UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics

Fidgeting with the scene of the crime
Derek Beaulieu

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This paper examines the representation of bodies and the representation of the scene - the "crime scene" - as a space of prior action, and with the documentation of this prior action. The ramifications of these actions on the body and on the construction of history fall outside the frame of the narrative, the presentation of an absent body. The "formed holes" in narrative of action echo the crime scene as being spaces of question; where "[t]he body is envisioned neither as an innocent repository of nature nor as an existential symbol of isolation, but as an artifact that leaves traces and in turn is a surface for recording them" (Rugoff "More than meets the eye" 104).

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. (Goldsmith 8)

The crime scene is more than simply the scene of the crime. Ralph Rugoff uses the field of criminalistics - what he defines as the "analysis of traces" - to examine conceptual art. Unlike the crime scene investigator, however, the viewer of conceptual art is not asked "to reach a definitive finding or conclusion: instead our search for meaning engages us in a goalless activity of speculation and interpretation" ("Introduction" 18). Art and writing practice can be read through the "aesthetic of aftermath, as a place where the action has already occurred" (Rugoff "Introduction" 19). As in crime-scene photography, in Fidget Kenny Goldsmith "functions [...] much like a camera or a recording device, often dwelling obsessively on peripheral detail" (Wollen 27).

In Goldsmith's case he has applied a transcription process to the movements of his own body aiming for the "observation of a body in space, not [his] body in space. There was to no editorializing, no psychology, no emotion - just a body detached from a mind" (Goldsmith as quoted in Perloff 91). Goldsmith's process was seemingly simple. On June 16 (Bloomsday) 1997 Goldsmith woke up and immediately began obsessively narrating the movements his body made over the course of the entire day, but without ever using the first-person pronoun - there is no speaking "I," no narration of self-awareness. Goldsmith spoke the movements of his body in a voice-activated tape recorder, returned to the tape to transcribe his recording and edit out all mentions of the first-person pronoun as well as any unnecessary words. It was Goldsmith's intention that the transcription and editing would "divorce the action from the surrounding, narrative, and attendant morality" (Goldsmith quoted in Perloff 93). The body of the poem is without anchor, without intention, it "addresses the body as a dispersed territory of clues and traces" (Rugoff "More than meets the eye" 88). The crime-scene as an artistic site is dependant on "the actions of a missing body or [...] complete scenes that must be reconstituted from shreds of evidence" (Rugoff "More than meets the eye" 101). The absence of a body - or in Goldsmith's case the presence of nothing but body: the absence of context and intention - leads "not toward analysis but toward a new mode of aesthetic contemplation precisely because there is no moral reason [...] but simply a documentary impulse to record" (Wollen 29). What is being recorded in Fidget is not solely the actions of an unanchored body, or a non-narrativizing narrative, but rather the "impulse to record." This impulse overrides meaning as is traditionally constructed, in favour of absence and melancholy; "meaning seems overwhelming in its presence yet strangely insubstantial ... [s]omething happened here that we cannot quite grasp or understand" (Wollen 25). Fidget leaves the reader / viewer reflecting Goldsmith's own movements:

Grasp. Reach. Grab. Hold. Saw. Pull. Hold. Grab. Push. Itch. Push. Push. Turn. Walk. [...] Turn. Chew. Massage. Gather. [...] Reach. Open. (Goldsmith 62).

Unlike the literary trope of the retrospectively narrated detective novel where the scene of the crime is of utmost importance and where " the crucial dramatic action - the crime - always takes place before the story has begun" (Ernst Bloch as quoted in Wollen 33), Fidget occurs simultaneously. To Goldsmith, the crime and the investigation occur simultaneously. Classically crime scenes are "traces of prior mayhem" (Rugoff "More than meets the eye" 84). For Goldsmith the mayhem is continuous and continuously present.

Lips part. Hand tilts. Swallow. Repeat. Eyes dart left to right. Ears twitch. Eyes look straight ahead. Focus. Double Vision [....] Eyes dart left. Light forces eyes to move to right. Eyes focus closely. Glace afar. Register motion. (Goldsmith 35)

Goldsmith has "leach[ed] away the significance of narrative point of view and subjectivity" (Wollen 26) by removing agency from his body's movements. Peter Wollen describes crime-scene photography and crime-scene investigation as having "an acute sensitivity to the trite, the futile, the banal, and the insignificant" (32). "[T]he banal and the insignificant" are meticulously documented by Goldsmith in an anti-space, a space of absence or negativity created by the "displaced signifiers of the crime" (Wollen 24) - we are not asked to read for the evidence of presence, but rather for the residue of absence. Goldsmith's Fidget articulates the absences of narrative. Walter Benjamin stated that "to live means to leave traces" (Benjamin quoted in Rugoff 75), and Goldsmith dwells exclusively in those traces, creating a narrative solely of traces, without effects. But like any investigation, what is not documented in Fidget is just as important as what is documented. Goldsmith's documentation gives in to "the temptation to make things fit, to squeeze clues into a coherent picture by highlighting some facts and excluding others" (Rugoff "More than meets the eye" 62). Only once does Goldsmith document the act of documenting: "Mouth forms round o of swallow" (10). This is the only time in the entire text where the act of speaking is documented. At this point, early in Fidget, the line between the document and the act of documentation becomes blurred.

The cool distance of Fidget's isolated crime scene soon degrades and is contaminated as Goldsmith's consciousness begins to infect the scene. As the task of narrating and transcribing his movements begins to tire and wear out Goldsmith, he actively intercedes into the isolation. Barry Le Va argues that the rise of installation art in the 1960's meant that "the stuff laying around the object ... grew more important that the object itself" (as quoted in Rugoff 71). As the hours of Fidget ticked by Goldsmith intercedes and introduces something "laying around the object" which began to grow "more important than the object itself": a fifth of Jack Daniels.

The narration of the factual in Fidget becomes increasingly idiosyncratic as Goldsmith becomes increasingly drunk. Later transcription of the original tapes exposed that his speech was becoming slurred and difficult to transcribe, although Goldsmith did not cease describing his actions. Investigation into the crime scene became less dependant on fact and increasingly dependant on clues, suspicions of what the actions may have been. Transcription begins to be based not on movement, but rather on an approximation of the sounds produced by Goldsmith while transcribing:

Greens projectile. On ah squint. Elen crows on tongue. With muriss. Kush jimmyhands. Cinder hung moistened, Soldiers stable. Midgets in palm. The latter affair. Lowerslime. Your pinch yearning. (Goldsmith 73)

The shift from exact transcription to approximation suggests a homolinguistic translation where the resultant text gives clues about both the originary speaking, but also to the act of transcription itself; a "latter affair" of Goldsmith's transcription.

The clue of action - the deposit of possibility - "may derive from the absence of a relevant object as well as from the presence of an irrelevant one" (William O'Green as quoted in Rugoff 90). Goldsmith's transcription begins to border on language-based writing, allowing a shift of priority from communication of fact to communication of suggestion. Certainly, crime scenes present us with "both a surplus and a dearth of meaning" (Wollen 25), a co-mingling of presence and absence and Fidget is no exception.


    Goldsmith, Kenneth. Fidget. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000.

    Perloff, Marjorie. "'Vocable Scriptsigns': Differential poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget." Fidget. 90-107.

    Rugoff, Ralph. "Introduction." Scene of the Crime. 17-21.

    ---. "More than meets the eye." Scene of the Crime.59-108.

    ---. Scene of the Crime. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.

    Smithson, Robert. "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects." The Writings of Robert Smithson. Nancy Hold, ed. New York: New York UP, 1979. 82-91.

    Wollen. Peter. "Vectors of Melancholy." Scene of the Crime. 23-36.

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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