by MATTIE SEMPERT
- View Mattie Sempert 's Biography
Mattie Sempert is a practicing acupuncturist and creative writer based in Melbourne.
by MATTIE SEMPERT
The body is ours, and we are an activity within our body.
Alfred North Whitehead
I say the word in my head and it echoes off internal walls.
As a single sonorous word-vibration, it needs to be said aloud.
Break the silence: sss leads the way then my tongue pushes forward the laa, and the berr reverberates from my lips. Slobber.
But no slobber comes out. As a sound-word-body, slobber needs a stimulus to come to life.
Brazilian painter, sculptor and performance artist Lygia Clark was interested in ways of showing--through direct, lived experience or vivencia--how the body's insides are on the outside. She dedicated herself intensely to activating body experiments, mostly through the use of relational objects,1 including one called Slobber Threads that she staged numerous times in the 1970s with her students at the Sorbonne. Slobber Threads continues to be re-enacted globally by artists, therapists and others keen to experience a collective sonorous body.
The experiment involves about 10 participants, nine of who stand together in a tight circle, facing in. In the middle, one person lies prone, sparsely clothed, on the floor. Each standing person is given a small wooden spindle of cotton thread of a different color and is instructed to hold the spindle in their mouths, close their eyes and use their tongues to gradually unspool the thread onto the person below.
The presence of the spindle in the people's mouths, combined with the unspooling action, stimulates saliva production. The muffled "clackclackclack clack clackclack" of wooden spools against teeth can be heard as saliva-saturated tongues push out slobber-soaked threads. Layers of unfurled thread grow into a multicolored mesh of second skin on the person below. For Clark, the act of pushing the thread out of one's mouth draws attention to the permeable, sonic feel of bringing something from the inside to the outside. Then, according to Clark, "they begin to perceive that they are pulling their very guts out" (Lepecki 295).
Once all the thread has unspooled, the standing participants open their eyes, crouch down, and with physical effort--for the protein in saliva hardens as it dries--tear apart the thread-web that has covered the person on the floor.2 The prone person often reports a sense of claustrophobia that lifts as soon as the skin-mesh gets ripped apart (296).
Slobber. The word spills over, in excess of itself.
As Lygia Clark simulates the feeling of pulling out one's guts, Whitehead (1938) steers our attention to an obvious yet neglected fact: "No one ever says, 'Here am I, and I have brought my body with me'" (114). So habituated are we to the Cartesian split--of the mind as separate from the body--that Whitehead's sensible, logical twist disorients us, momentarily.
Whitehead's simple statement jars us from our mind and back into bodily common sense: Of course I am my body.
Slobber is a word with a body.
Whitehead's common-sense re-orients body away from the all too familiar Cartesian fleshy thing,3 where the notion of body is external: a subject that is presupposed. Instead Whitehead's relativistic view places body--the concept--as an activity, as an immanently emergent happening within a body. That is, Whitehead's body is not a body thinking but a thinking in the bodying, in the activities. "Our knowledge of the body," he says, "places it as a complex unity of happenings within the larger field of nature." These happenings --trillions of functionings and activities, or what Whitehead calls "actual occasions"--take place where there is "no definite boundary to determine where the body begins and external nature ends" (161). Such as the complex unity of happenings that take place within the fluidy reverb of the slobberers' collective moving guts.
Another way to follow Whitehead's concept of body could be to say that bodying is everywhere present as a "society of molecules." This bodying society--always unified within the larger gyrating field of nature--"[b]elongs to the structural essence of the body that, in an indefinite number of ways, it is always losing molecules and gaining molecules" (161). The bodying society of gutsy sonorous slobberers bring this concept to life.
Slobber is a happening, everywhere present as a vibrating, ever-changing society of molecules.
Clark, and Whitehead (1938), firmly place bodying as the source of all experience: "All sense perception is merely one outcome of the dependence of our experience upon bodily functionings," says Whitehead (159). Rather than embodying process (of, say, generating slobber), the process itself embodies as it moves along -- a concept enacted by the collective bodying experiment.
Whitehead's philosophy outruns the subject by placing movement--process--at the center of experience. Inside-outside, subject-object, mind-body binaries do not exist in Whitehead's world because "We are in the world and the world is in us" (165).
There is only a seamless becoming of continuity, of reality always in process. Always immanently generated: moving, changing, becoming, the past contiguous with the future-present: "There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact" (89).
From this perspective, there will always be eternal possibilities for following the sonic fluctuations of bodying slobber. Until we die, and even then another pulsating process takes over: decomposition.
Slobber drags the past with it as it moves on.
My brother, when he was alive, liked to use the word slobber.
As kids we would taunt our beloved dogs with food and watch (and listen to, remembering back) the globs of slobber gather and grow in rows along their long lips.
"Look at all of Rufie's slobber!" Craig would exclaim, amazed. His wonder at the dog's capacity directly expressed: the process of salivation making visible strings of saliva. My wonder at my older brother's wonder. Our amazement at how quickly the saliva would form. How the dog's eyes and body would freeze, fixed in restraint, with a barely perceptible quiver of hopeful anticipation. How it seemed as though we could control the amount of saliva secreted, as if on tap.
A dog porous to the environment (potential food held by its taunters) that does its work on the dog's bodying process. The wonder doing its work on us. Slobber as a direct expression of a dog's desires, appetites, wants. Unlike most of us humans, who tend keep our desires hidden by swallowing our saliva.
More amazement: gravity eventually drags the strings of saliva, the
to the floor: Our cue to toss the food.
Slobber: When I use the word, it brings my brother back to life for the duration of the word's slobbering lifespan.
Patti Smith, aging punk-poet, does slobber, a lot. She says she cannot help it and makes no effort to swallow, to suppress, to turn her saliva back inside.
Patti's waistcoat is torn, open, so her diaphragm--and her swagger across the stage--is free to release wild slobber. Strands of her grey hair are moist with spit. Her mouth, her words, her music, secrete copious amounts of slobber. Like Lygia Clark, for Patti Smith, the inside--outside is porous, indivisible. Her compositions are carried by slobber, and slobber is a sonorous conduit for expression.
Slobber sprays the audience: molecules of Patti are vaporised in the air for all to take in.
Stand close and inhale--swallow--bits of Patti.
As her whole body sings.
Slobber: hear its secretions, its viscous weight hanging on, just.
I wonder: with all of his copious conceptual secretions, perhaps Whitehead's slobber was never allowed to fully express itself? Born into Britain's Victorian era when all expressions of desire--its noise and smell and messiness--were swallowed, suppressed, secreted away under clinched waistcoats and strict morality. Pages were kept dry, free of dribble and spit. Yet Whitehead's thinking (1938) secretes juicy propositions that place us as a happening within our bodies: the whole body thinks. "The body is ours, and we are an activity within our body" (165, my emphasis).
In other words, what we are is what our bodying does.
So, if we consider Whitehead's proposition, that what we are is what our bodying does, what about sounds? Do sounds immanently body forth, as word-sound bodyings? Do sonorous words need a fleshy body so they can language forth? To be able to come alive, both on the page and off?
Onomatopoeia is the Latinized Greek term for 'word-making.' That is, simply, words that sound like what they describe.
The fleshy body is a resounding chamber: words that use the air from our lungs and the position of our teeth, lips and tongue to form audible words:
Hoick. Mucus needs the throat's surface--and a force--to push it up and out.
Words related to the voice that comes from the back of the throat:
giggle growl grunt gurgle
Words related to the voice that comes from the lips:
Words related to gas as it is released from a stomach:
Or a word related to the slow movement of gas as it moves through the intestines:
Words related to air that don't need to be pushed through the lungs and throat:
Words related to water:
splash, spray, squirt, drizzle, drip.
Words related to soft bodies hitting the ground:
Word-sounds embody process as they language forth. Put another way, word-bodyings are immanently emergent happenings within sonorous activities.
Slobber: the word signifies nothing more than the sound it makes.
It is what its sound-bodying does.
Plub is a Gaelic term used by the fishermen on the Mull of Kintyre on the southwest coast of Scotland. It is the sound a single herring-body makes when it jumps out of the water and lands, making a tiny splash:
Many Scottish herring fisherman still shun high-tech devices used to locate shoals of fish. Instead, they use their bodies to feel herring deep in the water under their boats. To do so they use a feeling-wire. The wire--made of twine and sometimes, piano wire--is dropped into the water's depths with a weight on the descending end, and the other end held between the thumb and forefinger on deck. The vibrations through the boat's metal hull become a part of the feeling-wire. When the person wiring 'feels them thick,' they call the skipper and the crew springs into action. Practiced through generations of fishermen, the wire is still used to estimate the depth and density of a shoal of herring and can even distinguish between the different species of fish.
Finger--thumb--wire--belly--hull--seawater--herring bodies fuse together as they attune--and become--the vibrations underneath (Howard 61-66).
As their whole thinking bodies.
I wonder: since I am an activity within my body, and thoughts are also an activity, do ideas therefore have bodies? Do concepts form first as an abstract blob from which words fuse with sound to form language, in the form of a word-sound-body?
If these wonderings are met with a desiring yes! then words--that is, language that lands as written text--are a sort of more-than human material. And this material--activated by forces and flows and tendencies--is capable of generating text-flesh that grows into a thinking in the bodying. Text as a complex of happenings bodying forth.
Can writing, then, carry the affective vitality--those more-than human qualities--smeared through the sound--and feel--of words?
Words which include that way of inhaling -- swallowing -- molecules of Patti-ness in the bodying. And that way of taunting Rufie's drool, and the Craig-ness that will always live as a sonorous activity in our bodying drool.
And the life of this essai (French for aim or attempt): It bodies as it aims, and bodies as it follows that complex of feeling in that particular way of wording. The structural essence of this essaying body and its indefinite ways of bodying forth: it is always losing and gaining word molecules (until the final edit).
In other words, essaying forth I am in wording activities.
How to practice bodying word-sounds? For Manning, it is about developing the practice of "sitting at the uneasy interstice of process and production and asking what things do when they shape each other" (pending publication). And find ways to invent techniques: sit with a dog desiring or lean into the relational field of a collective group's saliva saturated spools of thread; follow slobber's potential to re-fold a past-present juicy with Craig-ness. Always in the middle, in the not-quite-yet, belonging to process--and the self-enjoyment--as things shape each other.
Find ways to sit in the complex unity of happenings that are (im)mediated by relational objects, those carriers of potential. Again, as Whitehead has sensibly reminded us: There is no definite boundary to determine where the body begins and external nature ends. Such as that way the wire-thumb-belly-hull-herring feels them thick. The drool that drops in that way. A practice of following the qualities, tendencies, and intensities, that are always already more-than human.
Follow the essaying sounds become the sounds themselves reverbing with more-than qualities and tendencies.
As a thinking in the bodying, worlding words.
A society of molecules always in reverb.
My bodying is a thinking sounding porous membrane attuned to the field, following the rhythms and forces at work and play, always in our midst.
As I sit in the uneasy practice of bodying word-sounds, I ask, over and over:
What are the word-sounds doing as they shape each other?
Slobber: the single sonorous word-vibration reverbs off my fingers, poised over the keyboard, ready to catch every vital, juicy drip.
Howard, Penny McCall. "Feeling the Ground: Listening, Vibration, Sounding at Sea." On Listening, edited by Angus Carlyle and Cathy Lane. Research Group for Artists Publications, 2013.
Lepecki, Andre. "The Making of a Body: Lygia Clark's Anthropophagic Slobber." In Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, edited by Cornelia H. Butler and Luis Perez-Oramas. NY, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
Manning, Erin. For a Pragmatics of the Useless, Duke University Press, 2020.
-- Relationscapes: Movement, Art and Philosophy. MIT Press, 2009.
Whitehead, Alfred N. Modes of thought. The Free Press, 1938.
- "The relational object," says Erin Manning (For a Pragmatics of the Useless, publication pending), "is never an object as such. It is a tendency that carries object-likeness. [...] Clark's relational objects are carriers of potential." ↩
- During one restaging of Slobber Threads (SenseLab, Montréal, 2019), one participant, while bent over and tearing away the stiff but still sticky thread-web, mentioned a "wobbly" putrid smell was released reminiscent of encrusted breast milk. ↩
- That is, the all too common Judeo-Christian Transcendental perspective of body. ↩