The Brightest Thing In The World: 3 Essays From The Institute of Failure

Matthew Goulish

Introduction by Jane Blocker **please note: we have sold out of all silk-screened editions; our regular $12 edition is still available.


THE BRIGHTEST THING IN THE WORLD: 3 ESSAYS FROM THE INSTITUTE OF FAILURE is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends. These threads weave together like a tapestry and by their accumulated resonance create an impression of loss and longing. As in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, the reader passes through an associative experience. These are the essays of a poet; like a performance of words, each verb is as active as a muscle. While every sentence tends to its end, the reader resists its inevitable conclusion. This book was published in an edition of 500, with book design and silkscreened covers by Sonnenzimmer. It is available for $20, through our in-house bookstore, The Paper Cave, and (eventually) will be distributed by our friends at SPD. 70 pages, perfect bound, 978-1-4507-4217-7

Praise for The Brightest Thing In The World:

“… A few possible answers gleaned from this book include: how to mourn a blur, analyze “an accident shaped like an umbrella”, or create a lecture that thinks like a poem. This book sets itself up to fail, calling itself ‘The Brightest Thing in the World.’ And then suddenly it is.”  Jen Bervin, author of The Desert.
“In these three of Matthew Goulish’s lectures on failure, language, thought, and feeling add up with stunningly multiplicative affect, where scope — conceptual, historical, political, intimate — expands and contracts across discontinuous trajectories of domains and sourc- es. They are lectures resonant without intra-subjective expertise, on failure, of failure, of only the most”active, transparent and absorbing, synapse-firing, generous kinds.” Jesse Seldess, author of Who Opens.
“Goulish has in the most humble of ways shown here how negative capability is no longer only the ability to linger in mystery and doubt, but is the active pursuit after those honest ways in which writing must fail in order to succeed.” Dan Beachy-Quick, author of A Whaler’s Dictionary.

Cover art by: Sonnenzimmer

Design by: Sonnenzimmer


A few possible answers gleaned from this book include: how to mourn a blur, analyze “an accident shaped like an umbrella”, or create a lecture that thinks like a poem. This book sets itself up to fail, calling itself “The Brightest Thing in the World.” And then suddenly, it is.

Jen Bervin, The Drunken Boat


“What We See”

We drove home after rehearsal on an afternoon in spring. Our route from the Wellington Avenue Church gym took us down Racine Street, onto which we had just turned south off of Oakdale, when we saw George walking with a friend. We waved hello, and he rushed up to the car. We stopped, and he leaned on the open passenger window, and said he had something important he needed to tell us. What luck we met. He was just walking in the neighborhood after a baseball game at Wrigley Field. Anyway, a few weeks before he had attended a performance of our piece The Sea & Poison, and while watching it, he said, a profound idea had occurred to him. It had happened at the moment that I planted a seed on my head. He began detailing the revelation — how he felt its first rumblings as I poured the dirt. Then I inserted the seed, and he had suddenly visualized the image of a sheer rock cliff face. I sprinkled the water, held up a lamp, and started playing a little music, and at that moment he had grasped the full importance of the thought he was having. In the quiet moments that followed in the performance, as I waited for the seed to grow, he had fully formulated his idea, which he now had to tell us. Suddenly a car horn blared, and the three of us — Lin in the passenger seat, George leaning in her window, me in the driver’s seat — realized a small line of traffic had piled up behind us where we had stopped. Go ahead, said George, pointing to the light at the intersection one block ahead at Diversey. That light is green now, he said, but by the time you get there it will be red, and I’ll catch you there. We drove on, and in the rearview mirror I glimpsed George sprinting behind us. I let the impatient cars pass, and stopped at the light as it turned yellow. In a moment, George had caught up to us. He leaned on the window again, now mightily breathless, and finished his story. I’ll make this short and tell it before the light changes. A sheer rock cliff face — some look at it and see striations and the geological history of the earth, others see birds of prey nesting in the crevices, still others see mosses and plants that grow there under those conditions. Anyway, what we see when we look at anything, a cliff face is just an example, it could be anything really, what we see depends entirely on what we know, and I realized I can formulate a new course based on this idea. I will call it What We See, and in each class we will all look at the same thing and study how we see something different based on what we know. We will have for example three visitors: a painter, a geologist, and a historian; all looking at the same thing and describing the differences in what they see. That’s the idea, and it all came to me when you planted the seed on your head. So thank you. The light’s green. See you soon. He leapt back onto the sidewalk and waved, and the insistence of traffic behind us forced us to drive on. I wrote this on the day of George’s wake. His obituary appeared in the morning’s Chicago Tribune: “Admired professor at Art Institute school”, it called him. It mentioned his research into the censored photos of World War II, and his habit of remembering telephone numbers by connecting them to the dates of historical events. Of all the pictures of him that I carry in my head, in the one of which I am most fond, he is sprinting in the rearview mirror. He will catch us at the red light, and there he will finish his story.


The following interview was published originally on Bad at Sports and features a conversation between editor, Caroline Picard and Matthew Goulish. Not surprisingly, the ground covered between them is large, travelling from humans’ relationship to animals, to political relationships, performance, writing and love. The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Essays from the Institute of Failure is the glue that binds this discourse.

Over the last several months, I have been working with Matthew Goulish as an editor and publisher of his forthcoming collection of essays, The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure. Over the course of that process, questions began to emerge from the periphery of the text as I continued to read and re-read the manuscript. These questions did not arrive at first glance for me, but rather coalesced with my sense for Goulish’s craft. The Brightest Thing in the World is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends. It covers tremendous ground for being only 70 pages; the experience of those pages feels most like an afternoon I spent once, a few years ago, when a very dear friend whom I hadn’t seen for years had a six-hour lay over in Chicago. We spent about three of those hours walking around Wicker Park and after the 20 minutes of  personal-life catch up, regularly found ourselves in a conversant territory that was at times abstract, reflective, sanguine, funny and joyous. Only in retrospect did I consider how our physical derive coincided with the discussion we’d had, or how — perhaps — we had, in an intuitive and accidental way, managed to negotiate the past and the present at once. Goulish similarly weaves multiple threads together like a tapestry and by their accumulated resonance creates an impression of loss and longing. As in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, the reader passes through an associative experience and the colors of each facet are bright and vivid — perhaps like the leaves in fall on a misty morning. These are the essays of a poet; like the performance of words, each verb is as active as a muscle. The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure will be released at Defribillator Gallery on Monday, May7th from 7-9pm.

Caroline Picard: At the end of the book, there is a small but striking note about the deteriorating relationship between humankind and animals. Something came into focus when I read that note —I suddenly realized how present other life forms were in the book, from the pets abandoned in Katrina, to monarch butterflies, to ctenephore (what in some ways feels to me like an A-list star of the book, though I suppose there are many stars). Can you talk a little bit about the presence of animals in The Brightest Thing in the World?

Matthew Goulish: When I go to the movies, I always sit through the credits until the very end. Sometimes a dedication appears and pauses on the screen before the fade out. I appreciate that the very last words one sees have a special place, and a particular role to play, as the threshold leading out of the work and back to the world – like an usher opening the door of the theater. Beyond that gesture, I find the last moment a charged one in the way it can, with a very small comment, re-inflect everything that has come before, as if to offer a revelation from the vantage of the retrospective view, and to invite a second reading with that end grace note in mind. The passage on the possibility of animals going away forever comes from Howard Norman, whose writing has been a longtime inspiration for me. Throughout his work, starting with his earliest translations of the Swampy Cree in Manitoba, one finds this attitude of respect for animals who “are people like us” although they have a skepticism of humanity. I remembered the quote as I was working on the Barbellion essay.  I wanted to introduce that kind of thinking into the essay, as it seemed to make explicit the implicit reverence with which Barbellion observed nature. I did not know what to do with it until I had the thought to drop it in at the end like that. Then when I selected these three essays to constitute this book, the quote guided my thinking in the way it might amplify that thread through all three of the essays, and do so after the fact if it appeared at the end of the book. I had in the back of my mind, for example, in the middle essay, that between the death of the monarch butterflies in Mexico in 2002 and the race riots of Tulsa in 1921, an equation exists that has to do with uncountable loss, and the ancient belief of the butterfly as psychopomp, the carrier of the human soul between lives. This was how I formulated my response to W. G. Sebald – as if to compress and Americanize his obsessive hysteria, his monologues that seem to be running to try to keep pace with accelerating disaster. But through the three essays this thread appears in a backgrounded way, the way animals might make their appearances in human life, anyway my life, rushed and crowded in an urban setting. As the bus approaches the bus stop, I see a Sandhill Crane flying over Division Street, possibly headed for the Humboldt Park lagoon. Or I’m leaving a friend’s house at the end of the night and I surprise a raccoon at the back porch. If I let it, that encounter, however fleeting, resets my thoughts about my behavior, my values, or anyway my day. I wanted to use the book’s last moment to draw attention to that unobtrusive thread – call it ecology.

CP: What does it mean to fail? And is this inherently tied to mortality? Can failure be a quest?

MG: My father is a retired engineer. Growing up with him I learned about failure analysis as a way to understand a complex system. It is not difficult to see the philosophy in that, when the system concerns thought. My jacket catches on the arm of the chair as I try to stand up, and the comedy of my life commences. Failure is certainly inherently tied to the mortality of my intentions. Attention to failure can constitute a quest to understand the broader spectrum in which any action actually operates. In the last essay, I do not mean to suggest human mortality as a form of failure. The operative failure is in my ability to write about death, maybe because death, when it is actual and not imaginary or virtual, eludes writing, or maybe just because writing about it eludes me. I can only write in proximity of it. I mean to say that to succeed, in any traditional sense, would mean to ignore events that insist themselves into one’s thinking, but to ignore them would be the death of the writing. One must fail and include them.

CP: What happens to the text when it is printed and read? How does this differ from its passage as a delivered lecture?

MG: I am happiest when I write as if there is no difference.

CP: I also love the presence of diplomatic relations — the way these come up, with the presence of Orsen Welles in the first lecture, and then a second reiteration of WWII through Barbellion’s position in history. There is another instance with Dick Cheney’s duck hunt. I can’t quite put my finger on it, or necessarily understand why I’m asking this, but I want to ask you about freedom, the freedom of an individual acting within his or her time. How do we negotiate our context? What is the point of that negotiation?

MG: This question relates to the first one for me. The comment, made in passing, toward the end of the analysis of the Dick Cheney hunting accident, that animals feels insulted if they are hunted incompetently, also derives from Howard Norman. I think that the appearance of animals in the book, that I mentioned above, brings with it two modes of discourse; one, that we can talk about animals as a veiled way of talking about the human (the ctenophore as a life); and two, that we can read in attitudes toward animals a measure of human ethics. The Cheney passage operates in this second mode, as relevant in relation to the care for the apprehension of the other as separate from, and not in service of, oneself. I am partial to the way that ethic asserts itself in stories of diplomacy, in which individuals represent nations perhaps, as in Graham Greene’s tale of Harry Lime, an American war profiteer who realizes the fantasy of witnessing his own funeral on his way to becoming the perfect, invisible gentleman criminal. During the Bush-Cheney years, there was a great deal of talk in philosophical circles about a resurgence of Hobbesian brutality, in service to the sovereign and in irreconcilable conflict with other nations, seen as fundamentally alien. I felt I needed to address that at the time, and my own role as an ambassador to Switzerland, where that lecture was delivered. By address it, I don’t mean examine it in any way other than the hall of mirrors approach of parading case studies and letting them bounce off one another. That is to say, when I talk about Harry Lime, I mean Dick Cheney, and when I talk about animals, I mean to offer an escape hatch from the prison of the individual as representative of a nation-state, that is to say, the fixed identity, and therefore the grandiose self. How we behave now, or anyway what we are attentive to, in response to the social interactions that the moment offers us, is determined by how we consider our own identities. Are they fixed, or always in motion? How do I attend to another person’s intention invading my own? How does the pursuit of dignity differ from the pursuit of happiness? How do I think of the margin my life occupies in relation to the historical moment as a kind of center?

CP: I think this interview would be remiss if I were to skip over the idea of love. It comes across in Dan Beachy-Quick’s reflection on your book, where he says “I want to say the failure of the bud results in the blossom — such ruptures lovingly unfold as failure’s larger gifts” but is also evident throughout the body of text: the care of your description and interest. The time you spend with Barbellion, or the effort of Kust’s grave site. Can you talk a little bit about care in the face of failure?

MG: Is it possible to feel love without an object for that love? Without a person, or creature, place, or recipient of any kind? Can writing serve as a form of training for such objectless love? For aligning the powers of thought with the powers of feeling, as an exercise, that brings one into a relation with oneself, or constantly adjusts one’s being in the world? Those are questions for which I do not have an answer, but questions that I want to stay close to, or keep near at hand, in any act of writing.

On the other hand, it has been said that we are here simply to find the things we love, and to find the appropriate way to praise them. Then to risk making of our lives a public song of praise. I mean that writing offers us a chance to find what we love, and to pay attention.

In the following interview on The Chicago Sun-Times blog, Sarah Terez-Rosenblum talks to Matthew Goulish about his latest book, The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Essays from the Institute of Failure.

Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with Matthew Goulish at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We met in a cramped, airless cranny illuminated by fluorescent lights, like so many university offices, seemingly antithetical to free-wheeling thought. But magic collects in the folds of Goulish’s clothing. A serene, intensely engaged presence, Goulish understood the shape of my work (though at the time I barely did). His guidance felt almost baptismal, the message: “I see you, and I will help you to become more of what you are.”

Goulish’s own work defies easy definition. A writer and performer, he creates lecture/essay hybrids. Though some reference outside sources, Goulish weaves influences both internal and external into something entirely new. His new book, The Brightest Thing in the Word: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure (Green Lantern Press) is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends.

Our Town spoke with Goulish about failure but not about Dick Cheney.

Our Town Describe the inception of The Institute of Failure.
Matthew Goulish For many years I taught a course at SAIC called The Ethics and Aesthetics of Failure. My friend Tim Etchells, the director of the UK theater company Forced Entertainment, visited one time and we met for lunch. I said, “I just finished teaching my course on failure.” He said, “Tell me about that.” By the end of the conversation he had proposed the IoF as a collaboration between us, to explore the ideas in writing and performance.

OT You write: “To understand a system, study its failure.” Can you talk a little about that?
MG It’s an idea from engineering. Why does your shoe come untied? Usually it is for one of two reasons: either the bow loosens, in a kind of gradual decay, or a lace snaps, which is sudden and catastrophic. But the snapped lace was also preceded by decay of a different sort, of the lace material rather than of the bow’s tightness. This system has two elements – the substance of the lace and the pattern of the bow. The failure illuminates the system. The idea is transferable. The more complex a system is, the more complex its potential failures.

OT You work in performance and on the page. How do you determine in which milieu a piece will most comfortably fit?
MG Performance and writing are very different modes for me. The performance work is fundamentally collaborative, physical, and spatial, engaging the elements of theater, as they say. The writing I do for it is devised for the team of performers and circulates around the ideas we discover together through the process. The writing I do individually, while also public (as a lecture), tends to take more of a subjective direction – like I’m a tour guide taking readers on a particular journey that has a degree of privacy. In that case, the focus is on the words alone and what they can do.

go here to read more of the interview.

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About the Authors

Matthew Goulish

Matthew Goulish co-founded Goat Island in 1987, and Every house has a door in 2008. His 39 Microlectures – in proximity of performance was published by Routledge in 2000, and Small Acts of Repair – Performance, Ecology, and Goat Island, which he co- edited with Stephen Bottoms, in 2007. He was awarded a Lannan Foundation Writers Residency in 2004, and in 2007 he received an honorary Ph.D. from Dartington College of Arts, University of Plymouth. He teaches in the MFA and BFA Writing Programs of the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.