Capital: New York: Capital of the 20th Century, by Kenneth Goldsmith, 928 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1784781590
Kenneth Goldsmith’s Capital is a particularly repellent thing to look at: a fat gold hardback of a thousand pages enclosed in a slipcase of the same colour, an ingot-text. Verso has produced quite an object. It looks and feels like a Taschen coffee table book, as if it should be full of dirty pictures. It does have its fair share of filth inside, but that is inevitable given its subject, New York City in the twentieth century. In its basic state, the book is a testimony to the city as a vast cash machine, a place where people come to spend and get spent.
Goldsmith is himself the product of a peculiar form of economy; he is an avant garde writer who largely depends upon university audiences for patronage. First among his benefactors is the canonical modernist critic, Marjorie Perloff. Perloff’s study Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, which argues for a conceptual rather than an expressive poetics, draws heavily upon Goldsmith’s concept of “uncreative writing” (as some have pointed out, even this in itself is uncreative, given that it is heavily dependent upon the French school of OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), which generates patterns for writing out of the application of constraints (Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec are probably the best-known Oulipistes in the Anglophone world). In Goldsmith and Perloff’s analysis, we are now in the age of the writer as copyist and sampler and invention as we understood it is over. You do not have to own what you write.
Capital is conceived upon this basis of unoriginality, adopting Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as its prototype for composition, replacing Paris and the nineteenth century with New York and the twentieth. The inside back cover of Capital makes this evident, quoting Benjamin directly:
Method of the project: literary montage, I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse ‑ these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.
So just as Benjamin brought together his massive rag-bag of quotations, Goldsmith has assembled quotations related to New York, observing mostly the constraint of referring only to the twentieth century. This has a peculiar impact at times, as the pressure of those New Yorkers who do not fit into the timeframe becomes particularly strong. The shadows of Walt Whitman and Melville’s Bartleby are as strongly felt here as anything that is actually quoted; that in itself is an indication of how the book operates, generating its own text mechanistically so that you are prompted into producing yet another of your own. It is also evidently poignant that twentieth century New York had yet to experience the attacks that would make it more notorious and venerated than ever, and as such the book has an elegiac as well as an epic ambition (indicated in its epigraph from The Aeneid, a poem that both shows the death and the birth of a city).
Yet Goldsmith is not really emulating Benjamin’s practice here, because Benjamin did not entirely take himself out of the writing of the text; that was the apparent plan, but it was not what he did. The Arcades Project is full of Benjamin in between the quotations; far from being the de-authorised text of the age of mechanical reproduction, it is in fact as auratic as Moby-Dick. Would anyone go near his Arcades if Benjamin was not so thoroughly present and if they did not think that there was something original, even mad, in the work’s conception? In fact, it is peculiarly auratic because Benjamin was the very critic who proclaimed the end of the auratic; in doing so, he announced himself as an original thinker in an age of violent conformity. His nervous intelligence is what keeps us alert throughout what would otherwise be a fatiguing accumulation of stuff: “In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.” We watch his book carefully and consider its citations because we assume that Benjamin thought it worthwhile to do so himself. Part of its intrigue is therefore that it performs an auto-commentary in which Benjamin is talking about the book that might one day come into being; reading the Arcades, you have to imagine what it would be like if it was ever really finished. Goldsmith removes this aspect, and has put together a book of New York without any such critical intervention. It is a much less contingent and transitional book, much less strange than Benjamin’s Arcades. The latter is a book that you never quite start or finish, but Capital feels complete; it makes its point.
New York is a place where money and culture have been thoroughly complicit, self-consciously vulgar; one has only to think of the golden bathroom fittings of the loudmouth Midas Donald Trump (not to mention the apparently apocryphal claim that he has a golden toilet, a myth too good to ignore). At its best, Capital gives a vibrant sense of the city as place of depravity, as in the prolonged section (practically a chapbook in its own right) on Robert Mapplethorpe, which becomes increasingly fixated on his obsession with both coprophilia and calculatedly transgressive games of sexual humiliation with African-American men. It is exhausting and horrifying to read, but is a useful reminder of just how alienating Mapplethorpe’s work can be across the ideological spectrum (it is not just neo-cons who can find his work repulsive). It could have been a compelling little publication on its own.
Once you enter widely into Capital’s welter of pages, however, there is less weirdness than you might have anticipated; Goldsmith’s thematisations are largely what you might expect, and are reflective of his own occupations. So there is a lot of Andy Warhol as well as Mapplethorpe, plenty of Woody Allen and Frank O’Hara, the odd Ramones anecdote. To add some conceptual-weave to this there are plentiful samples of writing by the likes of The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik; the book is also reliant at times on Peter Conrad’s The Art of the City, to the degree that you could justifiably go off and read it instead. It is not Goldsmith’s job to be representative of course; this accumulation is his accumulation. So if the book is predominantly white in its orientation and relatively uninterested in New Yorkers who do not write or make art, that is because it is not really a Benjaminian collection of rags but rather an accumulation of significances and preferences governed by Goldsmith. He is evidently gathering writing that he thinks is worth something; there are no random samples from sewerage maps of the city or technical explanations of the Subway. Architects referenced are starchitects, most of the buildings landmark buildings. Goldsmith has a tendency to highlight monumental people and things and not so much the haphazard banalities that must be encountered in any place and not just New York City.
In the New Yorker profile of Goldsmith (“Something borrowed”, October 15th, 2015) that detailed his recent struggles to dismiss allegations that his work is exploitative and racist (rather than just opportunistic), he concludes by referring wistfully to the art world, as if its inhabitants are not held to the same finicky ethics that poetry-types visit on him:
“Sometimes I think I might be headed back to the art world,” he said ruefully. “I don’t deny that possibility. They still seem to like me there.”
In this way, Capital’s gold-plated crassness bears direct comparison to Jeff Koons’s gold-dipped Proserpine Pursued by Pluto; Koons the former commodity-broker is the great artist of late capitalism, because he both (weakly) critiques and venerates its operation. He also makes an incredible amount of money from his art, which renders everything else pretty null. Aurum vincit omnia. The poverty of imagination that Koons and Goldsmith manifest is perversely productive, in that it is the very place that proves how capitalisation can nevertheless occur; a text or a sculpture is manufactured, rather than dreamed, into being.
The nouveau unoriginality is fascinating because it is sufficiently radical to have removed the still spiritual understanding of the creative impulse that informs most artistic production; Goldsmith really adds nothing to the things he collects, and all Koons can offer is some bling or short-term porno stimulus. Admiration for them is like admiration for the realtor who sold a penthouse apartment in Miami Beach for sixty million dollars, despite the empirical evidence which suggested the inevitable overwhelming of the resort by climate change. That doesn’t matter, evidently. Capital does not care, because capital does not need to endure, only to move. Penthouses that defy reality are exactly what it both produces and feeds upon. Painting Bernini gold, copying Walter Benjamin, what’s the difference?
Capital is not querying capital, just watching it grow. The book is truly capitalistic therefore, exhibiting a primitive accumulation rather than the dialectical processing of the Arcades, asserting crass certainties rather than generating queries. It works as a precarious simile for being in the city itself, amidst the accumulations and language (although the only language cited by Goldsmith is English, so the last thing New York resembles to him is Babel). All change, all diversity is created, managed and administered by the total power of money. In this sense, Capital is a depressingly familiar thousand pages, even if it might contain micro-pleasures; it is not a hidden New York, but the one that is always obvious.
Thinking about how to read Capital closely prompts the question of genre; in particular, it is almost necessary to reprimand yourself into remembering that Capital is a poem. If it is a poem. Goldsmith is a poet, according to Perloff and others, so it follows that his text should be read accordingly. It also implies that it is futile to lambast him for being less intelligent or intellectually provocative than Walter Benjamin, because we are not supposed to interpret Capital and the Arcades in the same way.
As poetry, the book clearly works best in moments when Goldsmith uses a method comparable to that which he deployed in Seven American Deaths and Disasters, where he reconstructs events such as the deaths of Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King and the Kennedys through the retrieval and rearrangement of their media coverage; so in his account of the Stonewall riots, he takes a passage from David Carter’s account of the riots and effectively breaks it down into stand-alone sentences that acquire the peculiar staccato poetry of a screenplay:
The raids begin at 1:00 A.M. on a summer Saturday morning.
The arrival of the cops and the blare of the lights transforms the scene from one of festivity to sadness. The jukeboxes fall silent, and the shimmering go-go boys leave their cages to put on their street clothes.
The transvestites put up a great resistance, refusing to go into Stonewall’s bathrooms to be “examined.”
A couple of drag queens dance by themselves to a Stevie Wonder tune on the jukebox.
When did you ever see a fag fight back?
Grumbling could be heard among the limp-wristed set.
More and more people start to mill about the front.
Ostentatious drag queens walking in twos and threes down Christopher towards the bar, shrieking little sentences.
It is a hot, seething night. A real New York summer night.
What’s going on? Is something going to happen? Why is it taking so long?
The drag queens kind of chant and skitter along. It’s entertaining.
The pleasure of this passage is actually of a pretty primitive sort, offering us chronology as a temporary ordering against all of the less orderly accumulation elsewhere; what also generates tension is the apparently unreflective use of homophobic adjectives in the original text, representing the Stonewall crowd as stereotypes, but at the same time knowing that they were about to erupt out of that representation into real resistance. The disruptive force of this moment in history is contained and muted in the overall matrix of the book. The accounts of riots in Capital, like the accounts of racism and the accounts of sexual depravity, are all in their compartments. The riot-narrative does not exert any influence on anything else, principally because like everything else it has been subordinated to the role of just another thing that happens under the sign of capital. The little zones of Capital are only dynamically interactive in that sense; this is the product of a society that is organised around money rather than people.
The idea of unoriginal genius is not new: it is in fact the very substance of the Western tradition; it is what Ovid did, for example. Yet there is a difference between Ovid’s unoriginal originality and that of Goldsmith; in Metamorphoses, Ovid rebuilds and reintegrates even as he repeats, because he does not repeat the structure of the Greek myths but rather their content. The problem that Goldsmith’s work manifests is one of labour; in their books of the city, Joyce and Benjamin worked for decades evolving idiosyncratic methods apt for the city-text they wanted to communicate. Their works-in-progress were hard work, and that was a palpable phenomenon in their writing; Goldsmith’s book is the product of a culture that no longer attaches value to work but only to product. Benjamin was looking at the commodification of things rather than their capitalisation; Goldsmith’s work is nearly all a matter of concept-formulation: the actual text does not always feel that energised, more a matter of just getting things on the page. A criticism often attached to Goldsmith’s work is that he is “lazy”; this has all sorts of moralistic aspects, especially the profound sense that labour remains as a vital element in our construction of what art is worth. It is not so much that Goldsmith is lazy, rather that he is easy; as it is easy to read, it must also have been easy to do.
The book is designed to provoke from the beginning, with its self-penned blurbs on the front inner cover:
Capital is a book designed to fascinate and to fail ‑ for can a megalopolis truly be written? Can a history, no matter how extensive, ever be comprehensive? Each reading of this book, and of New York, is a unique and impossible passage.
This might be profound, but it also sounds a bit like ass-covering, and it suggests that Goldsmith is still interested in perpetuating a heroic image of the author, for all that his compositional practice suggests otherwise. Capital does fail, but not in the same way that Benjamin’s Arcades does. The latter is a spectacularly Melvillean botch of ambition and experiment, a book that remains undecided and undecidable. Goldsmith’s text is not prone to such hesitation, and has no capacity for the intense Talmudic weirdness that Benjamin discovers in the dirt in his messy workshop, the “world of particular secret affinities”. Capital is a perfectly competent accumulation of texts, but it is a plausible, rather than an impossible one. It is a representational object that exists in the great chain of equally essential yet inadequate objects, and is as good at communicating the reality of New York as a Lou Reed song, or a plastic snowstorm of the Empire State, or a Woody Allen movie (like Manhattan, which provides the first citation in the book).
The Amazon page for Capital bears a range of effortful tributes to Goldsmith’s book, but in the Customer Reviews section below, you find this:
By G. Goodland on 12 April 2016
Kenny took the title of my earlier book, which is also a conceptual work consisting entirely of quotations. Enough said.
Giles Goodland is evidently resigned to the relentlessly acquisitive practices of Goldsmith, but what is the use of complaining? It is as redundant to do so as it is to have made the book in the first place. That’s Kenny. That’s Capital.
Michael Hinds is co-ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies and head of English at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin.