Chapter III Literature

The Sands of Time: An Experiment in Temporal Intertextuality

A main source of our failure to understand is that we don’t have an overview of the use of our words. – Our grammar is deficient in surveyability. A surveyable representation produces precisely that kind of understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate links. The concept of a surveyable representation is of fundamental significance for us. It characterises the way we represent things, how we look at matters.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 122, p. 54-55)


The room is flooded with the sound of recorded voices: texts from George Franju’s documentary Le Sang des bêtes (1949), Godard’s film Made in USA (1966), and my automatic writing experiment are voiced; I am sitting in the room, trimming my long beard with a pair of scissors, then shaving with a razor, and as a last step, cleaning the remaining shaving foam from my cheeks. Around me, in orderly fashion, are six rows of A3 sized white panels laid on the grey rubber flooring, a word printed on every panel, an object laid on top of each – basil, shoe, wine, ice, flowers, chicken, fish, underwear; a total of 23 objects and their corresponding names laid out on panels on the floor.

In this third experiment on literature my focus is on elongation of another routine gesture, which has been magnified by two years of growth: the trimming of a very long beard. Here the action, accompanied by a meticulous slicing of odoriferous objects in the surrounding space, brings together a sense of continuous labour, a restless evaluation of space to be traversed, gestures to be accomplished (in order, trimming, cutting, writing), sounds of distant voices (recordings of past films, documentary, readings) and smells (of the objects in the space) that suffuse my doings; and a feeling of endless repetitiveness, of being lost in a temporal halo.

Trimming a beard is a work of memory, a modification of the landscape of the body by elimination of its physical attributes, a walk in time past. The experience of Proust and the madeleine is not unrelated: a gesture that spawns a temporal short-circuit of memories, triggered by the taste of a little sponge cake. Similarly, Deleuze with his comments on Proust’s investigation: this is not simply an effort to bring back past memories but rather a search for truth (Deleuze, 2000 [1964], p. 15); truth that is also the goal for Wittgenstein’s investigation into the limits of language, and the investigation of this experiment into the relation of sensory phenomena to language.

In the actual research practice I determined to have both spoken and written words: the automatic text is a voice “down there”, in the recess of the body; not intended to communicate with others but with oneself. It preserves the logic of signs, it is not asemic, but is not directly concerned with the concatenation of these signs. Sentence structure and grammatical coherence are absent. Here the temporality of the text is determined solely by the rhythm of the body, the flow of the pen writing, the lapses of the automatic process of writing. But once an automatic writing text is voiced, regardless of who performs this action, it is transformed into a vessel of paradoxes. Broken connections and in-betweenness of meaning make the text opaque, liminal, yet communicative because of the linguistic setting in which the text is proposed. Tempi are defined by the readers, the tone and pauses generating possible interpretations. The temporality of the text being written, the text being read, and the text being finally spoken, intertwine in a whirlpool of significations.

The other two texts, Franju’s and Godard’s, a documentary and a film script, are constructed at the outset with the specific purpose of expressing something, within a given mise-en-scène. Their text is functional: following a purpose, developing a trajectory, coalescing into a discourse with the moving images, with the depiction of a situation, characters, tone. Temporal discrepancy is the common characteristic of all the above acts of speaking: text always preceding the spoken words, thus the time of uttering the words never overlaps the time of writing the words.

Interjected into the beard shaving operation, the 23 objects are removed one by one from the panels: a tiny sample snipped, stored and sealed in a glass jar; labelled with date, time and name of the object; the jar replaces the object on the panel according to its labelled word; the procedure of beard cutting resumes: for every instance of the gesture of beard trimming, an object is removed and replaced by a jar. The performance lasts 71 minutes: the time needed to completely shave the two-year growth of beard, and to complete the operation of replacing the 23 objects with the corresponding number of jars. By the time the performance ends, only one panel still hosts an object: a 13-inch screen showing Franju’s documentary Sangue des Betes, played over and over.

The purpose of this exploration is to find or invent Wittgenstein’s intermediate links, to set up a language game in which the elements of the work combine in the understanding of the matter: how we look at and represent things; what language is to us (and us to it); what the temporality of this experimental and experiential process is and how it is perceived.

This experiment embarks upon three areas of investigation, all of which are intertwined with temporality: the sense of smell (or aroma); second, text as linguistic sign, here envisioned as in Wittgenstein: ‘to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life’ (Wittgenstein, 2009 [1953], f. 19 p. 11) – each of these has its own temporal metamorphoses, discrepancies (ex. between the act of writing and speaking); and finally, the changes of the human body (the growth of the beard, in primis).

The experiment posits itself in the domain of intermediality (see Introduction, p. 17) through a combination of elements borrowed, reframed, and reshaped, taken from diverse media. It is a piece of performance art, but it is an installation; it is an installation, but it is a documentary; it is a documentary, but it is poetic pièce; it is a poetic pièce, but it is a musical composition; it is a musical composition, but it is choreography; it is choreography, but it is an olfactory experience. All these elements contribute to the work with equal strength and importance – though as in a Borges story, signs (like the pages of the Book of Sand) may shift in content and meaning, independent of the will of the reader.

The first scintilla of this experiment arose in early 2020, when a combination of events led me to try something I had never done before: growing a long beard. In between now and then, two other experiments in this research series concerned themselves with defining procedures and methods for observing bodily changes. Thus the present experiment enhances and develops a trajectory of investigation already traced by the previous two: the body’s temporality, the body’s modifications, amplification of the sensuous and the perceptual field.

But in this experiment attention is directed toward language and literature, with a specific interest in the connection between text and the sense of smell: body, text and smell, their temporality, this is the lieu of this investigation. Here I am concerned with the ever-mutating life form which is language, its ramifications in, and shaping of, our body, our thinking, our representations of reality. A concern for what is embraced within the investigation is a concern for what is omitted: Wittgensteinian elliptical sentences, what is surmised, what is implied, what is unambiguous and what is not.

But every sentence is elliptical; every sentence is potentially a sentence-radical: a representation of representations (Wittgenstein, 2009 [1953], f. 20, 22, p. 13-14). A question of exactness and inexactness arises here: how do we determine the meaning of a proposition, and in which relation does it stand to our ability to comprehend and learn something new? Wittgenstein brings forward Saint Augustine, Confessions XI. 14 ‘quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio’; and he comments that ‘something that one knows when nobody asks one, but no longer knows when one is asked to explain it, is something that has to be called to mind’; Wittgenstein argues that Augustine’s inquiry, our inquiry ‘is therefore a grammatical one’ to shed any misunderstanding, ‘misunderstanding concerning the use of words’, i.e. linguistic expressions. (Wittgenstein, 2009 [1953], f. 88-90, p. 46-47). With my experiment I elaborate on Wittgenstein’s inquiry into the meaning of a proposition (exactness and inexactness); I transfer that investigation, grafting the grammar of language onto the grammar of the sensorium, within the framework of time.

To which Proust seems to answer ahead of time, in his own final words of The Search:

‘the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes, things, however, in the midst of which— here the pink reflexion of the evening upon the flower-covered wall of a country restaurant, a feeling of hunger, the desire for women, the pleasure of luxury’.

(Proust, 2003, [1913], p. 2533)

Here I notice that Proust has the same concern of Wittgenstein on ‘exactness’ in language, finding however a different path, which links directly to the sensuous, bypassing logical and intellectual ruminations.

Fig. 1. Setting: boards, objects, trimming station, camera and screen. Credit: Sascia Pellegrini