Information Archives, the De-Materialization of Language, and Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget and No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96.|
by Tan Lin
If the late twentieth century Age of Information were converted into a massive sound-text file it might end up sounding like Kenny Goldsmith's No. 111, a 606 page text compilation of material dredged from the web during a four year period from 2.7.93 to 10.20.96. Like the Census Bureau, Kenny Goldsmith singlehandledly accomplishes a similarly bureaucratic work of social monitoring and faithful reproduction in No. 111. His hugely laborious "useless encyclopedic reference book" intends to encompass the "whole of speech," to "obtain the language around me." Answering the question 'What does the social body sound like?, No. 111 reproduces and transcribes each blip of that aural orchestration of a society's own data played back to itself: a feedback loop replete with static, eavesdropped street conversations, e-mail samplings, advertising jingles, Muzak-like musings, bits and sounds bytes, ATM messages, rhymes, dirty jokes, sound-text files, passing comments, censored and barely censored verbal eyesores, limericks, pop songs, names of supermodels, these things we never said but inhabit the language we live in circa 1998: "Amber Valetta, be a wallflower, digging the fucker's, Welcome Back Kotter, lick chops and basta."
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In his most recent project Fidget, which exists as a plain text version and a computer version co-authored with the programmer and web-designer Clem Paulsen, Goldsmith attempts to record "every move my body made on June 16, 1997 (Bloomsday)." Using a hand-held tape recorder, Goldsmith turns the endless feedback loop known as language upon a body. Hour 13:00 in a 13 hour odyssey intones voicelessly: "Thumb screws. Wrist flicks two hundred seventy degrees. Right hand moves toward body one humdred eighty degress. Hand moves in clockwise semi-circular direction. Fingers release. Hand rests, grasps, and lifts. Lips open. Head tilts backward. Swallow. Swallow." What is the sound of a body gone generic? An ambient soundtrack playing in meditative slow-motion. Think of the body in the computer version of Fidget, or the body that is the plain text version of Fidget and what you hear is a body as a psychotropic soundtrack, but one minus the film. Fidget suggests that language, and by implication, the mind, is only vestigially connected to the body 'it speaks' through.
5000 years from now, in an era of ultra-streamlined and hyper efficient information gathering systems, the master computer archivists, disk-drive voyeurs, and nameless governmental information surveyists will look back in bemusement at the 20th century's Information Age and its antiquated forms of data detection and management: hoary paperbound phonebooks, bulging Filofaxes, non-electronic newspapers, and above all the government databases of the National Census Bureau, compiled with the help of door-to-door data fieldworkers. Goldsmith's roots lie ultimately in the Victorian era and writers like Henry Mayhew who walked countless° miles to compile his four-volume London Labour and the London Poor in 1849-50 and who ended up creating one of the first oral histories. Mayhew aimed to "publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves--giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own 'unvarnished' language..." Like Mayhew, Kenny Goldsmith, toiling like an primitive information miner with a lowly tape recorder and 133Mhz Pentium Laptop similarly participates in one of the last great parables having to do with monstrous feats of social engineering and wealth accumulation. The parable turns on one of the last great lessons of capital in an era of monopoly capitalism: the generation of endless quantities of surplus value, grounded in extraordinarly mediated expenditures of human labor. And all of that turns on speech, and the rhythms of speech production, captured by tape recorder or skimmed from the web.
No. 111 in all its vociferousness aims to transcribe and tame our age's version of the uncatalogable and the chaotic, what we call information but what in the end is simply the data of society itself, an endless quantity of spoken information, human inflections, chance electronic blips and dots, the ghosts of voices overheard on chat lines, home shopping networks, and t.v. talk shows. Language doesn't have a plot, and No. 111 mimics this anti-narrative: for this reason, the work can be read over and over again as if it had never ever been read. Something similar transpires in the ever-mutating Fidget, which records the body with "no editorializing, no psychology, no emotion....I wanted to divorce the action from the surroundings, narrative and attendant morality." The end-product is no less ununmemorizable though the premise is no less grand: to map a body by focussing on what is most essential to that body i.e. movement itself, divorced from emotion, subjectivity, and fantasy. Time passes in both works; but in both works, the passage of time produces no memories.
Both works end up being hypertrophic, accumulations of language as information, as binary markings, as a medium of exchange, but above all as capital, as pure surplus value. Not surprizingly, No. 111 is a collection of the useless and the ephemeral: all phrases organized by syllable count and ending in the the porous and infinitely permeable sound "R". Like much recent ambient electronic music, the organizing principle lies not in not writing but in editing, repeating, processing, and ordering a pre-existing sound source. The book moves sequentially, by counting out, with each successive chapter including phrases of increasing syllable length. This increasing syllabic girth suggests not only the painful birth of increasingly complex social modes of language interaction but also a swelling novelistic ambition to describe our entire social world as a single permuting ideolect. Thus does the computer archivist becomes a novelist; he turns his screen to the language we speak in No. 111.
In Fidget, the computer screen is focusssed, literally, on the body's eternal movements in the waning days of the Information Age. The screen discloses a textual vibratto in various technicolor splendors, the body as an operatic or psychedelic language in constant permutation. In Fidget, screen saver becomes time machine. If music is inherently psychedelic as is passes through time, so, too is the mirror-ball sequencing of the digital Fidget, where the ever-changing hours of the day incite psychotropic changes in mood and screen color. At the the center of Paulson and Goldsmith's work is a temporal parameter that we keep losing: a clock, tied to a thesauras or word-finding program and a Pentium chip. In the computer version, "the human body is substituted for the machine's body (which also happens to be the machine's mind). In the machine, mind and body are united in a very pure way." Goldsmith's self-contained Odyssey began at 10 am and continuned till his body fell asleep, exhausted and drunk, at 11pm, but the computerized Fidget motions eternally. The implications of a bodily life lived in real time are lost on the computer, which never ceases to fidget.
Goldsmith's information gathering is a retrograde and nostalgic act of time travel to the mid-Victorian era of document production and the fictions that ennabled such projects. Fidget is the body produced mechanically by information systems, the chief of which is language. No. 111 is the social body produced (processed) mechanically by information systems, the chief of which is also language. Like Mayhew with his London surveys and Edwin Chadwick with his sanitary remonstrances and statistical mappings, Goldsmith's language project is underwritten by a no-less mutable logic of modestly enlightened collectivity and socially engineered cleansing: the idea that rational, machine-based languages, surveys, censuses, even novels could provide an unclouded picture of a society (in No. 111) or a body (in Fidget). No. 111 suggests a twentieth-century data stream but something more than that as well. Organized by syllable count, No. 111 suggests a re-cloning of the nineteenth century archive, a tour-de-force of amnesia and un-jogged memory systems; hence the idea of the work as a weirdly backwards reference book, a kind of disco party of a dictionary of all our various lives lived in reverse. Picking up the book, one realizes it's not hard to find and thus remember the things we never remembered at all by saying them all over again; one simply reads and counts one's way back to the innumerable things (that were said).
Yet Goldsmiths' work turns various nineteenth-century utopian projects on their heads by suggesting that the body merely fidgets, that language simply gets produced purposelessly, endlessly, unsequenced and outside the bounds of memory and consciousness. Fidget is about the body and its movements but it is also about a fiction that has to do with the mediation of the body via language. It is a fiction that turns upon a fiction. Fidget is a clausterphobic body that does not exist except as a rigidly demarcated portrait of itself in language, an idea of a body that only exists as words that defined where it had been (twelve hours ago). Fidget is long, aruduous, self-conscious, difficult, micro-focussed and intensely preoccupied with itself, with its own perpetuations, mutations, and on-goingness in time. The body and a theory of language intersect. In both works, language takes up a huge amount of room; it's too big to be processed in any single, encapsulated way or by any single person or utterance; it's just out there--it can only be sampled. Paradoxically, as the language grows more and more nonsensical, incomprehensible, and drunken, one approaches that sense of the unrecognized and non-linguistic that our bodies communicate by just being (unread). By 20:00, after Goldsmith consumed a fifth of Jack Daniels, the text entertains its own illegibility: "Whitehead and watch after left hand. In the pocket worthwhile by all pass flat on ground lifting body. Horror body weight on foot. What put blade outward. Holting ground. Toe hitting leftly. First hat off ground, dancing about hand and knee. Lift head reference. Thandclaspsle. Extend out in sled. Brokenicular clap in scent of body."
Fiction or non-fiction, conscious or unconscious, language is the ephemera of daily spoken life, or maybe we should reverse that saw: daily life is the ephemera left behind by the language we spoke. If Language is infinite and endlessly self-generating, like some organic cell that spontaneously divides and mutates a structure, it is also a series of dead formulas, stale jokes, archetypes, unmemorable ads, cliches which are rigidly scripted by the rhymes that stick in our head, by the country and city we live in, the social world we hang out in, the Nissans and Fords we drive, the soap we shower with, the friends and lovers we have, the t.v. shows we half-listen to, the dog we talk to--and this world, far from being infinite, is also empirically quantifiable. Language is a census or counting device. We all have various transparent selves, each of which we inhabit in language. How might we make its transparence in our everyday world known? by allowing it to count and reference the things we know.
The New Age of Information is a post-Watergate era of listening in, wire-tapping, tape-recording other's languages, eavesdropping and the narcissim of watching one's own rate of information flow. Goldsmith in No. 111 and Fidget continues his archival projects in which the ephemeral elements of our era are painstakingly collected, collocated and edited for some cleaner future. Fidget demonstrates how eavedropping has become an anachronism and ought to be replaced with more efficient forms of corporate eaveswriting on the body, undertaken with all the force of some global interoffice monitoring system. Fidget from the outset was and is a project defined by temporal parameters and further circumscribed by the body's peculiar location at the center of its own self. Of course, the body in 1998, when situated voyeuristically at the center of either a theory of language or regarded as a placemarker/identity number in an age of information is almost an oxymoron, an anachronism, and almost a fiction in and of itself. Both Fidget and No. 111 are master fictions of an era of computer writing, comptuer-generated inventories, and stock takings. In both works, human agency, personality, and memory are all scrupulously 'edited out.' Such psycho-lingual evacuations have a deregulatory effect upon bureaucratic control systems. The bodily motions melt into a single mode of temporal duration in Fidget, just as all language usage in No. 111 reverts to the trance-like musical rhythms induced by syllable counting, a kind of binary poetry by the numbers.
Fidget like No. 111 is the Sterne and Fielding for our era, a novel/archive/compendium/catalog written in a non-literary style, punctuated with processed language and itself processed by the writer. Fidget is an edited, transcribed, pared down fiction. If a computer wrote a novel, this is what it might look like. The work is filled with reminders in language: randomly sampled bits and sound bytes, these ways our words have of rhyming themselves into our heads, are not just sounds--they are the way we go about in the world, talking to others, feeling, having experiences that we refer to as 'our own.' In this sense the work is the ultimate reference work of all those feelings that we have in a language that is not our own but that is somebody elses. That somebody else ends up sounding a lot like us.