Secretary of Smash the State

1 February 2013

Some influential, provocative articulations of position made by American US poet Kenneth Goldsmith are through redefinitions of the type of work that poetry is, and the type of work a poet does. Goldsmith’s critical writing continues to attract controversy in Canada and the USA, partly by how his re-figuration of the idiomatic labour of the poet challenges the discourse of craft. Rather than a specialised virtuous labourer or artisan, Goldsmith’s poetic worker is a hybrid of wage slave and outlaw. He writes that:

[C]ontemporary writing requires the expertise of a secretary crossed with the attitude of a pirate: replicating, organising, mirroring, archiving, and reprinting, along with a more clandestine proclivity for bootlegging, plundering, hoarding, and file-sharing. We’ve needed to acquire a whole new skill set: we’ve become master typists, exacting cut-and-pasters, and OCR demons…. There is no museum or bookstore in the world better than our local Staples. The writer’s solitary lair is transformed into a networked alchemical laboratory, dedicated to the brute physicality of textual transference. (“Information Management”)

Goldsmith’s counter-romantic poet here makes him/her something like an embezzler, with the skills and insider knowledge of the secretary and opportunist morality of a pirate. Goldsmith’s poet has a pirate’s eye for opportunities of cultural context that can be “seized” through the long drudgery of menial informatic tasks. His poet is not a scrupulous watchmaker; he/she shovels linguistic compost from one context to another. Writing is the ‘brute physicality of textual transference’ involved in moving found texts into contexts where they will be read aesthetically. While a secretary is a highly skilled but servile, information-management wage worker, the pirate is an economic parasite. Neither are economically productive as such, unlike, say, a carpenter or potter, blacksmith, painter or carver, who produce substantial goods for sale. A secretary (merely) manages information, produces nothing new. The pirate, an anarchistic outcast, steals, scavenges, or eats carrion. In spite of the secretary’s high level of skill, neither can he/she hope for the it’s-a-job-well-done! end of the day moment of the satisfied artisan. This very alienation is part of what makes him/her a potential interloper, a risk of turning pirate/embezzler. Both might be believed, prejudicially, by mercantile aesthetic conscience, to be basically lazy1. The secretary is forced to work extremely hard, yet may be believed to lack the virtuous self-motivation (basic spiritual diligence) of the craftsman. A pirate personifies out-and-out carnal sloth and appetite become sheer criminality. Goldsmith also shifts the fantasy site of poetry away from the legendary places of exquisite toil or sublime craftsmanship, away from the great museum of the tradition. Rather than a literary museum (legendary past achievements, sacred objects, a materialized body of knowledge), a Staples store, as the site of poetry production, suggests the culturally nihilist amnesia of corporate capitalism. Not accidentally, Goldsmith figures the fantasy site of ‘contemporary writing’ – antagonistic to poetry even in name – as a warehouse-sized space full of cheap office supplies, blank paper and computer hardware.

Goldsmith’s ultra-postmodern poet is categorically antagonistic to the poet of crafts discourse. This antagonism is not only a question of the employment obligations of the craftsman poet, but of the obligatory aesthetic identification of poet with the form of labour poetry is and with its ethos. The fuller harmonisations of aesthetic conscience performed in some reviews require that this identification be total. Morality of the job becomes equivalent to the morality of the jobber. From this identification, mediated by the assumption that poetry expresses preformulated meanings, the form of the poetry under review takes on sharp moral significance. Reviewers often make judgements as if a living poet’s entire morality can be inferred from his/her compositional decisions. These inferences sometimes slide into ad hominem. The book of poetry judged as bad must have been written by a bad person, if not a morally ill person. The book of good poems is the work of someone ultimately good (even if “flawed”), aesthetically virtuous, human. Assumptions about the relationship of work and value further ground this chain of identifications, both in that labour turns into a poetic value fetish, and that, consequently, labour as such ritualistically (magically) imparts value to an object. To make such value discursively legible, however, it has to be possible for reviewers to frame certain features of poetry as the legible, obvious traces of good labour. Without a reciprocating gaze, the value is never realised, never concretely enters the cultural field. As David Ormsby characterises a poet’s life: “Hard work, little recognition” (“Poet’s Life”). The poet peers into a void.

In “Conscience Doth Make Subjects of Us All,” both a critique and vindication of Althusser’s theory of interpellation, Judith Butler finds in “the lived simultaneity of submission and mastery” (15) a crucial point of transfer between the logic of accumulation and the skilled labourer’s work ethic. Among the premises that ground the morality of aesthetic labour in the crafts discourse of poetry reviewing are residual Christian notions of sin and innocence. Butler argues that:

The reproduction of social relations, the reproduction of skills, is the reproduction of subjection, but here it is not the reproduction of labor [sic] that is central, but a reproduction proper to the subject, one that takes place in relation to language and to the formation of conscience. For Althusser, to perform tasks ‘conscientiously’ is to perform them … again and again, to reproduce those skills, and in reproducing them, acquire mastery. ‘Conscientiously’ is placed in quotation marks … thus bringing in to relief the way in which labor is moralized … If the mastery of a set of skills is to be construed [as Althusser does] as an acquitting of oneself, this mastery … will constitute a defense of oneself against an accusation, or, quite literally, a declaring of innocence on the part of the accused. To acquit oneself ‘conscientiously’ of one’s task is, then, to construe labor as a confession of innocence, a display or proof of guiltlessness in the face of the demand for confession implied by an insistent accusation. (16)

  1. Recall, in this context, the racist stereotype of the lazy slave.)
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