This month, Verso Books publishes Kenneth Goldsmith's Capital, "a kaleidoscopic assemblage and poetic history of New York." Inspired by Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, Goldsmith has spent the past decade researching and assembling a super-abundance of quotes on New York City, and then organizing them into categories like Celebrity, Danger, Graffiti, and Sex. The result is far from a simple quote book, however. Reading Capital feels like walking the city, through time and space, jumping neighborhoods, going in and out of buildings, slipping through wormholes. It's a kind of exuberant eavesdropping on the muttering, shouting narrative of the twentieth-century city.
I asked Goldsmith a few questions. He answered.
Q: I've been enjoying Capital, but is it meant to be enjoyed? You've called yourself "the most boring writer that has ever lived." Capital is not boring. Does this book feel like a departure from previous work?
A: I actually stopped being a boring writer almost a decade ago when I got bored of being boring. I’m known for a book called Day, which was a transcription of The New York Times of September 1, 2000 into a 900-page book. That was boring. When the book was reviewed, most people mistakenly thought I had transcribed September 11, 2001. I thought that was a great idea and went ahead and transcribed the 9-11 New York Times—the one that everyone carried to work that day, not the 9-12 newspaper, when you saw the planes crashing into the towers. And as I was doing the transcription, I found my keyboard soaked in tears. I mean, I wasn’t doing anything different than straight transcription, but the content was so emotional, that I produced an emotional text. After that I stopped being boring and wanted to find hotter and more emotional texts, which led to Seven American Deaths & Disasters, which are transcriptions of media broadcasts of national tragedies.
So, for Capital, I changed the lens again from tragedy and emotion to beauty and romanticism and have produced a beautiful and romantic text about New York City in the 20th Century. But the process is identical: this book is nearly 1000 pages long but I haven’t written a word of it.
Q: In a related question, you've also said, “My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable.” Capital is readable, but maybe not in the traditional sense of moving from point A to point B. How do you imagine Capital being read?
A: I think its unreadability is like the unreadability of the city itself: it’s too damn big to read New York City; perhaps the only way we can interact with New York is to browse it.
Q: How do you personally "browse" New York City? In the physical -- and maybe in the psychic -- sense. This book has a flaneur feeling about it, the walker in the city, capturing moments, observations, as he or she goes. That things that happens as one walks, fragments making up a whole. I think also of Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie." Do you identify as a flaneur, of the body and/or mind?
A: Walking the city invokes a text, one that is instantaneously written while, at the same time, one that is instantaneously read. The urbanist philosopher Michel de Certeau says, "They walk—an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban 'text' they write without being able to read it." Walking, then, is an act of reading the city with our feet.
The city itself is an epic novel: each building a word, each street a sentence, each block a paragraph. De Certeau's claim for unreadability is hinged upon three facts: the blur of motion, the speed at which the tale is unwinding, and the sheer of immensity of the text. When we speak of hypertexts, we usually mean those which exist online, but we might think of the city as the ur-hypertext, a dynamic, analog, predigital model of complex intertextuality.
Q: What does it feel like for you to walk the streets of the city today? In my experience, the feeling of it has changed dramatically in the past decade or so.
A: We are going to disagree here but I love the city today as much as I’ve ever loved it. Every moment in New York is the best moment. Yes, the city has changed dramatically, but that doesn’t mean that it’s less, it just means that it’s different. We can’t look to what New York was — that’s gone — but what it is now, which is still radically inspiring, energetic, and quite frankly, utopian.
I travel around the world constantly, and the whole world has gone the way of New York, so if New York was always more interesting than anywhere else, it still is today. While the city may not resonate the same way with me as it did 40 years ago — yes, I was here 40 years ago — I still find it intriguing, mysterious, and sexy in ways that I find few other places on earth. I adore this city, still, in the twenty-first century.
Q: We don't completely disagree. I wouldn't be fighting for New York if I didn't still love it. Though I sometimes hate to love it. Would you call Capital your love letter to New York? Apologies for the cliche, but the book does feel affectionate.
A: Yes, this book is a completely romantic love letter to the city. I was able to pen the ultimate love letter to this city without having written a word of it, which is pretty much what Walter Benjamin did to Paris with the Arcades Project, the inspiration for this project.
Q: Finally, the obvious question: What about the Arcades Project inspired you to do a New York version?
A: When Benjamin’s book was published in English in 1999, I found it to be the most profoundly emotional book I’ve ever read written about a city. It was a book that told what the city felt like, sounded like, and smelled like, instead of narrating official histories—god knows there are enough of those books about Paris. I wanted to write the same book for New York, a city I’ve lived in for my entire adult life. I’ve also seen the city drastically change, so I wanted to remember, for instance, the smell of Orange Julius. My book is 1000 pages of citation; I didn’t write a word of it, but it turns out to be the most autobiographical book I could write. This city has made me what I am today. It is, indeed, a love song to New York.
Q: Anything else I didn't ask that you'd like to answer?
A: Yes one more thing. I wrote much of this book in the New York City collection of the Jefferson Market Library, a place that I found about through your blog. I would spend the entire day, say, researching the blocks around the Library—Patchin Place, Eighth Street, Christopher Street, etc.— in the twentieth century. But when I would leave the library, I would enter a city that bore little resemblance to where I was reading about. I really might as well have been researching the book in, say, Switzerland, instead of in Greenwich Village.