This spring, poet Kenneth Goldsmith has been teaching a class called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Listed as a creative writing course at the University of Pennsylvania, the class has been a subject of contention since it was announced. Sitting in on a class session, journalist Katy Waldman described her experience for Slate.
Among other things, the class seems to be an experiment in the construction and perception of meaning. Meant to resuscitate the boredom-driven practice of Internet surfing, students were to use the ephemera of the Internet as writing material. Waldman writes that in concept the students would “go home and transform their Facebook reveries into poetry and memoir, like Walter Benjamin delicately descending from a hashish high in order to produce works of surreal and trancelike beauty.” This is an exciting idea, creating trancelike beauty from ephemera. As web surfing occupies more and more of our time, hoping to find meaning in the mindless is a compelling quest.
Goldsmith’s best-known works make use of ephemera in meaningful ways. “The Day”–his reappropriation of everything published in the New York Times on September 11, 2001–draws attention to how context influences the readings of words. Even weather reports become charged, menacing, within the context of the attacks.
But the students of “Wasting Time” haven’t created trancelike beauty yet. After seeing that no one was writing anything worthwhile, Goldsmith cut the class’ writing requirement. Instead, the class performs bizarre social experiments with their always-turned-on technology. Students type a daisy chain poem with their arms linked. They text instructions to Goldsmith that he must perform. “Go to the business school. Skip down the stairs,” they write. There are hints of meaning everywhere, but the students mostly can’t articulate them.
What then is the meaning of all the time spent on the Internet? For Goldsmith the answer seems to be the ephemera itself. He tells Waldman:
“What we create together is so much more exciting than any physical artifact we might take from it or produce afterward. Sometimes I don’t even remember what we’ve done that day—that’s how strange, how ephemeral it is.
Goldsmith is doing away with the privileging of production over presence, of achievement over the thing that doesn’t seem to get you anywhere. But this does not appear to satisfy the students. They still want to understand what has happened in a way they can talk about, and they want more than quirky performances using internet ephemera. Whether or not this desire is too production-focused, it seems that meaning doesn’t simply emerge through one’s immersion in the odd and endless internet.
Featured image is a screenshot of the internet portfolio of Ben DuVall – artist, designer and cultural researcher.