Friday, March 16, 2012

"Paradoxes abound": Kenneth Goldsmith of UbuWeb interviewed at The Believer

Kenneth Goldsmith, the nominal chief archivist of UbuWeb, was recently interviewed at The Believer. The interview touches on a variety of ideas: Goldsmith and interviewer Dave Mandl of WMFU in New York carom like pinballs around each other, and in the process open a lengthy dialogue about language, information, and transmission built, digitally, in even more (usually unseen) language.

Here's Goldsmith on the inevitable consequence of the all-consuming digital transformation: "Shh… the new radicalism is paper. Right? Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. "

KG: ... We’re living in a time when the sheer amount of language has exponentially increased. As writers, if we wish to be contemporary, I think we need to acknowledge that the very nature of the materials that we’re working with — the landscape of language — is very different than it was a few decades ago. It seems to call into question the way we write and the environment into which we’re writing and distributing our works. Not only that, but our entire digital world is made up of alphanumeric language (the 1s and 0s of computing).

You know sometimes when you receive a JPEG in an email and it comes in wrong, appearing as garbled text instead of an image? It’s a reminder that all of our media now is made of language: our films, our music, our images, and of course our words.

How different this is from analog production, where, if you were somehow able to peel back the emulsion from, say, a photograph, you wouldn’t find a speck of language lurking below the surface. The interesting thing is that now you can open a JPEG in a text editor, dump in a bunch of language, and reopen it as an image, and you’ll find that the image has completely been changed—all as a result of active language. This is so new, and the implications for writing are so profound and paradigmatic.

Suddenly, language is material to shape and mold, not only a transparent or invisible medium for communication, business contracts, or telling stories. Language has many dimensions; we’re seeing the materiality of words emerge in new and interesting ways. But I don’t wish to be prescriptive here. Of course, wonderful stories remain to be told and new ideas to be written. After all, for all my talk of “uncreativity” and “unoriginality,” isn’t what I’m pointing out here in conventional language something new and original? Paradoxes abound.

... I’m going to drop a real secret on you. It used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightning speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership. Shh… the new radicalism is paper. Right? Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general.

If you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web. But if you put it in digital form, expect it to be bootlegged, remixed, manipulated, and endlessly commented upon. Expect spiders to pick it up and use it as ad-bait on spoof web pages. The moment you put it out there, all bets are off; it’s way out of your control. ...

I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.

(Photo of Kenneth Goldsmith from Jacket 2)

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