Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head
Monday, October 25th, 2010
Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (GIJKH) is an idea that is a concept that is a blog that is a book that is an object. The idea, as explained by Kenneth Goldsmith in his Introduction (“Retyping on the Road: A Case for Appropriation”), was that instead of doing what the barely-unnamed Joyce Carol Oatesi had her creative writing students do (bring in an original story “in the style of” a famous author), why not do what the kids in the museums do and copy the author directly? Surely this faithful retracing would be more conducive to genuine study and attendant comprehension than serving up a fresh faux slice à la mode? And in the name of this greater fidelity, Simon Morris stepped up and created his 2008-2009 blog, “Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head,” wherein he retyped On the Road, one page a day, that is to say, a time, from beginning to end, and in the end, this blog has become a book of the same name, which replicates Morris’s blog from beginning to end, one page at a time. Which is to say that the book is the Book backwards, a mirror of a book: the first page of Morris starts with the top of the last page of Kerouac, and so on, the Copy concluding with the first words, of the Original, respooling the road saga from finish to start and narrating each day from dark to dawn, from to Revelation to Genesis. Which was, as it might be noted, just how ancient hemispherical sundials measured time. Dark to light, ignorance, not to put too fine a point on it, to final understanding.
This explains the why of the project, but not the wherefore of the book.ii It serves preliminarily to note that Information as Material is an art project and production machine in itself (run by Morris and Nick Thurston) which primarily publishes re-representations of extant text as books which are art objects.iii Not that they are art in the imaginary musèe sense, but they are art in the real museum-work sense. For the old school-piece sense, Rembrandt’s students would work their own versions of Rembrandt’s work and the very best ones would look the very most like Rembrandt, to the extent that the triumph of the student was the mirroring of the master so exactly that he would be taken for the Master himself, and strung up in his stead. And while Willem Drost may or may not hang in the Frick Collection as a genuine Rembrandt, Rembrandt himself certainly Warholed some of his collectors with factory-work. And what of it? For art—even in the museum—is a signatory’s game, and all we know of art is what makes it—in the museum.
Goldsmith’s Introduction to GIJKH is a general endorsement of the practice of appropriation on two competing theoretical grounds: first, that this kind of absolute mimesis and reproduction (contra disjunction and deconstruction pace L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) leads to greater/deeper textual understanding (the “better readership” argument); and second, that appropriation can generate new texts both in the manner of their reworking and in the mode of their recontemplation (the “also creative” or “more better creativity” argument). Underpinning each plus is a technological teleos in which each is now possible, and, because possible, possibly mandatory. Goldsmith, and Morris, via Goldsmith, concentrate on the production of GIJKH, versus its product. And while I do not disagree with Goldsmith or Morris via Goldsmith, there is more to be said about the product of this well-kernelled production. And the plus that is the minus of this textual abundance.
One of the standard complaints about conceptual writing is that it is nothing new. Leaving aside my predicate argument (made elsewhere and often) that it is a bourgeois habit to automatically append the words “and improved” to “the new,” or that the charge of been-done is the first refuge of the last garde, the larger point here is that it is precisely in the redoing that there is a possibility of another instantiation. In other words, to echo is not to repeat but to modify the question. Let us take as a working hypothesis that there is a gap between the final artistic product and all the production/process leading up to that product. One sees it in sketches, in drafts, in the final handwritten stanza of “Daddy”—an obvious afterthought and yet the busted nut of the whole thing. Let us, for purposes of argument, call this gap the trauma of representation: the final event (the poem or book) is ontologically connected to while separated from some sort of originary event (the initial idea or fancy) which is then only understood in light of the final event, which is in turn seen through the scrim of its origin. Here, of course, I am freely poaching from Lacan’s concept of trauma, while bogarting a bit of the originary as metaphor, or the metaphor of the origin story. We all have such a one (story or trauma or story of a trauma or trauma of a story) which is brought out by us to explain the fact of us, whatever “us” is at hand, just as Goldsmith explains the story of how the blog GIJKH began, in order to negotiate the trauma of its final book representation. What interested me on this point was Goldsmith’s interest in technology as metaphor, as he both compares Morris’s apparently deficient typing skillsiv to the painstaking copying advocated by Benjamin (“Only the copied text commands the soul of him who is occupied with it.”) and the cut & paste computer function that makes reproduction so “functionless and asetheticized, it can only be a work of art.” Again, while these are competing and somewhat contradictory pluses, the further point is their positive negation: for what intrigues me is not technology as metaphor but the technology of metaphor. Metaphor being a process of representational equivalencies, the technology of metaphor would be the process of aesthetic/ethical equivalencies plus (±)(n), as metaphor adds that certain positive/negative something to the equation without which we are less rich.v So that the process of reproducing On the Road in reverse spatial-temporal order becomes less emblematic of art in an age of digital production and more a metaphor for the way we live now, where our poetry is après angel of history, for we do not look backwards in melancholic nostalgia for the imaginary castle conjured by the ruin, nor forward in some flight of stupid optimism in which reading or writing has meaning beyond the pointlessness of its production (a pointlessness to be absolutely reified, as the only true transcendents are inutility and evil) and the puniness of its faceless product (a puniness to be fully champion in the face of those reams of snowflake-special poems that celebrate the snowflake-specialness of their production), but rather we do not look at at all. We simply regurgitate, like mother birds, into the maws of our companions. (Though we also happily swallow.) In other words, how does appropriation, as exemplified in GIJKH, serve as the fan finally flinging itself into the shit?
Harriet (a blog from the Poetry Foundation), recently posted a note comparing GIJKH to my ongoing Gone With the Wind Twitter project.vi Harriet characterizes both works as moves in conceptualism from “reframing to rebuilding,” the rebuilding allowing for consideration of “the microstructure” of the original texts in question. This, like Goldsmith’s intro to GIJKH, is correct and good, but Harriet here also misses a bit of the metaphor involved in each instantiation by focusing on production as production over production as product. Whereas GIJKH, as noted by its handle, is an originary quest, both in terms of its overt aim to better understand the Master and to better read and reproduce the work, finding out along the way that Kerouac loved the rush and roadstripe of the hyphen and the free-wheeling force of repetition, my GWTW Twitter project is a project of purposeful erosion. Because I find GWTW a problematic text, I have engaged in a series of textual obliterations and aggravations: composing a prose piece of all of the sections of GWTW in which “nigger” features prominently (hoping to be sued for their return);vii reproducing the “I don’t know nothing bout bringing babies” speech by Prissy (the unserving servant) in Miltonic sonnet form; an erasure performance (a white-out) of the last part of the last chapter, and Twittering the entire text—literally casting it to the interweb winds. For just as Lacan noted that the question is always constituted by the structure, the process of production always creates a product. And products always reproduce the situation of their production in the largest sense—as I have stated elsewhere, reiteration is part of the discourse of the slave: the repetition of the order of things so that the thing being ordered is undone by its rearticulation. I have stolen the slaves of GWTW, just as Morris has upended the peripatetic masculinity of Kerouac by sitting monogamously at his computer station, gladly taking dictation. For as anyone who has ever had a sibling knows, there is nothing more destructive of the gesture of communication than pure repetition, and what could be a more faithful reproduction of the Master’s impotency than the deadpan of:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the the prairie, which is just before the coming of of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and folds the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.viii
Or, in other words:
Katherine Mansfield, a beautiful woman and immensely talented writer, died tragically at the age of thirty-four, just as she had finally achieved mastery of her art.ix
i To be fair, Goldsmith notes that this is a creative writing trope, hardly original to JCO. To be unfair, this is part of the problem: JCO is a relatively easy target as one who gives the endless grind of originality a bad name, most specifically her own.
iiJoan Didion has said that she used to copy Hemingway in order to learn to write. She did not, however, publish this work as “The Sun Also Rises by Joan Didion.” Though Robert Fitterman has.
ivTo wit, the old school “hunt-and-peck,” a description that itself was a description used by men of the post-war time and canny women to describe their typing unskills—not a decent secretary among them.
vThough in this sense the more metaphor the poorer, as the system could conceivably be overextended to the point of absolute equality at which contracted point there is no point to the dilating system of near-equivalency.
viI am tweeting the beloved American classic from beginning to end in 140 character units, ten tweets a day. As of this writing, I have 2,821 tweets and am in the beginning of the ballroom scene in which the freshly-widowed Scarlett will first shock Atlanta by daring to dance with the dashing Capt. Butler. A Finnish journalist/writer has calculated it will take me until 2017 to complete the project, making it something of a durational piece.
vii“Gone With the Wind” by Vanessa Place
viiiThe end of the first page/poem of GIJKH.
ixTaken from Introduction by Jeffery Meyers, Stories by Katherine Mansfield, Vintage Classics, 1991.