“My body is so crap at staying true”, sings David Thomas Broughton. Aaron Swartz knew and experienced the difficulty of staying true to one’s body; he suffered from suicidal depression, extreme social anxieties, and ulcerative colitis (a serious type of inflammatory bowel disease). He is also routinely described as a genius, prodigy, hero; three very laden and oft-overused, or misused words. However, for Aaron Swartz they ring true; purely in the very strict sense of their literal, etymological meanings, not – to paraphrase from Glenn Greenwald’s article “The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz” – “to whitewash his life or beatify him upon death”.[i]
Aaron lived with great love, courage, passion; created and developed fundamental parts of today’s internet; fought to defend ideals of open access, availability of intellectual property and cultural heritage; thought ecologically, in terms of open connectivity between different spheres of people and environment. Perhaps he was too true (to the world outside), or not true enough (to his own body); either way, in the end, which should never already have been the end, and to our eternal loss, his body broke. He leaves us with the injunction to try as hard as we can to stay true; even though few of us will meet the standards Aaron set for himself.
“You literally ought to be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now, and if you are not working on that why aren’t you?”[ii] is how Taren Stinebrickner-kauffman Aaron’s partner describes him. Says another friend, “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s impossibly high standards and youthful enthusiasm and naïve brilliance…I can’t help but think that the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are.”[iii]
Some examples of his precociousness; at 13 he helped developed RSS (a web feed service and integral part of the internet), around the same time he helped Larry Lessig develop Creative Commons (personalized, flexible Copyright), later he co-created Reddit, was the driving force behind DemandProgress, the successful anti-SOPA campaign), and already at 13, he was introduced Tim Berners-Lee (usually known as “the inventor of the internet”), who upon Aaron’s death wrote, “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”
Aaron was also a hacker, activist, and fiercely independent body. Aaron’s activism, singular mind, and unpredictable, yet highly specific and effective actions and campaigns, were probably part of the reason why the FBI seemed to want to make an example of him. They went after him hard when he was caught plugging his laptop directly into server at the MIT campus and downloading 3 million documents from the academic database JSTOR. Initial charges were for 35, then 50 years; but later plea bargains were offered for 6 months and even as low as 2 months.[iv] Much discussion has been had online and elsewhere about these charges, whether or not this was a case of prosecutorial overreach, and whether or not the over-zealous prosecution (another young hacker in an unrelated case led by the same prosecutor, also committed suicide[v]), is what directly or indirectly led Aaron to take his own life, hanging himself on January 11, 2013. Those discussions are only tangentially related to the questions I want to ask; namely, what does it mean to stay true? To one’s own body; and to someone after death? What I want to say, is that this is impossible to say, until after the fact. What I want to suggest, is that Kenneth Goldsmith’s dedication of his project to “Printing Out The Internet” (POTI), is certainly one way not to be true to Aaron Swartz; not to honour the true memory of Aaron Swartz.
Kenneth Goldsmith: sculptor turned conceptual poet; hoarder of language; former radio presenter; chansonnier of French Continental theory; charming polemicist; founder and driving force of UBU, renowned archive of experimental and avant-garde art and music. At first sight, comparing Goldsmith and Swartz seems pretty antonymic. Yet, apart from a common cause of freedom of information, and cultural heritage, the two share several personality traits, but take them in very different directions.
But of what interest is either of their personalities? And why mention them together in the first place? The specific occasion for an examination of some of these uncertain bonds between the poet and hacker, is Goldsmith’s dedication to Aaron Swartz of his ongoing poem / project “Printing Out the Internet” (POTI). Their persons and personalities are of interest to the extent that these traits are integral to their respective projects. Their work has become retroactively entwined since Goldsmith dedicated POTI to the memory of Swartz. Reflections below on some of the affective entanglements between the two, lead to the conclusion that Goldsmith’s dedication to Swartz exists in name, on the POTI Tumblr and in dozens of articles that have reported on the project since its announcement a couple of months ago; however, Goldsmith’s gesture has no real, affective, forceful relation to the true memory of Aaron Swartz.
Before tracing some of these affective entanglements an important distinction should be clarified between affect and emotion. As Brian Massumi shows beautifully in his writing, affect includes a body’s full force in the world, of which emotion is only a small part. “Emotion is a very partial expression of affect… no one emotional state can encompass all the depth and breadth of our experiencing of experiencing.”[vi] Therefore, it is not so much the persons and personalities of Goldsmith and Swartz that are of interest here, but the way their affect is entangled with and fundamentally informs their work. Most personally traits are (generally speaking) neutral. Kenny’s seductive polemics, or Aaron’s emotional anxieties can both be either productive or corrosive, depending on the situation. Just as wind always needs some channel through which to be experienced, an emotion acquires meaning only in a particular context of expression or reflection.
This is important to emphasize here because – while the present question is how Goldsmith and Swartz are affectively bound up with their work – affect is of course closely related, and easily confused with emotional states. All of which is just another way of saying, this piece is emphatically not intended as “Kenny Bashing” (which Sina Queryas recently wrote on her public Facebook update, is so popular these days), but is an attempt to write for Aaron Swartz, to affirm some of his truth.
Kenneth Goldsmith is a naturally gifted and entertaining speaker although he is not always the most logically consistent. For example, at a talk about conceptual poetry and digitality, at Berlin’s Transmediale festival last February, eloquent presentation and bold statements, at times replaced precision and depth of argumentation. This was particularly striking when halfway through his presentation Goldsmith, in only a brief mention of Aaron Swartz, made a series of factually incorrect and seriously misleading statements regarding the JSTOR documents Swartz had downloaded from MIT (the ones that led to Swartz being hounded by the FBI). The main claim Goldsmith made was that these files were a mess and that it would have been more interesting if Swartz had been more conceptual in his selection and presentation of them.
There are quite a few mistakes to unravel here. Firstly, the documents Goldsmith discussed originated from a 33GB Torrent that had been uploaded to PirateBay in 2011. Goldsmith assumed these were some of Swartz’ JSTOR downloads. “I downloaded a torrent that was supposed to be some chunk of Swartz’s heist.[vii] In fact, they were uploaded by Greg Maxwell, who explains in a long note on Pirate Bay that, “Several years ago I came into possession, through rather boring and lawful means, of a large collection of JSTOR documents… I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous charges.”
Next, Goldsmith joked about the irregularity and unusual length of the academic papers found in the Torrent, assuming they had simply been chaotically cut and paste together. In fact, these were journal papers in their original form, as published in Philosophical Transactions, in 1665. They were simply longer and differently formatted than contemporary, 20-30 page, academic papers, as also stated on the journal’s own website: “The first volumes… were very different from today’s journal, but in essence it served the same function.”[viii]
Thirdly, and most problematically, Goldsmith’s main claim was that Swartz (in fact Maxwell) had “not been conceptual enough” in ordering and selection this Torrent. The truth is Maxwell is very explicit about the selections he made and why: 1. out of solidarity with Swartz (quoted above); 2. to draw attention to the fact that he only included articles that pre-date 1923 and therefore should be in the public domain already anyway, but 3. instead are sold for exorbitant fees:
The portion of the collection included in this archive, ones published prior to 1923 and therefore obviously in the public domain, total some 18,592 papers and 33 gigabytes of data. The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind, and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each–for one month’s viewing, by one person, on one computer. It’s a steal. From you.[ix]
And there is more. Disregarding for a moment that this collection should have been in the public domain already anyway, the journal they were taken from is seminal in historical-scientific terms. Because, as Janneke Adema (who was also present at Goldsmith’s talk) incisively pointed out, “Philosophical Transactions” is not just an old journal; it was “the world’s first scientific journal”. Furthermore, it “established the important principles of scientific priority and peer review”. These principles “have become the central foundations of scientific journals ever since”. Finally, the journal adopted these principles, “to inform the Fellows of the Society and other interested readers of the latest scientific discoveries”.[x] Science had taken its first steps not only to more consistent quality control, but also to the accessibility of intellectual property.
There are thus two major problems with Goldsmith’s critique of Swartz’ (in fact Maxwell’s) supposed lack of rigour. First, it is a crucial misreading of the significance of this Torrent, based on blatantly false assumptions. In fact, not only does Goldsmith omit several important scientific-historical facts in his facetious dismissal of the journal’s “funny-looking long pieces of text” and rejection of the Torrent file on conceptual grounds. Most importantly, these facts about the journal show that the decision to download specifically of this journal, enacted a subtle, precise, and powerful conceptual gesture and radical, ethical, act of subversion.
If this episode illustrates one thing it is Goldsmith’s pretty poor (scholarly) readership, or (poetic) thinkership skills (in this particular case, not in general); depending on whether he was speaking as Professor or Poet. He works as both, but it was unclear from my vantage point it was unclear which function he was fulfilling. It also did not help that Goldsmith, by (incorrectly) criticizing Swartz for not being conceptual, was judging Swartz, a hacker-activist, by the very specific and clearly unrelated sphere of conceptual art.
Instead, Goldsmith groundlessly held Swartz to his own standards, judged him according to his own interests. Unfortunately, even afterwards, when explicitly challenged about his remarks about Swartz by a viscerally upset member of the audience (there had been noticeable unrest among several people in the auditorium when Goldsmith made his comments about Swartz), who argued that Swartz in fact had been quite strategic in his thinking and actions, Goldsmith offered no real response, simply vaguely reasserting his preference for a more conceptual attitude. Goldsmith seemed stuck in his artist persona and unable to really listen and engage with an opinion other than his own.
This was reminiscent of the lack of response to Stephen Colbert’s observation about his latest book Seven American Deaths and Tragedies (2013). “When I read this I feel like I’m some sort of time traveling aesthete who is coming in to sample other people’s shock and tragedy. I’m tasting their disbelief and the way it’s changing them forever… and it feels vampiric.” [xi]
Kenneth Goldsmith never properly replies to this reading – which even if only intended as provocation, very possible of course considering Colbert’s default mode is irony – still is a very likely reaction many people might have and merits a serious response. What interests me in both cases is Goldsmith’s lack of any true engaging response to his interlocutor. Paradoxically, his uncharacteristic retreat into himself in these moments, seems to indicate a limited capacity for self-irony; even though his poems and poetic statements are full of contradiction and whimsical self-critique (describing himself as boring, unreadable, and dumb)[xii].
Perhaps, in all seriousness, this lack of true interaction is due to his charismatic personality. Like him or hate him, Goldsmith is clearly a very charismatic individual. In fact, eliciting extreme feelings, not only of admiration, but also hatred, is a quality of charisma. So are “unusual confidence, serenity, assertiveness… along with superb communication skills… positive energy, charm, personal magnetism.”[xiii]; all fitting descriptions of Goldsmith. No wonder that one of three attributes of charismatic people – as described by psychologist Richard Wiseman – is being impervious to other charismatic people. It seems nearly inevitable that charismatic people, besides exerting a pull on others, also get caught up in the force of their own energy.
These observations might strike some as ad hominem, pop psychology, or simply irrelevant; in fact, I respect Goldsmith more than most poets I know and feel that much of his work is exciting and new. I am truly not intending to be sarcastic or cynical, but am arguing that Goldsmith’s very singular and charismatic affect directly informs his work and interaction with people. Just as Swartz’ troubled, fragile, yet impassioned affect informed his work, actions, and interactions. In itself, this is not even a very controversial or interesting observation. And again, neither are any of these affects good or bad in themselves. The claim here is simply that POTI, which so clearly illustrates Goldsmith tendency to irreverent hyperbole, superlative confidence, and totalizing polemics, and has caused so much outrage and protest, simply crushes Aaron Swartz’ complex, careful fragility, instead of honouring the truth of his name.
There are several specific examples of how Goldsmith, just by his vocabulary and style makes some extremely insulting, myopic, and yet again plain incorrect statements about Swartz. Hopefully Goldsmith is not trying to be purposely hurtful. But that is precisely the point. His consistent affect is one of grandiose statements, adjectives, superlatives, flair, sprezzatura. Hopefully, he himself would not deny this, since they are part of his artistic persona and poetics of excess, totalism, and the jouissance of ever proliferating language. These affective intensities were never more tangible than in POTI.
They would also probably make Aaron Swartz physically sick. And, unfortunately, that is no bathos or overstatement. Swartz’ own often very personal and intimate writing on his blog, as well as long, in depth profile articles, “The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz” by Wesley Yang[xiv], “Requiem for a Dream” by Larissa MacFarguhar [xv] as well as many online tributes from friends and colleagues portray a complex, hyper-sensitive person. His ulcerative colitis, social anxieties, insecurities, loner background, suicidal depression, often made him very sick, led him to avoid people, or see different people at different times. About being sick he wrote:
Once again, I’ve been sick — this time, with four different illnesses. I have a lot of illnesses. I don’t talk about it much, for a variety of reasons. I feel ashamed to have an illness… I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse…At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.[xvi]
And his sickness had real effects on his interactions with friends
Despite his public presence, he was small and frail and shy and often sick, and people wanted to protect him. He was loved intensely, as a child is loved. Because he hated people talking about him, he kept his friends apart. He was different with different people, and with the same people at different times, so his story is fractured, and some of the pieces contradict one another.[xvii]
Interestingly, Kenneth Goldsmith is also full contradictions; for example, between his poems and his statements about his poems (“I am the most boring poet alive”, “My books do not need to be read”). However, while Goldsmith’s paradoxes are a design of his artistic persona, Swartz traced a fractured and contradicting path often because he did not fit in, could not do otherwise, or because he had not learnt how to follow the normal rules. He taught himself how to read at age 3 (“She asked him, What was he talking about?” “He said, ‘Mom, it says here on the refrigerator.’ He had taught himself to read.”), dropped out of high school, was later nevertheless accepted into Stanford, but then quit that too, “having found [it] intellectually unchallenging”.[xviii]
“You know, people running around in the fountains. He didn’t like people who did things that were just silly, that seemed to have no purpose.”… The normal rules didn’t apply to him. He shook them off. One effect of this upbringing was that he never internalized any notions about what he was supposed to be doing or not doing as a young person.[xix]
Swartz was ridiculously self-effacing:
At CodeCon the other day, all sorts of people asked me what I was working on these days. I could have said “I’ve been put in charge of Roosevelt Labs, a center to write cool software with political implications.” Or I could have said “I’m writing a book about how the world really works.” But instead I say, “Oh, nothing, just focusing on schoolwork.”
and suffered from debilitating shyness. So much so he was afraid to ask for water on an airplane:
No, the problem is that I am terribly, almost unbearably thirsty. . . . I am so thirsty that it’s beginning to feel like there’s no water around to hydrate my brain so my neocortex is shrivelling up. . . . But I guess that’s not really the problem either. The problem, the real problem I suppose, is that I can’t ask for anything to drink.[xx]
Aaron’s fragility caused him social anxiety and illness. Artist and theorist Bracha Ettinger speaks of an ethics of self-fragilization[xxi]; opening up to the fragile in oneself, by opening up to the fragile in the other. It seems that Aaron often self-fragilized too much, opened up too much to the other and forgetting the autonomy of his own being.
This, I suppose, is the actual problem: I feel my existence is an imposition on the planet…Even among my closest friends, I still feel like something of an imposition, and the slightest shock, the slightest hint that I’m correct, sends me scurrying back into my hole.[xxii]
Once, he did allow himself a break, unplugging his computer for one month. . “I need to take a break. My life has become entangled with technology and pressure that I hardly know any other way of life.. I want to be human again. Even if that means isolating myself from the rest of you humans.”[xxiii] It seemed like a constant struggle for Swartz, keep his body together by going inward, or reaching out to other bodies.
How to be true to an other without forsaking oneself, and vice versa and etcetera? How to give someone the benefit of the doubt? How to allow yourself to be fragile, in order to be open to the fragility of the other? Yet, the sincerity, fragility, and honesty in Swartz’s character and writing are precisely traits that Goldsmith rejects, associating them with (often generalized notions of) lyricism, emotional self-expression, which he argues are only ostensibly creative, but in fact simply repeat the same ideas and forms in slightly different, but not properly new ways.
Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun… Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?[xxiv]
Yet Aaron Swartz was driven by precisely by the “subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire” that Goldsmith rejects. Of course, ideas of sincere and transparent self-expression can indeed be problematic as soon as they pretend to transcend their socio-historical context, but that is another conversation. What is relevant here is that Goldsmith’s aesthetics – of totalization and globalization that (particularly in this project), revels in excess, charismatic force, directive polemics – does not leave much breathing room for the careful, fragile, troubled meditations, and singular meanderings of Aaron Swartz, better captured by Bracha Ettinger’s sensibility:
The we that I am working on is the we of co-emergence, not of the total and the global, but co-emergence, co-subjectification, between each time two of you, or several body-minds, body-psyche… so this kind of fragility I am talking about self-imposed in a way, is a way to contact the vulnerability of the other. We cannot contact the vulnerable other while being totalizing, having lots of force, controlling and so on. [xxv]
There are several specific examples of how this applies to Goldsmith’s use and characterization of Swartz. Goldsmith repeats ad infinitum that his project honours the memory of Aaron Swartz. Yet the idea was not his, the gallerist, Echeverría enlisted [him] to create an homage to Swartz; and one wonders to what extent Goldsmith engaged with the true motivations behind Swartz’ actions. On the few occasions that he actually voices an opinion about Swartz his language tends to be laced with, derision (“I want to… ponder much larger questions”), exaggeration (“millions were touched by his work”), marketing lingo (“Swartz… opened so much of the web for public consumption), or facetiousness (“I feel every simpatico for Swartz’s plight”).
For example, Goldsmith makes clear that “I didn’t know him at all, but like millions of others, I was touched by his work and life…”[xxvi] This statement clearly expresses a moving, personal sentiment. However, it also illustrates Goldsmith’s typical hyperbole: “millions of others” were touched by his work? This is simply not true. Hundreds and likely thousands seem to have been personally touched and moved by Swartz, considering his extensive work, and the outpouring of personal tribute following his death. And millions indeed perhaps even billions of people every day are affected by his work in a practical sense that they use RSS, Reddit, Creative Commons. However, just using the internet does not equal being “touched by his work and life”. Speaking about anyone reduces them to something less than their full being, but this kind of dramatic hyperbole is completely alien to Swartz’s character. Although it might seem like a petty point to make, this attitude and language is an integral part of Goldsmith aesthetics and surely not always intentionally hurtful; nevertheless, intentional or not, the effect remains the same. Swartz’s work is in different ways is reduced to soundbytes, or not taken seriously; but certainly not honoured.
Reduction of the polar opposite kind happens when Goldsmith explains how he differs from Swartz:
Mine is a poetic gesture, a ‘pataphysical gesture. His was a political gesture, a gesture of liberation. And I’m not doing this so that everybody can go and steal all the material on the Internet. I actually want to use his gesture as a jumping-off point to begin to ponder much larger questions.[xxvii]
These comments are so crass they are hard to register. Hopefully Goldsmith did not intentionally mean to reduce Swartz’s lifelong fight for free and properly accessible intellectual property, cultural heritage, to: “everybody… go and steal all the material on the Internet”; but he is sure making it difficult not read it like that. But Goldsmith outdoes himself when he claims that he is inspired by Swartz only as “a jumping-off point to begin to ponder much larger questions”.[xxviii] This is hubris wrapped in hubris. Goldsmith correctly distinguishes between himself as a poet, and Swartz as a political activist. But his own questions are larger apparently. Why larger? Why not different? He might have proposed “an attempt to translate Swartz’ ethical, singular and passionate political subversion into my own project of poetic ethics?” Why compare and critique from a place of judgement, instead of affirming some singular different yet affectively consistent aspect of both their work?
Unfortunately, there is not even much logical consistency to these statements. At the Transmediale Goldsmith criticizes Swartz for not being conceptual, thus judging him with poetic standards. Here he does distinguish between poetic and political functions, only to again conflate them by comparing the two. Finally, Goldsmith’s claim that he ponder much larger questions is not only unseemly arrogant in itself; it is, yet again, plain wrong. The work of both Swartz and Goldsmith raise large questions. In fact, Swartz at age 14 had already likely brought about more structural, lasting, practically meaningful change to this world than Goldsmith, or most of us, ever will. Not that Goldsmith’s poetry is not important, I certainly feel it is.
Besides, the funny thing is, for all his shyness and anxiety, who says Swartz did not have big goals: “ending suffering, maximizing human empowerment, making the world an awesome place—that is what he cared about. I think any cause that you can come up with is smaller than that”.[xxix] Swartz apparently was capable of a megalomania equal to that of Goldsmith:
He imagined building one giant global organization that could replace the little ones that existed now. He warned Taren [his girlfriend] that if she went around starting new groups she should be aware that they might take the oxygen away from his future organization. It frightened her a bit when he talked like this—it felt megalomaniacal and unstable—so she tended to avoid the subject… The trick in the short term, he thought, was to launch micro-campaigns on a local level, where you could test various strategies and see what worked and what didn’t. You needed tight feedback loops that would enable you to measure concrete results, so you had to design tactics that could be subjected to controlled experiments.[xxx]
At one point he brainstormed about
a bill that created a revolving credit fund for switching schools to geothermal in Indiana. It’s a great environmental program, it saves money for the schools, and it creates local jobs. And once you have a bill like this written you could—boom, boom, boom—make it a meta-campaign and pass it in all sorts of cities around the country… Maybe we can bubble about it in person sometime! Bubble bubble bubble!”[xxxi]
Note also from the quote above that Swartz thought ecologically, in the sense that he was aware of the interconnectedness of things, and tried to account for this with extremely concrete, incremental, conceptualized planning. It is even in his playful, inimical language: “Bubble bubble bubble”, indicating a playful, deep sense of being as plural, open, and shifting, of the one always being preceded by the two (the thesis of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s trilogy Spheres).
A big contrast from Goldsmith’s defensive and logically fallacious retorts against the widespread criticism concerning the environmental ethics of POTI.
Relative to the rest of the art world — the spectacle of the Venice Biennale with its global carbon footprint, hideous yachts and private jets or the $35 million Jeff Koons strip-mined aluminum sculptures, created by one person for one person of the 1% — Printing Out The Internet, with its all-inclusive democratic attitude, nothing for sale, and a recyclable ending looks pretty good by comparison.[xxxii]
These lines of thought exhibit some astoundingly faulty and passive aggressive reasoning. Personally, I am unresolved on the question of POTIs environmental ethics, but Goldsmith’s logic certainly does a good job at undermining his own project. Other people pollute on unimaginable scales, therefore it is ok for me to create just moderate environmental damage? Seriously? Do we really have to have this adolescent conversation about one poet jumping off a cliff means all poets should?
Then there is the claim that “Printing Out The Internet, with its all-inclusive democratic attitude, nothing for sale… is completely open, participatory to all… Information. Lots of it. And free to all.” These sensationalist exclamations illustrate an important fissure within the project’s informing concept, and is an important reason why POTI fails where it could have worked, had it been more specifically and rigorously formulated: ideally and abstractly, POTI is democratic, open, free. But, ironically – for a project printing out and supposedly making the internet material – this ignores the actual material, physical reality of the world. Because, of course, there exist massive unequal distribution of information and access to information; not to mention the ±300,000,000 people without internet.[xxxiii] These are precisely issues that POTI might begin to raise in an ethical way, but Goldsmith’s own comments cleanly sweep them off the table. What is more, his emphasis on “lots of free-for-all information… shitloads of paper” in fact more resemble the abstract, non-specific, generic sentiment of the kind of lyrical love poem he so opposes, than a specific, contextual, material, rigorous conceptual poem. Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto offers some ideas for the beginnings of much more effective concepts:
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?[xxxiv]
Instead of properly addressing these questions Goldsmith is apparently more interested in enticing potential participants by promising everyone who contributes “a great line on their resume.”[xxxv]
“Petition fail! Nice try guys. The show will go on.”[xxxvi] Goldsmith addresses a carefully and respectfully formulated open letter petitioning him to reconsider his plan. As it turns out, Goldsmith discarded other – conceptually more interesting and productive ideas in favour of POTI; for example, “a massive compendium of every online photo of actress Natalie Portman” and an “Iraqi American artist’s collection of every news article written about the war in Iraq… bound in 80 volumes comprising 2,000 pages each”. Apparently “inspired by the magnitude of Swartz’s download, he asked himself, “Why not just print the whole Internet?”[xxxvii]
This anecdote is telling of many things. For one, it is typical that what finally inspires Goldsmith is the magnitude of Swartz’ download (not the questions Swartz was trying to raise with it). It also perfectly exemplifies Goldsmith’s desire for totalization and mass (one of his many catchphrases “how much did you say that paragraph weighed?” has predictably become, “how much did you say the internet weighed?). This aspect of his work is often interesting and successful (think of Day (a newspaper printed as a 900-page book; no.111 (a collection of words ending with an “r” sound), or even UBU). But in this case his completist drive derailed with wild over-enthusiasm or plain hubris. What is left is a bloated, deflated, or porous concept, it has become difficult to tell. One project initiated after the death of Aaron Swartz that is both a more fitting and respectful tribute, as well as more conceptually sound (although not intended as a conceptual piece) is the JSTOR liberator. It required personal civil disobedient action, was true to Aaron’s style, and referenced his last predicament that got him in trouble:
a tiny bit of civil disobedience, presented to you in clicktivism form. By running this bookmarklet… you will visit JSTOR… and will download a single paper from the site. You will have to click a terms of service agreement agreeing to not share the document you are reading, yet you will then download it and uploaded to another server. It will also ask for a message of memorial about Aaron. We will be gathering your messages of memorial and remembrance of Aaron to put up soon.[xxxviii]
“We printed the fucking internet”
Some soundbytes from the POTI Tumblr: “The internet is the greatest poem ever written…We just want shitloads of paper. We’re literally looking for folks to print out the entire internet.” “We printed the fucking internet.” “As if it’s even possible to know what the fucking Internet is!” Goldsmith says. “It’s a giant conceptual proposition.”
The internet: the greatest poem ever, a giant conceptual proposition. These statements are so facile, sweeping, crude, that they never begin to have much more meaning than as soundbytes that get promoted to memes (which Goldsmith proudly advertises on POTIs Tumblr: “Printing Out The Internet now has an official entry on Know Your Meme.”) Simply throwing hyperbole at something does not make it come alive. Yet this is it, this is the concept for POTI; the internet, it’s massive, can’t really think of anything bigger, let’s print the fucking thing!
When Goldsmith describes POTI as a “ ‘pataphysical proposition: an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem”[xxxix], he is appealing to a long influence of Alfred Jarry’s “science of the possible” in experimental poetry (about which Christian Bök wrote a constraint-based(!) PhD). But yet again, just slapping claims on something does not make it so. Simply appealing to the established street cred of the ‘pataphysical tradition, does not automatically transform a simple observation (that “the internet is fucking huge”) into a ‘pataphysical solution to a problem. What solution? What problem? It is all much too undefined, declarative, fuzzy.
What is a concept? Let us not forget that concepts are not abstract or ideational. Abstract and ideational are precisely the kind of notions that Conceptual poetry rejects. Concepts are not about something, they are themselves “defined by the circumstances required for their measurements. That is, theoretical concepts are not ideational in character; they are specific physical arrangements.” Karen Barad argues that perception creates a cut in the world that includes, as well as excludes certain possibilities and material configurations. A poetic concept enacts such a cut by (re)framing or (re)configuring an object as a poem.
A procedure, I would argue, that is not limited to contemporary American Conceptual poetry, but one that is true for poems as such. If the present iteration of Conceptual differs it is in its combination of form as radical openness (which is not the same as formlessness), and content determined by context). A poetic concept frames, or transversally points to a slice of the world as poem, thereby allowing a manner of second order observation of this object as poem.
In any case, the questions of how and what to include or exclude, raise important ethical quandaries: “ethics is not simply about responsible actions in relation to human experiences of the world; rather, it is a question of material entanglements and how each interaction matters in the reconfiguring of these entanglements” (Barad 2007: 160)
Failing to fail
One problem with POTI is it is not so much that it is not possible to print the entire internet, but that the poem’s / project’s concept ignores this obvious fact. We know it, of course Kenneth Goldsmith knows it, and the inevitability of failure in itself is true of all writing (prime example Beckett) and more recently set forth as a goal in Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s sublime Notes on Conceptualisms (“Failure is the goal of conceptual writing”. But the fact that POTIs informing concept cannot ever be completed, however imperfectly, means it fails even at its own failure.
And even in this it is not alone. Beckett too exhibits a failure to fail, in a projective / retroactive vacillation of language as Samuel Vriezen recently demonstrated in an excellent short essay, using a premise from intuitionist logic. “The failure to fail does not (only) refer to that which inevitably is yet to come as the text is “said on” but perhaps even more primarily, to that which it has continuously been creating.”[xl]). And if it fails properly, a poem also fails to fail; in that it allows, through the parallax of its body as pinhole camera, to catch some glimpse of the eclipse of the failure that cannot be seen directly; the real where language turns to mush, the fullness of matter that can never be exhaustively described. But POTIs failure to fail does not complete itself in any way. Its failure is obsessive compulsive; not even Sisyphean, but flat, directionless, empty, like a zombie’s electrocardiogram. Its potential “giant conceptual proposition” lies in mirroring our entanglement with everything. But it is too bloated and porous in its formulation, and thus required execution, to ever allow any meaningful manner of reflection.
In this sense it is similar to the abstract idealism Conceptual poetry rejects; the impossible dream of a transcendental, trans-historical, trans-contextual view from nowhere. POTI presents a limit case that collapses back into itself. Similarly to the way that, for all our scientific progress that was necessary to get us here, the concept of black matter, in a way returns us to the early modern notion of aether, in that both describe the infinite darkness of the most of the universe, which still completely eludes our understanding.
And although, certainly, endless interesting and important questions arise from POTI as it is – from the 10 tons of paper collected by 20000 people now on display in LABOR Gallery New Mexico – these questions can only be formulated while still fruitlessly enacting the concept they are already supposed to have completed. Therefore, the interesting, important questions can only be answered or even formulated to partial satisfaction, because the poem’s bloated concept, still remaining fully within the context of its creation, allows no vantage point for reflection. For this any number of more precisely, contextually framed concepts would be necessary. A poem can be big, it just can not be everything. A concept can be impossible – as Goldsmith demands we demand – but not every kind of impossible at once.
The result is, perhaps, a slight tremor of the infinite monkey cage of POTIs conceptual framework. A fruitless reminder of what we already know: most of the time we are trapped in some system or another; we like to make a mess of things; there is a science of memes; the internet is connected to the tube is connected to the lorry, is connected to the tree, is connected to the swing of the axe. The unabridged internet is one hell of a big book, made from 40000 trees. How super, awesome, amazing! Because everyone else is buying it; why shouldn’t I?
POTI makes waste to give a partial view of making waste. As if that was not something we already knew how to do. It mimics the structure we already know traps us; like our post-Kafka, capitalist realist white-collar worker, who understands perfectly well, the system that requires her to file paperwork about the fact that she is filing paperwork. And although like Billy Hayes in “Midnight Express” (1978), she knows she not only is part of the machine, she is also making the machine; unlike Billy, this knowledge does buy her an out of prison card.
“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn” (Bayard Rustin). Aaron Swartz, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and all of those innumerable known and unknown individuals that in big or small ways sacrifice their person, for the uncertain process of the emergence of a truth unfolding from a principle of radical egalitarianism.
“I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945,” Edward Snowden stated at a press conference. “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”[xli]
“There are just laws and there are unjust laws… One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…” (Martin Luther King). Swartz concurred, writing, “there is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.”[xlii] And the force of beauty in Aaron was so overwhelming and powerful because the limit of his body “that must incise itself by producing [beauty]” was so fragile. “Beauty… is a nonviolent experience of near death, a warning that one is fragile, like everything else in the universe. Beauty is the shadow of the threat to objects, the threat that is objects.”[xliii] And there was a moment that Swartz’s body was too fragile to contain its own beauty.
“In areas of uncertainty and change, we don’t know what the right answer is, and there’s a lot of people who wanted things to go on being as they are, and there’s another set of people who are saying, we want to – as Wallace Stevens once said in a memorable phrase – search the possible for its possibleness” is how one friend describes Aaron’s struggle.[xliv] But these impossibly high demands he set on himself, and the singular yet ungraspable enigma he presented to the outside world, need not and should not leave us in a state of paralyzing uncertainty. “There must be some aperture at the beginning of any system, in order for it to be a system—some irreducible uncertainty.[xlv] “This uncertainty can actually be empowering – once you realise that it gives you a margin of maneuverability… It gives you the feeling that there is always an opening to experiment, to try and see.”[xlvi] “Naming love by a traumatized and devastated place, what does that mean? It is a plea for certain blindness, certain not knowing, impossibility and oblivion.” “Folding and enfolded in archaic fragility and wounds” we can find places of uncertainty from which to stay true, without ever knowing precisely how, to the memory of Aaron Swartz.
[i] Glenn Greenwald, “The Inspiring Heroism of Aaron Swartz”, The Guardian, January 12, 2013.
[ii] “Aaron Swartz: The Documentary – Teaser”, last modified August 18, 2013 http://is.gd/hNc7qc
[iv] Wesley Yang, “The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz”
[x] “Royal Society Publishing”
[xi] The Colbert Report, July 23, 2013
[xii] Kenneth Goldsmith, “On Being Boring”, University at Buffalo, accessed, August 18, 2013, http://is.gd/KXaQjf ; Kenneth Goldsmith, “On Being Dumb”, The Awl, last modified August 18, 2013, http://is.gd/d957Ez
[xvii] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xviii] Wesley Yang, “The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz”
[xix] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xx] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xxii] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xxiii] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xxv] Bracha Ettinger, “Self Fragilize Yourself”
[xxvi] Dan Zak, “Printing Out the Internet”: A crowdsourced work of art”
[xxix] “Aaron Swartz: The Documentary – Teaser”
[xxx] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xxxi] “Larissa MacFarguhar, “Requiem for a Dream”
[xxxii] “Kenneth Goldsmith versus Trees”, in My Spilled Milk, accessed August 18, 2013
[xxxv] printingtheinternet.tumblr.com, accessed August 18, 2013
[xxxvii] Dan Zak, “Printing Out the Internet”: A crowdsourced work of art”
[xxxviii] George Williams, “Civil Disobedience?: The Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator”
[xlii] Aaron Swartz, “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”
[xliv] “Aaron Swartz: The Documentary – Teaser”
[xlv] Tim Morton, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality