FOR KENNETH GOLDSMITH, “contentious” has become something of a brand. Until recently, he was best known for his “uncreative” writing, which he has taken everywhere from the seminar room to Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show (via an appearance at the White House, where he read remixed traffic reports to Obama). His books, from Fidget, a transcript of every moment made over the course of 13 hours, to The Weather, a year of transcribed weather reports record in seemingly exhaustive detail; his 2013 project “Printing Out the Internet,” which invited the public to send printed pages of the internet to a gallery in Mexico, attempted a similar thing on a larger scale. These and other projects had elements of controversy, especially on the poetry scene — yet previous debates seem minor compared to the fallout of one performance last summer. “The Body of Michael Brown,” at an Interrupt 3 art event, provoked charges of racism. Certainly, this “remix” of the teenager’s autopsy report, provocatively reordered to place a description of the teenager’s genitals at the close of the work, was hard to view in a favorable light — particularly after an apology Goldsmith posted on Facebook gave no consideration to the political implications of the performance. (The least you could accuse him of, it seems to me, is being blithe, and when it comes to the murdered black body, blitheness is itself tantamount to violence.) As Cathy Park Hong’s excellent response to a recent, rather starry-eyed profile of Goldsmith in The New Yorker points out, the performance marked Goldsmith as increasingly out of step with a movement in American poetry less defined by comparatively indulgent genre squabbles than by a political self-consciousness “galvanized by the activism of Black Lives Matter, [and] spearheaded by writers of color who are at home in social media activism and print magazines.” Hong’s essay zones in on what she calls Goldsmith’s “PoMo for Dummies ‘no history because of the internet’ declarations”: his insistence that, in the age of digital reproduction, we can largely ignore context — a stance which risks appearing, as Hong writes, “absurdly irrelevant when black men [are] dying at the hands of cops.”

Goldsmith’s latest book, Capital: New York, Capital of the 20th Century, works along broadly similar lines to his previous “conceptual” projects. Fashioned after Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Capital is composed of quotations relating to New York, transposing Benjamin’s project to examine Paris and its new, metal-ribbed shopping arcades — prime meridian of Western 19th-century culture — to a different century and city. Its title, which itself remixes the title of Benjamin’s essay, “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” draws out a reference to commerce generally and Marx specifically, and is clever in a sixth-former sort of way, if you like that sort of thing (I confess I do.) Nevermind that New York is technically not the capital city of America: like Zurich and Bern, the designation is often thought a formality; if Goldsmith is looking for a center, it is one of consumer culture, not sovereign government. Unlike its progenitor, the book contains no original writing — in keeping with Goldsmith’s usual practice — and provides none of the contextual framing that published versions of The Arcades Project offer. Like previous works, this is more mélange than bricolage, placing writings together without affecting change to their individual characteristics.

Yet if Goldsmith feigns to create what are, as he puts it, “boring,” purely conceptual works that hardly need be made at all, his account is not entirely convincing, and Capital challenges it further. In Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, he spends almost two pages detailing the various decisions he had to make to create and present Day, his appropriation of a single issue of The New York Times. First, he tells us, he must devise a methodology to handle subheads, picture captions, and the order of columns. Then he must apply these rules during an extended period of embodied labor. Finally, he must choose a size and cover design for the book, as well as selecting the perfect font: one that neither echoes the style of the newspaper nor suggests deliberate opposition. These formal anxieties, and the amount of work required to practice, reveals the matter of whether the work “needs to be made” as an empty enquiry: the process, the physical actuality of the thing, is impossible to pass off as small print when one spends over a decade pulling it together in a library.

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At the risk of awarding the work a more politicized meaning than Goldsmith intended, it is worth examining Capital through a different set of critical practices than that sanctioned by its author —one that seeks to bring together the cultural history with the sort of close-reading practices the sheer complexity and scale of his works, if nothing else, encourages. (There are those who will doubtless balk at offering the work this sort of critical attention, yet the number of positive reviews it has received in mainstream publications suggests to me that ignoring it is futile.) For if Goldsmith is out of step with the political order of today’s poetry scene, so his casual approach to the social dimension of form appears increasingly tired when contrasted with a series of recent publications which take precisely that subject as their subject of inquiry. These texts, such as Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network [reviewed in these pages], stress the political dimension of ongoing debates about form and demand that literary critics make sorties — in Levine’s case, explicit disciplinary ones — into social studies in order to better understand the relationship between social forms and cultural objects. Goldsmith’s account of his practice elsewhere has attempted to foreclose some aspects of this conversation as it relates to his works, despite his digital-age focus. Doubtless he would maintain that we ought to turn to the text, rather than its author, for meaning. Yet, given that Capital takes the cue for both its interior layout and physical form from The Arcades Project, the lack of an introductory essay to match Benjamin’s “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” suggests a more concerted withholding. This careful passivity requests that we erase certain aspects of the work from view, including the matter of its authorship as it relates to the “original” text — even as other textual codes, from its title to its inner structure, request socio-historical consideration. This is a work that draws its reader — often forcefully — to the question of its own political context while its author studiously refuses to be drawn on the same question.

Even the most cursory reading of Capital takes the reader down this path. Goldsmith has explained the analog form of the publication by suggesting he wants readers to feel the “material” weight of the language. Unless we choose to interpret this with stunning literalism, this involves taking into account the volume and intricacy of the text presented: a process which requires a form of embodied labor on the part of the reader which subtly mirrors Goldsmith’s own curatorial process. (In this way Capital, which in certain respects relies on a Barthesian reading-as-writing, also challenges Goldsmith’s claim that one need not actually read his works.) The layout of the book echoes the grid system of Manhattan, so that spending time in its pages is experientially similar to navigating the island itself, although there is a tension between the sense of motion it invokes — decades pass with the blink of an eye, or the scan of a chapter — and the impossibility of its own task. Goldsmith has a predilection for the tidbits that compare New York to Paris, for example, or see the former superseding the latter in size or innovation. A quotation of James Trager’s asserts that “[i]n 1930, the Chrysler Building was the first structure to rise higher than the Eiffel Tower, which was erected in 1899.” An e-mail from McKenzie Wark argues that New York is “ancient” when considered “[w]ithin the frame of modernity”; Rome, Paris, and London only became modern cities “after the war, with the ’50s boom.” Occasionally, snippets like these feel like they might be ciphers for the whole text. In “Bennet, Deconstructing, p.18,” “Gertrude Stein […] is long dead but under cover rides the torn down E1.”

Not only is time a common theme in the citations, but the organizing principles which govern Capital skew toward the chronological. The section on sex, for instance, is divided, and its subcategory “gay” further subdivided by decade, so that the development of the city’s queer scene takes place on the page, in chorus. Two chapters on the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs act as internal referents: spaced with one in each half of the text, they track a shift in the city’s commercial self-mythologizing. The latter, a fair whose theme of “Peace and Understanding” paid tribute to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanded Universe,” is immediately succeeded by de Certeau writing on the World Trade Center — a building whose destruction marked the end of New York’s 20th century and effectively finished off the final vestiges of the pre-Vietnam optimism which retrospectively characterize the ’64 Fair. These juxtapositions not only invite historic comparison, but draw our attention to the matter of how such events are chronicled, and by extension, the curatorial process at work here. The tension between this focus and the lack of authorial context provided is discomforting; in itself not a problem. Nor is the fact that, as Brian Dillon wrote in his recent Guardian review, “[t]he book stalls to a predictable gridlock — predictable chiefly because [its choice of sources] seems to lead straight to the arrival of one K Goldsmith.” Yet Goldsmith’s public track record — and here it is also worth bearing in mind another tension, that between his celebrity status and the wish to obscure his intentions — lends an added charge to the mystery.

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If the 2014 publication of Radio Benjamin, also published by Verso, has engendered a renewed interest in Benjamin’s writing for what was then an emerging media, it might also prompt us to consider parallels between the early 20th century and today’s digital age. Goldsmith has claimed that he formulated his conceptual writing partially as a response to “the death of modernism.” Yet if modernism is dead, its afterlife is as powerful as that of any relic in Benjamin’s writing: from the radical typography of Blast and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries to the stream-of-consciousness flow renewed by Ali Smith and Eimear McBride, it is no accident that the formal strategies which retrospectively defined the early 20th-century avant-garde are once again being taken up.

Similarly, the series of tensions between local and global, commerce and the individual, fraught nostalgia and the rupture of experiment to which The Arcades Project responded remain familiar. In this regard, Capital is one in a large body of texts that returns to the last century for inspiration. This is not to necessarily make the case for its being a specifically modernist work — although others have done so — but rather a work which offers a specific approach to modernity. For Goldsmith, of course, it is also the great appropriate work, or, as he puts it, “the greatest work of uncreative writing”:

From 1927 to 1940, Walter Benjamin synthesized many ideas he’d been working with throughout his career into a singular work that came to be called The Arcades Project. Many have argued that it’s nothing more than hundreds of pages of notes for an unrealized work of coherent thought, merely a pile of shards and sketches. But others have claimed it to be a groundbreaking one-thousand-page work of appropriation and citation, so radical in its undigested form that it’s impossible to think of another work in the history of literature that takes such an approach.

The exact status of The Arcades Project remains, of course, an open question, as its “undigested” form is the only one accessible. The project was never finished — a result of the fact that Benjamin, fleeing occupied France for New York, took his own life near the French-Spanish border after being denied entry into the latter country. (He had an American visa, but the asylum he hoped to gain from the Spanish authorities was denied.) The work’s “discontinuous presentation,” as the introduction to the Harvard edition of The Arcades Project calls it, is perhaps one of the most severe 20th-century illustrations of Levine’s thesis, as well as older arguments such as Fredric Jameson’s insistence that we recognize how form, as well as content, shows the conditions of its production. Uncreative Writing designates Benjamin’s notes as “proto-hypertextual,” and compares them to the later published form of works such as John Cage’s Rolywholyover, a collection of “fifty pieces of printed ephemera […] with no hierarchical order.” Yet although Goldsmith writes that it is the “mystery” of The Arcades Project that gives the work “so much energy,” his account does not mention the circumstances of Benjamin’s death. The publication of Capital forces a question not addressed here: is it appropriate to fetishize the form of a work unfinished due to such circumstances?

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Goldsmith’s is not the only book published last year that transposes Benjamin to New York. David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City, in fact, literally moves him, imagining a reality in which the philosopher faked his suicide and went on to enjoy many more years of life – or afterlife — in New York City. An analysis of the fictitious study Benjamin created there, Kishik’s book has many of the expected shortcomings of a project so ambitious. Yet the portrait it conjures of New York manages to be that rare combination of skeptical but not cynical; a combination often difficult to sustain in modern urban life. In his introduction, Kishik confesses that the infatuation with the city that propelled him to write the first words of The Manhattan Project had lost its sheen by the time the book was finished. “I want to make it clear,” he writes, “that this is only my unsuccess story, not the city’s.”

This brief acknowledgement of disenchantment, however, gets at something important. Reading Kishik’s project alongside Goldsmith’s, it is hard not to notice that both of these books make New York the capital of a century now ended. In this sense, they add a further node to the nexus of questions broadly concerned with what we might call “social responsibility.” In that the digital age is also the age of the megacity, the time of Capital and The Manhattan Project’s production demands a new way of thinking about the world’s urban centers, which threaten to become unlivable for a significant minority of their residents in the near future, through financial conditions if not environmental. “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary” wrote Marx (and popularized Marshall Berman). “Every epoch, certainly our own, dreams of the preceding one,” writes Kishik. “A return to origins invigorates,” wrote Ezra Pound. If today’s city-dwellers might increasingly feel like the subject of, rather than agents in, the same modernity captured in Benjamin’s notes on the arcades, then revisiting his writing is one means by which we might attempt to make sense of not just his historical bearings, but our own.

Kishik ends Benjamin’s second life in 1987, before the 1995 publication of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, allowing him to uncomplicatedly deploy “bare life” as a state Benjamin opposes to the glimmering existence of “sheer life.” Although The Manhattan Project doesn’t elucidate the term, Kishik’s writing elsewhere has explained this latter category as best understood through allegory, asking his reader to imagine a photograph in which all the static things — the buildings, parked cars and sidewalks — are removed, and only those things in motion remain. The ineffable texture of “sheer life,” reminiscent of glass or chrome, is matched by a sense that this type of life can only be seen when it is not anchored down. Where a feeling of living on borrowed time — a sense that eventually the daily experience of being overwhelmed by crowds and noise will catch up with you, to say nothing of the deeper displacement of migration — runs through Kishik’s book, this is its pay-off. In this sense, sheer life’s liberatory potential is defiant, akin to Rebecca Solnit’s reclaimed flaneur figure whose political status comes from wandering itself in Wanderlust:

I admire Manhattan: the synchronized beehive dance of Grand Central Station, the fast pace people set on the long grids of streets, the jay-walkers, the slower strollers in the squares, the dark-skinned nannies pushing pallid babies before them through the gracious paths of Central Park. Wandering without a clear purpose or sense of direction, I have often disrupted the fast flow of passerby intent on some clear errand or commute, as though I were a butterfly strayed into the beehive, a snag in the stream.

Forget the beach: under the pavements of New York, there’s water.

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Last month, Esther Leslie gave a lecture at London’s Whitechapel Gallery to mark the 75th anniversary of Benjamin’s death. Her talk explored how the author’s status as refugee provides one route into contemporizing him, noting parallels between his aborted journey, and death in the seafront town of Portbou, and the journeys refugees are making, as you read this, in small, unseaworthy boats over the Aegean. Leslie’s lecture may run counter to Goldsmith’s stated intentions regarding his work. Yet if we accept that the failure to manage the demands of 20th-first century capital — globally and on the level of the city — is not just a failure in philosophical terms but in the most urgently real ones, then the questions Capital provokes are nevertheless worth considering. Neither Goldsmith nor Kishik’s book ignore the social problems of life in New York, with the latter particularly careful not to restrict his account of the city’s alienation to that suffered by middle-class white men — nor to the past.

Yet paradoxically, the central question raised by Goldsmith’s latest book is the circumstances of its own making. The publication of Capital at this moment not only regrounds his conceptualism in history, but in a history which is both obviously politicized and itself historicized. As Hong’s comments remind us, and scholars like Jessica Pressman have also pointed out, postmodernism as it was theorized by Lyotard, Hutcheon, and in some senses Goldsmith is also subject to historical contextualization.

To the extent which The Arcades Project and Capital both move “capital” away from the sovereign and toward commercial culture, they also fortify the latter with responsibility, and to take them seriously necessitates examining their own place in the culture industry. From here in England, where Goldsmith is not the celebrity poet he is in the US, it is sometimes hard to appreciate his cultural power. Several of the friends I spoke to about this piece suggested that his blunders are perhaps more naïve than calculated. Yet it is surely not accidental that Capital is published by Verso, the radical house whose list includes a good number of books by and about Benjamin, including most recently an edit of his archive. The Arcades Project is no autopsy report, but it is still difficult to imagine Goldsmith and his publishers not envisioning the censure that might reasonably follow this particular writer taking the unfinished work of a refugee and adopting its form without including what Lauren Elkin, writing in the Financial Times, calls “the analysis.” Goldsmith’s own comments on the matter are predictably tone-deaf, telling the Guardian:

By the way, my book got completed; his didn’t! By the way, I’m alive; he’s not! So the romance around the life and martyrdom of Benjamin ain’t gonna happen to me. In a weird way, I wanted to take Benjamin off the pedestal and on to the coffee table.

To reduce the potential concerns of scholars to such facile statements is disappointing; to focus on the “romance” that you may be deprived of breathtaking. But I hope that Goldsmith’s stated desire to try “listening,” albeit stated following the above, is genuine, if only for his position as teacher and public speaker. Dillon’s Guardian review ultimately praised Capital, but noted that its success came “despite its author.” In that this latest book may reasonably lead us to question whether what Goldsmith ostensibly sets out to do, and the terms he claims to do it, is a sufficient way of accounting for the actuality of his writing — with all the social and political consequences that implies — it also suggests a means forward. The types of attention it requests of its reader are not so different to those we might request of its author — and in this sense, Goldsmith may have a lot to learn from his own work.

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Stephanie Boland is a PhD student and writer based in London with a focus on modernism and nonfiction.