Aaron Kunin, p.1


The title is an image from William James’s psychology. James uses it to describe how memory works: the more you know about a subject, he says, the easier it becomes to recall a particular fact about it, because the facts cling together in a “blob.” We use the term here to designate a set of related procedures: 1) head-and-hand combinations (or “nervous habits”), particularly 2) binary hand-alphabets, 3) gestural transcriptions from consciously or unconsciously apprehended linguistic events into binary hand-alphabets, 4) documentary transcriptions from binary hand-alphabets, 5) translations of previously-existing texts into vocabularies derived from hand-alphabet exercises, as well as 6) clichés, 7) sententia, and 8) documentary accounts of these procedures such as those we present here.

His friend had invented what she called a binary hand-alphabet. After dinner she made the following announcement: “I have invented a binary hand-alphabet… “binary” because a finger is either on or off the table.” On the table where they had eaten dinner she demonstrated the insect-like figure of the “s,” which, she told him, is called the most harmonious of letters by Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses on Art.
It was wrong to say that the fingers represented letters. She had invented an alphabet of gestures, not fingers; not a digital alphabet, a manual alphabet… so that a letter was a way of placing the hand. The hand would be placed against some surface, such as a table or another hand. The hand would be poised over the table, and a finger or several fingers would strike the table and remain there before lifting and regrouping. The position of the hand when it struck the table determined what letter it was.

Now she slams her hand against the table, presses it down insistently, as though playing a chord on a keyboard instrument, vamping, holding it down, arpeggiating it to demonstrate the fingering, to show what notes it’s made of.
“You seem to be fidgeting.”
“I have invented a binary hand-alphabet…”
You have invented an alphabet of fidgeting.”
(The friendship between the two characters isn’t specified—they could be, for example, boyfriend and girlfriend, brother and sister, son and mother, doctor and patient or the reverse, student and teacher or the reverse, etc.) She envisions the hand-alphabet as a secret that she and her friend could share. Her friend, however, shows no interest. She then turns her hand-alphabet into a secret that excludes him by teaching it to another friend. Now he starts to get interested. He imagines that everyone around him is sending messages that he can’t intercept. Calculated to disturb him, their smiles disturb him. Unable to read the hand-alphabet, he imagines that every gesture is part of a language.

“A friend of mine invented a binary hand-alphabet. It looks like this. This is A. This is B. This is C… The idea was that she and her friends would be able to talk to one another without anyone else understanding; it would look like fidgeting. I wasn’t very interested in it but I had this kind of paranoid fantasy… all my friends would be sending messages to one another that I wouldn’t be able to read.”

Her hands fascinated him. He thought about them constantly. When she put her hand on his shoulder, or approached him from behind and put her arms around him so that her hands met and interlocked in front of him, was she pressing words into his shoulder, his chest, the back of his hand? Could she be communicating something to a person across the room whom (he believed) she knew slightly? Was there a complicated verbal message encoded in a gesture that he could perceive only as a display of companionship an affection (not, admittedly, an uncomplicated gesture, possibly suspect in any case)? “Am I obsessed with her hands.” It was not in his nature to be jealous. This much was evident from his habitual failure to remember the word “jealousy”—for instance, in a lecture on the seven deadly sins.
“The canto in Book II of The Faerie Queene where Hellenore”s husband becomes, uh…” “Jealousy?” “The only instance in the poem of a character actually losing substance and becoming an allegorical figure.” “The idea that certain emotions make you less human, less interesting, or simply less complex: you become a type.”
Anyway it seemed to say something good about him that he couldn’t get himself to say the word “jealousy”; someone might say that he didn’t know its meaning. But someone else might say that jealousy was so much a part of him that he didn’t think of it as something to be ashamed of and couldn’t remember that, according to a certain way of thinking, it was a sin.
Now he was jealous of a skill that she had in her hands. It was not a practical skill—as far as he knew it was not—but it created a distance between them in which, it seemed, jealousy was possible. For example, it was possible to be jealous of her friendship with anyone who also knew the hand-alphabet. He tried to think of reasons for not seeing these people, or, at least, not seeing more than one of them at a time; reasons that would not make him feel childish and petty for thinking of them.

Stage two.
Having at last taught himself the hand-alphabet, he now knows that it’s practically unreadable; he had not been excluded from anything. Unfortunately he has already internalized the practice of forming words in the hand-alphabet to such an extent that he now compulsively transcribes on his fingers everything he says, hears, reads, or thinks.

“At this point I discovered that it wasn’t exactly useful as a means of communication because no one could read it. But I internalized it and started compulsively transcribing conversations… I do it with my right hand, though actually I’m left-handed. At first I did it like this, then for a while I did it like this, now I do it like this.”
“When you do it like this, are your fingers hitting one another, or is one hand active and the other passive?”
“The left hand is passive; to tell you the truth I don’t even know the fingering in my left hand.”

A transcription of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” (also called “Life and Contacts”) by Ezra Pound. This poem had been written out of a pact made between Pound and T. S. Eliot in which they agreed to write poems in quatrains so that their poems would not be mistaken for Victorian poetry or the works of Amy Lowell. For Pound, it was mainly an exercise, an exercise in frustration…

He began with the alphabet, and the poem (a “conversation poem”). Later he transcribed whatever they were saying; or, if there was no one around, whatever he was reading; or, failing that, thinking, if thinking was something that was made of words. Strangely, this practice did not improve his ability to recollect conversations, books, and ideas… nor did it encourage him to participate in the conversations.
He had introduced one or two innovations into the system. Instead of using a figure composed of all five fingers to insert a space between words, he knocked on the table with his fist. Then he stopped using the table as a surface to write against, and pretty soon he stopped making spaces. Later he hit on the procedure of using the fingers of the opposite hand in place of the table. Still later he learned to use the tip of his thumb, which was less ostentatious, as a surface; it reduced the scope of the gestures.
Vowels were gradually disappearing from the words. This seemed to be a part of the logic of the system, this tendency to disappear. Comment: perhaps all writing and talking would tend to become much faster, blur, and disappear if we didn’t have to make ourselves accessible to others. We learn to think very slowly so that others can follow us (using an abnormal use of language as a model for describing a normal one).

At this point he makes the surprising discovery that his hand is still transcribing phrases when he isn’t reading or overhearing any conversations and isn’t even thinking anything that he’s aware of. He becomes especially interested in these phrases and imagines that they are messages from somewhere else or from a more basic part of himself. Having absorbed all his nervous habits, the hand-alphabet no absorbs his conscious existence as well, so that he pays more attention to what his hand is doing than to whatever is happening around him.

“Soon I discovered that I was continuing to produce phrases with this hand when there weren’t any phrases to transcribe… no one was saying anything, I wasn’t saying anything, I wasn’t thinking anything that I was aware of. It was like a kind of automatic writing, a direct connection between my unconscious and my hand, so that the phrases seemed to come directly from my hand.
“I sort of had to catch myself doing it. I would notice, when nothing was going on and I wasn’t thinking anything really, that my hand would get stuck on a certain phrase and repeat it over and over. These phrases, which I though of as ‘white noise’ phrases (because they seemed to indicate that nothing was happening in my mind), tended to be somewhat melancholy, for example, ‘we have no choice, we have no choice,’ repeated over and over.”

Knowledge blobs (phrases, 1995).
After all. Ahem. And now I cannot remember how I would have had it. And so on. Anyhow. Anyway. Applause. A wide voice sounded in a narrow throat. But what for and why why. Can you cope. Cast your eyes down. Every voice. God damn you moron. Goodness. Great. I begin to bethink myself. I guess so. Impossible. I’m sorry to hear you say so. In a way. In fact. I suppose so. It is not he it is not she. It’s no good vowing a change in bowel or bladder habits when it’s your soul that contains a sore that will not heal. [A change in bowels. A change in vowel habits.] It’s like a machine. It won’t be easy and can’t be a pleasure. I wonder. I’ve always been. Just as you yourself must know. Keep up the dance. Last to know. Loud laughter. N’est-ce pas. Nowadays it’s sort of hard to say. Oh boy, oh brother, oh dear, my dear. Oh Jesus. Possible. Rats. Right. Say otherwise. Sob gasp sigh weep. [Weeping and sobbing.] So it appears. So it seems. So it would appear. So let me seem. So you say. The age demanded. Um. We have no choice. What are we seeing here. What on earth. [What on earth do you mean.] What’s left for us then. [What’s left for us now. Knowing at last what’s left for us.] What do you desire. What do you require. What’s wrong with you. Whine whine complain complain. Who is there who. Woe woe. Why not. Wrong from the start. Yeah sure. Yet once more. You know what you’re talking about. You may not know or wish to know. You must be out of your mind.

Knowledge blobs (phrases, 1998).
A bad business, A complete disaster. And again. Another disaster. Bastard. Beauty is difficult. [Beauty if difficult.] Brilliant. Crazy. Doubtless. Genius. Gott in himmel. Hello. Hellow. Herr gott. Horrible to report. I have no idea. I have no money. I’m your toy. I shame and disgust myself. Is this a system. Inventing everything concealing nothing. It’s not so bad. Naturally. Naturlich. Nobody. No doubt. No word no sign. Oh collusion. Seigneur dieu. Such. Such and such. Such crust. To what end. To what purpose. Très difficile. Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. Video. What a mess. What else. Whatever it is wherever you are. What hell. What music. Whose fault is this. You’re crazy.

“Are you getting this down,” with a glance at his hands.

He knew that he must look nervous, but that, after all, was what a nervous habit was for. He thought he must look like a ghoul, twitching and tapping his fingers. Or like a person trying to warm his fingers.
“Cut it out, it’s driving me crazy.”
“That’s funny, I would go crazy without it.”

Here is my understanding of the project so far.
The project, as I see it, occurs in two distinct stages. In both stages, the hand-alphabet is initially supposed to connect the two characters in some way, but ultimately acts as a barrier. Still, I don’t see this as a history of failed communication (which would require that the characters make attempts to communicate, that they have a message to communicate to one another; instead, they have a tendency to see messages where there may not be any). Communication remains a paranoid fantasy: “I think that others are communicating.” A history, then, of nervous habits: the hand-alphabet is conceived as a medium of communication that merely resembles a nervous habit, and later fulfills its destiny by becoming a nervous habit.

“At that time the hand-alphabet absorbed and replaced my other nervous habits, which I didn’t particularly mind. The hand-alphabet seemed less embarrassing, less destructive than some of the others.”

History of nervous habits.
He twists his hair; he eats paper (at a program of avant-garde films he heats the entire program). He puts his mouth against his hand, to wet it, brushing his lips against the little hairs on his wrist… is he cleaning himself, like a cat? Is he licking his knuckles? Fingertips?
He covered the back of his head with his hand, as though to prevent the thoughts from escaping. He put the other hand in his book and drew it back and forth, massaging the pages, as though you could get some idea of the contents of a book like that—with one hand in your book and the other on your head.
Family history. His mother picked at her cuticles until they bled. His grandfather had a habit of tracing shorthand symbols in the arm of his armchair. His father smoked. He did not smoke, but he was something that appealed to him in the paraphernalia of smoking. Selecting a cigarette, placing it between the lips, lighting it with a lighter or with matches, holding it out, even simply acquiring the packs of cigarettes and keeping track of them, how many you had and how many you were going to need, gave you something to do with your hands that also involved the mouth.

“I sometimes think that you must play piano, because your fingers are always moving.”
“For a long time I brushed my teeth a lot, I mean more than other people do.” In fact he was brushing his teeth all the time… walking from place to place… sitting at his desk he would suddenly get a craving, he would absently take the toothbrush down from the shelf, and since it’s in his hand he might as well do it again. (“Might as well”: dangerous expression.) He usually finished by sucking on the bristles of the toothbrush and swallowing the toothpaste (although he did not always use toothpaste), unless he happened to be standing at a sink, in which case he spat it into the sink.
What was strange about it was that he didn’t see anything especially strange about it. He must have known that it was considered slightly dangerous to eat toothpaste in these amounts. When his dentist pointed out that his gums were receding slightly, he casually lied about how often and how strenuously he was brushing his teeth. All nervous habits had a destructive element in them anyway… if not destructive to the teeth, the fingers, or the scalp, nonetheless destructive to the personality.
It should be emphasized that he had no particular reason for brushing his teeth (which is expressly forbidden in the bathrooms at train stations: he pretended that the sign had escaped his notice) as often as he did. He was not concerned with the health of his teeth or gums, or their appearance for that matter. He did not cultivate oral contamination fantasies, or fantasies of dispelling contamination with his toothbrush. He sometimes explained that he liked it, that it gave him a kind of pleasure; that wasn’t it. It was a habit he had fallen into and now depended on. Now, wherever he went, he was carrying a toothbrush in the front pocket of his shirt. The head of the toothbrush left a wet spot on his shirtfront; when the wet spot dried, it left a faint white stain, a residue of toothpaste.
He did not know how to respond when people he hardly knew pointed out that he was carrying a toothbrush in his breast pocket.
“Is that a toothbrush in your pocket?”
“Maybe I’m just happy to see you?” As though he had put it there inadvertently.

“It helps me to think; I’m thinking.”
And if you asked what he was thinking he would say that he didn’t know. So why bother to ask?… How obvious it was that nothing was going on in his mind as he twisted the hair behind his ear into knots, untwisted the knots and twisted them up again, until the hair behind his ear turned brittle and frail, and the knots came off in his fingers and became nothing. Thus, the real meaning of the gesture: that he was not thinking of anything.
It seemed to him that nothing was going on in his mind a lot of the time. A more likely explanation was that things were going on that he wasn’t aware of, things that he could recover only with difficulty.
Comment: what he did to help him think actually prevented him from thinking.

Stage three.
At a party he is introduced to a woman who says that she is making a documentary film about his nervous habits. This doesn’t surprise him because he has often imagine his life as a film.

“There’s someone you should meet.” “Hi, what’s your name?” “She’s making a documentary film.” “Yes, I was hoping you would be here, I’m making a film about your nervous habits.” “That could be a pretty long film!” “Did you want to ask permission?” “Oh, do I have to ask permission to shoot in his apartment? I promise, you won’t even know I’m there?” “Oh, it’s not a problem, I’m happy to do it.” “What does he mean when he says he’s happy to do it? Is he really happy?” “Do you mean to say you’re happy?” “Well… not ‘happy.’”

“What’s the meaning of this gesture?” “It helps me to think; I’m thinking.” “What are you thinking?” Trying to think of something he could plausibly be thinking… Again: “What are you thinking?” “That question always makes a hash of what I’m thinking.” “What are you thinking?” “Why do you ask me to repeat?” “I’m looking for inconsistencies in your story: what are you thinking?” “Do you ask that question only because you already know what I’m thinking? Because what I’m thinking is so obvious? Or just because it’s obvious that I’m thinking something?” “Something in the way you withdraw asks to be drawn out.”

A respectful phone call from the documentary filmmaker. Then a disrespectful letter. All the rudeness that she tried to keep out of the phone call is present in the letter. Another letter follows, apologizing for the tone of the previous one but deliberately introducing even greater offenses.

Comment: the function of an apology is to reintroduce the offence in a concentrated form. Or else the apology is directed toward the future: something you’re planning (Why else would you be so apologetic? “You’re not apologizing for what you did; you’re apologizing for what you’re about to do!”).