SOLILOQUY by Kenneth Goldsmith|
GRANARY BOOKS, NEW YORK, 2001
SOFTCOVER, 489 PAGES, $17.95
New Art Examiner, May-June 2002
New York artist Kenneth Goldsmith, editor of UbuWeb Visual, Concrete + Sound Poetry (ubu.com) and DJ on Freeform Radio WFMU, recorded every word he spoke in a single week, divided the results into seven 11 acts," and presented them as a text installation in 1997. Recently he published the work as Soliloquy. In its postscript Goldsmith writes that "If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard." Part of that blizzard is represented here as a lengthy, improvised stream of monologue, at times reading with all the disjunctive, undifferentiated force of a grand mal seizure.
Soliloquy is Goldsmith's follow-up to Fidget, a book in which, using a Dictaphone, he made a verbal record of every movement his body made on June 16, 1997. June 16 is also known by readers of James Joyce's Ulysses as "Bloomsday," after the main character of that novel. In Soliloquy, rather than registering the rake of fingernails across his scalp or the relaxing of facial muscles as he did in Fidget, Goldsmith offers a concisely framed experience of his use of spoken language. Half the pleasure in reading the text is often in attempting to pinpoint exactly to what Goldsmith is referring when his attention has momentarily been diverted from a topic. The "narrative" is unexpectedly displaced by his response to a waitress who has asked if he'd like more coffee or merely in response to his own internal, unrecorded stream of thought.
David Antin's poetry collection Talking, first published in 1972, figures prominently as a precursor to Goldsmith's efforts. Talking gave new life to avant-garde poetry with its unique sensitivity to the relationship between verbal and written language, a work profoundly concerned with techniques taken directly from Wittgensteinian theories of linguistic practice. In Proposition 1. 19 of his Philosophical Investigations (a text that Antin has theorized is heavily influenced by the philosopher's commitment to improvisational techniques), Ludwig Wittgenstein stated, "To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life." By equating meaning with word usage in specific contexts, Wittgenstein offered implications as to how sentences often seem to be endlessly and variably creative. In Soliloquy, Goldsmith appears to speculate as to the transmutative potential of language by recording and offering a full week of such creative fabrications. Much like Antin's, Goldsmith's speculations ultimately incorporate a process-based social realism in his approach to devising meaning.
In Soliloquy, as with Fidget, Goldsmith is exploring an approach emblematic of both poetry and performance art as an approximation of a form of life. A key to each is found in Soliloquy's treatment of timeseven days, divided into "acts"-through which the reader is capable of moving at an indeterminate, highly individualized speed. With sustained reading a nearly meditative state occurs wherein the conversational use of language seems less relevant than the woof and warp of language itself, as in this typical passage: "Grrr!!, guard, gyre, ha, haah, hah, Hair, hair, hdr, hard, hare, harr, harre, haw, hawe, hear, beer, heere, heir, her, here, herr, hir, hire ...... and so on.
In this respect Soliloquy is also not unlike Empire, Andy Warhol's eight-hour film of a static shot of the Empire State Building, in which actual stillness is the subject depicted in a medium usually defined by its ability to show motion. In Soliloquy, a form of life is manifestly the subject of a medium defined by singularity of authorship. The result is that our awareness of the precise improvisational performance of those language acts is caricatured and accentuated. This is especially true when Goldsmith becomes self-conscious of participating in his project, as he does at the opening of Act 6: "Yeah, if you were if you were taping you'd have 5 times as many tapes as me. I have very few tapes from this week. No, it's much better than it was. It's way better. Yeah. I don't mind, you know, it's just an industrial noise right now it's just it used to sort of scream and whine and, you know, no, it's a lot better."
What emerges from the whole cloth of Goldsmith's conversations, musings, responses, and expressions is precisely an intentional omission of how he determines his language usage. As a finished work, Soliloquy generally makes for enjoyable reading, though at times threatening to get bogged down in, for example, the frustrating analysis of a software problem or the redundancy of Goldsmith's praise for the creative pursuits of innumerable friends. Soliloquy is most rewarding when it moves with the practiced, tactile quality that successfully imparts Goldsmith's insistent desire to articulate the fashionable sensibilities of an industrious New York life.
Michael Workman is a writer and editor-in-chief of Bridge magazine.