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)