John Cage on the demilitarization of language

John Cage in a radio interview, August 8, 1974 (link):

I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, … that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears — and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army.”

So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living….

James Joyce by CageI found this via Kenneth Goldsmith in Rhizome:”Displacement Is the New Translation” (link).


What follows draws heavily on Mark Nichol’s “8 Types of Parenthetical Phrases” (16 Jul 2012, at the excellent Daily Writing Tips site.


A non-essential phrase that can be inserted at the start, in the middle or at the end of the sentence, a parenthetical phrase serves one of eight functions. (By way of an example, the opening phrase here is a parenthetical — an appositive, in fact — as is “by way of an example.”) Because it is grammatically inessential, it should be set off by commas.

1. Absolute phrase: An absolute phrase (a noun/pronoun + a participle) modifies the entire sentence, acting like an adverb. It is “absolute” because it is grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence.

Jane stayed up late, writing her report.

2. Appositive: An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that is juxtaposed (“apposed”) to another to rename it, i.e., to identify or explain it, or supplement its meaning.

If you, an experienced hiker, had trouble, how hard will it be for me?

3. Aside: An aside is a phrase or clause that qualifies a sentence. (Compare interjections, which are “content-less.”) It can also be placed within parentheses or between em dashes — like so — to intensify its effect.

Her friend, I hesitate to say, has betrayed her.

4. Free modifier: A free modifier adds detail about the subject (“I” here). It is “free” because it can be positioned wherever it sounds best.

I stood up and, brushing off my pants, continued along my way.

5. Interjection: An interjection — here, strictly speaking, an exclamation — injects into the sentence information (or rather, an emotional cue because it is “content-less”) about the writer or speaker’s state of mind.

Well, what do you have to say for yourself?

6. Introductory phrase: An introductory phrase precedes the main clause to provide contextual information.

On vacation, I had an epiphany.

7. Resumptive modifier: A resumptive modifier “extends” a sentence by repeating a word and adding detail, i.e., resuming the sentence.

She was exhausted, more exhausted than she had ever been before.

8. Summative modifier: A summative modifier extends a sentence by summarizing an idea expressed in the main clause (hence “summative”) and adding detail about it.

We headed toward the summit, the goal we had anticipated all week.

(To remember the eight functions, think “the AA aficionado made amends with the IRS for his intemperance.”)

Breaking the Rules in Style: Winston Weathers’ Grammar B

In “Breaking the Rules in Style,” Tom Romano offers a summary of Winston Weather’s “grammar B,” which allows for “variegation, synchronicity, discontinuity, ambiguity, and the like” in writing (8). It involves the cultivation of “errors” like sentence fragments (“crots”), labyrinthine sentences and orthographic variations (I prefer neologisms) to create an alternate grammar of style.


  • Romano, Tom. “Breaking the Rules in Style.” The English Journal 77.8 (Dec. 1988): 58-62 (download);
  • my summary of Weather’s An Alternate Style: Options in Composition (Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1980) (download); and
  • Elbow, Peter, “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art.” Writing on the Edge (1997) (download).

See also

  • Bishop, Wendy (ed.), Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997) (one chapter is here for download), and
  • Schroeder, Christopher L., Helen Fox and Patricia Bizzell (eds.), ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses and the Academy (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann, 2002).

Weathers’ rationale to write “outside the box”:

What I have been taught to construct is: the well-made box. I have been taught to put “what I have to say” into a container that is always remarkably the same, that — in spite of varying decorations — keeps to a basically conventional form: a solid bottom, four upright sides, a fine-fitting lid. Indeed, I may be free to put “what I have to say” in the plain box or the ornate box, in the fragile box or the sturdy box. But always the box — squarish or rectangular. (1)

And I begin to wonder is there isn’t somewhere a round box or an oval box or a tubular box, some sort of container that will allow me to package “what I have to say” without trimming my “content” to fit into a particular compositional mode, that will actually encourage me to discover new things to say because of the very opportunity a newly-shaped container gives me (even though I can never escape containers — e.g., syntax — altogether), that will be more suitable perhaps to my own mental processes, and that will provide me with a greater rhetorical flexibility, allowing me to package what I have to say in more ways than one and thus reach more audiences than one. (2)

P.S. Don’t forget Gertrude Stein, “On Punctuation,” Lectures in America (1935; Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985) 214-22 (download via Kenneth Goldsmith) — because “[t]here are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not” (p. 214). Indeed.

And see my “Erratology (not hamartiology).”


The Oulipo” by Stefanie Sobelle, Bookforum (2 Oct. 2009).

I am not aiming to acquire . . . a certitude about the truth of what I state as true in memory. All I need to do is remember at the moment when, remembering, I wrote what I remember. (Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London)

Cover of "Life: A User's Manual"

Sobelle introduces her Oulipo reading list:

Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, both writers and math enthusiasts, began collaborating in Paris in 1960. The duo quickly attracted a following, which became the Workshop of Potential Literature (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or OuLiPo). Inspired by their love for mathematics, the group devised rigid constraints for literary production, including such puzzles as bilingual palindromes, isopangrams (twenty-six-letter-long statements containing all the letters of the alphabet), and N+7 (replacing every noun in a text with the seventh noun down in a dictionary).

The aim of Oulipo, as Queneau suggests in his 1963 essay “Potential Literature,” was

To propose new “structures” to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.

Theirs, then, was a performative and heuristic model of writing; according to Mónica de la Torre in “Into the Maze: OULIPO” (, they wanted

  1. “to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making” and
  2. “to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.”

Queneau split from the Surrealists because he considered much of their experimentation without literary merit, mere “eructative” (“shriek”) writing and without scientific rigour, hence the motto he and Lionnais devised: “the only literature is voluntary writing.” Oulipo is procedural, constrained in advance, rather than apophenic (“patternicity”: looking for patterns in random material) or aleatoric (automatism: randomising).

Some of the numerical, alphabetical, graphic and prosodic possibilities of constrained writing that Oulipo explored include

  1. the Knight’s Tour
  2. lipograms, used in Perec’s A Void
  3. the N+7 machine
  4. palindromes
  5. Perec’s “story-making machine,” used in Life: A User’s Manual

A reading list (available partly or wholly online  ✓):

  1. Oulipo Compendium, ed. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (Atlas, 1998) ✓
  2. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, ed. and trans. Warren Motte (Dalkey, 2008)
  3. Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau, trans. Barbara Wright (J. Calder, 1981) [see Wikipedia] ✓
  4. Writings for the Oulipo, Ian Monk (Make Now P, 2005)
  5. Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec, trans. David Bellos (orig. 1978; Collins Harvill, 1987) [see Wikipedia and Paul Auster's NY Times review] ✓
  6. The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations (trans. Dominic di Bernadi; orig. 1989; Dalkey Archive P, 1991) [excerpt] and The Loop (trans. Jeff Fort; orig. 1993; Dalkey Archive P, 2009), Jacques Roubaud [see Wikipedia] ✓
  7. The Conversions, Harry Mathews (orig. 1962; Dalkey Archive P, 1997) [see the Paris Review interview with Mathews] ✓
  8. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981) [see Wikipedia and David Mitchell's Guardian retrospective] ✓
  9. Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, Marcel Bénabou, trans. David Kornacker (orig. 1986; U Nebraska P, 1996) ✓
  10. “The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo,” McSweeney’s 22: Three Books Held Within By Magnets, 2006.

I would add one more essential text: Raymond Queneau’s Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70, trans. and intro. Jordan Stump (U Illinois P, 2003).

See also

  1. Six Selections by the Oulipo,” The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (MIT P, 2003) 147-89
  2. Foulipo,” Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, talk for CalArts Noulipo Conference (Fall 2005): a call for a “feminist oulipo”
  3. Oulipo Ends Where the Work Begins: A Weekend in Four Constraints,” Christopher R. Beha (Sep. 2006)
  4. Drunken Boat 8: Oulipo special issue (2006)
  5. “The Oulipans & the Situationists,” David Vichnar, Vitalpoetics: A Journal of Critical Literary Theory (2008), online at David-Baptiste Chirot, 4 Dec. 2009 [you'll have to "find" this entry, as the blog is continuous (aargh!)]
  6. Constrain Me, Baby,” Lily Hoang, HTMLGiant, 21 June 2010
  7. Remix and Potential Criticism,” Richard Edwards, Remixing the Humanities, 25 Mar. 2011

What’s the Story with Academic Writing? A Narratology of the Academic Essay (Part One)

A summary of my talk at the (Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association [AULLA]) Storytelling in Literature, Language and Culture conference in Auckland (8 Feb 2011) . . .

It has become a commonplace in writing programmes and other scriptophilic zones of the academy that the mainstay of academic writing, the academic essay, as taught, written and read, is formulaic and deforms what can be thought and written in the academosphere — and that story has only a marginal role in the academic essay. The story, we are told, is not good for the academic essay.

By way of a provisional answer to the question posed in the title . . .

1          story: the essay is neither written nor read in the academosphere

The standard answer to the question might be that there is no narrative in the academic essay — except perhaps as a grabber/hook in introductions or to convey or contextualise data that requires it. This might be seen as a bad thing. This might be a reason why academic writing is not usually read for pleasure, is less readable than it need be, and is not read so much as mined or fished.

Two moves recommend themselves: we can [#2] uncover the back story of the academic essay or [#3] include more story in it (to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it). To the first . . .

2          history: the essay as written and read to measure . . .

The “mo” (pre-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a matter of fact might be to historicise academic writing: to ask how it got to be the way it is (i.e., it originates in the disputatio and epigram), to provide a historical back story for academic writing. Narrative was excluded from the essay because of the logical (scholastic) and scientific (Baconian) bias of early academic writers, these biases being exacerbated by humanities scholars trying to scientise their writing, to mobilise the authority effect of science (and science writing), and the increasing scientism of the university as an institution, and by academics using the essay to assess students.

Through these processes, the scientific paper that reports on research, viz. epistemic (expository/epideictic [for display]) rather than heuristic (performative/personal) writing, comes to dominate the academy.

  • epistemic: “relating to knowledge or its verification,” from Gk epistēmē “knowledge.”
  • heuristic: “serving to discover or find out,” from Gk heuriskein “find.”

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768).

What we know as “academic writing” emerged with the research university in von Humboldt and Kant’s reforms of the German university at the end of the eighteenth century, which reforms demanded continuous examination by others and of oneself (accountability) by means of [a.] numerical governance and grading (calculability) and [b.] an insistent process of writing by, about and “around” students (grammatocentrism) (see Keith Hoskin on the genealogy of the knowledge “ecosystem” of the modern university).

Or secondly: we can include some more story in it — to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it . . .

3          story+/Story: the essay is written and read (to a degree) . . .

The “pomo” (post-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a problematic might be to put some narrative in — after the example of New Historicism — somehow to reflect the nature of writing as narrative and/or to acknowledge the metanarratives and justify our appropriation of the metanarratives in which such writing must be embedded (becoming aware of the frame story), thus to uncover the big stories embedded in academic writing — for example, the story that academic writing mimics scientific enquiry.

Arataki Visitor Centre, Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, Auckland.

Or the best: in a twofold move that intersects both options, we can map the forms of story in the academic essay to see why stories have become formulaic and deformative.

4          stories

The non-standard — and most salient — answer to the question is to map the narrative forms, the story arcs, that are implicit in academic writing, in order to disclose its possibilities and the reasons it has been closed down. This requires a mapping (topology/symbolic geography) of the essay as narrative, i.e. imaging (via a visual outline or metaphor) as an alternative to scripting (a verbal outline).

There are two main forms of essay, the point-first or round-trip essay (the epistemic report on research) and the point-last or one-way journey (the heuristic essai).

type point-first (PF) essay point-last (PL) essay
image round-trip one-way
end returns to its starting-point arrives at an end-point
function epistemic heuristic
mode of writing expository, epideictic performative, personal
logic tautological dialogical
mood indicative, thus factual subjunctive, thus fictive
mode of address informative interactive

The first dominates writing in the academosphere, in the form of the thesis and proof essay, a.k.a. the five-paragraph theme, and at the level of the paragraph the Schaffer model. Why?

The PF essay embodies the econometric design-drive of the academosphere, which projects aims (teloi, i.e., ideal ends), objectives (skopoi, i.e. means) and clearly defined outcomes (ekbaseis, i.e. adequate ends), in the service of outputs, or rather, an efficient relationship between inputs and outputs. Everything in this end-stopped world must be seen as if in hindsight, in retrospective anticipation (i.e., from the outcome [o] backwards): they “will [always] have been” necessary. It is a future anterior world, a closed loop the process of which achieves a predetermined outcome (see the top left figure below).

  • The point-first essay embodies this design-drive: it can more readily be templated due to its tautological nature — we know where the story is going because its path is singular and returns to its starting point (see the right top figure below).
  • The point-last essay works against it: it can resist the template due to its dialogical nature — (it seems that) we don’t know where the story is going because its path is multiple and doesn’t return to its starting point, rather, in its most common versions it quests for or circles an endpoint (see right bottom figure below). (I say “seems” because many such essays — Derrida’s or Barthes’, for example — only appear dialogical, as do Plato’s dialogues, where Socrates’ eironeia turns out only to be a simulated ignorance in the end.)

So where to from here? The two point-last figures above give us two versions:

  • the essay that explores various paths until it decides on one (the upper figure), and
  • the essay that explores an issue from various perspectives (the lower figure).

(For more, see part two, which will follow anon . . .)

Heuretics: Gregory Ulmer’s Anti-Method Method


= an intervention in and inversion of the writing process

  1. denaturalizes the content → form/thinking → writing relationship of expository academic writing
  2. inverts this relationship: form → content/writing → thinking

hermeneutics reading via theory (the use of theory for the interpretation of existing texts), cf. literary studies

heuretics writing via theory (the use of theory for the invention of new texts), cf. writing studies (3)

The heuretic question: “Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed?” (5)

heretic (contrarian or critical) an ANTI- + heuristic (algorithmic or creative) METHOD

It embodies the move post Modernism (though foreshadowed by heavily intertextual Modernists like Eliot and paratextual ones like Olson) by which

  1. critics become creators, e.g., Derrida — and Ulmer (creators have likewise become critics, e.g., the Surrealists and the L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets), and
  2. writing becomes reading and/or rewriting (writers and readers give way to reader-writers).

For his anti-method, Ulmer begins with discourses on method (now known as manifestos), which share a common set of elements:

  1. a Contrast [the "vs"]: the new method is opposed to an old one;
  2. an Analogy [the "cf."]: it is practised as a heuristic by analogy with an existing practice;
  3. a Theory [the "via"]: it literalises a theory;
  4. a Target [the "→"]: it is applied to an existing field; and
  5. a tale [the "as"] it is “dramatised” in a particular form or genre (8-9).[2]

“CATTts,” while rigorous, are seldom exciting. Then again, some of the avant garde’s most interesting results have been generated by tedious or mechanical methods, e.g., aleatory art and Oulipo. The excitement lies in the “tale” that dramatizes the method. As Ulmer observes, every method — from dialectics to surrealism — “must itself be represented in some form or genre” (Heuretics 9). And “CATTts” can be generated in reverse: by choosing the “tale” first and, then, imagining the process that generated them (Heuretics 10).

We might think of heuretics as involving a wilful misreading of a theory to generate new methods, an “error” that is productive of truth. Ulmer also suggests that, as he does with Descartes’ discourse on method, we can wilfully misapply, i.e., reverse, someone else’s method to generate an antimethod (13-14).

(It is a method that is both metamethod, a method for methods, and antimethod, a method that reverse another method and acknowledges that it is one method among many.)

Heuretics was designed by Ulmer as a response to the new episteme of electronic media (multi-, hyper-, social media) and hypertextuality; this generates electracy, the kind of “literacy” necessary to exploit their full communicative potential.[3]

orality → literacy → electracy[4]

For Ulmer, learning is a matter of invention rather than verification, and it is a radicalisation of writing practice, a grammatology (i.e., a methodology extrapolated from the history of writing and mnemonic practices).

N.B. Heuretics is a method in keeping with Walter Ong’s idea that elements of the codex persist in the epoch of screens; McKenzie Wark would argue that the “codework” of electronic literacy goes beyond hypertext, i.e., it’s no longer purely textual.[5]

[1] See Gregory L. Ulmer, Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994).

  1. hermeneutic: concerning interpretation (fr. hermēneutikos, fr. hermēneuein “interpret”)
  2. heuretic: concerning invention or discovery (fr. heuretes “inventor”)
  3. heuristic: proceeding to a solution by trial and error or algorithmically; enabling someone to discover something for themselves (fr. heuriskein “find”)
  4. heretic: holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted (fr. hairetikos “able to choose,” fr. haireisthai “choose”)

[2] See Ulmer, “The Euretics of Alice’s Valise,” Journal of Architectural Education 45.1 (Nov. 1991): 8 (3-10).

[3] Portmanteau: “electronic” + “literacy,” from G. L. Ulmer, Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[4] G. L. Ulmer, “Electracy and Pedagogy,” online supplement to Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, 2003), 2007,, 14 Aug. 2008.

[5] McKenzie Wark, “From Hypertext to Codework,” Contemporary Poetics, ed. Louis Armand (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2007) 280 (279-85); available online at Hypermedia Joyce Studies.

Burroughs on How to Escape the Society of Control

In “Electronic Revolution,” whence Gilles Deleuze got his idea of the “control society,” William S. Burroughs writes about how we can scramble the control society grammatically (see Ubuweb for the essay in full):
The aim of this project is to build up a language in which certain falsifications inherit in all existing western languages will be made incapable of formulation. The follow-falsifications to be deleted from the proposed language. (“ER” 33)
Why? As he puts it elsewhere,
There are certain formulas, word-locks, which will lock up a whole civilisation for a thousand years. (The Job 49)
To unscramble control syntax, the DNA precode of the language virus,
  1. delete the copula (is/are), i.e., disrupt fixed identities – YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE NOT [Lacan]!
  2. replace definite articles (the) with indefinite articles (a/an), i.e., avoid reification — THERE EXIST MULTIPLICITIES [Badiou]!
  3. replace either/or with and, i.e., ignore the law of contradiction — JUXTAPOSE [Silliman]!

William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, "Rub Out the Word," The Third Mind (Viking, 1978).

1. Copula

The IS OF IDENTITY. You are an animal. You are a body. Now whatever you may be you are not an “animal,” you are not a “body,” because these are verbal labels. The IS of identity always carries the assignment of permanent condition. To stay that way. All name calling presupposes the IS of identity.
This concept is unnecessary in a hieroglyphic language like ancient Egyptian and in fact frequently omitted. No need to say the sun IS in the sky, sun in sky suffices. The verb TO BE can easily be omitted from any languages. . . . (“ER” 33)
He adds:
The IS of identity . . . was greatly reinforced by the customs and passport control that came in after World War I. Whatever you may be, you are not the verbal labels in your passport any more than you are the word “self.” So you must be prepared to prove at all times that you are what you are not. (ibid.)

2. Definite Articles → Indefinite Articles

THE DEFINITE ARTICLE THE. The contains the implication of one and only: THE God, THE universe, THE way, THE right, THE wrong, If there is another, then THAT universe, THAT way is no longer THE universe, THE way. The definite article THE will be deleted and the indefinite article A will take its place. (33-34)
Why is this bad?
Definite article THE contains the implications of no other. THE universe locks you in THE, and denies the possibility of any other. If other universes are possible, then the universe is no longer THE[;] it becomes A. (34)

3. Either/Or → And

THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF EITHER/OR. Right or wrong, physical or mental, true or false, the whole concept of or will be deleted from the language and replaced by juxtaposition, by AND. This is done to some extent in any pictorial language where two concepts stand literally side by side. (ibid.)
He explains:
[A] contradictory command gains its force from the Aristotelian concept of either/or. To do everything, to do nothing, to have everything, to have nothing, to do it all, to do not any, to stay up, to stay down, to stay in, to stay out, to stay present, to stay absent. (ibid.)
Burroughs concludes:
These falsifications inherent in the English and other western alphabetical languages give the reactive mind commands their overwhelming force in these languages. [...] The whole reactive mind can be in fact reduced to three little words — to be “THE.” That is to be what you are not, verbal formulations. (ibid.)

Charles Burns, "Burroughs" (1986), Adam Baumgold Gallery, New York, 2008

There are also his more familiar “lines of fracture” (to use Deleuze’s phrase): aleatory procedures like cut-ups and fold-ins — but also the grid and picture language — that fracture the “lines of association” by which “control systems” exert their monopoly (13, 12). These represent a “new way of thinking”:

The new way of thinking has nothing to do with logical thought. It is no oceanic organismal subconscious body thinking. It is precisely delineated by what is not. Not knowing what is and is not[,] knowing we know not. Like a moving film the flow of thought seems to be continuous while actually the thoughts flow stop change and flow again. At the point where one flow stops there is a split second hiatus [a cut]. The new way of thinking grows in this hiatus between thoughts. (The Job 91)

Burroughs’ “lines of association” foreshadow Deleuze’s “lines of sedimentation,” i.e., of “light” (visibility), “enunciation” (speech), “force” (government) and “subjectification” (self-government); the “new way,” those of “fracture” or “breakage” (events in Badiou’s sense or cuts in Burroughs’). (N.B. “Lines of subjectivation,” being “lines of escape” or excess, point beyond sedimentation across the breaks to new dispositifs ["apparatuses"].)

The upshot of such scrambles is twofold:

  1. they are writing itself: “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overhead [sic]. Use of scissors [just] renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation” (The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin)
  2. they are democratic: “Scrambles is the democratic way” (“ER” 24) — or elsewhere: “Cut-ups are for everyone” (“CMBG”); and, in that they are disruptive,
  3. they are revolutionary:

He who opposes force with counterforce alone forms that which he opposes and is formed by it. History shows that when a system of government is overthrown by force a system in many respects similar will take place. On the other hand he who does not resist force that enslaves and exterminates will be enslaved and exterminated. For revolution to effect basic changes in existing conditions three tactics are required: 1. Disrupt. 2. Attack. 3. Disappear. Look away. Ignore. Forget. These three tactics to be employed alternatively. (The Job 101)

    Settling Sentences (More on Lutz)

    From Gary Lutz, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” (The Believer [Jan. 2009]):

    The sentence is a situation of words in the most literal sense: words must be situated in relation to others to produce an enduring effect on a reader [my emphasis]. . . . [T]he words inside the sentence must behave as if they were destined to belong together. . . .

    That is to say,

    there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words.

    For Lutz, this intimacy works by affinities — and is akin to settlement (which for him is a good word):

    Once the words begin to settle into their circumstance in a sentence and decide to make the most of their predicament, they look around and take notice of their neighbors. They seek out affinities, they adapt to each other, they begin to make adjustments in their appearance to try to blend in with each other better and enhance any resemblance. Pretty soon in the writer’s eyes the words in the sentence are all vibrating and destabilizing themselves: no longer solid and immutable, they start to flutter this way and that in playful receptivity. . . .

    The sentence is a colony:

    [The sentences] begin to take on a similar typographical physique. The phrasing now feels literally all of a piece. The lonely space of the sentence feels colonized. . . . The words of the sentence have in fact formed a united community.

    There is a hint of early Wittgenstein on the logic of logical space here:

    4 A thought is a sentence with sense [der sinnvolle Satz].

    4.021 A sentence is a picture of reality: for if I understand a sentence, I know the situation that it represents. And I understand the sentence without having had its sense explained to me.

    4.022 A sentence shows its sense. A sentence shows how things stand if it is true. And it says that they do so stand. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1921])

    We have to take “picture” and “understand” lutzly for the analogy to walk.

    For example (taking “sentence” loosely too):

    Ludwig head crazy hair.

    The Incomparable Gary Lutz

    If you don’t know Gary Lutz — and all writers should read “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” from The Believer — here’s a sample from his first collection, recently republished . . .

    For Food

    He was a head taller than I, but he had arrived, midlife, at a way of scheming himself downward as he walked, of wreaking onto his considerable body a succession of indentations, curtailments, so that whatever memory of him the townspeople might, if pressed, recuperate later on in the light of their houses would be that of an incompletely statured, sideswept man of unfixable purpose. He was not my father (my father had remained unheard of); but because I never addressed him by name (I instead tutoyered him left and right), observers understandably conformed the two of us to their familiar, cleanly notion of father and son.

    He would tolerate no footwear under his roof. It was an issue, a policy, of hygiene. He held to a conviction about the unmanageable filthiness of shoes — that once you suffered contact with the bottom of one, you sank to the level of everything the shoe had ever been brought down upon. The piss slopped onto lavatory floors and then tracked everywhere by dint of the retentive sole of a publicly worn slipper was his standard weary example. And then the house would have the entire clientele of the lavatory circulating throughout it: the house would be thrown wide open again.

    The man designed promising clothes.

    I adolesced diplomatically by his side. I put in long days in the wide, thorough rooms. My heart performed. I fetched whatever the man pointed to. He had a rapid, nominating hand.

    I was his head of hair. He would lay claim to the tacky mass of it — redisperse it, superintend it differently, complicate it with ribbons and barrettes, adjust the lights in it, provoke it to fresh successes. I would allow him to have his full say where I was just nerveless, slippery lengths.

    In turn, he sought control of the cooking. He plotted our meals with a dismal rigor, mobilizing faded cuts of ham, even paler partings, sectionings, of fruit, jeopardizations of it, along the narrow extent of countertop. (An article of food should present itself as something else, he demanded, arranging lesioned vegetables on a tray for the headboard. “To cool the backs of the knees,” he said. Or: “For where your feet will one day have to go.”) The days I locked myself in my room, I could count on a raggedness of beef, in sheets, to be slid into thick wallets of bread and then be remitted, relinquished, on the mat outside the door I kneeled behind.

    For I had already flung myself into the books that were expected to cause me the most trouble: our sickliest histories. I loitered in them: I stooped on the sentences, bestrode the tensed, buckling words, squatted there until the spread of events became mine alone.

    The man knew, too. “What will you use for money?” was how he couched his knowledge.

    Our life continued in this train for months. With my ear against the door, I could make out, when I wanted to, the fussing snitter of a scissors or the motory commotions of the sewing machine or, less often, the cantillation, intimate and menial, of the man’s telephone voice. (There was a backer he was required to call.) I noticed that a woman from time to time passed by my window: we began to exchange waves. Nothing serious or signific at first — but, before long, a greeterly incontinence took hold of the two of us: our arms shivered away from our sides: even our wristfalls became communicational, summative. The first time I climbed all the way out, she guided me to where she said she slept: an ulterior milieu of lotions, spot cash, pedestaled cake savers ajar with the surrounding town. My hands lent themselves to her pink, winking undernesses. (She had the prevailing anatomy.) We made plans to meet again halfway between us. She named some eligible district.

    A less penalized course of retrospection, however, would find me having already found that there was a living to be made by furnishing grounds for others in the town to regard me consanguineously: to knock on a door and be shown to a seat and then, by polite, solacing intervals, be drawn out as the furthermost yet of kin. I thus fingered their ashtrays, left informing redolences on their sofas and chairs. I wore a welcome hole in their lives. For once, mothers would have been perfectly in the right to talk in secret twos and threes. But how wrong could they have been to keep counting their children on the sly every hour on the hour? When at last the time came to eat, we confronted a speckiness in shallow bowls. Afterward, I would be alternately detested and regaled — the butt of every confidence. I remember setting enough nights aside to compose a hat: an extremely curtained and commemorative number that was later to be accorded all that ill-intentioned popularity.

    The strings one neglectedly — neglectingly — pulls!

    For it was on the strength of this hat alone, the boxed mock-up of it, that I advanced to another man: this one importunate, futureless, adept. We mostly had to travel.

    His house and his “finds” (I am free to quote merely from the will) in time demised to me. I had to be driven out for a look at the place. What I could make out had a loose, unmastered aspect in the supplementary light I had been reminded to bring along.

    After the auction: prompt, forgivable descents into marriage.

    Delora: she must have lived her life in advance of the actual events, because her stomach would accept nothing further. (But she had advantages of height, of moisture.)

    Grete: mornings, after shaking out our sheets, she claimed to see “blue minerals” all over the floor. (These she is said to still be sweeping.)

    Liann: a whiled-away, vanishing girl. (She had come up through the ranks of her sisters.)

    I hope I was impossible.

    I hope I told last every one of them the same thing — that under no circumstances should the body ever have to depict itself.

    More in keeping, then, with the nature of this anniversary confession are my chances, much later in life, of having had a boy looking in on me after work. (The work was the boy’s alone.)

    Then the boy fell sick.

    The doctor squeezed his, the doctor’s, face shut while he, the doctor, spoke terribly of English.

    Both of them gave me their money so it would not have to go for food.

    —From Stories in the Worst Way (Knopf, 1996; 3rd Bed, 2002; Calamari Press, 2009), online at webdelsol (with several other stories).


    See also

    • I Am Not a Camera,” interview with Michael Kimball, The Faster Times (3 Sep. 2009)

    Hypotaxis and Parataxis; Periodic and Running Style

    Hypotaxis [— +/→ _ etc.]

    Hypotaxis represents unequal relationships between words, phrases or clauses grammatically. The most common kind is subordination (Gk hypo- “beneath” + taxis “arrangement”; transliterated in L as sub- “beneath” + ordinare “arrange”), or the use of complex or compound-complex sentences. For example,

    1. a subordinate sentence: a construction in which one or more clauses are dependent on a main clause, either
      • a subordinate complement clause introduced by a complementiser (that [a determiner], why [an interrogative], if, whether [conjunctions], etc.), e.g., I don’t know if George is awake yet, or
      • a subordinate modifier clause introduced by a subordinating conjunction (after, because, while, etc.), e.g., George overslept because his alarm clock was broken.
    2. a premodification: in the phrase “inexpensive composite materials” “composite” modifies “materials” while “inexpensive” modifies the complex head “composite materials,” rather than “composite” or “materials” — note that such hypotactic modifiers cannot be separated by commas (see wikipedia).

    Thus, hypotaxis signals the causal, logical, spatial or temporal relationship between words, clauses or sentences.

    Hypotactic style un- or enfolds — and is characteristic of élite or literary speech (acrolect [akros Gk "at the top"]). It gives the effect of experience reworked or in the process of being so.

    Compare periodic style, based on the periodic sentence, which is often left-modifying, i.e., uses parallel phrases/clauses or dependent clauses as modifiers at the start, and that thus isn’t grammatically complete until the final phrase or clause. It uses suspension, parallelism, balance and climax. As in Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson or Thomas de Quincy.

    (Contrast pointed style, a.k.a. curt or exploded periodic style, the inversion of periodic style, that is often right- not left-modifying; it offers its conclusion and then reflects, and is based on cumulative (or loose) sentences. As in Francis Bacon — or current “academic style.”)

    Here’s a classic hypotactic periodic sentence:

    And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. (I Corinthians 13)

    This sentence from Joan Didion is hypotactic, but pointed not periodic:

    Let the reader be introduced to Joan Didion, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing table in her own room in her own house on Welbeck Street. (From Democracy)

    And here’s a cumulative sentence from George Saunders:

    At work he was known to punctuate his conversations with brief wild laughs and gusts of inchoate enthusiasm and subsequent embarrassment, expressed by a sudden plunging of the hands into his pockets, after which he would yank his hands out of his pockets, too ashamed of his own shame to stand there merely grimacing for even an instant longer. (From “The Falls“)

    Although such prose is often more complex formally, it supplies the reader with all they need to interpret the content of the sentence.

    Parataxis [—,— etc.]

    Parataxis represents equal relationships between words, phrases or clauses grammatically. The most common kind is juxtaposition (Gk “act of placing side by side,” fr. para beside + tassein to arrange; transliterated in L as juxta- “next” + poser [Fr] “place” [cf. L positio placing]), or the use of simple sentences with or without coordinating conjunctions.

    1. Sun was shining. We went for a walk. Or: Sun was shining; we went for a walk. Or, “incorrectly”: Sun was shining, we went for a walk (comma splice, a.k.a. parallel clause); and: Sun was shining—as per usual for February—we went for a walk (run-on sentence, a.k.a. interruptive embedding). These are both forms of asyndeton (the omission of conjunctions).
    2. He’s a musician, isn’t he (an aside)?
    3. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . (a list).
    4. I don’t think again we’ll go (an adjacency violation).
    5. Time I haven’t got (fronting). Or:  Sean—he was a nice guy (left-dislocation).
    6. He ran and jumped and whooped for joy (polysyndeton: this uses coordinating conjunctions, more than one, in fact—but to paratactic not hypotactic effect).

    All the words, phrases or clauses carry the same weight: the relationship between them is supplied by the reader based on context or, more commonly, on the sequence in which they appear, i.e. prior = causal (post hoc ergo propter hoc). Simply speaking, parataxis uses compound sentences, or two or more simple sentences in combination.

    Paratactic style adds or accumulates — and is closer to everyday or conversational speech (basilect [cf. base, ult. f. basson "deeper," f. bathys "deep"]). It gives the effect of experience in process — of piling up, swiftness, and sometimes compression.

    Cf. running style, the opposite of periodic style; it uses anaphora (repetition), parenthesis, absolute phrases, etc. As in Laurence Sterne or Henry James.

    Here’s a couple of classic examples:

    Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better — splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners. . . . (Charles Dickens, Bleak House)

    I came, I saw, I conquered. (Caesar, in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar 50)

    Because such prose is less complex formally, it requires the reader to do more work to interpret the content of the sentence.

    Interestingly, Webster’s Third suggests in its definition of the related term parataxic that there might be such a thing as psychological parataxis (and, potentially, hypotaxis):

    a mode of individual experience in which persons, events, and relationships are perceived as discrete phenomena, in which occurrences in the real are seen as having no sequential or logical relationship [as they might in hypotaxis], but in which all external stimuli have only idiosyncratic autistic significance. (Quoted in Collins 68)


    N.B. To represent hypotaxis and parataxis as opposites isn’t strictly correct; parataxis covers a much broader range of devices.

    See Richard A. Lanham’s excellent introduction in Analyzing Prose (2nd ed. [1983; New York: Continuum, 2003]) and Christopher Collins’ extrapolation from these linguistic tactics to poetic tactics, see The Poetics of the Mind’s Eye: Literature and the Psychology of Imagination (Philadelphia, PA: UPP, 1991). For Halliday’s (somewhat eccentric) functional grammatical explanation, see Ismail S. Talib’s Literary Stylistics.

    Daniel Kies, Forms of Subordinate Clauses