Friday, November 30, 2007



A Spy In The House Of Years by Giles Goodland
(Leviathan Press, 2001)

Capital by Giles Goodland
(Salt, 2006)

Erratum To A Spy In The House Of Years (Leviathan Press, 2001) by Giles Goodland
(Dusie Kollektiv, 2007) by Giles Goodland

The ancient art of rhetoric tacitly envisioned language as an inertia from which words need to be nudged, jolted out of their accustomed signifying plummet, inducing a salutary perturbation. That the clinamen falls into the general category of tropes is also obvious.
-Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery, “Clinamen”, in their Imagining Language: An Anthology

Let’s not forget the spaces between letters, between words, between sentences, between texts, between languages …
-JBR (Unlike Giles Goodland, I subscribe to no self-denying ordinances)

If, as in this situation, a vast accumulation of ‘contradictions’ comes into play in the same court, some of which are radically heterogeneous – of different origins, different sense, different levels and points of application – but which nevertheless ‘merge’ into a ruptural unity, we can no longer talk of the sole, unique power of the general ‘contradiction’… This means that if the ‘differences’ that constitute each of the instances in play (manifested in the ‘accumulation’ discussed by Lenin) ‘merge’ into a real unity, they are not ‘dissipated’ as pure phenomena in the internal unity of simple contradiction. The unity they constitute in this ‘fusion’ into a revolutionary rupture is constituted by their own essence and effectivity, by what they are, and according to the specific modalities of their action. In constituting this unity, they reconstitute and complete their basic animating unity, but at the same time they also bring out its nature: the ‘contradiction’ is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called over-determined in its principle.
-Louis Althusser, For Marx

I could have stopped here …


I believe I read somewhere in Walter Benjamin that he hoped to compose a book that would include no words, no language, of his own. Leaving aside whether I read that or dreamt it, I’ve wondered for a while now what might be meant by words of “one’s own”.

I’ve done some thinking. I’ve done some research. I’ve looked into systems theory and philosophy and neurophilosophy and psychology and cognitive science. My research suggests, to me at least, that there are no words of one’s own.

But it seems insane to pretend there’s no such thing as plagiarism. The concept can be historicized, and has been, but … we live with it. The Pierre Menards and Kenneth Goldsmiths and Tom Phillipses and Ronald Johnsons and Jean Days and Jen Bervins and the other collage/appropriation artists of the world all (or almost all, that’s a matter for a separate essay) seem to recognize the concept.

So – no one can own language. But one can steal it. Curious.


Why might Benjamin have been hoping to compose such a book? To get away from what Goodland calls “the core concept of authorship.” To hasten “The Death of the Author”, etc. etc. To let the human universe have its say. To acknowledge that that’s what’s happening anyway. Among other things. (Now if I could only find the quote …).

A text with no words of one’s own. This is not a particularly radical notion. As Giles Goodland puts it in his essay “Notes towards a History of The Cento” (
Art recycles. All kinds of art, in whatever sphere, are recyclings of previous arts. Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes hidden. In the case of literature, and especially poetry, there are of course influences, and there is of course plagiarism, but there is also a long and often obscured tradition that openly recycles previous poetries. The relationship between poetry and copying or open appropriation has been pushed aside because it does not sit well with a belief in individual authorship. Collage was an invention of modernism in the early twentieth century that sought to achieve affects through shock-value. However, by proposing the quoted element as an ‘other’, collage in literature seldom broke away from the duality posited by the core conception of authorship: originality versus unoriginal writing. Several generations after modernism, practitioners of collage still claim that what they do is ‘new’. Literary historians have tacitly agreed with this by not looking for antecedents … [JBR: but antecedents exist, e.g. the cento.] … The cento as a form was first developed in ancient Greece when poets started stitching together their own poems entirely from lines or verses taken from Homer. This form of poetry later became known as the cento, from the Latin word for patchwork, or perhaps from kentron, a Greek word meaning to graft trees.


Goodland places himself firmly in the cento/collage/appropriation/sampling tradition. From the same essay quoted above:

… the idea of appropriating sentences or fragments from other writers in a programmatic way … remains a powerful model for me. … it is possible to see it as a device available for making complicated points about appropriation, our relationship to texts in other discourses, including from canonical literature, and the daily trivial texts that surround us. In my own poetry I have been selecting large numbers of ephemeral texts from the print media and assembling them in order of date to make arguments, critiques, or just poems that can walk on their own.

I suggest that such assemblages also allow for polyvocality-in-univocity and vice-versa, blurring, or even erasure, of the distinction between self and other, or, better, perhaps, a reconsideration of what composes a self, and an other … What is a self, anyway? Is a self intersubjective? If so, what is an other? “Who is speaking, and to whom?”


A Spy In The House Of Years is a collection of assembled/collaged sonnets, one for each year, 1900-1999 (the 20th century, according to one way of counting, not quite the 20th century, according to another). Each sonnet is titled with the name of a year (I assume 1903 is the name of that year …) and is composed of bits from 14 sources printed during that year.

In a 2006 interview, Goodland describes his working method:

For Spy, I had paper-based files, several boxes full. I would accumulate slips of paper with quotes from a certain year of the last century. At a certain point they reached a kind of critical mass and a 14-quotation poem became possible. Sometimes I had to have 100s of quotations for a theme to become apparent. Sometimes the theme was as obvious as a colour, so for instance I might have say 10 good quotations from the year 1920 with the word green, then I had to chase up and research to find another four good quotations from that year.

(Collage Capital: An Interview With Giles Goodland by Edmund Hardy, at “Intercapillary Space”

In the same interview, he emphasizes that
My collage is not aleatory, these are not “found” poems but researched poems. The poetry is in the research. In these poems, collage is an attempt at social critique, using the tools of the dominant discourse: empirical, verifiable statements. I would like these poems to be taken as academic papers from which the literal layer of argument has been stripped, leaving the substrate of supporting quotation and apparatus.

He also notes that not one word of his own appears.


In order to give you a taste, here’s “1903”:

If full use is made of the means by which the world of phenomena offers to theory

what looks like a retouch above the man’s left shoulder turns out on closer inspection to be

this delightful facility, with such a woman, of arriving at a new tone, he thought, as he lay on his back, of all the tones she might make possible

where the Harmony Society established

the combined use of a distinctly Swedish apparatus called the plinth, and a chest machine

the pinnacle of my happiness, from which I was in a little while dashed to earth

a “doped” cigar was given to her in a pool and billiard room, and

her thoughts presented themselves in visual forms attended by an hallucinatory

dove-shaped pyx of precious metal, suspended over an altar by a chain from the roof

served with half a dozen tablespoonfuls of comsommé, or petite marmite, or

a complex liquid heavily charged with dead organic matter, which, though perhaps more offensive than injurious when fresh, rapidly changes its nature

by presenting the history of England to them in a fresh and attractive way by means of typical lives of men and women, drawn from original sources

numerically, the words of Latin and Greek derivation preponderate, but this is somewhat deceptive, because a large proportion coming under this head have

radiants which give out N-rays communicating a similar variety of radio-activity.


The source of the third bit jumped out at me (“Ah, Henry James”), but not the others. There is a section at the back of the book, entitled “Sources”, which consists of citations. “Sources” takes care of the plagiarism thing, but I don’t think that’s its main purpose. If “[t]he poetry is in the research”, if this project is “an attempt at social critique, using the tools of the dominant discourse: empirical, verifiable statements”, then the source notes are intrinsic, are the scaffolding from which at least these aspects of Spy’s significance are hung.


Rod Mengham is quoted on the back cover of Spy as saying that “The immense web of reference … shows the frightening coherence of 20th century culture: the powers of reason and unreason all speak using the same voice.” Be that as it may, Goodland carefully avoids imposing coherence, adjudicating between “reason and unreason”, and deciding for the reader whether we are “hearing” one voice or many, 1400 “solos” or one great chorus. A great deal is left up in the air. Where it should be. Spy may be social critique, but if so it’s oblique, and shoves next to nothing down its reader’s throat.

I’m going to quote the last two lines of “1999”, for two reasons. First, words appear throughout the book that couldn’t have appeared much earlier or later (e.g. “newsbites” could not have been found in “1903”). Whatever else this book is, it’s also a history of 100 years of the English language (emphasis on a history). Second, these lines do a great job of recapitulating the entire project:
years in a fast-moving montage of memorable moments with music and scrolling newsbites

throughout the century’s poetry and all highlight the importance of thinking of literature as texts weaved by and weaving the historical discourse that surround.


From the Hardy/Goodland interview:

Edmund Hardy: How did you get started on different kinds of Capital?

Giles Goodland: I finished Spy in the House of Years about 7 years ago and I was still intrigued and entranced by the possibilities of systematic collage. Spy was a sequence of 100 synchronic poems: each poem concerned a year of the twentieth century and was static within itself. I wanted to write a sequence in which the movement through time was more a part of each poem. I had inherited a database of late twentieth century material from my work on Spy and reading through this, certain themes were apparent. I wanted the poems to be about texts in some sense, specifically electronic texts, and I began to play with the idea of money as a text; like the text it has made a transition from paper to electronic existence, and like the text it depends on what people agree to believe it means. From another angle I was interested in this word ‘capital’, which has a long complex history, full of ambivalence and contradiction, and centrally the word is very productive of compounds: flight capital, intellectual capital, social capital, etc. Many of these compounds are of very modern origin, and many of them are entertainingly ambiguous. ‘Murder Capital’ can either mean a place in which many murders happen, or the capital necessary to commit murder, or if the phrase is inverted, it becomes a crime that makes one liable to the death penalty. ‘Flight capital’ is money that is withdrawn by capitalists from any social enterprise perceived as risky (hence exacerbating its demise), but can also be a flight to a geographical capital. From there I just had to trawl through masses of databases and select the most potent or interesting capital compounds.


After reading Spy, and coming to terms with its methodology, it is not always obvious what makes a particular bit a candidate for a particular section of Capital. Until one realizes that Goodland not only “wanted to write a sequence in which the movement through time was more a part of each poem”, he also decided (?) to give linguistic play some room to work. Here’s the beginning of “Flower Capital”:
Bao-yu is gathering peach petals in the folds of his clothes and setting them on a stream

‘hey, this is like a ride!’ Navin exclaims as he’s deflowered

we can export fragrant flowers and rare plants. We can even export earthworms

recorded instances during pre-puberty of incongruities that come into full flower only after

adults received almost all of the plants and flowers and household items

rose quickly, making the company many millions of dollars before he went into business on …

In bits one, three and five, flowers just like the kind that grow in the ground appear. The only flowers in bits two and four are metaphorical. The only flower in bit six is a bad pun.

This is not to say it’s better, but Capital is a wilder ride than Spy, and in some ways more fun.


What is the principle of connection between one line and the next (as if there can only be one …)? The back cover blurb suggests that “These are poems that join the dots, fill in the gaps, and suggest how poetry can once more be a tool for critique and engagement with the world as it is.” Re: the first claim (joining and filling): I don’t think so. Re: the second, I only object to the “once more”, as if no one else has used art as critique in a while, which is a ridiculous privileging of Goodland’s work (ironically appropriate, I guess, considering it’s a sales pitch for a book called Capital … ).

I don’t think Goodland connects the dots. I don’t think he wants them connected. In the quotes that start this review I allude to the clinamen. I think the white spaces between the quotes are swerves as often as they are direct routes.

This is how he puts it in the interview with Hardy:

E: What happens between two pieces of collaged material? (A connective, a gap, a cut, a defamiliarizing device?)

G: Hmmm, can I have all of these, depending on context. Parataxis is an irritating term because of what it conceals. If you think of a parataxis as a gap in syntax, it is richer to talk about ‘and parataxis’, ‘but parataxis’, ‘then parataxis’, etc. (supply your own conjunction …) My favourite conjunction is ‘but’, and I hope many of these poems have invisible ‘buts’ between them (if there's a pun there I'll lay claim to it). Contradictions are interesting, and in any work dealing with capital there are so many contradictions that can be exploited. I am not sure about defamiliarization. I think the media is already defamiliarized. A news programme habitually uses techniques of defamiliarisation in which the viewer is show[n] part of a ‘story’ and then brought back to the studio. I would like to refamililiarize people with what is behind texts.

E: Can you give an example of a contradiction you have exploited. My impression is that you bring out meta-contradictions by bringing so many arguments/argumentative pieces or examples together.

Yes, these contradictions are a little hard to quote from in isolation from the poems as a whole. I tried to ensure that I was quoting from a wide enough range of periodical sources that the contradictions would create themselves, by using for instance a variety of business-type magazines, both the one[s] that seem to have the function of apologising for capitalism such as The Economist, to the specialist insider magazines such as banking and finance journals, in which the people dealing with money were talking to each other; these are often contradicted by the articles from academic magazines which attempt to present an objective view of the workings of society. Also I got some pieces which were translations of Chinese, Soviet, or North Korean speeches, reproduced in English-language periodicals for the benefit of researchers and politicians. And also a lot of general periodicals, whatever I could get hold of really. Here are the first 5 ‘lines’ of ‘Fat Capital’:

               Cargo weighing as much as 2,200 lb can be air-dropped precisely through the rear door

               production of grain, fats and oil and pork has all surpassed their past best records

               the courts never quite made up their minds on the weight to be given to ‘offensive’, to ‘prurient’

               among Protestants obesity becomes progressively less prevalent as you go from Baptists to Methodists to Lutherans to

               a huge party for investors and friends. The bill for the food—including salmon pate, duck and roast suckling pig—came to

This is quoting from Aviation Week & Space Technology, from the BBC Summary of World Broadcasts which was running a translation of Ma Wenrui's speech on the Shaanxi economy, from the right-wing American Heritage Foundation Policy Review, then Business Week and then Time, for the years 1978-82. When I was assembling these pieces I was looking for quotes that embodied different sense of fatness or weightiness and sort of hooking them together in various ways, I wanted the syntax to usually click, I wasn't specifically looking for contradictions on a semantic level, but I was assuming that if the sources came from societies that are rubbing against each other, or from discourses on completely different levels, I would not have to look for them because they would already be there.


The third title under review here is Erratum To A Spy In The House Of Years (Leviathan Press, 2001). Since Dusie chaps can easily fall into the hands of readers unfamiliar with Spy, what might such a reader make of this text? I quote in full:

Page 32 (poem 1931) line 15: insert double line space after the word ‘soup’; delete semi-colon

Eileen Tabios tackled this question in Galatea Resurrects #7. Without having familiarity with Spy, but a copy to hand, she reads the erratum back into “1931”, focuses on the distinction in effect between the em dash and the semi-colon, and prefers the reading proposed by the erratum. Beyond this, she concludes that the purpose of the Dusie chap is possibly to revive interest in his earlier book.

It’s also possible to read Erratum as a self-sufficient poem, which puts any text as given into question. If there’s this erratum, there might be others, right?

But. But. Read with knowledge of Spy and of Goodland’s method, Erratum more than anything is a fulfilling of Goodland’s vow of fidelity to his sources.


Goodland’s work is in some ways akin to flarf. I quote Wikipedia’s article on flarf:

In 2007, Barrett Watten, a poet and cultural critic, long associated with the so-called Language poets observed that:

It is precisely, however, to the degree that Flarf does something new performatively and with its use of the detritus of popular cultural and the internet, treading the high/low distinction until it breaks under the weight, that it reinvents the avant-garde. In a larger aesthetic economy, it seems, ‘the truth will out.’ Flarf's recent productivity shows how the injunction against the sentence, paragraph, narrative, and even discourse from some sectors of the Language school intersects with actual conditions of language use. Any such thing as stylistic norms in the avant-garde must inevitably intersect with ‘life.’

Not that I’m quite sure what Watten means by “life” … unless “actual conditions of language use”. But the main point I want to make is that flarfists make (or made) frequent use of sources other than the author’s own imagination. As does Goodland. And both do it for the purpose of cultural critique. A recent work of his, not under review here (or maybe it is, suddenly; why not?), comes even closer than the texts under review, if one accepts (somewhat tongue-in-cheekily) Wikipedia’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek definition 2:
“Flarf” has, as just mentioned, also become a catch-all term for any poetic composition that makes use of Google or other search engines. This implies a retroactive application of the term to authors who were using such devices well before the Flarf Collective, such as Robert Fitterman, Alan Sondheim, and others. Some of these writers, naturally, may resist such connections, as their work deserves to be considered on its own terms without the imposition of anachronistic categories.

The Goodland text in question is A Bar (Beard of Bees, 2006). It was pieced together out of “all the hits from a search for the phrase “a man walks into a bar” on Nexis …”

It begins:

A man slips into my skin and orders a beer, which the bartender quickly sounds like the set up to a bar, looks around and says, so a blind man walks into a bar, says ouch knows? But the bar turns into a spaceship and the bartender gives him a haircut. Da Vinci must have been a really funny guy …


I can’t stand it when I come to the moment I’m supposed to pronounce judgment on the work(s) under review. I always feel like an idiot. Or, better, a cross between an idiot and an asshole. As if I know what’s good and what’s not. And you don’t. So I’m just going to say that I’m keeping these books, and I plan to read them again. And to keep my eyes peeled for new work of his, if and when ...


John Bloomberg-Rissman's most recent publications are World Zero and No Sounds Of My Own Making. He is one of four collaborators on the recent hay(na)ku sequence "Four Skin Confessions", which can be found at His current project is called Autopoiesis, of which he has completed 60+ parts and expects it¹ll be time to move on to something else when he puts paid to no. 100.


EILEEN said...

Another view on A SPY IN THE HOUSE OF YEARS (LEVIATHAN PRESS, 2001) is offered by Eileen Tabios in GR #7 at:

Nada said...

Flarf is a style, an attitude, and a posse, not a technique.