If you heard about the University of Pennsylvania’s new English department offering “Wasting Time on the Internet,” (planned for Spring 2015), you probably found out about it while doing just that. News of the course taught by Kenneth Goldsmith—poet and founder of UbuWeb (a copyright-free compendium of avant-garde writing and film)— went viral across the internet’s most time-wasting sites after he sent the following tweet:
Goldsmith plays the part of provocateur blithely; this isn’t the first stunt to thrust him into the spotlight. Last year, he attempted to print a hard copy of the entire World Wide Web for an art show at a gallery in Mexico City. In 2011, he read transcriptions of traffic reports from AM radio to the crowd at a White House poetry night, whose audience included the Obamas.
For more than ten years he’s taught UPenn’s “Uncreative Writing” class, which asks students to plagiarize the entirety of their coursework by reconfiguring texts culled from anywhere into new compositions. Similarly, the objective of his new class is not to dawdle but to create “compelling and emotional works of literature,” reappropriating digital distractions as a lingua franca of untapped creativity—concrete poetry drawn from Facebook status updates, the memoir of a week told in banner ads and pop-ups, a novella spun from indignant Yelp reviews.
While his spring seminar is now oversubscribed by more than a hundred students, thousands more have taken note, and plenty of haters have chirped up to criticize an ivy league professor whose coursework encourages writing erotica inspired by an online-porn binge. In between stints on morning television and classroom appearances, he reflected on the experience of last week’s surge in internet fame via email.
PLAYBOY: Despite the controversy, UPenn hasn’t shown any signs of backing down from “Wasting Time on the Internet.”
GOLDSMITH: When was the last time that a UPenn class got this kind of attention? This is PR that no money can buy. Clearly universities have no clue about marketing in a viral world. Instead of “Wasting Time on the Internet” they have classes called “Poetry As Data-Processing Praxis.” Which would you rather take?
PLAYBOY: I already have a PhD in the former! What does it feel like to be a meme?
GOLDSMITH: For the past few decades, I’ve been spouting the idea of uncreative writing, meaning that in the digital age, it’s not so much the idea of doing new writing as it is managing, processing, and reframing the vast amount of language that already exists on the internet and claiming it as your own. My meme began when Vice interviewed me, which led to another interview with the Washington Post. Then the web exploded with thousands of media outlets who cut-and-pasted the Vice and Post article, adding a new line or two, slapping a stock photo onto it, and publishing it as their own original creation.
What happens is a hall of mirrors when the next level of bottom-feeding sites rewrites those stories, magnifying the errors, until the piece is completely distorted: more a global game of telephone than something resembling journalism. So it’s really proved my hypothesis: Who is doing the uncreative writing here? I admit to my plagiarism, while they keep passing off theirs as being original. It’s exhausting.
PLAYBOY: What’s been the most surreal aspect of the class going viral before the semester even begins?
GOLDSMITH: When I walked into my Uncreative Writing seminar at Penn this week, I said to the students, "You are in the most famous classroom in the world, studying with the most famous professor in the world.” King for a day. Of course by next week, that will no longer be true. But before I even walked into the room, my students had been following every tick of this story as it unfolded all week long. Needless to say, class that day revolved around the cascading phenomenon of social media and how to manipulate it. It was a great, teachable moment.
PLAYBOY: And the most mundane?
GOLDSMITH: The most mundane was sending my father the link to my CNBC interview from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and him saying that he couldn’t get it to play.
PLAYBOY: Are you ever bored?
GOLDSMITH: I’m bored when I’m not memeing.
PLAYBOY: What do you do when you’re bored?
GOLDSMITH: When I’m bored, I tickle the social media machine in order to make it wiggle.
PLAYBOY: The purpose of the class is to create literature—what are the defining features of literature, as opposed to junk, art, or other matter?
GOLDSMITH: As writers, our medium is the media. Content no longer matters. The way in which we distribute ideas are more important than the ideas themselves. Citation trumps creation. Elvis has, indeed, left the building.
PLAYBOY: What are some great works of literature you point to as examples of what students in your class could aspire to?
GOLDSMITH: Modernism was chock full of ideas that easily translate to the digital age. From Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, to the compound words in Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce predicted how we would use language culled from the web. Going back further, Stephané Mallarmé used the page like a screen in his 1897 poem “Un Coup de Dés” which anticipates motion graphics and animated GIFs. Émile Zola’s epic series of Rougon-Macquart novels are essentially daily blogs from France in the late nineteenth century. And Félix Fénéon’s brilliant recasting of newspaper headlines as poems in his Novels in Three Lines is the 1906-version of Twitter.
PLAYBOY: You’ve mentioned surfing porn and writing erotica as a valid means of participating in the class. Have you ever tried this?
GOLDSMITH: I ran a class a few years ago called Robotic Erotica where we applied experimental writing techniques to porn. The students presented hookup diaries as autobiographies, used Mad Libs as a way of constructing erotica—"He then placed his ARTICLE OF CLOTHING on my BODY PART, which I found more ADJECTIVE than ADJECTIVE"—wrote porn poems using only three words (“Knead my breasts / Rubs my clit”) and so forth. We watched porn every week, transcribed the films, and recast them as screenplays. It was amazing—and really edgy. I’m surprised I didn’t lose my job after that class.
PLAYBOY: What is, actually, the “aimless surfing” described in your course description? Is this even possible when anyone browsing the internet is following their own personal interests, directives, fetishes, etc?
GOLDSMITH: Surfing is expressive of one’s innermost being. How you surf expresses who you are; what you click is expressive of your identity and fetishes. I think that writers try too hard to express themselves. Just by merely clicking, we are expressing ourselves. The new memoir is our browser history.
PLAYBOY: So do you want students to aspire to a meditative, neutral manifestation of aimless surfing—and have you achieved this?
GOLDSMITH: I simply want the students to become aware and self-conscious of the time that they spend in front of the screen. The funny thing about technology is how good we are at it and how seamlessly it’s been integrated into our lives. We can’t imagine our lives without it, yet we’ve rarely theorized our use of it. If we can articulate what it is about surfing the web that makes it so compelling, I feel that it’s a first step to ridding ourselves of the guilt that we heap on ourselves, thinking that we should be elsewhere, away from the screen, reading a book, or having a conversation with a friend.
We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation (but it’s not ways that we consider to be “literary”), and we’re deeply connected to people all day via social media. We know more about current events; we know more about obscure topics; and we’re exposed to more amazingly strange things than old media could ever show us. I can’t really understand what the problem is or why we feel so guilty about “wasting time on the internet?” We need to drop that attitude and move on already.
PLAYBOY: Do you find anything online to be a genuine waste of time?
GOLDSMITH: Our online experience is not monolithic. Just like in real life, sometimes we need to engage and other times we literally need to “waste time”: tune out, fuck off, drift and chill. We live in front of screens all the time now. What a drag it would be if we were either always working or always “wasting time.” I think we’re a bit more complex than that.
Kevin McGarry is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles.
Influencers is Playboy.com’s series on people who are changing the game—whatever their game is. Read our previous interviews with Jill Soloway and Lawrence Lessig.