To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Christine Wertheim: The Infestation of Bodies by Tongues: Notes on a Litteral Poetics (Part Two)

[The first part of "The Infestation of Bodies by Tongues" appeared in Poems and Poetics on March 13, 2010.]

The object of Litteral Poetics is the infestation of bodies by tongues. Its method: using shifts in a language to track changes in some body, i.e., some phenomenal realm. Probably different languages are better at tracking some bodies and shifts rather than others. Whilst Lucretius used Latin to track the way material bodies morph into each other, the great 19th century fou litteraire, Jean-Pierre Brisset, used French to study the intertwined history of sex and language. For Brisset the burning question was how sex could emerge after language if in the beginning there is only The Word. In French one sound frogs make is “quoi,” a word meaning “what.” In the 19th century frogs were also widely believed hermaphrodites. Thus, for Brisset, frogs are the first speaking creatures, and the word “sex” must be derived from other more primitive sounds made by frogs. In his formulation it is derived from the repeated primitive “ai? ai? ai? eh! eh! eh! ai que? ai que? ai que? eque, eque, eque…” An abbreviation of the full series, which passes through “qu'est-ce que,” a synonymn for quoi, is:

Ai ? eh? Ai que ? éque ou ce. Ai que ce ? Exe, sais que ce ? ce éque-ce, ce exe, sexe,
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Whilst primarily tracking the emergence of the word for sex, this sequence also shows how the sexual organs of the animal gradually emerge as a surprising excess.

More than Lucretius Brisset privileges the sounds of words and letters over their graphic counterparts. But the principle is the same; the recognition that just as matter morphs and changes dramatically according to the rearrangement of its atomic elements (by whatever force, chemical, mechanical, metabolic, galvanic, etc.) so meaning morphs and changes when its atomic elements are rearranged (by whatever force, historical, sociological, political, psychological, etc.) Furthermore, with Brisset we see the full implications of the Litteral view, that the realm of meaning is not constituted by a set of points, however related, but by a contiunuum in which we can move from any (apparently) stable word-compound to any other by a series of micro-shifts. (The implication, that the inability to get to some word-compound indicates its disconnection from the continuum, will be explored later.)

By tracking these micro-shifts in meaning within a particular tongue we arrive at a form of understanding. For Lucretius, exploring Latin enabled an understanding of general atomics. (Students of this theory should see The Third Policeman by Flan O’Brien, for an articulation of its full material consequences.) For Brisset, French enables an understanding of the story of the intertwined emergenc-y of language and sexuality. Thus, Litteral Poetics is a form of poetics in the ancient sense that it shows how bodies are endowed with meaning. It enables us to trace the chains of meaning inhering in the transformations of bodies across time and space. An argument can be made that just as with Epic Poetry Litteral Poetics creates meaning rather than discovers it. But this distinction between discovery and invention is as foreign to the litteralist as it was to the Greeks, who rightly believed that poetic recitation can dis-cover the real effects of transgressing social laws, and that only poetry reveals the meanings and purposes in what would otherwise be pointless historical series. This is what poetry is—the “meaning” in/of events. Poetry, or at least its Litteral branch, is thus a form of constructive revelation in which meaning is dis-covered via the constitution of poetic chains which make known the purposes, principles, reasons, intentions, functions, senses, rationales of what drives organized bodies--of events, relations, practices, flesh, etc. I propose that a Litteral exploration of English can help us better understand the drives or th-e-motions in the relations between gender and generation in contemporary society.

The basis for this hypothesis is the fact that in English a phrase meaning singularity, “this One,” easily morphs into a phrase for the masculine child, “the Son.” Combining these gives us the compound term “thsOne.” Likewise, a phrase meaning multiplicity or multitude “the many others,” easily morphs into a phrase for the female parent “the Mothers.” This last phrase also means a collective Otherness, “them-Others.” Combining these gives the compound “the-M-(any)-Others.” Thus, gender and generation, singularity and multiplicity, I and Other are completely (con)fused in the English tongue… and I would argue, in any social body infested with such an organ. These two (pro)positions operate in all social fields, not just within the institutions of family and sexual identity. And any body may take either position depending on the situation. For instance, in relation to my students I can adopt the (pro)position of being one of theMothers if I focus my attention on helping them achieve their goals. Or I may become thsOne if I choose to play the charismatic performer who rehearses my knowledge as enigmatic spectacle. Moving to the realm of politics we see that in most contemporary cases the national leader is thsOne and the populace is the-M-(any)-Others who are expected to gaze in narcissistic admiration of the him, whatever he does. No doubt many will say that the familial analogue of a leader is not thsOne, but the Father. To this I can only say that in English the word “father” no longer has any meaning, because there are no longer any micro-linguistic chains through which it can be related to other familial terms. Such chains do exist between “thsOne” and “the-M-(any)-Others,” though they pass through the relation of negation;

the-M-(any)-Others are precisely those which are NOT One*.


This is what Litteral Poetics shows and Donald Barthelme, in “The Dead Father,” long ago agreed. *(For more on this subject see “+’me’S-pace,” Les Figues Press, 2007.) (Passing from one term to another through negation shows that the continuum of the English Tongue is not smooth, but is also infested with kNOTs.)

Thus, a litteral investigation of a phenomenal realm not only shows the rich connectedness of its chosen object. It also shows what has become dis-connected in that realm. It can enable us to see that what may once have been intimately related, is now cut off. My litteral investigations show that, at least for bodies infested with an English Tongue, “father” no longer symbolizes an absence enabling thsOne to distinguish and separate itself from the-M-(any)-Others. It is simply an old fashioned word remaining in the lexicon, as meaningless as “ether” or “phlogiston”. And this because, (the word for), “father” has become disconnected from the continuum of the English Tongue. (For more on this subject see Alice Jardine’s “Gynesis.”) What exactly this means socially, how exactly this disconnection plays out in material bodies and institutions, are complex questions needing much investigation. For now, let us look at one further proposition:


If the-M-(any)-Others are defined as the negation of thsOne, there is still the problem of how their material parts, especially their voices are experienced by the sons. The above formulation shows that, even if a son can distinguish/separate itself from some aspect of theMothers through an act of negation, this is not entirely successful, leaving all sorts of Mother-parts still clinging, sometimes to an overwhelming or smothering degree. And all this simply because mother slides so easily into both mouth(er) and smother, and voice so easily slips into the void/s…………


Two hypotheses are involved in Litteral Poetics:
1)- that in English fantastic propositions about human relations can be made.
2)- that these propositions tell us something about “real” human relations.
Hypothesis 1 is undeniable. You can do this with English, at least I can.

Hypothesis 2 is dubious, which sense of dubiousness can be expressed in the following ways:

a)- the author of this …. can think whatever she likes, but I’m not having a bar of it.

b)- the author of this … may have a valid point in that contemporary human relations may usefully be formulated in this way, but the poetic potencyal of English offers no evidence of this, let alone a “proof.”

c)- the author of this … has a valid point in that contemporary human relations can usefully be formulated in this way, but the English tongue offers no “proof.” Rather, the poetic potencyal of English is simply the means through which this author is able to communicate what she has observed through other means, but cannot express in other ways.

Point c is valid. The author agrees. Two responses:

1)- the phenomena expressed by the author in the form of a Litteral Poetics can be observed independently of language. However,
2)- a language, i.e., a tongue, is one of our Sensory organs, one of the organizational filters through which we process data coming from the external world, like eyes, ears, cultural traditions, etc. As one of our Sensory filters it aids in the processing of data. Some people are more sensitive to the aural paths through which information in trafficked to us from the external world. Some people are more attuned to the visual. Or the symbolic. Or the poetic. Or the historical. Or the anecdotal, etc., etc. This author is peculiarly sensitive to discriminations in the linguistic sense. This sensitivity does not invalidate the information ingested through her tongue. The point for the litteralist is simply that the tongue is not just one organ amongst the many we all use. It is the most important.

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