Kenneth Goldsmith's American Trilogy|
by Steven Zultanski
(Rain Taxi, Vol. 13 No. 3, Fall 2008)
When discussing Kenneth Goldsmith's work, one is irrevocably tempted to sum up each project by its dazzling tagline, so let's get that out of the way: The Weather is a transcription of a year's worth of New York City weather reports, Traffic offers a single day's traffic reports, and Sports transcribes commentary from the longest nine-inning baseball game in history, between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Together these three books make up Goldsmith's recently completed "American Trilogy," an extended refraining of the forms of speech which structure our most mundane media interactions.
Goldsmith is no stranger to the quotidian, and has made a life's work out of representing the familiar in an unfamiliar context. This, of course, means that Goldsmith's work ends up being both some of the most challenging poetry now produced (insofar as it dodges our notions of form and politicization) and some of the least challenging poetry now produced (insofar as each book is immediately "understandable," and the stylistic devices which, often wrongly, mark poetry as "difficult" are simply absent).
Indeed, Goldsmith's writing stands as the most dramatic slate-clearing project in contemporary poetry, pushing aside not only romantic notions of the lyric, but also romantic notions of pushing aside the lyric. In this trilogy, Goldsmith collects and reframes the most banal media-speak of the culture industry, revealing it to be not an airtight system of ideologically-encoded messaging, but rather a shoddy mishmash of human mistakes-hemming and hawing, slipups and stutters.
For example, in The Weather (Make Now Press, $14), transcribed between 2002-2003, at the beginning of our newest long war, New York's meteorological predictions are for two weeks interrupted by occasional "battlefield forecasts":
The, uh, battlefield forecast, the heat will peak Saturday, with high in Baghdad near one hundred, then not as hot Sunday and Monday, but windy at times. Those gusty winds will pick up some sand and dust, and cause areas of reduced visibility. Right now it is forty-one and cloudy in Central Park and our temperature today going up only to forty-three.Despite the clumsiness of the radio station's attempt to keep up with patriotic fervor by reporting on the weather conditions of a foreign city, we can see that what's really interesting is not the short shrift that Baghdad's "gusty winds" receive, but the fact that the discursive attention given to Baghdad is given to its weather. How should we read this? Let's take as our starting point that The Weather's epigraph is from Guy Debord, theoretician of the spectacle, for we should certainly think about Goldsmith's work in spectacular terms.
Reportage of the actual situation on the ground in Baghdad is obviously flawed or nonexistent. Everyone knows that media coverage is falsified or biased, and no matter your political stripe, contemporary Americans know to be on the lookout for "spun" information. Therefore, at first sight, the weather reports may offer one of the only places within the media-world that might offer us the sensation of verity. Even if we don't believe NBC's narrative of armed conflict, surely most of us aren't so suspicious that we would disbelieve the weather-surely at least certain aspects of reporting are so banal that they remain tied in some way to accuracy, even in the society of the spectacle! But what if we consider meteorology as already bound up with inaccuracy, regardless of this particular nationalistic articulation?
Weather reports, by their very nature as pseudo-prophecy, already veer from our expectations regarding truth-hood and our obsession with fact checking. Instead, the fact that weather reports are already patently untrue, insofar as they describe a future situation, allows for the paradox afforded by these particular forecasts: not only does the weather report create the false notion of spatiality for Iraq (it creates a fictional Iraq which American listeners can imagine), but it only does so by virtue of the weather report's immunity from truth because we don't believe weather reports in the first place, or at least know them to be regularly inaccurate, we don't hold them to the same standards of accuracy to which we hold other reporting-and we don't distrust them because we've already discounted their truth, there is nothing to trust. As such, this doubling allows weather reports to be a perfect vehicle for certain kinds of ideological drivel, the kind that thrives on an imaginary relationship between geographic and national spaces.
For those who might be concerned that I've veered off into an analysis of the weather rather than The Weather, it should be pointed out that Goldsmith has claimed he would prefer to have a "thinkership" rather than a "readership." This is an understandable, even generous, position given the density and content of his books. I know some people who actually make a point of reading each of his works all the way through, and while such voluntary labor may offer the challenge of an intensive aesthetic experience, it's certainly not necessary to read Goldsmith's works in order to use them as a springboard for conversations about form, language, or sociality. Take Traffic (Make Now Press, $16.50). It's fitting that this book comes adorned with a photograph from the famed filmmaker Jean Luc Godard's Week-End, since the incredible traffic jam at the beginning of that film so vibrantly resonates with gridlock described within the book:
Well, you were talking about gridlock, well, I'll tell you, we've had reports of some really, uh, serious gridlock on those cross streets uptown between the, uh, 90s and the 120s. Gridlock conditions north of the 96th Street checkpoint, causing motorists to sit for literally hours on those, uh, roadways so, uh, carpool or walk if possible, but again, this is going to be a major mess.Godard's traffic, ultimately, is a critique of Fordism: the long shot, panning over miles of tedious bourgeois boredom, is clearly analogous to an assembly line. Godard's argument is that the assembly line is the real of the traffic jam, that behind the tedious honking and milling about lies not the weekend rush, but the assembly line as form of labor, and form of life. In Traffic, Goldsmith retools this for a 21st-century America that has all but abandoned automobile manufacturing. The real of the traffic jam may still be the assembly line, but that assembly line, increasingly, has been outsourced.
Therefore, like The Weather's projection of Iraq, Traffic projects beyond national borders. The simulacra of American life are revealed and reframed by their imaginary relationship to global life, to the fact that the real of our global dominance does not reside within the American spectacle, but can be gleaned through a close reading of this cover-up. Paradoxically, images of global life and labor can be glimpsed in the very spectacular apparatuses which create the imaginary relationships that attempt to hide or erase this global other.
Sports (Make Now Press, $16.50) maybe the most "American" book of all; it's also, in some ways, the strangest. First of all, despite its generic titling, the transcription is of a baseball game and the cover image is a photograph from a basketball game. So already we know that the subject is not baseball per se, but sports as a cultural phenomenon and discourse. Secondly, the back cover announces that in the average baseball game, there is only eight minutes of actual game-time, meaning that much spare time must be filled by the chatter of the commentators. This excessive speech is a goldmine for Goldsmith, who simply lets it speak its own truth. The masculinity and prowess of professional athleticism, when converted into language, becomes a string of loopy non sequiturs and advertising lingo, the bumbled pseudo-conversations made only to ward off the threat of dead air. Dead air, here, is key. Radio stations take great pains to avoid those awkward moments when silence reveals the emptiness of the frequency.
Goldsmith's whole American Trilogy can be read in this sense. On the one hand, these books are revelations of the spoken word, in all its imperfections. On the other hand, the imperfections are revealed as the ground upon which speech is possible-the dead air that underlies all radio broadcasts also underlies our conversations about the weather, traffic, sports, and yes, poetry. The nullity of the stutter proves to be the basis of the statement, and the mundane surfaces of our culture prove to belie their undersides. Read these books, or don't read these books-either way, The Weather, Traffic, and Sports offer a space for an aesthetic experience with the everyday, a concrete reminder to think and rethink the place of art and language contemporaneously.