Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Being Dumb

I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that's ever lived. Whenever I have an idea, I question myself whether it is sufficiently dumb. I ask myself, is it possible that this, in any way, could be considered smart? If the answer is no, I proceed. I don't write anything new or original. I copy pre-existing texts and move information from one place to another. A child could do what I do, but wouldn't dare to for fear of being called stupid.

Tonight Kenneth Goldsmith will appear on The Colbert Report. This year he has been the Museum of Modern Art's first poet laureate, and he is the founding editor of UbuWeb. Later this week, Printing out the Internet will go on view at Labor in Mexico City; a live reading of the Internet will begin July 26 and conclude August 26.

I recently was in a public conversation with my dear friend Christian Bök. If I am the dumbest poet that's ever lived, then Christian is the smartest. His projects are very complicated, taking years to complete. During our talk, Christian went on at length about a project he's been working on for the past decade, one which involved basically giving himself a PhD in genetics. In order to compose two little poems, he had to learn to write computer programs which went through something like eight million combinations of possible letters before hitting on the right ones. And then he injected these poems into a strand of DNA, which was ultimately designed to outlive the extinguishing of the sun. The whole thing involves working with laboratories and has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Christian is super-articulate—really more like a robot than a person—and had the audience's head spinning. When it came my turn to speak, all I could muster was: "… and I transcribe traffic reports."

Christian and I deeply admire each other's practices, but the truth is that while he easily could do what I do, I could never do what he does.

Christian is smart. Smart is a star student, flawlessly dotting i's and crossing t's. Arriving well-prepared and executing tasks with machinic precision, smart has studied its history and is ready to wrestle with the canon. Cultivating circumscription, smart's eyes never leave the prize. Smart is an over-achieving athlete, accomplishing things that mere mortals can only dream of. Complex and deep, exclusive and elite, smart brims with value. Having sweated for what it's accomplished, smart pays a handsome dividend to those invested. Smart moves ever-forward. But by playing a high stakes game, smart is always paranoid that it might lose hard-won ground. Smart is always looking over its shoulder. Success or failure, win or lose, smart trades in binaries. Smart is exhausting—and exhausted.

I am dumb. Dumb is an ill-prepared slacker, riding on hunches and intuition. Willfully amnesiac—History, what's that?—dumb is a tabula rasa, full of emptiness. Caring little for progress or narrative, dumb moves laterally, occasionally spiraling back in on itself. Dumb loves easy. Eschewing climaxes and crescendos, dumb favors stasis, grids, and predictable systems simply because they require less effort. Similarly, dumb favors re—recontextualization, reframing, redoing, remixing, recycling—rather than having to go through the effort of creating something from scratch. Dumb embraces the messiness of contradiction and revels in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious. Trading on the mundane and common, dumb plays a low-stakes game. Since dumb has nothing to lose, dumb owes nothing to anyone, and in that way it is free.

Smart struts. Dumb stumbles. Smart dazzles. Dumb numbs.

There is dumb dumb and there is smart dumb. There is also smart smart. Dumb dumb is plain dumb and smart smart is plain smart. Smart dumb rejects both smart smart and dumb dumb, choosing instead to walk a tightrope between the two. Smart dumb is incisive and precise. In order to be smart dumb, you have to be really smart, but not in the smart smart way.

Dumb dumb is rednecks and racists, football hooligans, gum-snapping marketing girls, and thick-necked office boys. Dumb dumb is Microsoft, Disney, and Spielberg. Smart smart is TED talks, think tanks, NPR news, Ivy League universities, The New Yorker, and expensive five-star restaurants. By trying so hard, smart smart really misses the point. Smart dumb is The Fugs, punk rock, art schools, Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola. Smart dumb plays at being dumb dumb but knows better.

Variants of smart dumb also miss the point but in a different way. Twee (McSweeney's, Miranda July, Ira Glass, David Byrne) feigns dumb but won't allow itself to be dumb, for fear that someone might actually think it's dumb, god forbid. Hipster appropriates chunks of dumb (trucker hats, facial hair, tattoos) but as a fashion trend, refuses to theorize its dumbness, thereby falling squarely into dumb dumb. Smart dumb refuses to commit to either one state or the other. Smart dumb, for instance, incorporates elements of camp but refuses to be camp enough to actually be camp. Dumb vs. smart is not a rehash of hip vs. square. Dumb is both hip and square. Smart dumb has its theorists—de Certeau, Goffman, Debord—those who articulate the mysteries of the mundane and the extraordinariness of the everyday.

From this point forth, unless specified, when I say dumb, I will mean smart dumb.

Dumb breaks things, doing things to things which common sense decrees to be simply wrong. When something is that wrong or that broken, it finds a new life: Thelonious Monk intentionally hitting the wrong notes on the piano, Charles Ives's use of microtones and overtones, Andy Warhol's off-register silkscreens. Warhol, the king of dumb, summed it up when he said, "I wanted to do a 'bad book,' just the way I'd done 'bad movies' and 'bad art,' because when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something." Empire is dumb. Really dumb.

Dumb shuns allusion and metaphor, opting instead for the flattest interpretation possible, echoing Beckett's claim, "No symbols where none intended." Smart dismisses dumb as the handiwork of charlatans—as hoaxes, jokes, frauds, and leg-pulls. Dumb, in turn, taunts smart with intentional misinterpretation, like John Cage's first-ever staging of a 12-hour performance of Erik Satie's "Vexations"—a scribble on a piece of paper from 1893 that gave instructions for it to be play 840 times—something smart historians had dismissed as a joke for over half a century. But when Cage actualized it, it was so dumb that it became cosmic. It has been played frequently and regularly since then. Cage's 4'33" is even dumber. Anyone could do that. When asked, Cage always said that was the hardest piece he ever composed, taking years for him to summon the courage to write and have it performed.

Dumb came of age in the Sixties with the advent of drugs which magnified minutiae that was previously invisible. Just think of that poor spider in Life magazine who was dosed with LSD: his web moved from smart symmetry to dumb anarchy. Overnight, obsessions with micro movement, structure, and language spawned successive dumb art movements: Judson Church dance, Pop, Fluxus, minimalism, and conceptualism—all based on the over-obvious. Counting and repetition, along with similar childlike activities, came into vogue. By the Seventies, outsider art and mental illnesses such as autism were fetishized by the likes of Robert Wilson; there was a headlong rush to get dumber. The Seventies also saw renewed interest in the work of Gertrude Stein, a seminally dumb writer who embraced dumb decades before anyone. Stein wrote gibberish using a third-grade vocabulary. To the uninitiated, it all seemed foolish. Someone walking across a stage and calling that a dance? How dumb.

Dumb likes to play dumb. Warhol would often would say to people, "I'm so empty today. I can't think of any ideas. Can you give me some?" He would then pretend to listen carefully, ultimately rejecting every idea that was given to him. That's what made Warhol so great: he wouldn't take other people's dumb ideas. He had his own dumb ideas which were really much smarter. When dumb tries to be smart, you get Billy Idol. Or Rod Stewart. In order for dumb to work, it has to stay dumb. But staying dumb is hard work—even harder work than staying smart. With a bit of effort, anyone can get smarter; but few can consciously and continually stay dumb.

Dumb doesn't go out of fashion because it is never in fashion. Dumb is stalled and irredeemable. It's too twisted, too weird, too contradictory and takes too many turns of thought to be reduced to a slogan or ad campaign. No matter how dumb they may appear, ad campaigns are invested in being smart; at the end of the day, you need to communicate smartly in order to get someone to buy something. Dumb muddies the waters. Likewise, juries and prizes don't recognize dumb. Juries and prizes were invented to award smart.

Dumb is not an inborn condition. You get to dumb after going through smart. Smart is stupid because it stops at smart. Smart is a phase. Dumb is post-smart. Smart is finite, well-trod, formulaic, known. The world runs on smart. It's clearly not working. I want to live in a world where the smartest thing you can do is the dumbest. I want to live in a world where a fluorescent tube leaned up against a wall is worth a million dollars. Or where a plumbing fixture on a pedestal is considered the most important art work of the century. Or where building an eternally locked Prada store in a vast expanse of empty Texas desert is considered a stroke of genius. Or where all of the numbers from one to a thousand can simply be classified by alphabetical order and published as a poem. Effortless and easy, dumb is free of failure, an infallible world where the best result is the one you happen to get.

Detail from a photo by David Fulmer.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

barnhouse (#1,326)


Dave Bry (#422)

This is wonderful. But how exactly does Billy Idol "not work?"

foxbat91 (#9,832)

That was lovely. Though, on the subject of smart smart: I would not say that spending over 100k and several years transcribing a poem into what I assume must have been the nontranscribed portion of a gene really fits the category. I propose it is a very smart variant of smart dumb. Or a very bored variant of smart smart. Values, though. All about what you value.

Smitros (#5,315)

Master's mind = beginner's mind?

ambergris (#245,900)


Screen Name (#2,416)

I love this:
"Dumb is post-smart. Smart is finite, well-trod, formulaic, known. The world runs on smart. It's clearly not working."

123456789 (#245,911)

Smart dumb is like jolie-laide…

KarenUhOh (#19)


Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"I want to live in a world where a fluorescent tube leaned up against a wall is worth a million dollars."

Because a photo sharing app that's worth a billion dollars is not dumb enough?

Time Bandit (#245,919)

Smart smart would have stopped reading this pointless "essay" after the first sentence. Smart dumb thinks you are serious, reads the whole thing and takes offense to its many glaring contradictions, generalizations, and fallacies. Dumb dumb feels compelled to comment on it. I look forward to reading the poem you create using the words from the comment section, as that can be the only logical reason for someone with your interest and education to publish such an overtly bad piece of writing. Dada?

ambergris (#245,900)

@Time Bandit plainly, you don't quite get it. I think you have to be 'smart dumb' (I studied fine art at uni) to understand this because 'smart dumb' is rarely articulated in a 'smart smart' terms.

Its comforting to know that nastiness may encompass any of the aforementioned categories.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Time Bandit "takes offense to its many glaring contradictions"

Seeing how being disappointed in dumbness of an essay due to it's "glaring contradictions" is a glaring contradiction itself, that came off dumb. Or at least, it failed at smart.

andin (#245,933)

Smart or dumb does it matter? Money dictates now or are you dumb? Go clean toilets or sumthin' would ya! We need people who get paid to do shit work, not clever stupid people or CEO's

vimalakirti (#245,937)

What about dumb smart? David Brooks and Downton Abbey are dumb smart.

andin (#245,933)

@vimalakirti Umm Downstairs We do what we have too, to survive. 100,00 yrs Well a conservative estimate. Hasnt taught you that!

Terench (#246,134)

@vimalakirti … Dumb smart? People in this rare genus are usually very intelligent, creative, well-informed, exposed to many interesting people and points of view. They are, in every sense of the word, sophisticated. Most importantly, they are highly functional and have marvelous survival skills. Therein lies the problem. They know what works, what to say, what trends to follow. They don't believe in parallel narratives or that history always gets revised and reinterpreted. There is only what gets them the most hits and site visits right now, and who cares if the work they produce doesn't stand the test of time. You are so right about Downton Abbey. Good acting and great costumes. But this series might well be filed in the same drawer as Debby Boone's " You Light Up My Life" by future civilizations.

mochi (#232,676)

"A few days after Prada Marfa was officially revealed, the installation was vandalized. The building was broken into and all of its contents (six handbags and 14 right footed shoes) were stolen, and the word "Dumb" and the phrase "Dum Dum" were spray painted on the sides of the structure." Ha

scraps (#246,026)

Read "Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock'n'Roll" (2012) by John Scanlan – it is all about the aesthetics of stupidity / dumb. As David Lee Roth said in 1978 when Rolling Stone magazine asked where he thought this thing, Van Halen, would be in 5, 10, etc., years:

"I hate the word maturing . . . I don’t like the word evolving. Or any of that bullshit. The idea is to keep it as simplistic, as innocent, as unassuming and as stupid as possible."

Mattmark (#246,141)

Is it a ‘dumb’ person who’s here putting his self-exculpatory case for the Philistines, or a complacent underachiever sufficiently adept at evasion to squint just so when he looks in a mirror?

gredonibc (#246,394)

They know what works, what to say, what trends to follow. They don't believe in parallel narratives or that history always gets revised and reinterpreted.

busotti (#250,202)

A nice essay on what smart smart would call the lowbrow avant-garde. Smart dumb can be a breath of clean air, a purgative when one is tired of endless middle of the road palatability. ESP Records or Siltbreeze clear the atmosphere well. But you could argue that it is smart smart that holds greater durability (Bach, Mozart, the Beatles, TS Eliot).

Certainly John Cage was credible to try and chop down Beethoven to size a little bit, make him a little more human. But his distorted rep is due more to the listeners of the big speeches than those who spend time in the chamber music.

Jesse S. Mitchell (#252,618)

I dig this. Excellent. 'When dumb tries to be smart, you get Billy Idol. Or Rod Stewart. In order for dumb to work, it has to stay dumb.' brilliant.

Jack85 (#280,347)

Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article programma per scaricare musica. Thanks! keep rocking!

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