Comments on 73 Poems
Robert Mahoney


In Kenneth Goldsmith's 73 Poems both of the mainstreams of word-into-art migration in this century are synthesized: there are elements of Copy, where graphics plus a pop sensibility bring in visual impact to overrule (or overdetermine) the message, and also traces of classic conceptualist textuality. From this point of view, Goldsmith's work "reads" ("looks") like a pleasing even nostalgic revery on all the pyrrhic yearnings of writing to regain a greater voice in a visually dominated culture--a kind of fin de siecle summation of a major struggle in culture (literary vs. visual) in this century. Seen this way, echoes of Appolinaire, Tzara, Stein, O'Hara, Twombly, Cage, Weiner, Barry, Holzer, and Prince echo thorough the cadences. But the text-copy polarity is perpendicularly counterbalanced by another polarity of word usage: logos-nomos. Logos is the law of the Father: it is the metaphysical signified, the maker of meaning in all its presence, the basis, that is, of (male) Western rationalism and Judaeo-Christian written culture. Logos is the word of the citadel, the fort, the court, the boss, the suits. "Nomos" (my formulation loosely derived from Deleuze and Guattari's parole-oriented response to "langue"--fixed structuralism) is the diametrical opposite of Logos: it is the word of the street, it comes from below. Nomos exists in mass form, or in extremely individual form, either way in a groundless state, it wanders (it is "nomad"), it also wavers. At several times in this century, the fairly progressive text-copy teeter-totter has tilted round to a much more polarized logos-nomos orientation (I think the latest shift of this sort occurred in 1989, it may be closing up again). In Goldsmith's work, while text is represented by associated links, and Copy by graphic features, Logos elements are hinted at in the authority of presentation, and nomoslike leanings in the fade out and nonsequitur eruptions of "low" material. In art, of course, in particularly in art that deals with all the echoes of text-copy importation into the visual as mentioned, pure logos or nomos are hard to find: power trips dissemble, anti-logos power usurpations are disguised as nomos: true nomos, raw nomos is rare. Articulation is too much with us: overarticulation has cost art the power surge incumbent in less articulated more twisted forms (like tattoos). And yet subtle unsettlings of former power arrangements are a help. The only tool able to contemplate all the power relations imbedded in words is the open mind. The open mind in fact bumps like a pinball from node to node: text, copy, logos, nomos. A sequence of mind-as-pinball meandering around all the possibilities of word-visual interaction will come out in a diagram as: touch node, weigh options, roll back again, obtain equilibrium: then, TILT, the change to the perpendicular polarity, and repeat the sequence of rolling, rocking (weighing), and resting. The mind sifting out the power imprint of words (based on a distinction of wordtypes) creates an elaborate trace. This rather poststructuralist slide is, because concerned with power, more structured than Barthes' pleasure text, or Cixous' textual feminism, it is more related to structuralist poetic theory, for example: "Every literary text is made up of a number of 'systems' (lexical, graphic, metrical, phonological and so on), and gains its effects through constant clashes and tensions between these systems. Each of the systems comes to represent a 'norm' from which the others deviate, setting up a code of expectations which they transgress. Metre, for example, creates a certain pattern which the poem's syntax may cut across and violate. In this way, each system in the text 'defamiliarizes' the others, breaking up their regularity and throwing them into more vivid relief ... A poetic text is thus a 'system of systems,' a relation of relations." (102 Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton)

Kenneth Goldsmith's 73 Poems unexpectedly fulfills exactly this kind of meandering order within disorder (or "chaos"). Its vocabulary of text-visual hybrid gambits is rich: "justification" (spacing) plays against text; text steps over text to create a constant fadeout effect, a visual metaphor for aural transiency (reminiscent of Robert Barry); some words float, other repeated letters pile up like picked up sticks; secret meanings are encoded in sequences, and evidence of sign slide (meaning slipping away as soon as set; the continuous "deferral" of meaning beloved of the poststructuralists) is everywhere. Reading and looking battle it out like two eyes in one split head blinkering at the same unsteady target. When there is at last a Tilt, after a still point as "I", the resumption of text, flipped on its side, accentuates visual disorientation, perhaps signifying the victory of looking over reading. As in Copy, later in the Poems, you see before you read and the meaning that starts up on first sight often reverses the conventionally signified meaning of what is finally read. The struggle keeps on: copy accelerates into metaphor-shaped visual chainings: vertical texts strain the eye: letters loosen into pure graphics: the continuation of the end game is nothing but a stubborn refusal to end, a Beckettian utterance against the corner that a game has boxed one into (but, of course, our era is too sophisticated for silence). Finally, it starts up all over finneagain. All of these impromptu stratagems pinball across eye and mind, indeed, toss back and forth, from both the zones of looking and reading, through the imaginary space which the deconstruction of each category of signifying power has left behind. In its meanderings the 73 Poems present us with a good game in which all the tensions and struggles of text, copy logos, and nomos are played out in a realpolitik and Hamletlike art whose only immediate function is to loosen one up from a hardened defense of some polar position. By, quite literally, talking out of all sides of his mouth, and seeing out of every corner of his eye, by, at some points, nearing impasse, simply keeping the two sides of every issue talking, Goldsmith in 73 Poems has created a unified theory eye chart to educate one in all the peaks and valleys of thinking things out for oneself.


Robert Mahoney is an art critic who lives and works in New York City.


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