Can the Trolling of Media Outlets Revitalize American Poetry?

Earlier this year, Vice ran the following headline above a story on the operation of creative minds: "Liars and Cheaters Make Better Art." The story linked to a study showing that "creative people are generally more dishonest than uncreative people." Whatever one thinks of either the Vice headline or the Harvard University study that inspired it, there can be little doubt that those creative artists who produce the most ambiguity in the world are often the ones who accrue the most attention from outside their own writing communities.

Consider, for instance, the recent wave of American poets whose juxtapositive Twitter accounts -- at once warm, funny, wise, confusing, bizarre, and off-putting -- have made them overnight social media darlings. Some have even parlayed this instant celebrity into trade-press book deals, and as it was an informed inscrutability rather than unfettered earnest expression that got them there, perhaps the time has come to consider whether ambiguities of intent and effect do more to gather an audience in the Internet Age than anything else.

The phrase Vice uses to circumscribe this phenomenon -- "liars and cheaters" -- goes considerably too far, of course. After all, "dishonesty" (cf. the Harvard study) is a catch-all term that can include, too, many reality-bending creative practices that are artfully rather than cynically intended. Still, there's something to be said for public personalities who make it difficult for the rest of us to know exactly how to take them -- whose motivations are always tantalizingly close to public revelation, but ultimately remain up for grabs. While terms like "trolling" are readily abused (many literary artists apply the term to anyone with whom they disagree, to any art they find unpalatable, and to any social media presence that irks them) the recent brouhaha over an upcoming University of Pennsylvania course called "Wasting Time on the Internet" provides a case-in-point of smart, well-intended, well-targeted trolling.

First, though, we need a definition of the term. According to Urban Dictionary, "trolling" is an "art" -- specifically, the art of "deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off, usually via the internet and usually using dialogue." Urban Dictionary cautions that trolling is not to be confused with "flaming" (writing rude or even obscene comments to someone else over the internet), nor is it to be conflated with "spamming" (sending content over the internet that the intended recipient clearly does not wish to receive). I'd add, too, that while trolls are definitionally abrasive, mere abrasiveness is not trolling, however powerful a kiss-off it may be to call someone who annoys you online a "troll."

Urban Dictionary also emphasizes that the key concept undergirding effective trolling is "deception"; publishing earnestly held but unpopular opinions online over a period of time isn't trolling, whatever annoyance or consternation it might cause consumers of those opinions. Deception is key to trolling inasmuch as the effective troll spreads content he does not actually believe in, or else communicates "actual" content under the cover of content merely intended as provocation. In other words, the troll's immediate aim is to convince readers that he believes something he does not actually believe, whether or not there's a different end-game to any particular troll (with apologies for nouning the verb here). This is also, then, how a troll gets caught in the act: actual trolling gets revealed when we manage to identify a gulf between what a troll has said publicly and what a troll privately believes.

Viral marketing campaigns often employ trolling as a technique; even political activists now use trolling to spread their messages. Consider, for instance, self-described "progressive apparel company FCKH8," which recently filmed a gaggle of children swearing like sailors as a way of calling attention to our patriarchy's systemic and institutionalized inequalities. Does FCKH8 believe that telling children to swear in front of a video camera is the right thing to do? Generally speaking, certainly not, but the company's viral marketing campaign nevertheless gleefully heralds these stevedore-mouthed tykes as must-watch YouTube. It's a bid for attention -- using methods no moral person would (in a vacuum) endorse in order to promote a message all right-thinking persons should -- and so far it's worked. In response to the FCKH8 campaign, Slate (never one to hold back on publishing clickbait when it's available) ran the soberly titled news story "Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause." The story's moderately creepy original title -- "Watch Little Girls Swear for Feminism" -- is still visible in the link's web address.

By getting major media to cover its trolling-cum-activism, FCKH8 exploited an increasingly popular mechanism for hiding the fact that one is (in the first instance) trolling: the cultural-capital equivalent of money-laundering, in which objectionable content and questionable methods are made palatable to a mass audience by the mere fact of their appearance in major media. Because no one really believes major media organizations would intentionally give airtime to trolls -- they might sensationalize the news, sure, but unless they're willing to marginalize themselves they're not going to celebrate clickbait, no matter how well-intended -- trolling-as-activism has become a viable subgenre of contemporary speech.

"Troll activism" is quintessentially metamodern, as it unites polar-opposite realities as a means of constructing a new reality in the central space between the two. Such activism, that is, unites disingenuity (the means by which the troll-activist's message is conveyed, as well as the initial substantive configuration of the message) and sincerity (the message as it finally reveals itself).

And, most importantly, it works.

Next semester, Penn will offer a theory-intensive creative writing course in which students not only suffuse themselves in difficult texts in literary theory and philosophy, but are also tasked with writing experimental poetry and prose responsive to the latest developments in network culture. The animating principle of the course is one steeped in metamodern literary theory: the idea that reconstructing one's local environment via parcels of Internet-housed data can lead to "compelling and emotional" literature rather than merely an ego-less, deconstructive fragmentation of the self.

The reality is that many of today's most innovative poets and writers already use social media as one of their primary inspirations. Today's young literary innovators are en masse composing self-expressive poems that incorporate tweets, Facebook statuses, Google searches, remixed song lyrics, and other detritus of the so-called Internet Age -- some of which they themselves authored, some of which they did not. We might imagine, then, that a university course that asks undergraduates to engage with advanced literary theory, network culture, and experimental literary forms would be called something like "Metamodernism in Popular Culture," or "Conceptual Writing and Social Media," or "Writing Practice in the Internet Age," or even the thoroughly esoteric "Poetry As Data-Processing Praxis."

The first of these courses is already being taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison -- requiring of students similar literary exercises as those engaged by the upcoming University of Pennsylvania course -- but what all such courses would certainly have in common would be a shared belief (already old hat among late postmodern and early metamodern literary theorists) that time spent on the Internet is by no means a waste. Just as, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Frank O'Hara taught young literary rebels that simply bumming around your neighborhood and making note of what you see can lead to compellingly adventurous poetry, the leading young poets of today have successfully convinced their peers that even idly surfing the Internet for hours can lead to the development of a superlative literary imagination.

The question, though, is whether today's young poets can get major American media to take note of any of the foregoing developments in contemporary literary theory and writing practice. Is The Washington Post likely to write an editorial on a course called "Poetry As Data-Processing Praxis"? Is Time going to devote even an inch of column space to a class in "Conceptual Writing and Social Media"? We already know the answer, given that major media seems to only cover higher education when doing so shines a light on what's wrong with our colleges and universities -- for instance, over-reliance on adjunct labor, rising tuition costs, and the spread of on-campus rape culture -- while mum's the word when it comes to discussing what's new and exciting in university study.

Enter Kenneth Goldsmith, the instructor for the University of Pennsylvania course described above -- again, a course whose animating principle is that the time a creative writer spends on the Internet is by no means wasted.

The title of Goldsmith's class? "Wasting Time on the Internet."

By cleverly titling his creative writing course exactly the opposite of the course's fundamental premise, Goldsmith has created a media firestorm. The course title "Wasting Time on the Internet" may have the unfortunate side effect of misleading prospective students into thinking the course believes something it entirely rejects, but far more importantly it provokes American media outlets into taking notice.

Has Goldsmith offered American poetry a possible blueprint for returning to cultural relevancy?

Consider: Goldsmith's misleadingly titled course has just been written up by Time, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Slate, Newsweek, The Daily Mirror (UK), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Yahoo! News, Vice, and elsewhere -- all media outlets with virtually no interest in covering creative writing courses otherwise. The other thing that all these articles have in common is that they're titled in such a way as to provoke reader outrage; in other words, they're titled the way that "clickbait" habitually is, even if their contents are actually substantive. Reading the titles of these articles, one would presume that Goldsmith's course involves nothing more than web-surfing: no theory, no homework, no writing assignments, no careful attention to the forms of distractedness that web-surfing enforces.

Is Goldsmith upset at having his carefully thought-out course so widely misunderstood by the media?


Goldsmith's online reaction, much like the quotes attributed to him in these news articles, has been quite the opposite of dissatisfied: both on social media and within the articles' main bodies themselves, his every comment seems to egg the media on to provide even more (and even more indignant) coverage of the course. Contained within these news articles, for instance, are quotes from Goldsmith -- an academic steeped in print-published literary theory largely unavailable or difficult-to-access online -- that no media editor in his right mind could possibly have credited. One example: "I think it's complete bullshit that the internet is making us dumber. I think the internet is making us smarter" (published with full credulity by Vice).

Putting aside the rarity of hearing an Ivy League professor use expletives to justify a theory-driven upper-level English course, we can see in the titling of Goldsmith's class a form of trolling that's incredibly smart -- and effective. Goldsmith undoubtedly believes that the internet has the capacity to make us smarter, but nothing in his research, his course, or his extended comments to the media suggests that he believes we're there yet. In fact, per Goldsmith, it's the sort of attention paid to distractedness that his course encourages, and not the internet itself, that makes us smarter.

Unfortunately, there's no story there. Saying that "the internet is making us smarter" -- a premise most would find objectionable on its face -- makes for a much better quote than saying that it could make us smarter if we approached it with the same rigor and intelligence encouraged by upper-level Ivy League English courses. Just so, when Goldsmith tells Vice that he doesn't want his students even "half being [attentive in class]", he both means it and doesn't -- as he very much wants them to be attentive to how surfing the internet can provoke an experimental writing practice. And certainly he very much wants them to be attentive when he assigns them reams of literary theory for homework, or when he asks them to go home and produce complex, intertextual art out of their in-class internet surfing sessions.

Goldsmith's trolling exhibits a genius-level awareness for how national media outlets work, and its end product (unprecedented media coverage of contemporary poetry) suggests that it's motivated by an activist instinct -- a desire to promote experimental writing -- rather than a penchant for deception. Goldsmith provides news outlets with a "hook" for their lede -- usually an outrageous tag-line, one that will quickly raise the hackles of the fly-by readers American media outlets depend upon for clicks -- even as his actual teaching and writing practice bears almost no relation whatsoever to that hook.

Consider the last Goldsmithian construction to hit major media: the Ivy League poet's contention that he encourages his students to plagiarize. He doesn't, of course, if "plagiarism" means (as it always has, in the Ivy League and elsewhere) using the words of another without attribution in order to accrue cultural capital to oneself. But Goldsmith was smart enough to know that even if "plagiarism" in the sense he now uses it means something other than how everyone else uses the word -- specifically, Goldsmith is referring to what poets have been calling "found poetry" for decades -- media outlets won't know that.

In other words, what Goldsmith encourages his students to do is to self-admittedly and self-avowedly transcribe texts they find out in the world and then edit them into "poems." Because his students never make any claim to have authored the source material themselves -- both they and their professor know the material that comprises their poems is not original -- they've committed no plagiarism whatsoever, only a use of "found poetry" that was old hat when Guillaume Apollinaire transcribed overheard street conversations ("Lundi rue Christine") in 1914.

But again, the media doesn't know -- or doesn't want to know -- the actual story behind the tagline. The clicks are the thing, and Goldsmith reliably provides them in abundance.

In 2013, Goldsmith told documentary filmmaker Charles Roy that in his "uncreative writing" class at Penn, "students are penalized for any shred of originality they show; they're marked down for being original, for being unique..." This too was clever trolling, as in fact Goldsmith marks his students up for engaging with found texts in an original and unique way -- he's even said in interviews that he particularly prizes when a student's transcription errors lead to a text that reads differently from anyone else's -- he merely marks them down for not following the course's guidelines requiring that appropriated rather than original material be used for all writing assignments. One imagines that no student has ever been marked down in Goldsmith's class for this latter form of creativity, as the very premise of the course precludes any such adventures in original authorship. Yet in describing the course using a media-friendly tagline -- "I penalize students for any shred of originality" -- Goldsmith ensures that the casual listener will perk up their ears.

In 2011, Goldsmith made a much-publicized trip to the White House to read poetry for (as he proudly puts it) "the President of the United States....the President was sitting very close to me, and the First Lady, and the room was full of Democratic party fundraisers and Senators and all sorts of very important people." Recounting the experience to documentary filmmaker Charles Roy, he boasted of having read "plagiarized" work to this august audience.

In fact, he did nothing of the sort: when he read the work of Walt Whitman to the First Lady and an assembled crowd of students, he prefaced it by saying, as we can hear in the video linked to above, "The first excerpt I'm going to read is, of course, by Walt Whitman..." Goldsmith went on to tell the entire history of the poem. He then did the same thing -- carefully attributed the work he was about to read to its rightful author -- with the second of the two poems he read, a poem by Hart Crane. The third and final excerpt Goldsmith read, taken from his book Traffic, was prefaced by a careful concession that the text was "a transcription of every traffic report given every ten minutes over the course of 24 hours on a New York City AM radio station."

So why did Goldsmith crow to the filmmaker Roy, in Roy's "Noriginals: The Art of Uncreativity," that "I was able to read plagiarized texts at the White House and everyone thought that was fine"?

We might consider Goldsmith's comments in "Noriginals" merely a slip of the tongue were it not for the pattern of conduct of which it's a part.

Appearing on Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, Goldsmith told the host that he "never writes any of [his] books," though he has elsewhere insisted that transcribed poetry must be personally written (or typed) out by the poet in order for its instructive qualities to be fully internalized. One notes, too, that Goldsmith has indeed written some of his books -- most notably his (arguably) best one, Soliloquy, which is comprised entirely of the words he spoke over a period of twenty-four hours. But like "wasting time on the internet," and like "plagiarism," saying "I never write any of my books" is more likely to get attention than is the complex reality that lies behind these misleading catchphrases.

Outside of academia and the creative writing community, Goldsmith is best-known for his (again highly publicized in major media) coinage of the term "uncreative writing." Goldsmith assigns this catchphrase to a form of concept-driven writing that requires unparalleled creativity on the part of its author. The so-called "uncreative writer" is asked to creatively select, transcribe, frame, edit, and arrange found texts to produce a profound rhetorical effect. A more accurate -- but less media-friendly -- term for what Goldsmith calls "uncreative writing" would be "creative metawriting," a phrase endemic to metamodern literary theory. But "uncreative writing" offers a more direct rebuke to the nation's fastest-growing academic discipline -- "creative writing" -- and so it makes for better hard copy in newspapers and better ledes for online media. Given how many in and out of academia find the dramatic expansion of undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs risible, one can readily imagine the clickbait-like lede Goldsmith is inviting: "Hate creative writing? An Ivy League instructor has just the solution!"

Goldsmith is to be credited for his honesty in noting (as he did recently on Twitter) that "[e]verything I'm saying has been said before by others. There is nothing new here, just rehashes of soiled ideas and well-worn theories." Indeed, found poetry has been a mainstay in introductory creative writing courses for decades, and was (as noted) toyed with experimentally by no less a Master than Apollinaire prior to World War I. Likewise, using social media data to produce self-expressive lyric poetry is commonplace among metamodernist writers, and in any case merely mirrors the New York School poets' pre-Internet penchant for using private data and metadata as poetic material.

But Goldsmith is also underselling his own genius, which is as much for mass marketing as it is for finding a way to re-popularize "soiled ideas and well-worn theories." The part-time lecturer at Penn -- invariably misidentified by major media as a full professor (e.g., in the recent article by Slate) in order to further infuriate Ivy League haters -- has redefined the role of poet in the Internet Age as an online provocateur (a troll) whose dual aim is to (a) get American citizens to pay attention to their speaking and writing practices, especially to the poetic quality of same, and (b) get American media to pay attention to how interesting Americans' speaking and writing practices are (especially as to their poetic quality).

If engaging these two tasks requires using misleading rhetoric to miscast his own writing and teaching practices, Goldsmith is willing to take the plunge -- as doing so means getting mass-media attention for himself and (therefore) for his ideas and for American poetry. Goldsmith's creative, fully attributed, personally written poetry is deeply engaging (if more for its concept than its content) whether or not it's miscast as "uncreative," "plagiarized," and "not written by the poet."

Moreover, while Goldsmith is famous for saying that no one should ever read his books -- and that they're not even supposed to be read -- when he went on The Colbert Report to (ahem) flog his book he answered enthusiastically, and in the affirmative, when Colbert, referring to Seven American Deaths and Disasters, proposed that Goldsmith "want[s] us to hear every word of this." Yet there's no contradiction here: Goldsmith, the consummate metamodern literary personality, at once intends two entirely opposite messages: (1) don't read my book, and (2) read my book. It's for this same reason that one can be simultaneously in awe of Goldsmith's intelligence, courage, innovative spirit, and commitment to American poetry -- as I am -- and yet infuriated by the way he conducts himself (as I also am). Many of us, this author included, have been unintentionally guilty of much the same polarizing conduct.

In a world run by postmodern dialectics, we must choose whether to love or detest Kenneth Goldsmith; in a metamodern world of overlaid yet equally actionable realities, we needn't choose -- we can feel both things at once (and, most importantly, fully). Goldsmith himself may or may not understand this (he's notoriously unwilling to engage directly with critics, perhaps on the assumption that their censure is undiluted by respect), but anyone who's been exposed to his social media presence certainly does.

The question remains, though: What's wrong with what Goldsmith's doing? Anything?

Goldsmith may infuriate his critics by responding to their criticism with continued repetitions of the same disingenuous rhetoric that aroused their ire in the first place, but isn't this merely an admirable form of commitment to a media strategy-cum-literary practice?

Those who prize the intersections between literature and personal earnestness -- if not earnestness in literature itself, at least the sincerity of authors' commitment to lives lived in and through literature -- may wish for American media to be a little more circumspect of troll-activists like Goldsmith. On the other hand, is this something we wish for for poetry's sake, or for our own? In a nation largely blind to the wonders of poetry, it's hard not to feel some envy for a poet who accrues attention through ingenious deceit; why should The Washington Post pay Goldsmith heed, and not someone less flashy and less committed to manipulative rhetoric? I'll admit that half the time this is exactly the question I ask myself.

In the end, it seems there are more good reasons to applaud Goldsmith than to denigrate him. Contemporary American poetry is clearly advantaged by maintaining its cultural relevance -- and to be clear, not for the sake of America but for the sake of poetry. In an odd but compelling reversal of the separation of Church and State (a separation always intended to benefit both Church and State), the confluence of American network and media culture and the nation's poetry community is not just critical for America, but also critical for the continued vitality of innovative American verse.

If the historical avant-gardistes of WWI-era Europe were rightly committed to "returning Art to the praxis of Life," well, doing so in the Internet Age means maintaining a poetics that does more than merely name-drop Coke and Pepsi but actually internalizes the way Americans live day-to-day. And if maintaining that poetics means sending a master rhetorician to do a job we might wish could have been done more directly, so be it -- it's American poetry that benefits in the end, and the American media apparatus deserves, anyway, to be duped now and again by its artist class. Moreover, by proving himself equally media savvy in both his Art and his Life as a poet, Goldsmith, however tiring he may be at times, is the very embodiment of a literary avant-gardiste. At a time when it's exponentially easier to proclaim something authentic than to actually make something authentic, Goldsmith (as both social media personality and poet) is a refreshingly authentic exemplar of the twenty-first century "metamodern" human.

Seth Abramson is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). Additional collections are forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. He serves as co-editor of the Best American Experimental Writing series (Wesleyan, 2015) and is a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison.