, ...
(he is also a senior editor at the online audio he still subordinates his rhapsodic outbursts
poetry archive PennSound, and for more than to the syntax of the rational sentence. When
a decade he has hosted a radio show called Antin transcribes his own improvised mono
Kenny Gs Hour of Pain, on WFMU, in New logues, he streamlines them to make them
York City). In the writing courses he teaches seem more eloquent, more polished. When
at the University of Pennsylvania, Goldsmith such poets profess to support the artless dic
focuses extensively, sometimes exclusively, on tion of common speech, they still subdue the
130.2 ] Scott Pound 321

Fig. 2

Hans Ulrich
Obrist, Instagram
image, 1 Feb. 2014

formalities of their own literary artifice. ... rior to the subject. Soliloquy presents speech
Goldsmith attacks the literary pretense of at its most raw, its most brutal and in its most
such common speech. (67) gorgeously disjunctive form, Goldsmith
says, before adding in a different tone, The
In both cases the critical account augurs a entire activity [of creating Soliloquy] was hu
totalization of Goldsmiths poetics as either miliating and humbling, seeing how little of
speech or writing and overlooks their inter value I actually speak over the course of a
play. To see Goldsmiths work purely as writ typical week. How unprofound my life and
ing leaves unexplained his obsession with my mind is; how petty, greedy, and nasty I am
archiving speech, and to celebrate the lo-f i in normal speech. Its absolutely horrifying
purity with which he archives speech is to ig (Conversation). In the project he recorded
nore that works like Fidget and Soliloquy are next, Fidget, Goldsmith introduces a con
assertively constructed and constraint-based straint designed to eradicate self-referential
literary compositions. utterances: Among the rules for Fidget was
Goldsmith singles out speech as cultural that I would never use the first-person I to
material, not because it proffers privileged ac describe movements. Thus every move was an
cess to subjective inwardness or because the observation of a body in space. There was to
self-citational moves of the speaking subject be no editorializing, no psychology, no emo
vouchsafe the presence of that subject to itself tionjust a body detached from a mind
but because it does the opposite. Recorded (qtd. in Perloff, Vocable Scriptsigns 91). For
speech discloses a form of language that is Goldsmith, recording technology offers a way
fragmentary, disjunctive, and radically exte out of the subjective inwardness that informs
322 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
t raditional notions and practices of author forms (50, 27, 28). Later, recording tech

ship. The same motivation informs Brion nology would also change attitudes toward
Gysins cut-up method, which, Gysin states, speech. For the first time, the intensive tempo
offers ways outout of identity habit, per rality of speech could be captured and stored
haps out of the human form itself (qtd. in in a suppler medium than alphabetic charac
Lydenberg 421), and John Cages investment ters. Complete, iteratablealbeit lo-fitraces
in methods of chance-generated composition, of spoken language could be abstracted and
which Cage similarly describes as a decision memorialized in an inscription. As cultural
to go out. Thats why I decided to use the modes, speech and writing trade places, the
chance operations. I used them to free my phonograph opening a door between them.
self from the ego (qtd. in Hyde 142). When Writing becomes more like speech (more eva
recorded, speech ceases to epitomize an ide nescent); speech becomes more like writing
alist proximity to subjective self-presence (an inscription). Ephemerality and monumen
and comes to stand instead for ontologi tality, utterance and archive, converge.
cal and epistemological estrangement, so The prospect of a complete capture
that in Goldsmiths work we encounter a trumped alphabetic notation and trained ar
use of speech as cultural material that is not tistic attention on human utterance in a new
couched in an appeal to expressivist princi way, making it possible to hear how much
ples, a phonocentrism that is not logocentric. noise, redundancy, and intonational reso
Contra any humanistic impulse, Gold nance infect and inflect the linguistic signal.
smiths interest in speech springs from a de The Victorians were a little spooked by this
sire to find out what postliterate media might and tended to think of the recorded voice as
have in store for literary culture. His use of diabolical (Picker), but the modernists, who
speech is first of all an encounter with analog encountered the phonograph principally as
new media and the cultural stakes of techno a medium for playing music, had a different
logical agency. The first cultural precedent for perspective. They took it as an opportunity to
Goldsmiths writing practice is the phono alter the signal-to-noise ratio of poetry, sum
graph and its ability (eventually made more moning noise, redundancy, and intonation
personal and portable by magnetic tape) to into the theater of the text (Surez). As Sarah
capture speech rather than simply notate it Gleeson-White has shown in the case of Wil
in alphabetic characters. Although the pho liam Faulkner, the pathway from new media
nograph would become best known as a me to literary method was often heavily medi
dium for playing music, recorded speech, as ated: Faulkners screen writing, influenced by
Lisa Gitelman observes, was initially the Eisensteins cinematic aesthetic, transformed
greater marvel. The first cultural effects of his literary practice in terms of an evident
the phonograph registered less as an affirma emerging interest in and grappling with the
tion of speech than as a disruption of print. ideographic representation of sound (88). Not
Print came unglued, Gitelman writes. Af until the beat era, with the work of Allen Gins
ter the phonograph, readers experienced berg and William S. Burroughs, does capture
the newspaper as contradictorily bivalent, as through magnetic tape start to affect composi
printed speech. The fleeting currency of news, tion directly. With Ginsberg and Burroughs,
the ephemerality of the papers, rendered them and later David Antin and others, poets be
more like speech acts than like print artifacts. gin to use audio recording as an invention
... Materially, newspapers were print. Le strategy, capturing language that will later be
gally, however, they tended to resemble vocal treated, crafted, and cut up during composi
performances more than they did authored tion. The process remained literary in that the
130.2 ] Scott Pound 323

material captured still had to pass through the vice to technological device, from a literary

bottleneck of the writers consciousness of lit economy to an information economy, from
erary language, form, and convention. the smithy of the authors soul to the vapid
Early on, Goldsmiths method was simi noosphere of the information common.
lar. He collected language and edited the ma
terial to include only the good wordsthe It will seem crazy to describe this as a
fun words, the entertaining words, the breakthrough. A breakthrough to what? If all
words that really zinged. ... Thats why No. that Goldsmiths method yields is access to
111 is such a readable book, he says; it tames streams of subliterary language, then its sta
the wide world of available language and fo tus as a literary breakthrough seems doubt
cuses it through the fine lens of one persons ful indeed. From the point of view of literary
experience (Conversation). But then Gold culture, a poetics that seeks to automate the
smith developed a method that abjured selec composition process so that it can summon
tion and combination: unprocessed speech into textual form as a
valueless practice is at best questionable and
Instead of focusing on the text itself, I began at worst a sham. It submits unconditionally
to focus on the greater method or the con to the perverse logic of information abun
cept instead and let the language fall where it dance, courting rather than combating the
may within that specified context. Hence no
anesthetizing effect of massive data streams
words could be wrong or boring if I could
of language. This is not how literature is sup
justify it being there conceptually. Suddenly,
more traditional linguistic concerns of read posed to operate. Literary works are supposed
erliness, rhythm, phrasing, song, etc. were no to use genre and convention, or renunciations
longer of importance to me and I found that thereof, to focus the readers attention on
incredibly liberating. (Conversation) language that has percolated through formal
and aesthetic discriminations. Looking to a
In place of his earlier method of collecting, mostly inner world of available language, a
selecting, and combining bits of language, kind of privately constituted logos, the author
Goldsmith opts for a method predicated on selects and combines words in intentional ar
total informational capture. His nonliterary rangements to create works that are first of all
inf luences (Duchamp, Cage, and Warhol) original and most of all aesthetically valuable.
overtake his literary influences (Stein, Gins The work that appears in print is a scarce and
berg, and Antin) to produce an enigmatic and valuable artifact, almost always taking years
paradoxical breakthrough: a literary practice of painstaking labor to produce and requiring
that hinges on the renunciation of literary a complex social, legal, and academic appara
agency, a poetics that outsources the act of tus to validate and canonize it.
making.10 In place of the executive functions The cultural situation Goldsmith asks
of literary selection and combination, Gold us to consider is one in which most aesthetic
smith interposes technological capture as a discriminations have been stripped away so
complete compositional method.11 In his po that language extravagantly sampled from
etics, literary authorship combines with cap nonsubjective realms floods in unfiltered. To
ture technologies to produce a new, hybrid literary culture, such a mass of indiscriminate
form of agency that displaces the usual func language is appalling, but a medium-specific
tions of literary composition onto machines. analysis is less jarring. In Goldsmiths poetics,
By automating intentionality, Goldsmith in the bottleneck of literary authorship and pub
stitutes what is, in literary terms, a cultural lication gives way to the wide-open, always-
breachone that moves us from literary de on Internet, streaming textualized torrents of
324 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
language 24-7. The filters that define literary processor who understands language liter

authorship, publication, and canon formation ally as information. This is what we do every
can be bypassed because, unlike print, the day, all day longsome of us call it writing
new medium is cheap and capacious. It costs shifting material from one form into another.
little or nothing to publish there, and space This is what we do. We organize our informa
is virtually limitless. These economic differ tion. ... I believe information management is
ences are important. A medium that is expen the way we are writing now and the way we
sive and has limited volume must interpose will continue to write in the future (Suck-
evaluation as a control mechanism, but a me ing). To interpret Goldsmiths statements as
dium that is cheap and high in volume has no simply playful or ironic would be to insulate
such requirement. Literary culture sanctifies ourselves from the thrust of his project and
meaning and aesthetic value in part because the difficult questions it asks us to consider
print demands that it do so. Digital culture about a culture in which information abun
postpones evaluation because the digital me dance alters our comportment toward writ
dium allows the delay. In literary culture, ing. Apparent slogans like uncreativity and
filtering is built into composition and publi being boring do not function as a rhetorical
cation and continues into the cultural afterlife smoke screen; they conceptualize an indiffer
of the work, if it has one. In digital culture, ence to meaning and value and represent an
filtering follows the information glut. In this attempt to reconstruct literary culture for a
transition, we pass from a cultural economy new intermedia apparatus. Goldsmiths effort
that prizes literary language for its scarcity to discipline the literary text to accommodate
and value to one in which throwaway lan the dynamics of information culture and lan
guage is prized, at least by Goldsmith, for its guage exhibits an acute consciousness of me
overwhelming abundance and cheapness. dialogical systems and a desire to investigate
The capaciousness of the World Wide the cultural stakes of media change.
Web travesties the cultural economy of litera For Goldsmith, the digital apparatus
ture because it discharges the benchmark con furnishes
ditionsscarcity and value, origination and
ownershipthat make literature literature. an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider
Cultural economies defined by scarcity and what writing is and to define new roles for the
value continue to thrive on the Web, but they writer. While traditional notions of writing
are not native to it. In medialogical terms, are primarily focused on originality and
then, Goldsmiths work is a strange hybrid creativity, the digital environment fosters
of literary and information culture. The stag new skill sets that include manipulation
and management of the heaps of already
ing of conflicts between the two could not be
existent and ever-increasing language. While
more direct. Where literary culture fashions a
the writer today is challenged by having to
series of bottlenecks designed to consolidate
go up against a proliferation of words and
value in a singular medium, information cul compete for attention, she can use this pro
ture capitalizes on the enormous bandwidth liferation in unexpected ways to create works
of digital technology to stream a panoply of that are as expressive and meaningful as
forms and media on one channel. works constructed in more traditional ways.
The movement from notation to capture (Uncreative Writing 15)
makes it possible to use speech in a new way,
and the agency of the author combines with At the same time, it is just as important to
assorted forms of technological agency to note that the indifference to meaning that
create a new kind of author function: a word presides over the works composition is not,
130.2 ] Scott Pound 325

in the end, a resistance to meaning as such. that was the norm, the default. The sights,

Works for which a disregard for meaning and the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just
value is a condition of their possibility are melted away. Marks on stone, parchment, or
never by definition meaningless. No matter paper were the special case. It did not occur
what you do with language, it will be expres to Sophocles audiences that it would be sad
for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the show.
sive, Goldsmith likes to say (85). You cant
Now expectations have inverted. Everything
show me a sentence, word, or phoneme that is
may be recorded and preserved, at least po
meaningless; by its nature, language is packed tentially: every musical performance; every
with meaning and emotion (Goldsmith, In crime in an elevator, shop, or city street; every
terview). In this way, his poetics again mirrors volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; ev
an aspect of networked digital media wherein ery card played or piece moved in an online
the indifference to meaning and value that game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.
underwrites the proliferation of digital arti Having a camera in hand is normal, not ex
facts in no way precludes but rather demands ceptional; something like 500 billion images
a later determination of meaning and value were captured in 2010. YouTube was stream
through searching, filtering, and tagging. ing more than a billion videos a day. (397)

Goldsmiths project is not a critique, and Of course, libraries have long presented a great
still less a mockery, of literary culture. It is, deal more than individuals can read and absorb,
finally, a defense of literary culture couched and as far back as the sixteenth century think
in the form of an investigation. What do digi ers complained about information abundance,12
tal media have in store for literary culture, but at the same time, and just as obviously, the
for writing? This is the serious investigation size and portability of digital media and the
Goldsmith undertakes. He chose poetry and World Wide Web make them fundamentally
then chose to investigate what kind of poetry different as storage media. With the Web, an
would materialize when the apparatus of already supersized cultural heritage explodes in
print literacy was brought into relation with a supernova of data and information, most of
analog and digital media. Goldsmiths most which can be accessed, stored, and manipulated
provocative statements might be better un by individuals on cheap, portable devices. The
derstood as the literal results of his investi Library of Congress, the largest library in the
gation. In the most basic sense, according to world, houses some 33 million printed volumes.
Goldsmith, digital media redirect emphasis Since 1996 The Internet Archive has archived
from quality to quantity. Were more inter 150 billion Web pages. Translated into bits, the
ested in accumulation and preservation than books in the Library of Congress amount to
we are in what is being collected, he has ob roughly 10 terabytes. The Library of Congresss
served (I). As a result weve become hoard nascent and selective Web archive has already
ers of data, hoping that at some point well accumulated 160 terabytes worth, a small frac
have a use for it. Look at whats on your hard tion of the information on the Web (Gleick 395).
drive in reserve (pooled as Joyce would say) as The point at which mass overtakes mean
compared to what you actually use (Uncre- ing is typically understood as a cultural
ative Writing 29). breaking point, a plunge into the abyss of in
These generalizations highlight a decisive fodata. [A] surfeit of information is changing
cultural change described in more detail by the way we think, not always for the better,
James Gleick in his recent book The Informa- Newsweek magazine exclaims (Begley).
tion. The information produced and consumed John Cayley offers a more nuanced take on
by humankind used to vanish, Gleick writes, what happens to language when it crosses over
326 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
into the realm of data: The structure of linguis culture to information culture disrupts the

tic representation or transcription is, if not iden balance between material and semiotic effects.
tical with, then absolutely amenable to digital The instability of digital language yields a new
forms of representation as fundamental abstrac cultural condition. Language has become a
tions of the symbolic. In other words, the writ provisional space, Goldsmith writes, tem
ing we encounter on digital networks occurs porary and debased. ... Because words today
in the same form of textual notation we find in are cheap and infinitely produced, they are
books: the alphabet. And yet, Cayley notes, detritus, signifying little, meaning less. Since
the semiotic is held in abeyance, materiality
[a]s writers and readers we are forced to con comes to the fore and with it an immersion
sider that our relationship with language in the fluidity, plasticity, and malleabil
and literature will never be the same. If the ity of digital language, properties that allow
medium of literary art has significantly mi it to be poured, parsed, morphed, ani
grated to the network, where it is gathered, mated, pumped, spammed, imported,
channeled, and filtered by big software on a and spit out in a wide variety of ways.
massive scale, daily touching the linguistic
Goldsmiths immersion in the materiality of
lives of huge populations, then new practices
language produces an image of language as
for reading and writing with and against
such services must surely arise and go beyond
a basic material substance. Letters are un
any uses that are constrained by the terms of differentiated building blockswith no one
service or use now made unilaterally explicit meaning more or less than any other....
by contemporary service providers. Words today are bubbles, shape shifters,
empty signifiers. ... Words are additive, they
Once our language crosses over and becomes pile up endlessly, become undifferentiated,
data, our words transgress into capta and shattered into shards now, words reform into
they persuade us to transgress there also. language-constellations later, only to be blown
We do this without thinking of it, and all the apart once more (Provisional Language).
while it changes our relationship with lan Central to the cultural condition of infor
guage fundamentally. mation abundance is the bidimensional status
Goldsmiths project is a calculated at of its materiality, a form of informational-
tempt to alter poetic method to take both ad linguistic mass that is weighty yet evanes
vantage and account of media change. But the cent. Goldsmith often likens it to snow. if
transition from scarcity to abundance cannot every word spoken in new york city
happen without a corresponding change in daily were somehow to materialize as a
the cultural understanding of writing. Faced snowflake, he says in the postscript to So-
with an unprecedented amount of digital liloquy, each day there would be a bliz
text, writing needs to redefine itself in order zard (489). The emergence of digital capture
to adapt to the new environment of textual and archiving capability corresponds to an
abundance, Goldsmith writes (Uncreative enormous increase in the amount of avail
Writing 2425). Goldsmith thus presides over able language and a precipitous decline in its
the development of a literature that broaches value, leaving us with
not meaning but mass. His work puts the
[l]a nguage as material, language as process,
reader into a relation with information abun language as something to be shoveled into a
dance, at the furthest remove from the Ar machine and spread across pages, only to be
noldian conception of literary culture. discarded and recycled once again. Language
What kind of literature does information as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless
culture give rise to? The shift from literary language, meaningless language, unloved
130.2 ] Scott Pound 327

language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, over an incredibly noisy channel, Goldsmith

illegibility, unreadability, machinistic rep focuses our attention on the widest possible
etition. Obsessive archiving and cataloguing, world of available language. If such a project
the debased language of media and advertis seems outrageous, it might help to notice that
ing; language more concerned with quantity
there is a venerable and canonical resource
than quality. How much did you say that
that strives to do the same. It is The Oxford
paragraph weighed? (Journal)
English Dictionary. Once the quintessence of
For Goldsmith, everyday speech cap literary culture because it tracked primarily
tured and archived is the hallmark of the new literary language through books of distinc
digital apparatus, the emblem of a linguistic tion, the OED now attempts to drink from the
abundance that proclaims not only the actual fire hose that is information culture, and the
presence and mass of language but also the same concatenation of evanescence and mass
procedures we use to capture, store, and man that characterizes Goldsmiths understand
age it: recording technology, machinistic rep ing of language also comes to define the OED:
etition, obsessive archiving, and cataloging.
The first edition of what became the OED was
From this standpoint, the massiveness and ac one of the largest books that had ever been
cessibility of everyday language make it a rich made: A New English Dictionary on Histori-
cultural resource, prized not for its supposed cal Principles, 414,825 words in ten weighty
plenitude and authenticity (its proximity to volumes, presented to King Georges V and
meaning and value) but for its randomness Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The work had taken
and disjunctiveness (its indifference to mean decades; Murray himself was dead; and the
ing and value). As evanescent as speech and dictionary was understood to be out of date
as permanent as writing, flows of language even as the volumes were bound and sewn.
captured and transcribed pile up in heaps that Several supplements followed, but not until
can be shoveled and pushed around. Tran 1989 did the second edition appear: twenty
siently produced and obsessively archived, this volumes, totaling 22,000 pages. It weighed
138 pounds. The third edition is different. It
linguistic excess constitutes a sublime dump.13
is weightless, taking its shape in the digital
Once language is digitized, its transportive
realm. It may never again involve paper and
and morphic tendencies are foregrounded. ink. Beginning in the year 2000, a revision of
Great chunks of language have been melted the entire contents began to appear online in
and are free to assume a myriad of forms. In quarterly installments, each comprising sev
a way, it highlights the formal properties of eral thousand revised entries and hundreds
language more than has ever been realized of new words. (Gleick 67)
before (Conversation). Digitization confers
a new ontological status on language and fun And just like Goldsmiths project, the OED
damentally changes our relation to it. What is seeks to capitalize on the cultural availability
new about the Internet is not that it, as Mar of all language, including speech in all its sub
shall T. Poe writes, turns chunks into flows literary forms. The language upon which lexi
(232) but rather the way it modulates between cographers eavesdrop, Gleick points out, has
f lows and chunks, evanescence and mass. become wild and amorphous: a great, swirling,
Goldsmith states, Language will flow and expanding cloud of messaging and speech;
mold into whatever form its pouredits at newspapers, magazines, pamphlets; menus
once ephemeral and permanent, concrete and and business memos; Internet news groups and
digital (Kenneth Goldsmith and AS Bessa). chat-room conversations; television and radio
Using the enormous bandwidth of in broadcasts and phonograph records (66). Wel
formation technology to summon language come to the OED, kewl. For G oldsmith and the
328 Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics ofInformation [ P M L A
editors of the OED, the ability of information 1. Goldsmiths major works are No.

(six hundred pages of rhyming phrases arranged alpha

technology to stabilize ephemeral language
betically), Fidget (the verbal record of his bodys actions on
greatly increases the purview of culture to in Bloomsday 1997), Soliloquy (all the words he spoke dur
clude speech genres that were once discarded ing one week in April 1996), Day (the complete contents
and debased as subliterary. of the 1 Sept. 2000 edition of the New York Times), and
The American Trilogy, which is The Weather (a years worth
The value of Goldsmiths project lies in
of New York City weather reports), Traffic (a days worth
the problem it presents to our definition of lit of New York City traffic reports), and Sports (the longest
erary culture and in the urgency with which baseball broadcast in major league history). Seven Ameri-
it requires us to think about new and com can Deaths and Disasters, which transcribes radio and tele
peting conceptions of authorship, literacy, vision reports of national tragedies, was published in 2013.
2. For statements by Goldsmith on his aesthetic in
and reading. Such thinking is at the heart of vestments in uncreativity and being boring, see Un
his project, where authorship shifts from acts creativity and Being.
of individual creation predicated on original 3. Goldsmiths project has a great deal to say about
ity and value to acts of reframing that target capitalism and consumption, in relation to the challenges
it poses to copyright by undermining the ideas of the au
defamiliarization effects; where literacy is re
thor as owner and of culture as property. His investment
conceptualized and rematerialized as the site in speech is the vehicle of this challenge and the primary
of convergence between speech and writing, mechanism through which he flaunts cultural economies
utterance and archive (The act of listening that are inimical to capitalism. At the same time, Gold
smiths exploits have attracted notoriety and a degree
has now become the act of archiving [I]);
of celebrity. While poetry is virtually without exchange
and where reading is transformed from an value, Goldsmiths work, and his image as a dandy and
intensive orientation toward meaning and provocateur, has received a lot of notice. He has read his
value hermeneutically achieved to a numb work at the White House, has been a guest on The Colbert
Report, and was named the first poet laureate of the Mu
ing encounter with information abundance
seum of Modern Art.
and white noise. His texts, their size notwith 4. The most objectionable aspect of Goldsmiths proj
standing, are miniatures of a new cultural ect (to those who find it objectionable) is that he does not
ecology in which language-cum-information do the work of writing. He is a poacher, a plagiarist, a
endlessly flows: abundant, redundant, cheap, spammer, and a proud one. After selling his audience on
the laborious feat of typing an entire issue of the New
and fertile. By presenting a cultural condi York Times into an 840-page book, he admits to relying
tion in which authorship equals information on software that does part of the job: in capitalism, labor
management, writing is speech, and reading equals value. So certainly my project must have value, for
is browsing, Goldsmith offers a bracing but if my time is worth an hourly wage, then I might be paid
handsomely for this work. But the truth is that Ive sub
accurate image of the contemporary media- verted this equation by OCRing as much of the newspa
culture nexus. In doing so, he asks us to at per as I can (Uncreativity).
tend less to the texts themselves than to their 5. This is not to say that bringing Goldsmiths work
complex encounter with the contemporary back into the conceptual sphere of the literary is not a
valid exercise. His language may not invite attention but
mediascape, their attempt to ratify as litera
does reward it. E.g., framing Goldsmiths work as liter
ture what is already the case. ary allows Dworkin to proceed with a formal analysis of
the interval and to demonstrate the textual dynamics of
Goldsmiths concern with spacing. It furnishes Schwartz
burg with the opportunity to view Goldsmith as the pro
tagonist in an epic novelistic system (25), allowing us
Notes to think about him, if not as an author, then at least as a
character. And it makes it possible for Perloff to pursue a
I thank Michael Christie, Jason MacLean, and David mimetic reading of Traffic as a book about traffic, allow
Peerla for their generosity in discussing topics taken up ing us to witness something surreal about this seemingly
in this essay and Lori Emerson and Brian Reed for their ordinary sequence of traffic reports (Unoriginal Genius
invaluable critical responses to an earlier draft. 15152). Inevitably, things turn up when critics trawl
130.2 ] Scott Pound 329

through Goldsmiths work dragging literary-critical nets, Blair, Ann M. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly

and these findings are meaningful and valuable. But they Information before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale
are also largely incidental, if not wholly accidental, and UP, 2010. Print.
may say more about the quality of the critical attention de Bk, Christian. A Silly Key: Some Notes on Soliloquy by
voted to the work than about its qualifications as literature. Kenneth Goldsmith. Open Letter 12.7 (2005): 6576.
6. Conceptual writing is more interested in a think- Print.
ership rather than a readership. Readability is the last Cayley, John. Terms of Reference & Vectoralist Trans
thing on this poetrys mind, Goldsmith writes (Con gressions: Situating Certain Literary Transactions
ceptual Poetics). over Networked Services. Amodern 2 (2013): n. pag.
7. The literary-historical context for Goldsmiths work Web. 16 Sept. 2013.
is extensive. His use of appropriated texts has precedents Duguid, Paul. Material Matters: The Past and Futurol
in the work of Carl Sandburg (The People, Yes), Muriel ogy of the Book. The Book History Reader. Ed. David
Rukeyser (U.S. 1: Poems), and, most important, Charles Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Rout
Reznikoff (Testimony and Holocaust). Goldsmith has ledge, 2002. 494508. Print.
many contemporary peers in the arts of appropriation, Dworkin, Craig. Zero Kerning. Open Letter 12.7 (2005):
transcription, and remediation, Vanessa Place, Robert 1020. Print.
Fitterman, Caroline Bergvall, K. Silem Mohammed, Tan Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media, History, and
Lin, and Yedda Morrison notable among them. the Data of Culture. Cambridge: MIT P, 2006. Print.
8. Goldsmiths indifference to programming carries Gleeson-W hite, Sarah. Auditory Exposures: Faulkner,
over into his archival work: Programming, you know Eisenstein, and Film Sound. PMLA 128.1 (2013):
making computers jump through hoops, isnt really very 87100. Print.
interesting to me. UbuWeb is a flat HTML 1.0 site. There
Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a
is no programming behind it, absolutely everything is
Flood. New York: Pantheon, 2011. Print.
written in BBedit by hand. You know I want to keep the
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Being Boring. Electronic Poetry
site very basic, because what really is new is this radical
Center. Electronic Poetry Center, 2004. Web. 20 Dec.
sense of distribution (UbuWeb Vu).
9. On the status of the book in a postliterate world,
. A Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith. Inter
also see Duguid.
view by Marjorie Perloff. Sibila 21 (2003): n. pag. Web.
10. Jackson Mac Low deserves mention here, along
15 Feb. 2011.
with Cage, as an important pioneer of nonintentional
. Conceptual Poetics. Poetry Foundation. Poetry
ity in poetics. A major difference between Mac Lows and
Foundation, 26 Jan. 2007. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.
Cages chance-generated compositions and Goldsmiths
poetry is the size and type of the parent resource and the . Day. Great Barrington: Figures, 2003. Print.
method of composition. Typically, Cage and Mac Low . Fidget. Toronto: Coach House, 2000. Print.
selected words by chance from a single textual source. . If It Doesnt Exist on the Internet, It Doesnt Ex
Goldsmiths parent source for a project is more broadly ist. 2005. Electronic Poetry Center. Electronic Poetry
defined, and the method is capture rather than selection. Center, n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2012.
11. No. 111 and Fidget allowed for intensive editing . I Love Speech. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foun
and arranging, but Soliloquy, Day, and The American dation, 6 Jan. 2007. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Trilogy employ capture in the form of sound recording . Interview by Dave Mandl. Believer Oct. 2011:
and transcription. n.pag. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
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Blair. Foundation, 22 Jan. 2007. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
13. For a valuable reading of Goldsmiths work in terms . Kenneth Goldsmith and AS Bessa. Interview by
of the aesthetics of the sublime, see Ngai, ch. 6 (24897). A.S. Bessa. Zingmagazine n.d.: n. pag. Web. 20 Jan.
. The King of Boredom. Brooklyn Rail Mar. 2006:
n. pag. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Works Cited . No. Great Barrington: Figures,
Begley, Sharon. I Cant Think! Newsweek 7 Mar. 2011: 1997. Print.
n. pag. Web. 6 Jan. 2012. . Provisional Language. Poetry Foundation. Po
Belgum, Erik. An Open Letter to Kenneth Goldsmith etry Foundation, 5 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
on Receiving His New Book No. 111 2.7.83-10.20.96. . Seven American Deaths and Disasters. New York:
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