Kenneth Goldsmith on Dumb Culture

Poet Kenneth Goldsmith explains how "dumb" culture is actually really smart, and allows us to embrace the messiness of contradiction and revel in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious.

| November/December 2013

I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived. Whenever I have an idea, I question myself whether it is sufficiently dumb. I ask myself, is it possible that this, in any way, could be considered smart? If the answer is no, I proceed. I don’t write anything new or original. I copy pre-existing texts and move information from one place to another. A child could do what I do, but wouldn’t dare to for fear of being called stupid.

I recently was in a public conversation with my dear friend Christian Bök. If I am the dumbest poet that’s ever lived, then Christian is the smartest. His projects are very complicated, taking years to complete. During our talk, Christian went on at length about a project he’s been working on for the past decade, one which involved basically giving himself a Ph.D. in genetics. In order to compose two little poems, he had to learn to write computer programs which went through something like eight million combinations of possible letters before hitting on the right ones. And then he injected these poems into a strand of DNA, which was ultimately designed to outlive the extinguishing of the sun. The whole thing involves working with laboratories and has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Christian is super-articulate—really more like a robot than a person—and had the audience’s heads spinning. When it came my turn to speak, all I could muster was: “… and I transcribe traffic reports.”

Christian and I deeply admire each other’s practices, but the truth is that while he easily could do what I do, I could never do what he does.

Christian is smart. Smart is a star student, flawlessly dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Arriving well-prepared and executing tasks with machinic precision, smart has studied its history and is ready to wrestle with the canon. Cultivating circumscription, smart’s eyes never leave the prize. Smart is an over-achieving athlete, accomplishing things that mere mortals can only dream of. Complex and deep, exclusive and elite, smart brims with value. Having sweated for what it’s accomplished, smart pays a handsome dividend to those invested. Smart moves ever-forward. But by playing a high stakes game, smart is always paranoid that it might lose hard-won ground. Smart is always looking over its shoulder. Success or failure, win or lose, smart trades in binaries. Smart is exhausting—and exhausted.

I am dumb. Dumb is an ill-prepared slacker, riding on hunches and intuition. Willfully amnesiac—History, what’s that?—dumb is a tabula rasa, full of emptiness. Caring little for progress or narrative, dumb moves laterally, occasionally spiraling back in on itself. Dumb loves easy. Eschewing climaxes and crescendos, dumb favors stasis, grids, and predictable systems simply because they require less effort. Similarly, dumb favors re—recontextualization, reframing, redoing, remixing, recycling—rather than having to go through the effort of creating something from scratch. Dumb embraces the messiness of contradiction and revels in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious. Trading on the mundane and common, dumb plays a low-stakes game. Since dumb has nothing to lose, dumb owes nothing to anyone, and in that way it is free.

Smart struts. Dumb stumbles. Smart dazzles. Dumb numbs.