Creativity — as its been configured in our culture — is the thing to flee from
(Photo: Electronic Poetry Center)
You have been teaching uncreative writing at The University of Pennsylvania. Your book is an outgrowth of the course, a result or the cause of the course?
My book, Uncreative Writing, has been informed by my pedagogy, but has been developing simultaneously with my own writing practice, my work on the radio and with UbuWeb, all over the past fifteen years. Each practice informs the book into what I hope is a unified statement about managing language in the digital age.
In 2004, I began teaching a class called Uncreative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. I sensed that the textual changes that I was noticing in the digital landscape as a result of intensive online engagement was going to be echoed by a younger generation who had never known anything but this environment.
This is the course description:
“It’s clear that long-cherished notions of creativity are under attack, eroded by file-sharing, media culture, widespread sampling, and digital replication. How does writing respond to this new environment? This workshop will rise to that challenge by employing strategies of appropriation, replication, plagiarism, piracy, sampling, plundering, as compositional methods. Along the way, we’ll trace the rich history of forgery, frauds, hoaxes, avatars, and impersonations spanning the arts, with a particular emphasis on how they employ language. We’ll see how the modernist notions of chance, procedure, repetition, and the aesthetics of boredom dovetail with popular culture to usurp conventional notions of time, place, and identity, all as expressed linguistically.”
These strategies embedded in your pedagogy (appropriation, replication, plagiarism, mixing etc.) were discussed in the controversial book by Andrew Keen – The Cult of the Amateur – as practices that culminate in the trivialization of culture and the loss of references. According to him, they are symptomatic of a triumph of ignorance in a world without criteria. How uncreative writing responds to the conservative provocation by Keen?
Uncreative writing proposes a democratic and populist approach to writing, not unlike Marjorie Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius. It’s not so much what we write, but instead what we choose to reframe, that makes one writer better than another, upending the equation of what it means to be a writer. Content takes care of itself; we needn’t worry about meaning. Words are meaningful enough without any help from us. What we need to do is to materialize and quantify language — manage it — in order to write now. We act more like programmers and word-processors than we do like traditional writers.
There’s been an awful lot of talk of amateurism and “deskilling” but what I’m most interested in is a new populist approach to writing that comes with these new ways of working. Whereas modernism was preoccupied with fragmentation and shattering of language, conceptual writing simply lifts pre-existing texts in their entirety and claims them as their own. It’s something anyone can do and that anyone can understand. For example, my books. Who can’t understand a years’ worth of weather reports or the transcription of a baseball game? Every man in the street has an intimate relationship with these vernacular forms. When I read at the White House, the audience — which included President Obama and The First Lady — roared with delight when I read traffic reports transcribed from the radio and yet they barely reacted when I read the ‘real’ poetry of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. And so you have a situation where the most radical, the most experimental, and the most avant-garde approach — plagiarism, transcription, uncreativity — is the one that is understood. This is a really new situation.
What was the reaction of the university and of the students to your course syllabus?
My hunch proved to be correct. Not only did the students take to the curriculum, but they ended up teaching me much more than I knew. Every week, they’d come into class and show me the latest language meme raging across the networks or some new remix engine that was more capable of mangling texts than I had ever dreamed of. The classroom took on the characteristics of an online community, more of a dynamic place for sharing and exchanging ideas than a traditional professor-lectures-students college course.
But, as time went on, I realized that although they could show me cool new things, they didn’t know how to contextualize these artifacts, historically, culturally, or artistically. If, for example, they showed me The Hitler Meme, where the infamous scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall was resubtitled so that Hitler was screaming about everything from Windows Vista problems to the collapse of the real estate bubble, I had to inform them that, in the 1970s, situationist filmmaker René Viénet used the resubtitling technique to détourn genre films like porn or kung fu into scathing artworks of social and political critique. It also dawned on me that they were much more oriented to consuming online culture than seeing it as something to create new works from. Although we were engaging in a meaningful two-way conversation, I felt there was a real pedagogical need to be filled, one that centered around issues of contextualization. And there were big gaps of knowledge. It was as if all the pieces were there, but they needed someone to help put them together in the right place and in the right order, a situation that called for a conceptual reorientation of what already came naturally to them. In this chapter I want to share five basic exercises I give my students to acclimate them to the ideas of uncreative writing and make them aware of the language and its riches, which are, and have always been, around them.
Can you describe the methodology you use in your classes on uncreative writing?
The first thing I want to do is to get them to think about the act of writing itself, so I give them a simple assignment: retype five pages with no further explanation. To my surprise, the next week they arrive in the class, each with a unique piece of writing. Their responses are varied and full of revelations.
As another exercise, I give the class the instructions to transcribe a piece of audio. I try to pick something with little excitement or interest so as to keep the focus on the language, a straightforward news report or something seemingly dry and dull so as not to “inspire” any student. If I give ten people the same audio file to transcribe, we end up with ten completely unique transcriptions. How we hear—and how, in turn, we process that hearing into written language—is riddled with subjectivity. What you hear as a brief pause and transcribe as a comma, I hear as the end of a sentence and transcribe as a period. The act of transcription, then, is a complex one involving translation, displacement, and détournement. No matter how hard we try, we can’t objectify this seemingly simple and mechanical process.
Or I ask them to take a film or video that has no screenplay and make one for it, so precisely notated that it could be recreated after the fact by actors or nonactors. The format of the screenplay should have nothing left to chance or whim about it: the students must use a Courier font as well as adhere to the preordained formatting constraints that are the screenwriting industry standards. In short, the final work should be unmistakable for a Hollywood screenplay. They have scripted Warhol films, porn films, and home videos. This exercise distances, formalizes, and defamiliarizes their relationship to language.
One of your books is an anthology of interviews with Andy Warhol, an artist who took to limit the tightening of the aura of the artwork. What Warhol has to teach us about uncreative art?
The visual arts have long embraced uncreativity as a creative practice. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the twentieth century was awash with artworks that challenged the primacy of the artist and questioned received notions of authorship. Particularly in the 1960s, with the advent of conceptual art, Duchampian tendencies were tested to the extreme, producing important bodies of often ephemeral and propositional work by towering artists such as Dan Flavin, Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono, and Joseph Kosuth. What they made was often secondary to the idea of how it was made.
There’s a lot that writers can learn from these artists in how they went about eradicating traditional notions of genius, labor, and process. These ideas seem particularly relevant in today’s digital climate, since the basis of much conceptual art was systematic, logical language. Like the concrete poets and situationists, there’s a direct tie-in to the use of language materially. In fact, many conceptual artists used words as their primary medium in the form of proposition and/or as a gallery-based expression.
There’s a lot, too, that a contemporary readership can learn from the precedent of conceptual art. While no one flinches today upon walking into a gallery and seeing a few lines drawn on a wall according to a recipe (Sol LeWitt) or entering a theater or gallery showing a film of a man sleeping for eight hours (Andy Warhol’s Sleep, 1963), parallel acts bound between the pages of a book and published as writing still raise many red flags and cries: “That’s not literature!” In the 1960s gallery viewers quickly learned—as in the case of Warhol’s films—how not to watch them, but rather to think about them, write about them, and discuss them without being burdened by the need to watch in full. Similarly, many learned the futility of demanding an emotional kick from a Lewitt drawing, knowing there wouldn’t be any. Instead, they learned to ask different questions, recognizing that mechanical expressions can be equally—but differently—beautiful and moving. For many, any resistance to such approaches in art quickly collapsed, and both Warhol and LeWitt have both become canonized and even mainstream artists.
Creativity is one of the most repeated words of our age. Companies have Creative Depts., the creative economy is a recurrent theme in political discussions and the publishing industry worldwide publishes guides and manuals with recipes on how to become creative. Could your book be seen as a reaction to that phenomenon?
Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity — as its been configured in our culture — is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.”
After moderism’s (vis-à-vis language poetry) deconstruction and atomization of words, there is a need not only to view language again as a whole — syntactically and grammatically intact — but to acknowledge the cracks in the surface of the reconstructed linguistic vessel. Living in a time where technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time to question and tear down such clichés and lay them out of the floor in front of us, then reconstruct these smoldering embers into something new, something contemporary, something — finally — relevant. Therefore, in order to proceed, we need to employ a strategy of opposites — unboring boring, uncreative writing, against expression, unoriginal — all methods of disorientation used in order to re-imagine our normative relationship to language.
The Arcades project by Benjamin had Paris as the capital of the 19th century. Yours takes place in New York. NYC is still the capital of the world or of our century? Why?
My book, Capital, is a rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project set in New York City in the twentieth century. The idea is to use Benjamin’s identical methodology in order to write a poetic history of New York City in the twentieth century, just as Benjamin did with Paris in the nineteenth. My book goes right up until September 11, 2001, after which time, New York enters the twenty-first century and becomes just another player on the global stage. The twentieth century was really New York’s time.
In your introduction to Uncreative… you say that the note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is an example of a (past) age of literature when “the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does”. Why to rewrite Benjamin’s Arcades Project today?
Benjamin was the first writer to really engage with large-scale appropriation. And you think that might not be so radical until you really examine why this hasn’t happened before. With all of the twentieth century’s twisting and pulverizing of language and the hundreds of new forms proposed for fiction and poetry, it never occurred to anybody to grab somebody else’s words and present them as their own. Borges proposed it in the form of Pierre Menard, but even Menard didn’t copy—he just happened to write the same book that Cervantes did without any prior knowledge of it. It was sheer coincidence, a fantastic stroke of genius combined with a tragically bad sense of timing.
Benjamin’s gesture raises many questions about the nature of authorship and ways of constructing literature: isn’t all cultural material shared, with new works built upon preexisting ones, whether acknowledged or not? Haven’t writers been appropriating from time eternal? What about those well-digested strategies of collage and pastiche? Hasn’t it all been done before? And, if so, is it necessary to do it again? What is the difference between appropriation and collage?
A good place to start looking for answers is in the visual arts, where appropriative practices have been tested and digested for the past century, particularly in the approaches of Duchamp and Picasso, both of whom were reacting to the previous century’s shifts in industrial production and its subsequent technologies, particularly the camera. A useful analogy is Picasso as a candle and Duchamp as a mirror. The light of the candle draws us to its warm glow, holding us spellbound by its beauty. The cool reflectivity of the mirror pushes us away from the object, throwing us back on ourselves. But now finally Benjamin gives us the permission for these explorations in the writerly sense.
I agree with your arguments but i really would like to hear more about this: <
From my intro:
While home computers have been around for three decades and people have been cutting and pasting all that time, it’s the sheer penetration and saturation of broadband that makes the harvesting of masses of language easy and tempting. On a dialup, although it was possible to copy and paste words, in the beginning (gopherspace), texts were doled out one screen at a time. And, even though it was text, the load time was still considerable. With broadband, the spigot runs 24/7.
By comparison, there was nothing native to the system of typewriting that encouraged the replication of texts. It was incredibly slow and laborious to do so. Later, after you finished writing, then you could make all the copies you wanted on a Xerox machine. As a result, there was a tremendous amount of twentieth-century postwriting print-based detournement: William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups and fold-ins and Bob Cobbing’s distressed mimeographed poems are prominent examples. The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage, and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.
Clearly this is setting the stage for a literary revolution.
I will try to be more precise with my question: You say Benjamin was the first writer to really engage with
large-scale appropriation because of his thematic, the flaneur style and essays like “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, “The Narrator” etc. Right?
Yes. He was really the first writer who felt the need NOT to write, but to copy. You know this great quote of his:
The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger see only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands. . . . Only the copied text commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, the road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of him mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits to its command.
(Walter Benjamin, Reflections (New York: Schocken, 1978), p. 66.
Isn’t that powerful? Nobody had ever thought of that before!
Do you already have the info about the Capital book?
Oh no. It’s only half way written. It might be published in ten years!
Ok. So we can give more info in seLeCt number 100.
Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age
Columbia University Press, 2011
Paper, 272 pages, 27 illus.
$22.50 / £15.95