Before You Learn To Create, Learn To Steal

Why Kenneth Goldsmith, MoMA’s first poet laureate, forces his writing students to plagiarize.

Kenneth Goldsmith is not your typical poet. In 2000, he published Fidget, a catalog of every single movement his body made over a 13-hour period. Traffic, from 2007, was nothing more than unedited transcriptions of traffic reports. And while his latest book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters, concerns itself with events that are considerably more noteworthy than fender benders, his process remains one of collecting, not creating; the forthcoming work is made up entirely of Goldsmith’s transcriptions of news and radio reports of milestone events in modern history, like Kennedy’s assassination and the Columbine shootings.

For Goldsmith, who was recently named MoMA’s first-ever poet laureate, such works are not just one-note statements about the role of appropriation in the Internet age. They’re actual sites of linguistic import, places where the "slick curtain of media is torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations." In a sense, you could say that the broadcasters are the poets and Goldsmith’s merely the curator. Or, from a slightly different angle, they’re the poets and he’s the plagiarist.

Goldsmith is fine with that distinction, too. In fact, as the artist explains in an interview with The Awl, when it comes to his "Uncreative Writing" course at the University of Pennsylvania, plagiarism is part of the syllabus:

The students that take my class know how to write. I can hone their skills further but instead I choose to challenge them to think in new and different ways. Many of them know how to plagiarize but they always do it on the sly, hoping not to get caught. In my class, they must plagiarize or they will be penalized. They are not allowed to be original or creative. So it becomes a very different game, one in which they’re forced to defend choices that they are making about what they’re plagiarizing and why. And when you start to dig down, you’ll find that those choices are as original and as unique as when they express themselves in more traditional types of writing, but they’ve never been trained to think about it in this way.

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They’re one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don’t create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they’re linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.

A nice big block quote making the case for block quotes. It doesn’t get much more poetic than that.

But what Goldsmith is saying here isn’t as radical as it might seem. The central dynamic on which Twitter is based--choosing who and what to follow--makes the idea of consumption-by-curation explicit, but we’ve been doing it for ages. We skim newspapers to find the articles that interest us most; we channel surf to zero in on the best programming. And as the Internet continues to multiply the sheer amount of information out there, being able to find signals amidst all that noise will become an increasingly valuable skill.

Read the rest of the interview over at The Awl.

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1 Comments

  • Aaron Templer

    I don't think there's any doubt about the importance of this. In music, we transcribe solos from great jazz musicians and learn them note-for-note. It's important to "dig down" you know when you're copying during your own playing, and as Goldsmith puts it, why. Just another example of the difficulty when translating the creative process to the business world. Where in the business world do we have this kind of time to practice? It's all about executing with very little room to dig in to someone else's work.