On Kenneth Goldsmith & Thinking Things Through


When I tell people I teach college composition, people who have “known” me for years or knew me years ago in the neighborhood I grew up in sometimes respond, “Oh, of course you do.” I’m starting to become comfortable with this job, but really this is one job in a series of jobs I’ve felt critically unprepared to do.

My students write some pretty strange things, things I ask them in conferences to interrogate—I’m reluctant to provide examples, as this isn’t about them. I forgive the strange, sometimes cruel things my students write because I tell them to stop thinking in their heads and start thinking on the page. All the pedagogical texts I checked out of my university library the moment I received my faculty ID card suggest that writing allows for a different kind of thinking, a way to see connections between ideas you might not have seen before.

My students, so many students, aren’t used to this kind of thinking. My hope is that seeing the things they think on the page will teach them to interrogate their thoughts.

Some of this is pretty basic stuff. I’m writing it here to tell you that I am writing to think. I have been thinking through a lot of things this academic year, reluctant to write them down, to do the work I ask my students to do.

This semester I asked my students to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” and write papers. The students who wrote their papers against reparations for slavery almost always failed to include evidence to support the claims they made, though I tried (perhaps failed) to provide them with the tools to do so.

I have not been able to shake a sense that lack of empathy on the part of those with privilege or power is linked with lack of intellectual rigor. Reluctance to listen is reluctance to do the hard work of understanding. I suspect there is something wrong with this idea—something I haven’t identified—but it stays with me.

I first read Kenneth Goldsmith’s work in graduate school. When he came to read from Seven American Deaths & Disasters, many in the program were outraged by his performance, for various reasons. I thought it was important to try to understand work that is different from your own. I argued, I thought, for intellectual rigor.

Last week, when I read Goldsmith’s article in the New Yorker, “Post-Internet Poetry Comes of Age,” I laughed, because Goldsmith thinks poets born in 1981 are young. I was born in 1989. I suppose that makes me a fetus.

I laughed because I was struck by how out of touch Goldsmith seemed. Conceptual poetry has frequently been concerned with holding a mirror up to the audience. An old mirror collects dust, obscures.

Then Goldsmith posted the now much-discussed video on his Facebook page, which has been importantly criticized by many, including The Mongrel Coalition on their website and by P.E. Garcia right here on Queen Mob’s. For the past few days, my Facebook newsfeed has seemed almost exclusively dedicated to discussion of Goldsmith’s failure, and rightly so. I have little to add. I try to acknowledge when I am critically unprepared. As others positioning themselves as allies have articulated more eloquently, I don’t want to be silent, but I do want to listen.

I also want to offer my attempt to write to think a part of this discussion through. I’ve noticed a sentiment recurring in discussions of Goldsmith’s failure. For example, in a Facebook post on the subject my friend Ian Davisson, among other things, identifies (correctly, I think) that Goldsmith’s project is akin to colonialist reimaginings of indigenous art in the early 20th century. As the Mongrel Coalition writes in their recent manifesto, they are called to action “because the white colonial fantasy sustains a war against black and indigenous life.” As many have already identified, Goldsmith’s project is a failure even in conceptualism’s own terms: the idea is bad, horrible, cruel.

Davisson also notes another of Goldsmith’s errors: the suggestion this is a continuation of the Seven American Deaths & Disasters project, that performing the Michael Brown autopsy report is anything like performing a radio report. An autopsy report is not like a radio report, raven, writing desk. Goldsmith has displayed a lack of intellectual rigor. Indeed, Davisson’s post ends, “In other words, art should allow for use of material that is offensive or unsettling, but artists should think about it a little before they do it.” A lack of thought.

Goldsmith has always wanted a thinkership, not a readership. I find it hard to believe Goldsmith did not think his project through. As much as I don’t want to admit it, you can think things through and still hurt people. You can apply intellectual rigor and be wrong.

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