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Reading the Unreadable: Kenneth Goldsmith, Conceptual Writing and the Art of Boredom



This article explores conceptual writing and the linked concept of boredom in the work of Kenneth Goldsmith. Specifically, the article examines Goldsmith's claims about boredom and uncreativity; suggesting that Goldsmith's work furthers our understanding both of the materiality of language and of the “function of language,” situating Goldsmith's work within the context of a “gift economy,” and, most centrally, proposing Goldsmith's poetics as “durational” rather than “spatial.” The argument then develops this reading via an extended discussion of the role of boredom in Goldsmith's volume Day.



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1 Sarah Posman, “An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith,” NY Web, 2010, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011).

2 Marjorie Perloff, “A Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith,” Jacket, 21 (Feb. 2003), at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

3 Ibid.

4 Kenneth Goldsmith, “I Love Speech,” Poetry Foundation, Jan. 2007,, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

5 Goldsmith, Kenneth, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Bök, Christian and Goldsmith, Kenneth, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011).

6 Kenneth Goldsmith, “Journal, Day One,” in Harriet: A Blog from the Poetry Foundation, Jan. 2007, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

7 Ibid.

8 Posman, “An Interview.”

9 See Gysin, Brion, Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age, ed. Férez Kuri, José (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 153 .

10 Posman, “An Interview.”

11 Goldsmith, “Journal.”

12 Kenneth Goldsmith, “Letter to the Editor”, Poetry Foundation, Oct. 2009, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

13 Kenneth Goldsmith, “Flarf Is Dionysus: Conceptual Writing Is Apollo’, Poetry, July–Aug. 2009, 316.”

14 Goldsmith, Kenneth, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 114 .

15 Goldsmith, “I Love Speech.”

16 Perloff, Marjorie, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (London and Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

17 Perloff, “A Conversation.”

18 Goldsmith, “Journal.”

19 For a full description see McGurl, Mark, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

20 Goldsmith, “Journal,” added emphasis. It is interesting to note that Goldsmith also puts these ideas into pedagogic as well as literary practice, teaching a course in “Uncreative Writing” at the University of Pennsylvania, where students are penalized for displaying any “creative” or “original” flourishes but are, rather, “rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing.” Goldsmith, “Journal.” The pedagogical and practical implications of such a course in an era of professionalized and market-driven universities are fascinating, although far beyond the scope of the present argument.

21 Goldsmith, “Flarf,” 316.

22 Ibid.; this is also a direct allusion to Simon Morris's press, Information as Material (

23 Publisher's Weekly, 21 July 2003, 190.

24 Radhika Jones, “Uncreative Writing,”, June–July–Aug. 2008, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011; Barbara Cole and Lori Emerson, “Introduction to Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics,” Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing And Theory, 12th series, 7 (Fall 2005), at∼fdavey/c/12.7.htm, accessed 11 Jan. 2011; Artforum International, 31, 6 (Feb. 1993), 100; Rasula, Jed, “From Corset to Podcast: The Question of Poetry Now,” American Literary History (2009), 11 ; Perloff, Marjorie, “Conceptualist Bridges/Digital Tunnels: Kenneth Goldsmith's Traffic,” in Perloff, Unoriginal Genius (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 146–67, 163.

25 Kenneth Goldsmith, “Being Boring”, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 On the subject of aesthetic boredom as both a tactic and a response see Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 7173 and passim; and Ngai, Sianne, “Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics,” in Ngai, , Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 248–97, which deals explicitly with Goldsmith's work.

30 Kenneth Goldsmith, “Uncreativity as a Creative Practice,” at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011. See also

31 Chris Goode, “What's It For?”, The Gig 16 (Feb. 2004), at, original emphasis, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

32 Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. Jephcott, E. F. N. (London: Verso, 1978), 247 .

33 Goldsmith, “Journals.”

34 Buck-Morrs, Susan, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Boston: MIT Press, 1991), 141–42.

35 Goldsmith, “Being Boring.” See also Tzara, Tristan, “To Make a Dadaist Poem,” in Tzara, , Seven Dadaist Manifestos and Lampisteries (London: John Calder, 1992), 75–78, 76 .

36 Raphael Rubinstein, “A Textual Vanitas,” Art in America, Nov. 2004, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

37 Kenneth Goldsmith, “I Look to Theory Only When I Realize That Somebody Has Dedicated Their Entire Life to a Question I Have Only Fleetingly Considered (a Work in Progress),” at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

38 Ibid.

39 Posman, “An Interview.”

40 Fitterman, Robert and Place, Vanessa, Notes on Conceptualisms (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), 25 .

41 Goldsmith, “Being Boring.”

42 Schmidt, Christopher, “The Waste-Management Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith,” SubStance #116, 37, 2 (2008), 25–40, 25 .

43 It is worth stressing that this critique of value is by no means unique to Goldsmith's work but is rather at the centre of most critical and theoretical contributions to the field of conceptual writing. chris cheek's “Reading and Writing: The Sites of Performance” is a particularly important instance of the wider critical terrain which Goldsmith's work turns around, builds on and reverberates against. For much more detail on this critical and theoretical context see Dworkin, Craig and Goldsmith, Kenneth, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011).

44 Ron Silliman, “What Does It Mean For A Work of Art,” at, accessed 1 Dec. 2013.

45 Goldsmith, “Journal.”

46 Levinas, Emmanuel, On Escape, trans. Bergo, Bettina (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 52 .

47 It is worth noting that in 2008 Goldsmith published an edited volume of Warhol's correspondence, I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004).

48 Goldsmith, “Being Boring.”

49 Ibid.

50 Goldsmith, “I Love Speech.”

51 Perloff, “A Conversation.”

52 Anne Henochowicz, “Petty Theft: Kenny G Gives As for Unoriginality,”, 18 Nov. 2004, at, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

53 Goldmsith, “Uncreativity as a Creative Practice.”

54 Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,”, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

55 Goldsmith, “Journal.” It is also interesting to note that it is on precisely these principles that Goldsmith runs the huge and highly influential archive of the avant-garde, UbuWeb. As Goldsmith has written in the position statement, “UbuWeb Wants to be Free”: “Essentially a gift economy, poetry is the perfect space to practice utopian politics. Freed from profit-making constraints or cumbersome fabrication considerations, information can literally ‘be free’: on UbuWeb, we give it away … UbuWeb is a never-ending work in progress: many hands are continually building it on many platforms.” See Kenneth Goldsmith, “UbuWeb Wants to be Free,” at∼afilreis/88/ubuweb.html, accessed 11 Jan. 2011.

56 Benjamin, Walter, “The Author as Producer,” in Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul, eds., Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 493–98, 498 . The reference to Benjamin is particularly apposite here, not least because Goldsmith's current project involves a reworking of Benjamin's epic masterpiece The Arcades Project, but also for the way Goldsmith's practice opens interesting opportunities for rethinking the ongoing relevance of Benjamin's cultural materialism for the information age.

57 Goldsmith, “Flarf,” 315.

58 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, G. E. A. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 46, original emphasis.


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