Feb 242012

Here is an intricate, fascinating, insightful essay by the redoubtable and poetically  explosive Adeena Karasick about the work of her fellow Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith and its theoretical basis in the esoteric mysticism of the Kabbalah. On several counts this is not as much of a stretch as it might seem at first. Much modern literary criticism and critical theory has evolved out of an attitude to text that derives from biblical hermeneutics, the ancient Hebrew art of textual interpretation. But the contemporary avant garde application of the ancient ideas is unusual and even surprising in terms of the popular, and often unthoughtful, way of envisioning poetry and creation. In fact the Kabbalists suggest that creativity is impossible and that what goes for creation is the endless reordering and reframing of what already exists (this applies to the world and to words). Hence the tendency of some Conceptual poetry to use quotation or repurposed texts. Here, for example, is a video of Kenny Goldsmith reading at the White House last year — reading Brooklyn Bridge traffic reports. Goldsmith himself is an amiable and protean character, a tireless and enthusiastic author/performer and poetic impresario. He founded UbuWeb, a trove of avant garde work and poetics, and teaches poetry and edits PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania.



The totality of the Tzimtzum is [formed of] the letters.[1]

According to the major Kabbalistic texts (Etz Chaim, The Bahir and the Zohar), the most crucial doctrine in Lurianic Kabbalah (13th C. Jewish mysticism) is called tzimtzum[2] (the secret doctrine of how the world was formed through contraction, condensation, framing). Before the world as we know it existed, all that was, was excessive, undifferentiated matter; not “nothing” but a “nothingness that contained everything”. And, in order to create the world; there had to be a contraction or withdrawal, a concentration of matter into itself. “Information” was folded, invaginated, producing a series of frames, brackets, borders, pockets, parameters.  And, the world was not so much created, but Un-created; formed not ex-nihilo (out of nothing), but yesh m’yesh (“something from something”); from that which always already existed.

Conceptual Poetry, as practiced by Kenny Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman, Vanessa Place championed by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff uncannily follows a similar traject of thought. It too engages in a process of framing; a bracketing or parenthesizing of the mass cultural glut of information so that it can be re-viewed from a new angle; provides an additional attentional field that  (say in the case of weather reports, radio broadcasts, jury transcriptions or repurposed song lyrics), potentially rekindles interest in a narrative that might not hold interest.”[3]

As outlined in “Flarf is Dionysus, Conceptual Writing is Apollo,” Goldsmith categorizes Conceptual writing as that which has 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”. Stating later, “with so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead let’s just process what exists. And “process what exists” is uncannily reminiscent of the Kabbalistic tenet that everything that exists has merely been condensed, contracted, re-formed from that which was always already there[4]

And what is always-already there is language. For Kabbalists, the world was engraved and established with forty-two letters”[5], “by the forms of expression: numbers, letters and words”[6] whose “end is in their beginning and…their beginning in their end”[7]. Through 42 letters that were always already there; that expand and contract and are infinitely reframed. And they believe our only occupation, is to engage in a continuous act of permuting and combining the letters, and through that re-form the world.  For, according to the tenets of Kabbalistic hermeneutics, it is impossible to “create”. So, Goldsmith’s insistence on “uncreativity as creative practice” is commensurate with a holy practice dating back to the 2nd century.[8]

For the Kabbalists, the world came into being through tzimtzum, a continual process of contraction and expansion; a superfluity of spiraling systems, frames, constructs, diffusions. Space was created out of itself.  In Goldsmith’s, Day, he retypes the Friday September 1st, 2000 issue of the New York Times, from left to right, ignoring distinctions between articles and advertisements, stock quotes and editorials. Poetry is created from itself. What might have been seen as mundane information not only gets elevated to “art”, highlighting how everything around us is erupting with meaning and context. But, this cataloguing of information with no distinction between advertisements, articles, is also very similar to how the text of the Torah has no vowels and no punctuation. Just as in Goldsmith’s text there is no indication of where one letter, poem article or editorial begins and an advertisement ends, in the Torah nothing indicates the rhythm or transition from one sentence to another; periods and commas are completely absent. Nothing interrupts the flow of words except perhaps, blank spaces, empty gaps (which are not really empty but are seen as “ventiliation holes”[9] which energize the text.

This constant flow of expanding and contracting text is also very interesting because it showcases how the absent presence of a “grand conductor” is always pulsing through the text. Even where subjectivity is ostensibly obliterated, through seemingly banal information, Goldsmith’s absent present subjectivity inadvertently becomes a deconstructed self reflexive mediation as he silently intervenes or insinuates himself through the choices and positioning of his project. And therefore it is impossible to assert (even in the most radical non-subjective practice), within his texts, there is no place empty of him[10]

Thus it’s safe to say, that for both Kabbalistic hermeneutics and Conceptual Poetics, there must be self-withdrawal before any “creative” process can happen. There has to be a process of strategic containment, a constructive de-construction which brings into focus that which appears as a free-flowing amorphous flux of subjectivity[11]; there must be a continual process of constructing and re-constructing borders, laws, mirrors, screens, walls; as we wade through a caterwaulery of lolling scrolls brawling sprawls of extracted maculates bracketed tracks, hacked fractures, there always has to be a framing, a bracketing off to enable visibility, recognition, identity, where language and history and subjectivity are continually renegotiated.

So, whether it’s the “Metropolitan Forecast” of  9/11 or the shots of JFK, the 13 hr. cataloguing of his own bodily movements in Fidget , weather reports from 1010 WINS radio in NYC for a year  (in Year), or every word spoken during the course of a week in Soliloquy[12], taking these socio-political and historically rooted and emotionally drenched audio texts and decontextualizing them, not only subjectivity, but (through Day Week Month Year), time is renegotiated; as contemporaneous, disjunctive, coexistent and synchronic; and everything erupts as a text of refracted maculate stacked fractals celebrating the cracked vernacular of every locable vocable  polysignatory sign stroked curvy glossy saucier, and with all its (gossipy slanderous humiliating, humbling and profound) UN-CREATIVE splendor, in an act of mimetic mutation, functions as a simulacra of “the UNcreation of the world”.

But what’s important to note, is that though “managing” or palimpsesting all that’s been stolen, lifted, pilfered, reprocessed, neither Conceptual Poetry or Kabbalistic hermeneutics is advocating an “abolition of history” or a mockery of history, but through its radical particularity, through its infinite retelling of the minutia of daily life history is simultaneously salvaged and re-formed, parracidically reproduced.

And this all eerily commensurate with Kabbalistic thinking, where “creation” is continually re-enacted through repetitious enunciation of Torah.  (For Jews, you have to read and re-read the parsha[13] every week. Bits of Torah are strewn on your head bound to your arms, on your doorposts. And passages are repeated multiple times daily). And through this repetition, the past is palimpsestically re-passed, surpassed in an irrepresentable present non present or resonant present that continually escapes itself.  And with every articulation, the world is continually un-created; and meaning unveils itself as a system of borders, frames, mirrors, screens, laws; an ever-spiraling space where “Origin” is unlocatable; where everything is a re-typed transcription of a transcription, translation of a translation, a construct of perpetual recurrence.

Take Goldsmith’s 1992, Head Citations[14] which consists of salvaged lines from pop songs – glistening I-Tunes’ malapropisms that have been retranslated, misheard, reworked. As Craig Dworkin writes, it’s “a book of earrors and close listing”

Line 176: Hark the hair lipped angels sing
Line 92: Become a come a come a come a comedian
Line 233: If I can’t have you, I don’t want this ugly baby
Line 297.1: Janey’s got some gum
Line 159:  Take another little piece of may hot dog, baby
Line 353:  Little red corset, baby you’re much too fat
Line 391 “Whoa! Here she comes, she’s a bad reader
Line 403.1 Massage in a Brothel… yeah
Line 549: Three Car Family – I got all my sisters with me

What you get here is a compiling and reframing of recognizable lyrics. A deconstructed re-visioning where what SEEMS creative, because of “the unavoidable presence of words within words (or in this case the haunting of words layered within the traces residue of words within words) in fact “contests the notion of writing as a creativity proposing instead an indeterminate extra-intentional differential production,”[15] a sub productive sliding and slipping of meaning between the forces and intensities distributed through the texts syntactic economy, between the pulsional incidents of disposable pop culture — and speaks to the continuous process of mistranslation that goes on in every moment of our lives.

Thus, what is being called for then is a re-visioning of what has historically been seen as “Creative” and divorce it from any notion of  “originary thinking”. In Kabbalistic terms, it’s glorifying not so much “The World of Creation” (Olam haBryiah)  but “The World of Formation” (Olam ha’Yetzirah)[16] where all is recycled, reprocessed, repurposed. MADE NEW. A world where everything is re-sculpted from what is already there.

So, whether taking Steinian punctuation or vulgar, idiosyncratic rhymes : “frisbee, fuck me, funky, geegee, germ-free, goatee, gnarly!, grody!, Gucci, HD” (No. 105, 1992)  or words ending in r sounds: “vagina diner Wynona Ryder” (No. 109, 1993), transcribed masturbatory scenes, radio broadcasts or stock quotes, like the gobsmacked sucked splendor of abecedary sliders, the syrup of  an edgy sprecht squeegie effigy, Goldsmith shows us that all that glitters is Gold(smith). Is worth its weight in []. And as he files, solders, saws, forges and castes[17], splays his goldsmith eggs, with his art of gold, it’s the dawning of a gold[smith] age of folded goldies and goodies gilded from what is already there.

Taking from what is always already there, in his 2000 Fidget, Goldsmith continues this transcriptive practice by cataloguing every physical gesture over a 13 hour period. And with an OCDish accumulative gesture, combining a “legendary”, mythical, complex, variable, consanguinity, he archives and compiles, defamiliarizing the familiar, making it strange by its very recognizibility.  And, if according to 13th Kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia, the combinations of the letters reference the construction of the body, its limbs and its organs (“all of the limbs of  [the] body are combined one with the other”), the body and the body of writing is re-created in the image of as Goldsmith clenches thrusts shifts pulses folds grasps hugs pops swallows mouths, and as licks lips licks lick tongue licks lips[18] (Fidget 19:00 and 21:00), he reminds us yet again of the relation of body to language and how the body must be acknowledged as a semiological function, a living text of lips pressed cross-kissed creased cryptic schize, a sanguine text that replenishes and re-creates itself, as an ever-accumulative orgiastic dome zone of floating podiums in a bodacious fur-lined purloined raging plagiary of collaborative rapture.

And voyeuristically, becomes a countersignative act for the reader, a promise of memory of repetition, a unit of cultural knowledge virally replicating itself — reminding us to play inside the lexical excess, the flirty flexicon of fixity mixes, a nexus of synnexes, annexes, diexis of lexically-sugared circuits showing us that even in the intricate cataloguing of the minutiae of daily life, it must be acknowledged there is no presence or absence (or even relevance), but reveling / roving valence, chains of supplements with endless signifying potential. Because presence is relational and there is no fixed, locatable Truth, [[[[everything]]]] is haunted by repetition, substitutions, frames, borders, laws, flaws, fluidly flirting with the ghost of the ghost of the simulacra of “yesterday’s news”.

Reminding us also that this framing serves as a kind of circumcision. For the engraving of a boundary is essentially producing cuts, scissions, severs a space between letters, words sentences, semialogical slips, stanzas. This caesura, this introduction of the voice into the body of the text, this hermeneutic cut, (that in Kabbalistic terms brings meaning into the word) is the inaugural cut that symbolically replicates the cutting off and into of society for a Jewish male[19]. Thus, as a text of mappable gaps fissures, parsed play plumed plaise-laced plummets, in the polyplaited plundering of peeling ink, in the pulsing summits of syntactic wounds, Goldsmith’s cuts that bind become a socio-political gendered and religious complex of both tradition and radical transition, which acknowledges both its heredity and errantly heretical hermeneutic.

So, like how with the fusing of the avant garde impulse of the last century with the technologies of the present, the future is always arriving from itself, in an excess of excess of transcriptions, translations, “in a nonhistory of absolute beginnings”[20]. Conceptual Poetry then, as that which celebrates the “unoriginal,” the “uncreative,” mirrors a Kabbalistic hermeneutic; references not an ontology but a “hauntology”, a discourse of traces ellipses markings and echoes. Posits an origin which is never an origin[21], but that which is always a phantomatic projection, introjection, wandering in exilic trajection; where information is not so much written but reprocessed,[22] moved from one vessel to another, one frame to another; where the “poem”, a polysemous repurposer for words to be poured into, flow out of.

So, whether a polychromatic chronicling or syllabic counting, between promise and promiscuity; the amassed miscues of ever-shifting portals, perspectives, peeking through a countersignative, re-combinatory praxis, Conceptual Poetry is itself a repurposing of Kabbalistic discourse, honoring and glorifying all that is Uncreative, unoriginal (championing a poetics not of reformation but reframe-ation; animation inflammation, appropriation, expropriation, functioning between iterable modalities, forces and dependencies; between the aleatoric and the calculable, between chance and necessity, saluting all utterance; all the letters, tropes, and orthographic expletives, markings and silences, salience; all that has been deemed unworthy unpoetic and disposable – to be archived, ornamented and admired; celebrated in the fold of translation.

—Adeena Karasick


Adeena Karasick  is an internationally acclaimed and award winning poet, media-artist and author of seven books of poetry and poetic theory: Amuse Bouche: Tasty Treats for the Mouth (Talonbooks 2009), The House That Hijack Built (Talonbooks, 2004), The Arugula Fugues (Zasterle Press, 2001), Dyssemia Sleaze (Talonbooks, Spring 2000), Genrecide (Talonbooks, 1996), Mêmewars (Talonbooks, 1994), and The Empress Has No Closure (Talonbooks, 1992), as well as 4 videopoems regularly showcased at International Film Festivals. “The Un-creation of the Wor(l)d: Conceptual Writing as Kabbalistic Trope” was debuted at North of Invention: A Festival of Canadian Poetry, Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Peri ha-Arez, (Jerusalem, 1969), fol. 9a. Cited in Moshe Idel “Reification of Language in Jewish Mysticism”, in Mysticism and Language, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.62.
  2. As described by Hayyim Vital in Es Hayyim 42:I 896-c, “The world consisted of primal chaos (Tohu) hylic matter; an amorphous mass” and there [was] nothing outside of it. Basically, tzimtzum (which was alluded to in the 13th century texts and fleshed out more comprehensively in the 16th and 17th centuries) refers to the process of making a limit from the limitless infinite. Or as Vital expresses it in Derush’al ‘Olam ha-Atzilut , “when the Supernal emanator wanted to create this world, which is physical, he constricted his presence…for previously Ein-Sof filled everything” (Liqqutim Hadashim, ed. D. Toutitou, Jerusalem 1985, p.17). Particularly, it’s a theory of emanationism: the condensation of light (or information) through a progressive chain of successive emanations [disseminations] (Tanya, p.834), a superfluity of systems, frames, constructs, diffusions enabling the world to be revealed.
  3. Much like how Charles Bernstein speaks of Brecht’s use of the interruptive supplement in Artifice of Absorption – noting that framing devices situate the reader at an alternate vantage point. Or in other words, the light was thickened and sweetened in a manner it may be [newly] comprehended. (Liqqutei Haqdamot ha-Quabbala, MS Oxford, Bodleian Library 1663, fol. 174a)
  4. In fact the Zohar speaks of the Torah as being a blueprint to the world. Further implying that even before the world as we know it, there was a prototype . Further according to the Bahir, the world was always already in perpetual recurrence.

    Rabbi Berachiah said:/What is the meaning of verse (Genesis 1:3), And G-d said, “Let there be light”, and there was light”? Why does the verse not say, And it was so”?// What is this like? A king had a beautiful object. He put it away until he had a place for it, and then he put it there.// It is therefore written, “Let there be light, and there was light.” This indicates that it already existed.”

  5. Zohar II:151b, trans. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon (New York: Soncino Press, 1984).
  6. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Formation, attributed to Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph, trans. Knut Stenring, intro. Arthur Edward Waite (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970), p.17. Instead of using the Hebrew word for create, the  Sefer Yetzirah,  employs the architectural terms, `haqaq‘ and `hasab‘ which mean `engrave‘ or `hew‘.
  7. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Formation, p.18.
  8. Haunted by his own cultural history, he carries the specter trace, weight of that. And, with every transcription (whether overtly political social or personal), he is enacting a cultural translation
  9. See Marc-Alain Ouaknin, The Burnt Book and also Hank Lazar’s Portions (Lavender Ink, New Orleans, 2009).
  10. Thus, between socio-linguistic subjectivities, Goldsmith puts into praxis a “life-writing”, a “biomythography” or an “auto-bio-thanato-hetero-graphical opus”– a “circumfessional” that makes truth, and lives inside a hermeneutic of re-inscription, translation and obsessive production.
  11. But knowing that all positions are overdetermined by historical, political, philosophical and phantasmatic structures that in principle can never be fully controlled or made explicit. There HAS to be this constriction for any kind of illumination. For the light (or information or meaning) OVERFLOWS because it has been restricted.
  12. Kenny Goldsmith, Soliloquy (Granary Books, New York, 2001).
  13. (pl. parashiot) Most commonly, parashah means “portion” and refers to the portion of Torah read on a particular Sabbath. There are 54 portions. Each parashah is named for its opening (or first distinguishing) word. But, parashah, also translates as “transition” and refers to the blank spaces between text. And according to Marc-Alain Ouaknin, “these blank spaces provide a sort of ventilation (The Burnt Book, p.33)
  14. Kenny Goldsmith, Head Citations, The Figures, MA, 2002.
  15. Steve McCaffery, North of Intention: Critical writings 1973-1986 (Roof Books, New York, 1986),  p.201-221.
  16. According to Kabbalistic theory, the universe consists of four worlds: Emanation (Atzilut), Creation (Beriah), Formation (Yetzirah) and Making (Asirah).
  17. The Conceptual Poet like an alchemist, not so much turning base metals into gold but reprocessing gold. And even John Donne acknowledged that “the kabbalists were the anatomists of words, and have a theologicall alchimy to draw soveraigne tinctures and spirits from plain and grosse literall matter and observe in every variety some great mystick signification”.
  18. See Kenny Goldsmith, Fidget, 19:00 and 21:00. (Coach house Books, Toronto, 2000).
  19. For more on this see Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mysteries of the Kabbalah, Trans. J. Baron, new York, 2000, p.320-1, Elliot Wolfson, “Divine Suffering” in Suffering Religion and Jacques Derrida, “Shibbolet” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, Routledge, NY, 1992.
  20. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, p.80.
  21. An origin which is never an origin because  “origin” comes from “ergh” which is to flow and “errare” which is both to wander and to err, to mistranslate, by its very definition can never be static.
  22.   And as such, is seen as “the ghost of the ghost of the specter-spirit, simulacrum of simulacra without end”. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), p.126.

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