"Flarf" and Other Words I Didn’t Write

110311goldsteincrawford01LSIt seems there are no new ideas left in the world; only new arrangements of things.

I once saw this written on the wall of a gallery, but according to the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, I don’t need to admit so much, let alone put the thing in quotes.

According to Goldsmith, and a host of other forward-thinking literary figures–both writers and philosophers alike–nobody owns these words. Not the person who said them, not the wall, not the gallery, and not me using them here, now. Perhaps this could be a benefit of writing about pro-plagiaristic tendencies. That I–like Jonathan Lethem, in his own pro-plagiarism Harpers essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism”–might just cull some thoughts and phrases from the public domain and patchwork them together here. But, then: Lethem was brilliant with his curation of stolen words, using them to talk about stolen words to talk about stolen words, ad infinitum, matryoshka-style, et al. I am far less ambitious with what I want to say, which is that I am not so much bothered by literary pro-plagiarism–this has, and continues to seem as poor or good a term as any–as a kind of writing. It is, however, its own insistence of itself as a new vision for all writing that I find disconcerting.

I first learned of flarf–or the creation of poetry using Google search results–and other pro-plagiaristic practices in Goldsmith’s 2011 article, “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’” At the time, these ideas weren’t “new ideas.” Goldsmith knew this; I did not. I had never heard of such a thing as “Uncreative Writing,” which was the official name of the course he had been teaching at the University of Pennsylvania for a few years by then. “In [Uncreative Writing],” he explained, “students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity…they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering and stealing.”

I understood, or at least assumed, there was value to the novelty of this practice. Goldsmith himself convinced me of so much when he went on to say: “The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as a story about our mother’s cancer operation.” There is something to be said about the curatorial aspects of writing and of any creative practice, especially as more and more text becomes available to us via new technologies. To be fair, we steal whether we know it or not, and it’s important to acknowledge, as Goldsmith does, that most other creative industries–fine art, photography, etc.–have long since honored experimentation in both originality and authorship. It does seem that the literary community is overdue for the kinds of questions that people like Goldsmith and Lethem are attempting to ask.

And yet:

It does also seem that they, these flarfers, may already have their answers, with or without the input of the rest of the literary world.

Goldsmith goes on to assert that any notion we may still have of the tortured writer–biting her nails, smoking angrily at her desk and then at her window and then at the desk again (my image, not his)–is now outdated. He writes, “an updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.” Suddenly, literary pro-plagiarism seems like that vegan friend who wants to tell you exactly where that hot dog came from, right before you take a bite. It no longer seems that flarf is posing the question for us to wonder at, like “hey team, what if there are no new ideas left?” But rather, it seems to be declaring, and loudly, “HEY, LOOK OVER HERE, THIS IS A NEW IDEA! AND IT IS THE ONLY ONE LEFT!”  Those of us attempting the impossible but nonetheless worthy task of writing to eternity are suddenly naive to do so and irrelevant. Unfortunately, I can see it both ways: our understanding of originality may perhaps be outdated, but there is still room to be a writer in the same world where flarf lives. I would even prefer to say that there is still room for flarf to exist in a world where everyone else just keeps on writing like they always have, unfazed.

It is not out of disrespect for curiosity or provocation that I pass these “new” ideas without signaling, it is simply that, quite in line with the ideas themselves, I don’t think they are new. And maybe I see a hole in the fact that if these movements believed in their own philosophies than they would be challenged to call their practices “an updated notion of genius.” And I use the word “challenged,” as they have “updated”: to cover my bases. Truly, if I look deep enough into the ideology that there are no new ideas, the very concept of ideology quickly dissolves into a soup in which everything is everything is everything, an ugly adulteration of Lethem’s essay, which I do not include in my criticism, which was the beginning, the middle, and the end of pro-plagiarism for me. Beyond his essay, these movements seem to call out ideas that have always existed and been relevant to writing, and then attempt to harness them as a means to change the face of the medium. I guess my question is why? Followed by a wait, what?  Movement for the sake of movement is just motion, and we already have enough of that to contend with in this universe.

But, I want to go back to the words I mentioned earlier, those I saw on the gallery wall. They were from the photographer, Henri-Cartier Bresson, and I admit now that they were incomplete as I presented them. “There are only new arrangements of things,” Bresson said, but then went on to say, “Everything is new, every minute is new.” And I much prefer this vision of rearrangement to that of the flarfers: a vision in which no thing is outdated, and every recycled thought is somehow still unique and original, even in the lifespan of every fleeting minute.


By Maggie Mull
an Editorial Assistant for Black Clock and an MFA Writing candidate at CalArts


  1. joe says:

    I love Maggie, such great insight

{Leave a Reply}

You must be logged in to post a comment.