"VOCABEL SCRIPTSIGNS" :
Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget


Marjorie Perloff


Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow. Head lifts. Bent right arm brushes pillow into back of head. Arm straightens. Counterclockwise twist thrusts elbow toward ceiling. Tongue leaves interior of mouth passing through teeth. Tongue slides back into mouth. Palm corkscrews. Thumb stretches. 1

It reads at first like a section from a Beckett prose text: the late All Strange Away, for instance, with its graphic account of the movements made by an unspecified figure, confined in a small rotunda:

Head wedged against wall at a with blank face on left cheek and the rest the only way that arse wedged against wall at c and knees wedged against wall ab a few inches from face and feet wedged against wall bc a few inches from arse, puckered tip of left breast no real image but maintain for the moment, left hand most clear and womanly lightly clasping right shoulder ball. . . .2

But Fidget, as Kenneth Goldsmith has titled his recent verbal / visual experiment, is not literary invention but poésie verité, a documentary record of how it actually is when a person wakes up on a given morning. If, in one sense, it recalls Beckett, it is also written under the sign of the photographer Edward Muybridge. As Goldsmith explains:

Fidget's premise was to record every move my body made on June 16, 1997 (Bloomsday). I attached a microphone to my body and spoke every movement from 10:00 AM, when I woke up, to 11:00 PM, when I went to sleep. I was alone all day in my apartment and didn't answer the phone, go on errands, etc. I just observed my body and spoke. From the outset the piece was a total work of fiction. As I sit here writing this letter, my body is making thousands of movements; I am only able to observe one at a time. It's impossible to describe every move my body made on a given day. Among the rules for Fidget was that I would never use the first person "I" to describe movements. Thus every move was an observation of a body in space, not my body in a space. There was to be no editorializing, no psychology, no emotion-just a body detached from a mind.3

Telling the "truth," Goldsmith quickly discovers, may be the biggest "fiction" of all, it being humanly impossible to track all of one's bodily movements. At this very moment, I am moving my fingers over the computer keyboard as I type, flexing my left foot, wiggling my left toes, and running my tongue over my upper lip from right to left. As I note those movements, I am making others that go unrecorded. Indeed, as Goldsmith admits, after five hours of the experiment in which he monitors his body as it gets out of bed and interacts with objects like coffee cups, he "began to go crazy." The exercise becomes harder and harder, the verbal equivalents to physical motion more and more abbreviated. By 6:00 PM, "as a defense my body put itself to sleep." When Goldsmith awakes and realizes he had another five or six hours to go, he panics:

I went out and bought a fifth of Jack Daniels, walked over to an abandoned loading dock by the West Side highway and drank the entire bottle, all the while continuing my exercise. Needless to say, I got trashed. I found my home and fell asleep by 11:00 PM, never once having stopped my narrative.

Later, when he plays the tapes, Goldsmith finds that in the drunk sequence, his words have become completely slurred and in the last chapter (22:00), quite incomprehensible. So, in a Beckettian move, "I ran the first chapter backwards, mirrored it, then reversed every letter." For example, "Tongue runs across lower lip, moving from right side of mouth to the left following arc of lip," becomes

.pil fo cra gniwollof tfel ot htuom fo edis thgir morf gnivom pil rewol ssorca snur eugnoT.

The sentences from this last chapter were then put into reverse order with the last actions coming first, and the first coming last.4 The only exception is the very last line of the book, "Eyelids close," which is printed in standard order, "creating a full circle of closure for the day" And further: the tapes were then rigorously edited: all unnecessary words such as "the" were removed as were all possible literary and art references. The aim was to make the text "very dry and very descriptive" and "to divorce the action from the surroundings, narrative, and attendant morality."

These statements must be taken with a grain of salt. For one thing, the "closure" provided by the final sentence of the thirteenth chapter, "Eyelids close," is called into question by the various versions in which Fidget exists. The piece, which exists as a plain text version5, was given a gallery installation at Printed Matter 6, a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris (16 June 1998)7, and a "fidgetty" "Java Applet" electronic site, made in collaboration with programmer Clem Paulsen8. But more important: the ostensibly "dry" and "descriptive" report of successive body motions quickly takes on an air of surreality as the artist poses the question of what it would mean to be aware of every physical motion one makes. The more empirical and detailed the verbal transcript, the more absurd the attempt to "translate" body motion begins to seem. Faced with a welter of ceaseless and simultaneous movements, the mind censors out about 99% of these movements and subjects the rest to increasing interpretation. The "factual" account thus becomes more and more idiosyncratic, and what Fidget celebrates with perverse charm is the victory of mind over matter, and the inability to convey what we call body language except through language. The text is thus a devastating send-up of the now all-pervasive Foucault-inspired discourse on bodily primacy , a discourse that, in the wake of Elaine Scarry's famed The Body in Pain, generates such book titles as Apocalyptic Bodies, The Body in Parts, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries, and Performing the Body9.

Consider, for example, the narrator's account in chapter 2 (11:00) of going to the bathroom and urinating:

Walks. Left foot. Head raises. Walk. Forward. Forward. Forward. Bend at knees. Forward. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Stop. Left hand tucks at pubic area. Extracts testicles and penis using thumb and forefinger. Left hand grasps penis. Pelvis pushes on bladder, releasing urine. Stream emerges from within buttocks. Stomach and buttocks push outward. Stream of urine increases. Buttocks push. Sphincter tightens. Buttocks tighten. Thumb and forefinger shake penis. Thumb pulls. Left hand reaches. Ti99p of forefinger and index finger extend to grasp as body sways to left. Feet pigeon-toed. Move to left. Hand raises to hairline and pushes hair. Arm raises above head. Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head. Eyes see face. Mouth moves. Small bits of saliva cling to inside of lips. Swallow. Lips form words. (Fidget 7-8).

Why is this description of the most ordinary and trivial of human acts so unsettling? Whereas a satirist like Swift, in "A Voyage to Brobdingnag," reveals the inherent hideousness of the human body by means of gigantism ("[The nurse's Breast] stood prominent six Foot and could not be less than sixteen in Circumference. The Nipple was about half the Bigness of my Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with Spots, Pimples and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous")10, Goldsmith is determined to keep his eye, so to speak, on the ball, to record noncommittally and nonjudgmentally the way the body actually works. And yet that very "objectivity" has the Swiftian effect of demonstrating the stark disconnect between the physical and the mental, between the rote performance of the bodily function and the human ability to "form words." As the "eyes see face" in the mirror, the implicit question seems to be Hamlet's: "Is man no more than this?"

In breaking down bodily functions into their smallest components, Goldsmith defamiliarizes the everyday in ways that recall such Wittgensteinian questions as "Why can't the right hand give the left hand money?" In ordinary discourse we take a verb like "walk" for granted, without dwelling on the fact that "Walk" means to alternate the forward motion of right foot and left foot. When we refer to a man urinating, we don't usually note that the steam of urine "emerges from within buttocks." And when we say someone "speaks," we don't bother to add that "Mouth moves" or that "Lips form words." "Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head": it couldn't be a more common gesture but the standard reference would be "to push the hair out of one's face." The near-rhyming locution "four fingers comb hair . . . from" takes a moment to recognize for what it is. And when in chapter 3 (12:00), Goldsmith has his morning cup of coffee, the ritual becomes more elaborate than a ballet number or an athletic contest:

Back on back of chair. Legs touch legs. Arms parallel arms of chair. Hands grasp end of arms. Legs push back. Feet flat on ground. Elbow on arm. Arms out. Cup to mouth. Swallow. Cup put down. Teeth outside mouth. Legs lift. Legs stretch on legs ninety degrees. Grasp paper towels. Slide to front. Left hand grasps right. Pull away from left. Left hand stretches. Fold. (Fidget 14).

The relation of human arms and legs to the metaphoric arms and legs of a chair, the place of the teeth as one opens one's mouth wide enough to drink, the movement one makes when folding a paper towel-all these take on an aura of gravity as if something of great importance is taking place, something in need of urgent commentary.

But of course such self-consciousness, or more properly body consciousness cannot be sustained and so the entries get shorter and shorter and by the time we get to chapter 9 (18:00), we read the following:

Reach. Grasp. Reach Grab. Hold. Saw. Pull. Hold. Grab. Push. Itch. Push. Push. Turn. Walk. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Turn. Chew. Massage. Gather. Heavy. Slower. Reach. Open. Swallow. Exhale. Stand. Burp. Grab. Turn. Pick. Grab. Grab. Grab. Open. (Fidget 55).

Mostly monosyllabic verbs without subjects or objects, often distinguished by a single letter as in "Grasp"/ "Grab," and permutating through the chapter which ends with the rhyme "Raise. Gaze." In the next chapter ("19:00"), drinking has begun and all hell breaks loose. The objective reporter now gives way to the inventor of language play:

Refinger. Sneeze cross. Length of fore wipes free. Hand sad. Runs at bottom of thigh, no eye. Calflex. Peripheral movements spoken. Breath cools down right side. Jaws find teeth clenched. Outer part of lower fang, most pronounced grinding backward and forward. (Fidget 57)

And two pages further down:

Spinger thumb. Now is lift. Thumb to flip. Now thumb. Indents forefinger. Crease unnaturally lumpy. Right and right is face down on ground. Riched lightly. Arching four and blade middle and not touching ground. Still harrow. Body is sit. Licks wet. (Fidget 58)

The more the language of description breaks down into non-sense and neologism, the greater, ironically enough, the need to make value judgements. The hand is now unaccountably "sad," the "eye," missing, the "crease" (between fingers?) "unnaturally lumpy." One cannot, it seems, remain detached from one's body, from one's own reactions. "Slight pleasure gained from dig into finger and then pleasured by sharpness," remarks the narrator (Fidget 59), now wanting to put his stamp on events as they occur. The language becomes his language and the next chapter ("20:00") opens with the sentence "Whitehead and watch after left hand," where the first word in initial (and hence capitalized) position, refers not only to a whitehead or mole found on the left hand, but to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose famous Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (e.g., if a tree falls in the forest when no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?) is apropos to Goldsmith's narrative. The poet further puns on "watch," which looks ahead to the phrase "In the pocket worthwhile" in the next sentence. And the creation of a new language field leads to the finale with its reversal of words (see figure 1), giving us new entities like ".petS .drawkcab teeF ("Feet backward. Step"). The reversed linear flow makes a key word of "morf" ("from"), a word highly applicable in the context along with "woble" ("elbow"), "pil" ("lip"), and the mysterious "evom" ("move"), which looks like a number or symbol in a Cabbalistic game. The morfing landscape is full of "sredluohs" ("shoulders"), "eugnot" ("tongue") and there is much "dna" ("and") about. It seems, finally, that the language game has occluded the multiform activities of the moving body. And so "Eyelids close."

Here, then, in Beckett's words about Finnegans Wake, "form is content, content is form. [The] writing is not about something; it is that something itself11." But the paradox-and this is a new development in poetics at the turn of the twenty-first century-the written text is only one of Fidget's realizations. Earlier, I mentioned the Whitney installation, the musical performance score, and the Java Applet. Let me now say a further word about this latter electronic version, which reconfigures the text of Fidget by substituting the computer for the human body. As Goldsmith explains:

The Java Applet contains the text reduced further into its constituent elements, a word or a phrase. The relationships between these elements is structured by a dynamic mapping system that is organized visually and spatially instead of grammatically. In addition, the Java applet invokes duration and presence. Each time the applet is downloaded it begins at the same time as set in the user's computer and every mouse click or drag that the user initiates is reflected in the visual mapping system. The different hours are represented in differing font sizes, background colors and degree of "fidgetness," however, these parameters may be altered by the user. The sense of time is reinforced by the diminishing contrast and eventual fading away of each phrase as each second passes.12

Time is speeded up in the Applet so that each hour period takes approximately five to seven minutes to complete. The viewing of the Java Applet from any specific site would take about eighty minutes, and then the cycle begins all over again. No one, of course, is likely to sit at the screen for the full cycle, but even a few minutes of access reveal some interesting facets of Fidget. When the text's linear momentum is replaced by spatial organization, words interact in new ways. Thus, in the case of the opening sequence ('Eyelids open. Tongue runs cross upper lip. . . . Grind. Stretch. Swallow), in the electronic version "swallow" appears center stage and rests on top of "Tongue runs across upper lip"; it is then replaced by "grind" and "stretch," the words grinding against one another and causing a kind of traffic jam as the screen fills up with what looks like a spider web of action verbs connected by lines that appear straight, then bend and stretch. But in the visual mapping system, verbs like "bend," "clench," and "swallow," detached from their subject and object nouns, and given relatively equal weight, become less referential, less narrative, and-oddly-less male-oriented. In its book version, Fidget is quite obviously a man's narrative, especially in the masturbation passage in the fourth chapter ("13:00"). But in the Applet, words appear as words rather than as signifiers of X or Y, morphology and physical appearance taking precedence over denotations. In the "15:00" chapter, for example, the opening sentences "Left hand grasps. Right hand grasps" are transformed into overprint, intersecting and coming apart on the yellow 15:00 background (figure 3), marking their symbiosis as do "lifts" and "lips," and those "elbows" appear, replace one another, and disappear in what looks like a balletic structure. As a visual and kinetic space, Fidget has an austere and silent beauty quite different from the printed version or from its oral enactment, for, as seen on the screen, this language has neither memory nor agency. Indeed, the elegance of the clean, undifferentiated visual space suggests that, as the poet Tan Lin put it, "the mind is only vestigially connected to the body 'it speaks' through."13

And yet-and here is a further irony-the training ground for producing this electronic text, I would argue, may be found in Goldsmith's earlier, and by no means "elegant," written work, No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 -- his encyclopedic poem based on words ending in the sound ah (schwa according to phoneticians), a collection of words drawn from conversations, books, phone calls, radio shows, newspapers, television, and especially the Internet, that was arranged alphabetically and by syllable count (from single-syllable words beginning with A-"A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah air" -- to D. H. Lawrence's complete "The Rocking Horse Winner") so as to create a Gargantuan poetic reference book or archive on the argot of our times 14. The sensitivity to language displayed in No. 111, a text still subject to conscious arrangement rather than indiscriminate recording as in Fidget, clears the ground for the onscreen paragrammatic possibilities we now witness in Goldsmith's work.

"If literature is defined as the exploration and exercise of tolerable linguistic deviance," write Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery in the introduction to their new anthology Imagining Language , "the institutional custodianship of literature serves mainly to protect the literary work from language, shielding it from the disruptive force of linguistic slippage." 15 Such slippage has increasingly become a poetic norm, creating a new poetics we might call differential. For Goldsmith's text is not "intermedia" in the usual sense (e.g., word + image or word set to music or recited on film) but a work that has been produced differentially in alternate media, as if to say that knowledge is now available through different channels and by different means.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Fidget is that its differential mode allows for an unusual degree of reader / listener / viewer participation: it is the reader, after all, who must decide whether to access the 20:00 chapter of Fidget, in which case s/he cannot "read" the other twelve chapters, or whether to "read" linearly by moving from page to page of the written text. Reading--looking-listening-surfing: this is a work that gives engagement a whole new dimension.




Footnotes

1 Kenneth Goldsmith Fidget (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2000), with an accompanying CD by Theo Bleckmann. All further references are to this edition. Selections from Fidget, which covers the day's first three hours, was published in a limited edition of 100 copies, signed and numbered, on the occasion of the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris commission between Theo Bleckmann and Kenneth Goldsmith and in conjunction with exhibitions at Printed Matter, Inc. by Stadium Projects, New York, N.Y. See also the internet version available at stadiumweb.com/fidget. The website includes the Real Audio files from Theo Bleckmann's vocal-visual interpretation, as presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Bloomsday 1998, the complete text of Fidget in thirteen chapters from 10:00 to 22:00, and a "Java Applet" (see below).

2 Samuel Beckett, All Strange Away in Rockaby and other Short Pieces (New York: Grove Press, 1981), pp. 58-59.

3 Goldsmith, letter to the author, 9 October 1998.

4 This seems to be a direct allusion to Beckett's Watt, Chapter III, in which Watt, unable to cope with "reality," begins to invert, first the words in a given sentence and then "the letters in the word together with that of words in the sentence together with that of the sentences in the period," as in (spelled phonetically) "Dis yb dis, nem owt. Yad la, tin fo trap" ("part of night, all day. Two men, side by side"). See Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 168. I discuss Beckett's reversals here in Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 139-40.

5 The Whitney edition will soon be available from Coach House Press, whose online site is www.chbooks.com.

6 The gallery installation, according to Goldsmith (letter to the author, 9 October 1998) consisted of "twelve paper suits (one for each hour of the day). Each suit had the entire hour of the day printed on it. Following the trajectory of the day, the earlier suits were printed with very light text and the suits later in the day were printed in reverse, with white letters on black paper. Also, following the emotional / psychological trajectory of the day, as my mental state grew shakier, so the text on the suits grew less legible and more smeary (this was achieved with a Xerox machine).

7 In performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art (June 16, 1998), Theo Bleckmann, the lead singer for Meredith Monk, "stood high on a balcony in the museum and dropped sheets of paper printed with each word as he sang them. These sheets of paper were picked up by a pair of twin children and brought to a team of seamstresses, who sewed them into a suit during the course of the hour-long performance. When Bleckmann had finished singing, the then-finished suit was hoisted up to his balcony, where he donned the language/ actions that he had just spoken/sung. Hence, a full circle was created" (letter to the author, 9 Oct. 1998). In an article for Poliester (Fall 1998), Bill Arning, who attended the performance, reports: "To hear the expulsion of morning mucus from the nostrils ethereally sung by Bleckmann was as startlingly incongruous as to read such an unsensational act described by Goldsmith as if it were a recipe for a difficult but exquisite souffle."

For further discussion of the Bleckmann performance ("a cross between a Gregorian chant and a medieval Book of Hours"), see Nancy Princenthal, "Artist's Book Beat," Art on Paper (November/December 1998): 70-71.

8 The site may be accessed at www.stadiumweb.com/fidget .

9 I take these titles at random from the most recent Routledge book catalogue (1998/99): Tina Pippin, Apocalyptic Bodies: the Biblical End of the World in Text and Image ; David Hillman and Carla Mazzio (eds.), The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe; Margrit Shildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism and (Bio)ethics; and Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson (eds.), Performing the body: Performing the Text.

10 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, in The Writings of Jonathan Swift (New York: W. W. Norton, Norton Critical Edition, 1973), p. 71.

11 Samuel Beckett, "Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce," Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1929); rpt. in Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (New York: Grove Press, 1984), p. 27.

12 See http:// www.stadiumweb.com/fidget/fidget_info.html.

13 Tan Lin, "Information Archives, the De-Materialization of Language, and Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget and No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96," Art Byte, Feb-March 1999, as posted on Goldsmith's web page, http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/goldsmith/lin.html, p. 1

14 In a letter to the author of 14 March 1997, Goldsmith explains his technique in No. 111 as follows:

I was inspired by the explanation given to me regarding the sacred significance of the Sanskrit word aum. It seems that when one speaks this word, all parts of the mouth are engaged. . . . My function for the next 3 years was that of a collector of language. . . . I would carry around a portable dictaphone and a notepad and whenever I would encounter one of these [ah ] sounds, I would "capture" it. At first, my idea was to take all sounds regardless of their content. . . . perhaps, I thought, with this system I could subvert the normal function of language (communication) and invoke a less conventional idea (although not without precedent) of language as pure music. And language is a great medium to do this with because no matter how much one collects for sound alone, there is always meaning."

Goldsmith's arbitrary limits (600 pages of material gathered between 2.7.93 and 10.20.96 and arrangement via the alphabet and syllable count, gives us such bravura passages as the following sequence of three-syllable units beginning with wa (see No. 111 2/7.93 -10.20.96 (Great Barrington: The Figures, 1997), p. 27:

Wadada, waheena, wahoodler, waiting for, wallflower, wallpaper, walls have ears, WankStoppers, Ward Cleaver, warm moisture, warmaster, warrior, Warszawa, wassailer, wasted years, watch out for, watch the wear, wave-lover, wayfarer, Wayfarers.

15 Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery, Imagining Language: An Anthology (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1998), p. x.


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