Ron Silliman reports on a new publication, modestly entitled Issue 1. (I was first alerted to this by The Mumpsimus). This e-text is 3785 pages long (!); each page contains a “poem” attributed to one of 3785 3164 writers. The names of the writers range from Silliman himself and other language poets, through a number of (now dead) poets and writers, onto various bloggers (especially ones who appear in Silliman’s blogroll, it would seem). In point of fact, none of the writers have actually written the pieces attributed to them. My name appears among the list of authors, together with the names of several people I know, including some who read (and sometimes comment on) this blog. My own “poem” appears on page 1893; for what it’s worth, it doesn’t strike me as being very good, nor is it like anything that I could ever imagine myself writing, either in style or in sentiment.
I kind of wonder how other “victims” of this hoax (if that’s what it is) respond to it. Silliman seems kind of pissed off, as do many (but not all) of the commenters on his blog entry. Matthew Cheney (of The Mumpsimus blog) seems more or less amused:
The whole thing strikes me as a stunt pulled by someone who desperately wants attention. (And now I’m giving it to ‘em. So it goes.) I’m still amazed that anyone would put the time into creating something like this, but the amazement now is the sort of amazement one has when watching the totally insane rather than watching the harmlessly obsessive.
Me, I think that the stunt raises all sorts of interesting questions (or perhaps I should say, in Palin-speak, that lots of interesting questions “rear their heads”). Early-20th-century Dadaist stunts raised meta-questions about art, about what could be considered art, etc. But such meta-questions have long since been so well assimilated into our culture (both artistic culture and commercial culture) that they scarcely raise an eyebrow any longer. Today, we can only be blase about self-referentiality, conceptual art, and so on.
In such a context, Issue 1 attempts to up the ante, by asking meta-meta-questions, as it were. Most notably, there’s the difficulty of deciding whether the publication actually is some sort of interesting conceptual art, or whether it is rather just a dumb prank, or a malicious hoax. Then there is the issue of obsessiveness that Matthew Cheney raises. Certainly a lot of modernist and post-modernist art is quite obsessive (I am thinking of everything from Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots to Henry Darger’s weather chronicles). But Issue 1 might well only be pseudo-obsessive; it seems to be something that would have required an insane amount of time and energy (if only to collect all those author names and write all those poems), but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was all generated by a computer program in just a few hours. Even insanity isn’t what it used to be, in our age of digital simulation.
Finally, given all the questions about the status of the author that have been raised in the last half-century or so, it only makes sense that I should be credited with the authorship of something that I had nothing to do with writing. Remember, Roland Barthes proclaimed “the death of the author” more than forty years ago, in 1967. And even well before that, in 1940, Borges proposed a literary criticism that would “take two dissimilar works — the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, for instance — attribute them to a single author, and then in all good conscience determine the psychology of that most interesting homme de lettres…” (from “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). Issue 1 is a logical outgrowth of the situation in which such ideas no longer seem new, or radical, or outrageously counterintuitive, but have instead been entirely assimilated into our “common sense.”
In short, Issue 1 makes sense to me as a conceptual art project precisely to the extent that it marks the utter banalization, routinization, and digitization of any sort of conceptualism and experimentalism in art, and of all supposedly “avant-garde” gestures. There is something melancholy in coming to this conclusion; but perhaps something liberating as well, since it suggests that the whole strain of avant-gardism that starts in the 19th century, goes through dadaism and other forms of radical modernism, and moves through conceptualism in the 1960s and 1970s to the supposedly oppositional political art of the last few decades, has finally outlived its relevance and its usefulness. We have finally reached the point where we can shake off the dead weight of the anti-traditionalist tradition, and perhaps move on to something else. This doesn’t mean rejecting all the art of the avant-garde tradition, much of which I still very much love. But it does mean seeing that art historically, just as we see the art of the Baroque historically, or as we see the science fiction of the “Golden Age” of the early-to-mid 20th century historically. It’s still there to be tapped (or looted) for clever ideas, formal approaches, and so on. But modernist experimentation and avant-gardism is no longer a living resource; in an age of arcane financial instruments capable at one moment of generating huge quantities of fictitious wealth, and at another moment of sending shockwaves through the entire society, wiping out retirement accounts, causing businesses to go bankrupt and jobs to disappear, etc, etc — in such a climate, modernist avant-gardism fails to be “as radical as reality itself.” (I am fully aware that financial panics with real effects upon people’s lives are as old as capitalism itself; what’s new in the present situation comes from the way that new technologies have a multiplier effect, as well as adding additional layers of meta-referentiality and meta-feedback into the system).
I am sorely tempted to add the “poem” of mine which appears in Issue 1, and which I had absolutely nothing to do with producing, to my CV.