Friday, March 16, 2012

Imitatio is the best form of...


In a post not long ago, I categorized Kenneth Goldsmith as a "Son of Ben."  After all, as I said, it was Ben Jonson who

... introduced the word "plagiarism" into English; it comes from, Donaldson reminds us, the Latin plagiarius: a kidnapper or body-snatcher. Jonson elsewhere expressed views against plagiarism, but, his biographer notes, the advice given in the passage quoted above gives rise to "a metaphysical puzzle." What happens, Donaldson asks, "when the aspiring poet fulfils the advice that is offered here, subduing entirely his own identity to that of the model he emulates...?"

Goldsmith highlights this very question. So, what I want to know is: are writers employing the techniques Goldsmith describes actually somehow... Sons of Ben?
 
Well, now the estimable Stanley Wells, reviewing Goldsmith's book, Uncreative Writing, in the TLS, says the following:

Kenneth Goldsmith is an American visual artist turned writer and teacher. His practice as a writer follows on from that of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol in the visual arts. He describes uncreative writing as “the art of managing information and representing it as writing”, a “bridge connecting the human-driven innovations of twentieth-century literature with the technologically-soaked robopoetics of the twenty-first”. Wikipedia informs us that his works include “everything he said for a week (Soliloquy, 2001); every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period (Fidget, 1999); a year of transcribed weather reports (The Weather, 2005); and one day, the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times, transcribed (Day, 2003)”. Goldsmith tells us that he regularly teaches a course of classes in which his students “are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead, they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patch-writing, sampling, plundering, and stealing”. How much the students pay for the privilege is not revealed.

To traditionalists these methods are likely to seem totally bizarre. Indeed, Goldsmith admits to telling his students that “one good thing that can come out of the class is that they completely reject this manner of working”. Yet what he gets them to do is reminiscent of the practice of “imitatio”, which was a standard part of Renaissance classical education. Elizabethan schoolboys polished their Latin prose and verse by imitating classical masters. The two last printed of Shakespeare’s Sonnets imitate a Greek epigram. Laurence Sterne incorporated passages from Montaigne and Robert Burton in Tristram Shandy without acknowledgement. Mozart recomposed fugues by Bach; music students are encouraged to deepen their critical awareness of the methods of great composers by creating pastiches of their work; there is a long and honourable tradition, practised by composers such as Liszt, Busoni, Elgar and Britten, of transcribing musical compositions in a manner that produces music that both is and is not original. Kenneth Goldsmith’s practices are perhaps not as groundbreaking as at first they seem.

This raises the question yet again of the relationship of tradition to that which is considered "groundbreaking."


Pictured: excerpts from Sterne's Tristram Shandy, ca.1759-1767.

4 comments:

Henry Gould said...

One difference between Ken & Ben has to do with the difference between imitation & copying.

Donaldson's "metaphysical puzzle" seems perfectly pedantic to me. Everything hinges on what is the poet's aim, their motive in writing. The notion that the goal would be to construct a perfect "copy" of the model is to aim for redundancy, sort of a reductio ad absurdum. But I suppose our collegiate literary culture tends in that direction, like monastery monks laboriously copying & re-copying scriptural bits of wisdom.

I like philosopher Michael Polanyi's distinction between invention (having to do with machines) and discovery (having to do with reality).

Henry Gould said...

I always get so knee-jerk & crabby on the subject of KG & his project. I'm sorry about that. But something about it draws my ire... it seems deeply nihilistic, in spite of his "devil's advocate" apologetics. Is it really a valuable "teaching moment" to imply, again & again - by his very obsession with redundancy - that poetry is obsolete? That "our moment" requires of poetry a radical demolition-via-technology and evaporation-via-inauthenticity in order to survive (if you can call it that)?
More smoke & mirrors. Laugh, laugh, ye laughsters....

Ian Duhig said...

I think you should have mentioned that one of Sterne's unacknowledged borrowings from Burton was the latter's denunciation of plagiarism from 'The Anatomy of Melancholy'...

Don Share said...

Quite right, Ian!