What a headline: “At Penn, students can get credit for ‘Wasting Time on the Internet.'” (I recently spotted it in the Washington Post while aimlessly wandering the Internet).
Had I been a parent bankrolling my offspring’s major in creative writing, the article might have prompted a screaming text. Too late! My kid already would have commenced the mindless trolling.
However, I am a nonparent, so Abby Ohlheiser’s article hooked me. Admittedly, if my college career had involved the Internet, I would have signed up for a course titled “Wasting Time on the Internet” (taught by poet Kenneth Goldsmith).
So what’s up with all this mindless Internet engagement? Per Mr. Goldsmith’s syllabus, “students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media, and listservs. . . . Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.” (Subject-verb agreement of the previous sentence might trouble a grammar Nazi who does not recognize the thrill of this ride.)
Ms. Ohlheiser writes: “Goldsmith says he hopes the distraction will place his students ‘into a digital or electronic twilight’ similar to the state of consciousness between dreaming and waking that was so prized by the Surrealists.”
I would like to fancy myself falling into this creative state, but my 6:30 a.m. snooze-button battle gets in the way.
Despite the shock of the headline, the course requires reading of critical texts (this detail disappeared in the article–copy desk chop?). One term rang a distant bell: affect theory. While studying literature in the era of the early Compaq computer, I probably bumped into it.
On the day I read Ms. Ohlheiser’s article, the name of Henri Bergson briefly trotted through my brain. However, I couldn’t Google any terms because I was on deadline for an article about redecorating a tot’s room that will last through her teen years. It’s written on the sixth grade level for harried mothers who like to read about such projects and fantasize about attempting them.
Thus far, it’s a hopeless, indeed impossible, assignment.
I do not live in a writing paradise. This busy audience will glance at the lovely pics and perhaps skim some captions. If I am truly successful, they will consider the how-to steps that the copy desk managed to cut and then cram into a box compromised by a costly digest-size ad. This will happen only if they actually subscribe to a hands-on publication as opposed to finding free info on the websites of beleaguered lifestyle magazines.
To return to the rarefied world of Mr. Goldsmith: I find his brief auto-bio fascinating. In 2013, he “penned” his experiences on Dazed Digital. Click or go with my condensed form:
- New Age-Transcendental Meditation parents
- Drugs out of boredom
- No more drugs because of an inspiring drawing class in which a car was no longer a car but rather “an amalgam of color, shape, and form” (That recalls the transformation of my 1992 Toyota when a mother-boat blue Ford smashed it in 1997.)
- From sculptor (Rhode Island School of Design) to “text artist” to poet
- Radical modernism fan of Joyce, Stein, Beckett . . . (I cannot argue with his taste.)
- An English professor and poet followed by a “thinkership” rather than readership (I like the sound of that.)
- Poet Laureate of MoMA (pretty cool)
- Founder of UbuWeb (Here I can catch a plethora of avant-garde works by the likes of Philip Glass, Jorge Luis Borges, and Allen Ginsberg collected since 1996. Free!)
- A one-man mind machine
Mr. Goldsmith details some of his literary adventures in his Dazed Digital essay. As someone frustrated by current media, I reveled in the description of his tome Seven American Deaths and Disasters:
I wanted to find out: what are the words we use to describe something that we never thought we’d have to describe? I transcribed historic American radio and television reports of national tragedies as they unfurled. The slick curtain of media was torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations. There was a sense of things spinning out of control: facts blurred with speculation as the broadcasters attempted to furiously weave convincing narratives from shards of half-truths. It was as if the essence of the media was being revealed while its skin was in tatters. It felt like a Godard film. . . .
After that nice turn of phrase, I pondered the “bourgeois” meaning of the waking-dreaming state suffered by my business communication students. Actually, they spent a lot of time between waking and non-REM sleeping. They were exhausted: some worked a 30-hour week (or more) while taking a full load of courses.
I will never forget the bright woman who lived in her car and begged relatives to babysit her toddler while she was in class—until she pulled enough shifts as a server to afford cheap daycare and enough square footage for a bed, table, and chair. She always showed up for class, executed sharp presentations, and never passed out.
My students did not get credit for wasting time on the Internet. They had no time to waste. If they committed plagiarism after a thoughtful definition, well, they got zip credit.
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On a personal note, I will mention arguably the most innovative novelist of the 20th century: Marcel Proust, who wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Biographer William C. Carter beautifully explores the author’s world in Marcel Proust: A Life. Warning: if you tackle this novel, you must abandon the extra time you blow surfing the Net, as it is 3,000 pages long.