A few months ago I wrote in praise of Goldsmith’s transcriptions of weather reports, traffic bulletins and sports reports. At the time, being ignorant, I hadn’t heard of Goldsmith but now I’ve discovered that he’s a regular contributor to the ‘Harriet’ blog on the Poetry Foundation website. Scrolling through his posts, I came across one entitled “Provisional Language” which seems to combine a bit of a rant with a manifesto for his work.
“Where once the craft of writing suggested the coming together — possibly forever — of words and thoughts, it is now a transient coupling, waiting to be undone; a temporary embrace with a high probability of separation. The industrialization of language: because it is so intensely consumed, words are fanatically produced and just as fervently maintained and stored. Words never sleep; torrents and spiders are hoovering language 24-7.”
Goldsmith’s thesis starts from the fact that anyone connected to the net has access to an ever-increasing amount of words and the capacity to store enormous amounts of information. He points out that this has resulted in language itself becoming ‘provisional’ and debased, ready to be randomly discarded.
I’m not entirely sure that Goldsmith considers this development to be a Bad Thing, he points out that we are daily confronted by a blizzard of text and that many contemporary writers are engaged in activity requiring the ‘expertise of a secretary with the attitude of a pirate’. I particularly like his observation that “an electronic Post-It universe imbues the new writing”.
Much of this struck a personal note with me, I’ve worked commercially with the internet for the last ten years and have noticed in the last year or so that the net has come of age- at long last academic and research organisations have learned how to properly store and index material so that it is genuinely available to all of us, sites like aaaarg.org have provided me with enough reading to occupy me for the next twenty years and social networking enables me to make connections across the globe. My latest creative project on the BSE and Bloody Sunday inquiries has also involved me in mining the archives for material that can be used in different ways.
I’m also of the view that the ‘too much information’ complaint isn’t particularly new. Newspapers have always created similar anxieties about masses of information which is then discarded so I don’t think the issue is as tied to new media as Goldsmith makes out. Whilst there is a huge amount of language on the web, there’s nothing to prevent us from exercising some discrimination in what we read.
Goldsmith’s creative work may be seen as a way of throwing language back at itself- of accumulating blocks of banal information that must of us don’t give a second thought to and repackaging it as ‘literary’ text for people like me to smile at and think about. I don’t however think that this should be the only way to appropriate text. Whilst considering the feasibility of my project I sifted through many hundreds of pdfs I came across piece of information that was new to me (mainly about the behaviour of bullets and how proteins fold) which led me in a fairly disciplined way to understand how make the points I’m trying to get across. I would not have been able to do this five years ago without access to university libraries.
So, I don’t see that there’s anything new about the words problem but I do admire Goldsmith’s creative response. New technology is opening up information and knowledge in ways that we don’t yet understand and, with better indexing, the net will provide material for both the ‘new’ writing and greater context for the old.