The Surrealists’ ideal state for making art was the twilight between wakefulness and sleep, when they would dredge up images from the murky subconscious and throw them onto the page or canvas. Proposing sleepwalking as an optimal widespread societal condition, André Breton once asked, “When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers?” It seems that the Surrealist vision of a dream culture has been fully realized in today’s technologies. We are awash in a new, electronic collective unconscious; strapped to several devices, we’re half awake, half asleep. We speak on the phone while surfing the Web, partially hearing what’s being said to us while simultaneously answering e-mails and checking status updates. We’ve become very good at being distracted. From a creative point of view, this is reason to celebrate. The vast amount of the Web’s language is perfect raw material for literature. Disjunctive, compressed, decontextualized, and, most important, cut-and-pastable, it’s easily reassembled into works of art.
Come January, fifteen University of Pennsylvania creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week, in a course called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired dérive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace, an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage.
Nothing is off limits: if it is on the Internet, it is fair play. Students watching three hours of porn can use it as the basis for compelling erotica; they can troll nefarious right-wing sites, scraping hate-filled language for spy thrillers; they can render celebrity Twitter feeds into epic Dadaist poetry; they can recast Facebook feeds as novellas; or they can simply hand in their browser history at the end of a session and present it as a memoir.
I’ve never taught this class before, but I have a hunch that it’s going to be a success. For the past decade, I’ve been teaching a class at Penn called “Uncreative Writing,” where students are forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts that they haven’t written and claim them as their own. For a final assignment, I require them to buy a paper from a paper mill, put their name on it, and defend it as their own—surely the most forbidden act in academia. In the class, students are penalized for originality, sincerity, and creativity. What they’ve been surreptitiously doing throughout their academic career—patchwriting, cutting-and-pasting, lifting—must now be done in the open, where they are accountable for their decisions. Suddenly, new questions arise: What is it that I’m lifting? And why? What do my choices about what to appropriate tell me about myself? My emotions? My history? My biases and passions? The critiques turn toward formal improvement: Could I have swiped better material? Could my methods in constructing these texts have been better? Not surprisingly, they thrive. What I’ve learned from these years in the classroom is that no matter what we do, we can’t help but express ourselves.
Similarly, I have no doubt that the students in “Wasting Time on the Internet” will use Web surfing as a form of self-expression. Every click is indicative of who we are: indicative of our likes, our dislikes, our emotions, our politics, our world view. Of course, marketers have long recognized this, but literature hasn’t yet learned to treasure—and exploit—this situation. The idea for this class arose from my frustration with reading endless indictments of the Web for making us dumber. I’ve been feeling just the opposite. We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are reading and writing differently—skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, retweeting, reblogging, and spamming language—in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary.
And yet this is nothing new: modernism prepared us to interact with words in the digital environment. Joyce’s use of compound words in “Finnegans Wake” predicted lengthy run-on hashtags; Mallarmé’s visual use of words splayed across pages are, in essence, nineteenth-century animated GIFs; Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” series anticipates long-form blogging; Hester Thrale’s trolling of Boswell in the margins is exactly what happens in comment streams; and Félix Fénéon’s recasting of newspaper headlines as poems in his “Novels in Three Lines” is a 1906 version of Twitter.
From early hypertext experiments to newer forms such as Flarf and Alt Lit, writers have been scraping digital language and cobbling together challenging works of digitally sourced literature for the better part of four decades. And, although an Ivy League school offering a creative-writing class called “Wasting Time on the Internet” still sounds shocking to many, drifting, daydreaming, and procrastination have long been a part of the writing process. Walter Benjamin’s trancelike, hashish-fuelled drifting through the shops and streets of Paris—which resulted in his “Arcades” project—is a meatspace cognate of our own Web surfing. His recuperation of “lost” time into literature is a terrific example of how students in my class might proceed in front of their screens.
Yet, while the Surrealists and Benjamin celebrated this state, we tend to feel awfully guilty about it, supposing that our time in front of our devices should be “constructive” and “productive” when it is, in reality, both productive and aimless. Since our lives have pretty much moved to the screen, we can expect our time on the Internet to be as varied as life itself. It’s a mistake to describe our online experience as monolithic: sometimes we need to work and other times we need to drift, to waste time, to fuck off. Learning and engagement continues as before, but it takes new and different forms. I think it’s time to drop the guilt about wasting time on the Internet, and move on. Surely we’re more complex than that.
Scrawled across the walls of Paris in May, 1968, was the slogan “live without dead time,” which became a rallying cry for a way of reclaiming spaces and bureaucracies that suck the life from you. If I can get my students to imagine recasting the “dead time” they’ve been spending in front of their screens as engaged and creative, I’ll have moved them in the right direction.
Author: Kenneth Goldsmith
Date of publication: November 13, 2014
Illustration: Rachel Levit
About the author: Kenneth Goldsmith’s latest book is “Seven American Deaths and Disasters.” He teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Pennsylvania.