The following is excerpted from Time in Time: Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North American Avant-Gardism, 1963-2008 edited by J. Mark Smith.
Better Living through 'Pataphysics: The Biosemiotics of Kenneth Goldsmith by Adam Dickinson
In early March of 2008, two environmental activists, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, sequestered themselves in a Toronto apartment for four days in order to perform an unusual experiment. They deliberately exposed themselves through daily activities to a variety of common household substances, such as personal-care products, plastic food containers, and furniture treated with stain repellent. In addition to taking regular blood and urine samples, they passed the time watching cable news and playing “Guitar Hero.” The purpose of this unorthodox experiment, which the authors likened to a science fair project, was to measure levels of common pollutants in their bodies, pollutants that have received little study in the context of quotidian human use, despite, in some cases, being known carcinogens. Inspired by the “body burden” testing initiatives of the US-based Environmental Working Group in the late 1990s, Smith and Lourie’s experiments, outlined in Slow Death by Rubber Duck, focus on their own bodies as sites of environmental contamination. The goal of their science project is to change the way people think about pollution, emphasizing how “We have all become guinea pigs in a vast and uncontrolled experiment” where we marinate daily in a cocktail of chemicals through food we eat, surfaces we touch, and creams we absorb. By making their own bodies guinea pigs in this experiment, the authors redefine conventional notions of toxicity, making pollution a matter of not only acute, external, geographical concern, but also one of chronic, internal, biochemistry.
The unconventional and highly personal methodologies practiced by the authors represent a political intervention into the systematic science that governs environmental regulation and corporate interest. Where traditional science depends on anonymity, the whole point of “body burden” testing is to be public and personal. Moreover, there are significant gaps in existing scientific testing on these chemicals: “For some chemicals, like bisphenol A (BPA), there are virtually no human data available at all”. Consequently, these authors were inspired to create an alternative scientific practice, one which proposed an imaginative solution to a question no one had thought to ask: what happens if we try intentionally to raise and lower the levels of certain chemicals in our bodies?
Such questions evoke the pseudo-scientific methodologies of ‘pataphysics, where science and art intersect as research practices and mutually engaged discursivities.
The implications for environmentalism are obvious in the case of Smith and Lourie. What are we to make, however, of the implications for literary environmentalism – or, ecocriticism – of ‘pataphysical experiments that, while textual, bear some similarities to the experiments performed by these activists? Take Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, for example. During a week in 2001, this American poet strapped a hidden microphone to his body and recorded his daily conversations. The resulting poem, published in 487 pages and seven “Acts” corresponding to the days of the week, presents only Goldsmith’s side of his conversations, splicing comments together in a catalogue of the various communicative environments he experienced that week. The constraint-based, ‘pataphysical poetics applied to the gathering of “data” in the poem suggest the methodological strategies of scientific experimentation, where variables are controlled in order to apprehend a particular environment in a particular way.