Beaulieu, Derek. Seen of the Crime: Essays on Conceptual Writing. Montreal: Snare Books. 2011

When we drop a stone into water, we see a wave emanate outwardly in a plane. We agree that it is not water but that we are seeing a wave in pure principle. It is not simultaneous: therefore to conceptualize we are using our memory and afterimage. 

The knot is not the rope; it is a weightless, mathematical, geometric, metaphysically conceptual, pattern integrity tied momentarily into the rope by the knot-conceiving, weightless mind of the human conceiver – knot former. (Buckminster Fuller, Conceptuality, 228, 231)


This post picks up picks from previous ruminations on derek beaulieu’s recent book of essays Seen of the Crime. In the book’s final installment, derek beaulieu catches Kenneth Goldsmith trying to fidget away from the crime scene. Or rather, Goldsmith’s fidgeting simultaneously constitutes the scene of the crime as well as his absence thereat.

June 16, 1997: Bloomsday: Kenneth Goldsmith performs a systematic perambulation through & around his body, not skipping any of the bodily organs that make up part of James Joyce’s schema save the womb of Ulysses’ most impossible (yes Ulysses presents gradations of impossibility) to read episode, ‘Oxen of the Sun’. This is probably fitting because beyond Goldsmith’s & (Ulysses’ protagonist) Leopold Bloom’s respective meanders around the human body & the city of Dublin, neither of the two characters, or books have much in common.

Goldsmith’s project Day (2003) would more fittingly have been written on Bloomsday. Day being a transcription & publication of a day’s copy of the New York Times as an 800-page book, an epic tale of the world as told from New York city in one day. If anything Fidget is rather more Beckettian in sensibility (as Marjorie Perloff has already argued). It also reads more as a Whitmanian song of the self; an important difference being that, in contrast to Whitman’s more externalizing direction, Fidget presents an inwardly directed, auto-proprioception.

An earlier post explored this idea – of a kind of inverted / empiricist lyricism – which might similarly be posited about a work by Kenneth Goldsmith’s peer, conceptual writer Vanessa Place’s novel La Medusa. She explains the book’s genesis:

 The book began as a procedural piece: to write down everything that occurred to me for 41 consecutive days, in 15 minute installments. As I was reading in cognitive science at the time, I had a suspicion that if I kept going after that time, narratives would begin to emerge. Or narrative fragments, some of which would ripen (or bloat) into narratives, some of which would simply stay shards.

The interweaving of lyricism with conceptualism & empiricism is interesting to make note of here. La Medusa is obviously lyrical in that it consists of episodes of unmediated subjective expression: “everything that occurred to me for 41 consecutive days, in 15 minute installments”. But it is not naively and uncomplicatedly so: it does not assume that the lyrical subjective position is separate from the world and observing the world from outside. Instead it is (among many other things) a study of consciousness, of how we are prone to make stories from randomness, and of the situatedness of consciousness in a particular historical moment (in this case an American moment, more specifically Los Angeles). “At the novel’s highpoints, an appropriately messy narrative of the contemporary City of Los Angeles emerges from its pages.”

In any case, consciousness in La Medusa is no longer a pondering on/of the real, it is written as (already part) of the real; that is, Place was interested in the pertinence of cognitive science when writing (about) consciousness; in consciousness as a physical/material process. Place writes of consciousness itself as a material phenomenon. If Whitman, in his poem Leaves of Grass, creates a figure who represents the ideal democratic man, a reflection of American society in the figure of one individual; Place, in turn, studies both her place and time by dissecting her mind ‘clinically’ (with empirical procedure) as part of the world, instead of the intuitive barbaric yawp, uttered from a distance to / projected onto the vast world (“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”)


Place, in turn, herself locates a similar flattening, or inward-turning in Traffic (2007), another of Goldsmith’s books, in her own comparison of Goldsmith to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. Kenneth Goldsmith for his 2011 reading at the White House chose to read

‘”three ways of looking at The Brooklyn Bridge—before & after—spanning a century and a half,” beginning with Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” moving to Hart Crane’s 1930 work, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and concluding with excerpts from his 2007 book, Traffic, transcribed radio traffic reports.’

Some excerpts:

What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Right now you’ve also got jam-ups on the Brooklyn Bridge,
bumper-to-bumper to Brooklyn but the lower roadway is
wide open. The Brooklyn Bridge is swamped.


Vanessa Place, in taut, nearly syllogistic prose, reads these three fragments as a transition from transcendence to immanence, representation to presentation, panoramically surveying to empirically reframing:

From to river as bridge to bridge as river to bridge as bridge, the movement in the triptych goes from Man as nature’s capital to the capital of Nature to the nature of Capital. In Whitman, the poet is God like Nature is God, the one that sees each in each, and in each, the same multifarious reach. In Crane, the poet serves, like the bridge, to tether earth and air, the breath that is here arching out-there. In Goldsmith, it is just the bridge that is. There is no ontology beyond facticity. Words are things like people are things. Things to be counted, if not weighed. Put another way, the singular soul that collectively appears to Whitman is sublimated in the symbology of Crane and gutted in Goldsmith’s gutter-work.

Gutting himself is indeed one way of looking at Goldsmith’s project(s). In this case, he turns himself inside out in search of his, to document his bodily movements. Goldsmith is a greedy, totalizing, completist when it comes to his language & projects (all of a day’s newspaper, all of the avant-garde on UBU, all of the traffic, the game, the weather, the schwa sounds, & in his forthcoming project, all of New York).

We might therefore assume, or at least hypothesize, that Fidget is Goldsmith’s version of all of his body. It is a snapshot of the crime scene that shows everything. And yet in Fidget Kenneth Goldsmith perpetually undergoes a sort of immanent out-of-body experience. What is left out is too numerous to name, what is not shown is an infinite number of alternative snapshots that could have been.

beaulieu cleverly & entertainingly adopts art critic / curator Ralph Rugoff’s criminalist reading of conceptual art. Fidget is read through the the “aesthetic of aftermath, as a place where the action has already occurred.” (Rugoff quoted by beaulieu). (Rugoff seems like an interesting character himself: his focus on the tension between signification, presence and absence is also expressed in his work as a curator, having once curated a “survey of invisible art that included paintings rendered in evaporated water, a movie shot with a film-less camera, and a pedestal once occupied by Andy Warhol.”).

In Rugoff’s own book Scene of the Crime, “the 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, quoted in beaulieu 59)


Chance (Peter Sellers) the dim gardener  in Hal Ashby’s 1979 Being There, through all kinds of chance occurrences (& people filling in stories where there are none, what Ron Silliman calls the Parsimony Principle) becomes Chauncey Gardiner, advisor to many important figures, among whom the president. Chance is simultaneously both there & not there, an increasingly transparent presence in high society, appreciated for saying what is on his mind, & yet his straightforward words are continually interpreted, understood as metaphor. Thus, besides being transparently present, Chance is also transparently absent; being looked straight through, without really being seen or heard at all.

Kenneth Goldsmith (originally a) sculptor, chips away at his body one word or sentence and increasingly slur at a time: Goldsmith’s language changes as the day moves on. The process of chipping away, in turn also chips away at him: He is tired, & also increasingly inebriated from a bottle of whiskey he buys to ward off the tedium of the increasingly long hours, making the later chapters (marked per recorded hour) shorter & or inverted, homophonic, confused. Selected examples of this increasing unravelling in the later hours (the book going from 10:00-22:00):

19:00 – Little word little remains in front of mouth. Liquid elevator tongue. Going up on little place. Nerves feeling pressure from liquid again. Listlessly from back. Clenched hands move into throat. Be brow and periphery. Gondize liquid. Headless down, headless self. Bladder falls.

20:00 – Mind is taken. And in pockets taken. Eyes read truth forty one. Eyes stand island. To the bagger. So berkenrodgers el. Greens projectile. On ah squint. Elen crows on tongue. With muriss. Kush jimmyhands. Cinder hung moistened. Soldiers stable. Midgets in palm.

21:00 – eleven hours walking body moves arm swinging contraunison leg movements deep breath inside salivation nine pm left finger index finger rubs eye counterclockwise one two three times tip of finger moist from eye fluids deep breath mucus expulsion via spit deep breath yawn eyes view sky getting darker

22:00 – xaler swaJ .wollawS .pil fo cra gniwollof tfel ot htuom fo edis thgir morf gnivom pil reppu ssorca snur eugnoT Eyelids close.

These changes, slippages, in Goldsmith’s supposedly neutral, impassive recording of his movements, are signs of the indeterminate emergence of the body. In this context, beaulieu cites sculptor/artist Barry Le Va’s claim that with the 1960s advent of installation art, “the stuff laying around the object… grew more important than the object itself.” (beaulieu 63); likewise, beaulieu astutely remarks, Goldsmith’s fifth of whiskey seeps through into the process of recording & ultimately the language of his poem (beaulieu 63).

Indeed, the fundamental indeterminacy of Goldsmith’s body & situation increasingly show themselves through the cracks of Fidget’s foundational concept of neutrally recording a day’s worth of a body’s movements. The immediacy of a materially given body is inseparable from the indeterminacy of what a body might become. As Brain Massumi puts it:

This is an abstractness pertaining to the transitional immediacy of a real relation – that of a body to its own indeterminacy (its openness to an else­ where and otherwise than it is, in any here and now)… The charge of indeterminacy carried by a body is inseparable from it. It strictly, coincides with it, to the extent that the body is in passage or in process (to the extent that it is dynamic and alive). But the charge is not itself corporeal. Far from regaining a concreteness, to think the body in movement thus means accepting the paradox that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body. Of it, but not it. Real, material, but incorporeal. (Massumi, Parables, 5).

But – unlike the ridiculous onto-theological ending of Being There (warning: spoiler) where we see Chance walk away from us over the smooth surface of a lake –

Fidget unveils nothing more than just the unrolling of the smooth, transparent surface (veil) of Goldsmith’s body; one that is in many ways more absent than present, yet at the same time fully present as the expressions of the movements and fidgeting of a body.

Goldsmith meticulously documents the banal and the insignificant “in an anti-space, a space of absence or negativity created by the displaced signifiers of the crime” (Wollen, quoted in beaulieu). We are not asked to read for the evidence of presence, but rather for the residue of absence. Goldsmith’s Fidget articulates the absence of narrative. Walter Benjamin stated that “to live means to leave traces” and Goldsmith dwells exclusively in those traces creating a narrative solely of traces without effects.  (beaulieu 62)

A body present is in a dissolve: out of what it is just ceasing to be, into what it will already have become by the time it registers that something has hap­pened. The present smudges the past and the future. It is more like a doppler effect than a point: a movement that registers its arrival as an echo of its having just past. (Massumi, Parables, 200)

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