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

Saturday, March 13, 2010

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

Speaking beings are bodies infested with tonguessssshhhiiiisssss. The snake in the garden was not sexe but The Word(s). Speaking beings are embodied one/s who relate -- within --language. Litteral Poetics is a praxis of relating -- within -- language through corporeal recreation, with oneself and others through endlessly exploring the potentials of one’s own tongue. Before examining Litteral Poetics, a few words about some other linguistic methods.

Many approaches to language have been followed. Some focus on its historical origins. Others on its conceptual limits, where and how Sense fades into Non-sense. “Il était roparant, et les vliqueux tarands// Allaient en gibroyant et en brimbulkdriquant,” (A. Artaud translating L. Carroll). Still others emphasize the relations between language and logic. “Either All language is logical, Or Some language is Not logical.” This is a True statement, but does it mean anything? Such speculations include the attempt to formulate lists of fundamental “categories,” concepts so general it would be impossible to think without them; “drawn with a fine haired-brush, having just knocked over the milk jug, belonging to the Emperor, etc.” Then there are the relations between language, thought, perception and sense. “He thought he saw an Argument that proved he was the Pope: He looked again, and found it was a Bar of Mottled Soap,” (L. Carroll). And language and the body, “oui oui oui oui all the way home,” or “Ratara ratara ratara Atara tatara rara Otara otara…,” (A. Artaud). Above all, what are we to make of the fact that there is not One Language, but a Babel, composed of literally thousands of different “small l” language-s, if not millions, when you count the dialects and made-up tongues, or conlangs now so wildly proliferating? (See:

For all that Master Narratives may be said to have died in the 20th century, one survived, or perhaps was invented to compensate for the death of the others. Not language with a small l --Sanscrit, Hindi, Aramaic, Japanese --but Language was the subject of much 20th century Continental linguistic speculation, particularly Structuralism. In this view Language is formulated as a system (albeit open) composed of many small iterations of difference; “difference” being conceived as the distinction between that-which-makes-a-distinction/difference, and that-which-does-not: the difference between the differentiated and the un-differentiated (which is simply the mark of distinction tself). Interestingly, on the other side of the English Channel, those working in the logic of computing came to exactly the same conclusion, despite the Continentals’ belief in Structuralism as a replacement for Logic. The classic here is “The Laws of Form” by mathematician George Spencer-Brown, in which all of classical logic, imaginary numbers (so important in computing) and even self-referentiality are derived from a single mark (see J. Rasula and S. McCaffery, Imagining Language for a taste of its end). Indeed, all computer languages are ultimately built from the single simple mark “1,” indicating a flow of electricity. The “0,” which indexes the non-flow of electrons is simply there in the printed form to enable readers to track their places. While such formalisms are clearly enough to make the trains run on time, lose rockets behind Mars, or calculate the trajectory of someone’s latest tweet, are they really enough to account for the fact that language is also embodied in a tongue?

The problem with Structuralism and its more formalized counterpart is its representation of difference as a universal foundation for meaning. “Either something is distinguished/differentiated, Or it is Not.” This is a modernized version of the Law of the Excluded Middle, One either Is, Or One Is Not, a proposition Beckett has definitively shown to be inapplicable to the human condition, where One can both be and not-be at the same time. Formal Deductive Logic and Structuralism may account for Language, but they cannot account for the infestation of bodies by tongues, the object of Litteral Poetics.

Litteral poetics does not deal with Language or universal theories of meaning, formal or otherwise. It is neither a general system designed to analyze others, nor a calculating tool to help us perform life better, faster, kill, kill, kill. Litteral poetics is simply a practice of linguistic self-analysis in which those who are infested with a tongue explore, through play, precisely what their own linguistic organs can do, including what they cannot help but do, that to which they are so habituated they do not know they are doing it. The emphasis here is neither on history nor Structure, but on the interactions between a tongue and those it infests, those who include this member in their organ-ization. In this approach no categorical distinction is assumed between a language, a tongue, an organ, and a body. Neither is a clear-cut difference made between a physical and a social body, or an individual and a collective one. Litteral poetics is thus not a science, for it does not deal with universal laws, but only with the unique contributions of specific tongues to specific bodies. The question for the litteralist is simply, how? How does a specific tongue participate in the organization of some body?

The principles of Litteral Poetics were articulated in the first century BC by Lucretius [in De Natura Rerum]:

For the same Seeds compose both Earth and Seas
The Sun, and Moon, Fruits, Animals and Trees,
But their contexture, or their motion disagrees.
So in my Verse are Letters common found
To many words unlike in sense and sound;
Such great variety bare change affords
Of order in th’ few Elements of Words.

And hence, as We discourse’d before, we find
It matters much with what first Seeds we joyn’d,
Or how, or what position they maintain,
What motion give, and what receive again:
And that the Seeds remaining still the same,
Their order change’d of wood are turn’d to flame.
Just as the letters little change affords
Ignis and lignum two quite different words.

Here the poet-philosopher shows, or at least he believes he shows, that Latin offers proof of the non-impossibility of Democritus’s famous hypothesis about matter being composed of the arrangements and rearrangements of a set of atomic elements. For while technology had not then advanced to the point where physical atoms could be detected, the fact that a language can be composed by the rearrangements of a set of atomic characters or letters shows the soundness of the general principle.

Even more important in Lucretius’s argument is the fact that the shift from one letter-arrangement or word to another is not arbitrary. The example he gives is the shift from the word for wood, lignum, to the word for fire, ignis. Just as flames were perceived by Democritians as rearrangements of the atomic components of burning wood (with perhaps some subtraction or addition of small amounts of other elements), so the word ignis is a rearrangement of the atomic components of the word lignum, (with some subtraction and addition of other elements). Lucretian linguistics is thus a theory of relations even more than it is a theory of monadic particles, characters or letters. Even more, it is a theory of the relations between relations, or the ratios of ratios, for the relationships between words are seen as similar to the physical relations between material substances, what we would call their chemistry. Lucretian linguistics is thus utterly rational. To put it another way, the way one word can be transformed into another in linguistic chemistry is in some sense isomorphic with material chemistry. Ignis is to lignum what flame is to wood.

ignis ≈ flame
lignum wood

The focus of attention here is neither referential nor systemic meaning, but meaning-shift, how one word transforms into another. Clearly the basis for this view cannot be a single simple principle of “difference,” for difference is precisely what prevents such transformations. There is the or there is the Other, and the two can only meet in a mutual negation or cancelling out; hence the necessity to postulate various intermediary characters such as differances and differends. But when we start our linguistic investigations by acknowledging the inherent mutability of words we adopt a different approach. Of course this tendency of words to slithe into others, the tendency for meaning to slip and change, has been noticed by many observers, not least of whom are the poets, especially of the Non-sense and Modernist varieties. It has also been noted by many theoreticians who have dubbed it variously, lalangue, delire, babel and even babellebab. Litteral Poetics is merely another in the line, and it won’t be the last.

However, Litteral Poetics is not just a theory about this transformational quality. It is a form of linguistic play bent on discovering how linguistic transformations function in the constitution of actual social meanings, i.e., in the structures of existing social bodies and institutions. Litteral Poetics proposes, à la Lucretius, that there is indeed an isomorphism between language and reality, not of matter, but of social relations. Thus it is like Nonsense in that it takes linguistic slithering seriously, and not just as slips of the tongue. Moreover, it aims, through playing with a tongue, to expose and celebrate the capacity of bodies and institutions for morphing and flow(er)ing rather than fix(at)ing. The question is, what kinds of tongue-play can reveal what kinds of social slitheryness? What could an application of the Lucretian principle to English reveal about modern society? What can the proposition


tell us about the relations of gender and generation in a society infested with an English tongue?

[to be continued]

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