UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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"Fidget's premise," Kenneth Goldsmith explained in a letter, "was to record every move my body made on June 16, 1997 (Bloomsday)."1 The experiment lasted from 10:00am, when the narrator wakes up, until 10:00pm, and the result is an uncanny text that reads like a minimalist inventory of bodily movements (consider, for instance, the opening passage: "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..." (8)). This sequence of telegraphic sentences continues for almost ninety pages, describing the countless motions involved in getting out of bed, taking a shower, having breakfast, masturbating, falling asleep, leaving the apartment, drinking a bottle of liquor, and finally - around 21:00 and under the influence - losing the ability to speak coherently. Towards the end of the book the narrative stops making sense ("words deformed easily as craw earlier in synchronicity," we read on page 69) and by 21:00 it has become completely jumbled: ".etarapes regniferof dna bmuht thgiR" opens the last chapter.2
Fidget is an experiment in writing the body, in translating ordinary movements into words. The project sounds simple but it is actually an extremely complex investigation of the relationship between bodily functions and literary devices.
But what kind of body is written in Fidget? The answer seems simple: most readers would expect the book to be about the poet's own body. But Goldsmith has made clear that this is not the case: the word "I" never appears in the book. All movements are described either in the third person ("Eyelids open," "Arm straightens"), as if the different organs were individually responsible for their own actions, or through chains of infinitives ("Grind. Stretch. Swallow"), as if the entire body could only focus on one function at a time.
The body that appears in Fidget is thus a most unusual construct: an eerie textual organism with some striking characteristics:
First of all, there are no clothes in the book. The body wakes up, walks about, showers, drinks, and masturbates, but never once does it put on an item of clothing. Fidget is thus the structural opposite of "Inventory of my clothing as of June 19, 2000, 22:00," a poem that contains clothes but no bodies.3 One text features the body-without-clothes (a close relative of Deleuze's body-without-organs); the other, clothes-without-a-body.
(A perverse reader could use the clothes in "Inventory" to clothe the naked body in Fidget, in the manner of children's books featuring cut-out shirts and pants that can be draped over paper mannequins. After the narrator wakes up, for instance, we could wrap him in "1 white Bernard Company white waffle cotton bathrobe, size XXL" and throw him "1 pair Hanes thermal underwear, white, size large" or even – we did say the reader was perverse - one of the "2 martial arts gi's, white, size 5." To walk around the streets of New York, he could put on "1 pair black Doc Martin sandals" and don "1 straw hat with navy and maroon band." The greatest challenge would be to select clothes for the masturbation scene. What does one wear for such an auto-erotic exercise? Certainly not "1 brown Brooks Brothers suit," but perhaps any of the following useful accessories: "2 black belts," "5 white handkerchiefs," and perhaps even "1 orphan brown sock.")
The nudity in Fidget extends beyond the body. The book is the textual equivalent of a nude beach: a nude text in which language has been stripped down to its most basic elements. Literary ornaments, syntactic accessories, and all other writerly luxuries are banished from this composition. There are no metaphors or similes, no baroque syntax, no poetic elaborations, no figurative language. Within the realm of the text, all of these would seem as excessive and as extravagant as feather boas, wool capes, and frilly tutus. Instead we find only bare nouns and stark adjectives, as in the description of walking that appears on page 38: "Step. Step. Step. Right. Left. Right"(38). Three words, arranged in different permutations, convey movement and direction without resorting to articles, prepositions, conjunctions, subjects or objects. There are only steps, left, and right. A minimalist construction fit for describing a naked body moving through bare space (space, too, is naked: there are no beds, chairs, tables, closets, doors, carpets, curtains, televisions, or extraneous objects cluttering the textual realm inhabited by the protagonist).
Although Fidget is a nude text, its nudity produces unexpected results. The body that inhabits the text is entirely unlike the naked bodies that come to mind to most avid consumers of fashion advertising: it is not the sexy body of Dolce and Gabana ads; it is not a prepubescent body; it is not smooth, toned, or airbrushed body, and neither is it pretty, sexy or desirable. On the contrary, it is an abject body that repels the reader - at least the squeamish reader - with its constant fidgeting of nostrils, tear ducts, testicles, and perianal regions. It is a body filled with mucus, urine, sperm, and other lowly fluids.
Fidget zooms in on the body parts that are always avoided in fashion advertising, like the inside of the buttocks:
Or the nasal cavity:
Or even the urinary tract:
Fidget desublimates. It never shows the body thinking, writing, painting, or engaging in any other intellectual endeavor. It does show it scratching, probing, picking, pissing.
No matter what it does, Fidget's body resembles a machine more than a living organism. Even urinating is rendered as a series of operations that involve extracting, grasping, pushing, releasing, and tightening. It is as if the narrator were operating a piece of equipment - a giant mechanical apparatus full of levers, knobs, and buttons, like the one depicted in Chaplin's Modern Times - and not a penis.
Sex, too, is described as a series of mechanical operations, as we discover in the masturbation scene:
The verbs used to describe masturbation – inserting, contracting, probing, grinding, pressing, tightening – evoke the repetitive tasks a worker must perform at an assembly line (though the goal here is to produce sperm and not marketable commodities).
In order to make the descriptions as mechanical as possible, Fidget leaves out the psychic dimension of the actions it describes. The movements included in the book are completely detached from emotions or other affective responses: we never learn whether the body in question likes or dislikes the action it performs, whether certain motions are pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable, easy or difficult. Even the masturbation scene excludes all references to pleasure, sensations, or fantasies and presents us merely with a long string of discrete bodily motions.
body is thus naked, abject, and machine-like. It is also alone. It moves
through space without ever encountering another body. It lives in a
world without others - though, as we learn in the masturbation scene,
a world without others is not necessarily a world without desire. The
body does desire, but since there is no one else around it can only
desire itself. Psychoanalysts would no doubt suspect a regression into
primary narcissism. A fidgety kind of narcissism.
In his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin developed the concept of an "optical unconscious." He argued that photography introduced a series of revolutionary techniques - close-ups, oblique perspectives, timed exposures - that revealed striking aspects of reality that were invisible to the naked eye. Through the use of extreme close-ups a photographer like Albert Renger-Patzsch could capture the geometrical patterns on a snake's skin, or the textured surface of a metal pipe. These details belong to an "optical unconscious" that surfaces into visual consciousness only after the invention of photography. Benjamin thus established a parallel between photography and psychoanalysis, another modern technique that makes accessible, through the figure of the analyst, an unconscious realm that is usually inaccessible to the subject. Benjamin thus considered photography as a visual psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis as psychic photography.
Like photography and psychoanalysis, Fidget deploys a number of innovative techniques to reveal aspects of everyday reality that are usually inaccessible to the naked eye. To describe the body and its movements through space, the book uses the textual equivalents of photographic close-up, slow motion, and freeze-frame. Like film, it splits the simplest of actions - drinking, washing, walking - into a dizzying number of individual frames. Even unconscious tics, like scratching an eye, are rendered in quasi-cinematic detail: "Right hand raises. Digs between tear duct and nose" (15).
But what kind of hidden reality does Fidget reveal through these textual close-ups? It uncovers neither an optical unconscious (the text is not accompanied by visual images), nor a psychic unconscious (the body's movements, as we have seen, are detached from fantasies and affects). Rather, it unveils an organic unconscious consisting of the myriad bodily movements - including tics, twitches, fidgets – involved in performing the simplest of tasks, like brushing one's teeth:
Mouth opens. Right hand enters mouth. Left cheek puffs. Teeth cool. Tongue sweats. Right hand fists. Teeth grind back and forth. Noise in ears. Mouth gathers saliva. Lips purse and expel. Upper teeth comb lower lip. Hand opens. Shifts to right. Arm moves back and forth. Gum jams lips. Cheek inflates. Tongue expels. Sucks to back of mouth. Hand twists around back of teeth. Tongue gathers. Expels. Left hand twists clockwise, driven by thumb and forefinger. Hand drops. Moves to face. Expels water. (16)
Broken into its individual components, brushing becomes an extraordinarily complex procedure involving the coordination of dozens of body parts and scores of tiny actions.
We find another glimpse into the organic unconscious in the section describing frame-by-frame the pose one takes, inadvertently, while thinking or concentrating:
Hands meet. Fingers intertwine. Thumbs stretch, barely touching one another. Head bows. Bridge of nose meets joined thumbs. Thumbs separate and apply pressure to sides of nose. Tips of thumbs rest on tear ducts. Right elbow flicks. Thumbs apply strong pressure to tear ducts. Thumb and forefingers grasp. Fingers separate by a centimeter. Thumb and forefinger push. Press. Fingers open. Thumb leads, forefinger follows. Flips. Gully between thumb and finger cradles. Hand drops. (34)
But how does Fidget manage to reveal the organic unconscious? Benjamin argued that it was only the invention of photographic technologies that afforded a glimpse into the optical unconscious. Cameras introduced new ways of seeing the world that made visible elements of reality that had been invisible in pre-technological times. But Fidget is a book and not a machine, and its minimalist use of language seems to have little in common with the mechanical foundation of Benjamin's optical unconscious.
But there is more to Fidget that meets the eye. The text reads like a simple translation of movements into words, of body language into written signs. But the genesis of the text was actually much more elaborate: the poet could not move and write at the same time, so he enlisted the help of a small tape recorder for the duration of the experiment. He taped a small microphone to his body and went about his day describing each of his movements verbally, in as much detail as he could. Once the twelve-hour experiment was over, he transcribed the tape and carefully edited the text to make it more figdety,
Fidget is thus a text mediated by recording technologies. It is a mechanical device - the tape recorder - that makes accessible the organic unconscious probed in the text. The tape recorder is to Goldsmith's organic unconscious what the camera was to Benjamin's optical unconscious.
Through its use of recording technologies, Fidget bridges the abyss separating the spoken word from written text. Writing is an activity - one that, ironically, is absent from the inventory of actions performed in Fidget - that requires the body's full concentration and cannot be performed while doing anything else. One cannot write while showering, walking, eating, masturbating, sleeping, waking up, or engaging in any of the other actions described in the text. Writing, it seems, hijacks the body.
Speaking, on the other hand, only requires the use of [only] a few organs – lips, tongue, vocal chords - and can be [easily] combined easily with other activities. As Fidget shows, one can speak while showering, walking, drinking, eating, and even while masturbating. But writing has a marked advantage over speaking: writing leaves a permanent record while spoken words vanish into the air - and into oblivion. The use of recording technologies allows the poet to combine the best of both worlds: the corporeal flexibility that comes with speaking and the permanent record left by writing. Fidget is thus not only an elaborate translation of movements into words: it is also an exercise in technological mediation, a conversion of spoken words into written signs.
is also a literary trompe l'Ōil: the reader focuses on the
images conveyed by the words - as he would on the scene depicted in
an intaglio - and misses the elaborate artifice that went into constructing
such a minimalist realism: the serial processes of speaking, recording,
replaying, transcribing and editing are all hidden from view, concealed
behind phrases that sound as simple as "Arm drops. Grasp. Right hand
rests. Fingers bend. Fingers outstretch. Arc backwards" (56).
In addition to representing the organic unconscious, Fidget is also an exercise in self-analysis. In psycho-analysis the subject becomes aware of countless unconscious actions, fears, fantasies, and desires that are normally hidden from consciousness. In Fidget's self-analysis, it is the body that becomes aware of all the tiny jerks, jolts, and twitches that go into something as simple as raising a hand or taking a step forward.
But how could Fidget be a self-analysis if there is no "I", no subject in the book? Does it make sense to speak of a self in such a selfless project? Indeed the reader often wonders just who is performing the actions, who could be the subject in the book's endless descriptions. Consider the opening of the second chapter (11:00):
Thumb and forefinger grasp. Pull toward floor. Right hand moves palm upward. Back of hand holds as thumb and forefingers grab. Forefinger moves away. Thumb and middle finger grasp. Palm of hand receives. Thumb and middle finger grasp. Palm of hand opens. Holds bottom side of thumb. Left hand releases and moves to top. Hand retreats. Right hand lifts. Left hand grabs. Turns over. (14)
This passage - like most of the book – is marked by indeterminacy. What is being grasped, pulled, held, received? And who is doing the grasping, pulling, holding, and receiving? In these phrases the subject is never a unified self but only a body part: it is a thumb that grasps, a hand that lifts, a forefinger that moves away.
Fidget's self-analysis thus consists in breaking down the self, in experiencing the body not as a unified and coordinated entity but as a set of disparate body parts. The project is an attempt at experiencing daily life as a disarticulated collection of organs: not a self that walks, drinks, eats, and sleeps, but a pair of hands that grasp, a foot that steps, a finger that scratches. Nothing seems to connect the arms, legs, hands, feet, nipples, and biceps that lift and raise, bend and probe. They seem to have a mind of their own, moving, twitching and fidgeting without rhyme or reason. These disjointed body parts bring to mind Lacan's theory of the "corps morcelé," the "body in bits and pieces," as the French analyst called the infant's earliest experience of a disjointed, uncoordinated self. Fidget features not a body-without-organs but a collection of organs-without-a-body.
Earlier we asked who performs all the actions in Fidget. We now have the answer: A naked body. An abject body. A machine-like body. An isolated body. An organically unconscious body. A body in self-analysis. A body that is all organs-without-a-body. A fidgety body.
Kenneth Goldsmith, Fidget
(Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000), 91.
2 By the end of
the experiment the poet's words had become so slurred that he could
no longer transcribe them, so he decided to close the text by taking
the opening chapter and writing it backwards. The enigmatic phrase quoted
above is an inversion of the last sentence of the first chapter -
"Right thumb and forefinger pinch." Marjorie Perloff, "'Vocable
Scripsigns': Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget,"
3 The poem opens with the following stanza: "6 pairs of K-Mart Rustler blue jeans, size 36 waist, 30 length / 3 pairt of K-Mart Rustler blue jeans cut off into shorts, size 36 waist / 2 pairs of Club Monaco white jeans, size 34 waist, 34 length / 1 pair Marithe Francois Girbaud white jeans, size 34 waist / 1 pair Carter's blue jean overalls, size 36 waist / 1 pair of Levis cutoff blue jean shorts, size 34 waist / 1 pair of Club Monaco pedal pushers, off white, size 34 waist / 1 pair of Calvin Klein blue jeans, size 32."
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