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.”)

Giorgio Agamben and Wallace Stevens

In his talk “What is a Paradigm?” (European Graduate School, Aug. 2002), Giorgio Agamben asserts that Wallace Stevens’ “Description Without Place” (The Sewanee Review 53.4 [Autumn 1945]: 559-65 [from JSTOR]) thematizes his idea of the paradigm as an exemplary figure or form — and, metaphysically, as a phenomenon, something that “shows itself”:

It is possible that to seem — it is to be,
As the sun is something seeming and it is.

The sun is an example. What it seems
It is and in such seeming all things are.

Thus things are like a seeming of the sun
Or like a seeming of the moon or night
Or sleep. [original typography restored]

Elsewhere and more famously, Stevens writes something similar: “Let be be finale of seem” (“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” [The Dial 73 (July 1922)]).

Agamben traces the idea back thru the paradigms of

  1. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962]): a. the scientific paradigm, e.g., hypothetico-deductive method (“what the members of a certain scientific community have in common, that is to say, the whole of techniques, patents and values shared by the members of the community”); b. the model/example, i.e., a paradigm case (“a single element of a whole . . . which act[s] as a common model or an example”); and
  2. Kant (Critique of Judgment [1790]): the universal assent that marks aesthetic judgment (“a universal rule which cannot be stated”); and elsewhere,
  3. Aristotle (Prior Analytics 69a: 16-19 [350 BCE]): the analogy of part to part (as against induction: part to whole, or deduction: whole to part), and
  4. Plato (Timaeus [c.360 BCE]): the Form; nonetheless, he is really indebted to
  5. Foucault (The Order of Things [1966]): the episteme.

(He very much has the classical etymology of the word in mind: it is from Late Latin paradigma “pattern, example,” from the Greek paradeigma “pattern, model,” from paradeiknynai “exhibit, represent,” literally “show side by side,” from para- “beside” + deiknynai “to show.”)

Thus, for Agamben, the paradigm is “a hypothesis treated and exposed as such . . . It is a presupposition whose intelligibility is no more presupposed but exposed, so that it allows us to reach an unpresupposed principle.” Thus, it is “something which is what it seems. In it being and seeming are undecidable.”

He uses the example of Foucault’s panopticon, which “a concrete, singular, historical phenomenon,” but at the same time “a model of functioning which can be generalized”:

the panopticon functions as a paradigm, as an example which defines the intelligibility of the set to which it belongs [i.e., the panopticon means panopticism] and at the same time which it constitutes [i.e, the panopticon creates panopticism]. Foucault always works in this way. There is always a concrete phenomenon — the confession, the juridical inquiry, etc. — which functions as a paradigm, because it will decide a whole problematic context which it both constitutes and makes intelligible.

And adds:

This is what distinguishes Foucault’s work from the work of a historian. It has often been observed that Foucault as a historian has shown the superiority of contexts created through metaphors [e.g., the panopticon] to the context created by chronological or geographical caesuras, that is to say, by metonymical contexts [e.g., the Classical episteme (cf. Steiner on The Order of Things)].

For him, an example is the reverse of his well-known exception (the fullest discussion of the logic of the exception is in Homo Sacer in the section called “The Paradox of Sovereignty” [12ff.]):

If we define the exception as an inclusive exclusion, in which something is included by means of its exclusion, the example functions as an exclusive inclusion.

(To misapply Badiou, the example represents the set, but in doing so no longer belongs to it; the exception belongs to the set by not being represented in it [Homo Sacer 21].)

See Homo Sacer 20:

Take the case of the grammatical example . . . : the paradox here is that a single utterance in no way distinguished from others of its kind is isolated from them precisely insofar as it belongs to them. If the syntagm “I love you” is uttered as an example of a performative speech act, then this syntagm both cannot be understood as in a normal context and yet still must be treated as a real utterance in order for it to be taken as an example. What the example shows is its belonging to a class, but for this very reason the example steps out of its class in the very moment in which it exhibits and delimits it. . . . If one now asks if the rule applies to the example, the answer is not easy, since the rule applies to the example only as to a normal case and obviously not as to an example. The example is thus excluded from the normal case not because it does not belong to it but, on the contrary, because it exhibits its own belonging to it. The example is truly a paradigm in the etymological sense: it is what is “shown beside,” and a class can contain everything except its own paradigm.

He discusses paradigms in The Coming Community and Potentialities (the best explication of the idea is in Leland De la Durantaye’s Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction [225].)

— — —

Alain Badiou also cites the poem in “Democracy, Politics and Philosophy” (2006; see also Badiou’s “Drawing,” Lacanian Ink 28 (2006): 42-48 and Slavoj Zizek, “Excursions into Philosophy“).

William Carlos Williams responds to it in “A Place (Any Place) to Transcend All Places” (The Kenyon Review 8.1 [Winter 1946]: 55-58 [from JSTOR]).

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)

    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

    Infinite Yeast: Parenthetical Phrases

    A way to add stuff to sentences without having to use coordinate or subordinate clauses (ands or becauses, etc.), or relative phrases (whichs, etc.), is to use parenthetical phrases or clauses of some sort (phrases have no verb, clauses do). As Infinite Summer suggests at Conversational Reading, DFW often modified this way:

    David Foster Wallace’s long, grandly periodic sentences, which often resemble nothing so much as a prolonged clay court baseline rally[—]multiple subordinations, extended parentheticals, and drifting subject matter[—]are enough to give a prescriptive grammarian palpitations.

    It takes a while to get into in DFW—and it takes practice to do well (see James Tanner’s and John August’s tips on doing it à la DFW). Here’s a sentence/paragraph from “Order and Flux in Northampton” (Conjunctions 17 [Fall 1991]):

    Myrnaloy Trask, trained Reproduction Technician, unmarried woman, vegetarian, flower-child tinged faintly with wither, overseer and editor of Announcement and Response at the ten-foot-by-ten-foot communicative hub of a dizzying wheel of leftist low-sodium aesthetes, a woman politically correct, active in relevant causes, slatternly but not unerotic, all-weather wearer of frayed denim skirts and wool knee-socks, sexually troubled, ambiguous sexual past, owner of one spectacularly incontinent Setter/Retriever bitch, Nixon, so named by friend Don Megala because of the dog’s infrangible habit of shitting where it eats: Myrnaloy has eyes only for Don Megala: Don Megala, middle-aged liberal, would-be drifter, maker of antique dulcimers by vocation, by calling a professional student, a haunter of graduate hallways, adrift, holding fractions of Ph.D.’s in everything from Celtic phonetics to the sociobiology of fluids from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, presently at work on his seventh and potentially finest unfinished dissertation, an exhaustive study of Stephen Dedalus’s sublimated oedipal necrophilia vis à vis Mrs. D. in Ulysses, an essay tentatively titled “The Ineluctable Modality of the Ineluctably Modal.”

    Rhetorically speaking, parenthesis (“juxtaposition”) is a “figure of disorder,” a kind of hyperbaton (“transposition”) or departure from standard word order (a scheme in linguistics).

    The other ones commonly used in English are

    • hysteron proteron (“latter first”): the reversal of the temporal or logical order, e.g., “Put on your shoes and socks”;
    • anastrophe (“turning about”), e.g., “the body beautiful”;
    • tmesis (“cutting”), e.g. “a-whole-nother”;
    • apposition (“placing near to”), e.g., “the bagel, the wonder bread of the Poles, . . . .”
    Ways we can modify the sentence parenthetically

    Introductory phrase

    Once upon a time, there was a bagel (or not . . .).


    He had the last bagel, honey.


    Wtf, he ate the bagel!


    My girl, though otherwise pretty picky, likes her bagel buttered.


    a noun phrase

    it functions as an adjective to modify a noun

    Our flatmate, a classic narcissistic personality disordered youth, scoffed the bagel we’d stashed behind the vege drawer.

    Absolute phrase

    a noun + some other words (often a participle + a prepositional phrase, as here)

    it functions as an adjective to modify an entire sentence, in particular, the subject

    Eyes lit with incipient lust, my girl devoured the bagel mentally.

    Free (or non-restrictive) modifier

    a  participle (often) + a noun, free in its placement

    it functions as an adverb to modify the entire sentence, in particular, the verb

    Masticating each morsel with anorectic loathing, she put paid to the last skinny crust of the freezer-burnt loaf.

    Resumptive modifier

    it repeats a word from the previous clause and continues

    And I was the bagel, the bagel she had buttered and devoured (mentally).

    Summative modifier

    it sums up the previous clause and continues

    We had revenge bagel, a beautiful thing it was.

    (Note that parenthetical phrases are always separated off with commas. For greater emphasis we can use dashes, for clarity parentheses.)

    Places we can modify the sentence parenthetically . . .

    • left-branching/initial modification [→ a periodic sentence, i.e. a sentence that is not grammatically complete until the final clause or phrase—and relies on hypotaxis],
    • mid-branching/medial modification,
    • right-branching/final modification [→ a cumulative sentence, i.e. a sentence that builds on a grammatically complete initial clause or grammatically completes an initial phrase—and still relies on hypotaxis; or a continuous or running sentence, which adds phrase onto phrase, and clause onto clause—and instead relies on parataxis].

    The writing zone as “writing-intensive zone” (Wendy Bishop)

    Wendy Bishop, “Contracts, Radical Revision, Portfolios, and the Risks of Writing,” ed. Anna Leahy, Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2005) 109-20.

    Further to my summary of Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking,” a summary of Bishop’s recipe for “a ‘writing-intensive’ zone,” which focusses on

    how evaluation discourages and encourages student writers’ entry into the revision process and concurrently supports them in learning to understand themselves as writers

    i.e. “authority-conscious pedagogy” (109).

    First off, using portfolios to create an “evaluation-free zone” (Elbow 1993) allows us to focus on revision and risk. Revision is compelled by the course contract, and risk—a.k.a. “experimentation” (115)—is practised in our writing (and in the zone more generally—and, needless to say, in our teaching).

    Second, setting up an atmosphere of risk in the writing zone encourages “going public,” not only with “therapeutic” disclosure but also “writerly disclosure” (112). Of course, it requires that readers of this disclosure be trained to help improve it.

    Third, as a consequence of the first and second ingredients, creating “classroom carnival, turning the text upside down”—and the hierarchy and codes of the university (115). (This sense of carnival I call decryption and deformance.)

    Fourth, recognising that the teacher is an authority, who “tell[s] students not what to write, but to write” (113). That is to say, the writing zone is not just a risky and upside-down place, a place where “trust” must prevail, it is also a place where people are compelled to write, and thus, inevitably, a place of “resistance” (118).

    The resistance is at least fourfold, then: against public disclosure and compulsion, against our preconceptions of writing and the university, and against the university and its codes—not to mention, against that common enemy of writers: resistant material.)

    (Bishop takes as a given reading [of our own, and others’ unpublished and published writing], drafting, and a language for talking about reading and writing.)