A Structuralist Interlude

April 24, 2009 at 1:06 pm (Language as Medium) (, , , )

In the previous post I used the terms paradigmatic and syntagmatic from Saussure without really explaining what I meant by them or how contextually they apply to what I was talking about with respect to Silliman’s “The New Sentence” essay. So here I will try to explain how I understand Saussure’s terms and how they apply to this break in Language Writing that I am trying to articulate.

Saussure’s linguistic model posits two axis of linguistic relations: paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations between words. null Syntagmatic relationships between words are the relationships between words placed in a specific temporal or spatial order and constitute the syllogistic relationships of grammar and syntax. Thus by placing words in a spatial relationship a certain kind of connection arises between the words that allows for a larger unit integration of meaning. For instance placing the word “open” next to the word “door” we get the construction “open door” which describes a certain state of existence (open) of a particular object (the door). However, if we slightly change this order by adding a word between the two already here we get “open the door” which becomes a very different kind of construction (a command with an implied subject) and changes the fundamental nature of the word open in this context. The word “open”‘s meaning is contextually driven by the words in spatial relationship around it; this contextual meaning is a syntagmatic one, and the relationships between the words in either phrase are syntagmatic relations-in other words syntax.

The other axis of Saussure’s linguistic relationships is that of paradigm. The paradigmatic axis is an associative one, in factthat is what Saussure first calls it: “Associative Relations” (122ff). The relationships between the words are poetic and logical rather than temporal or spatial. It is about word choice rather than word order. The use of one particular word like “scarlet” over another particular word like “crimson” for instance is an exploration along paradigmatic axis. Similarly, the relationship between the words “swordfish” and “broadsword” is also along the paradigmatic axis in that the two words share a common root and are then quite easily associatively related.  This axis will become more important in later posts when I start talking about language writing which plays at the level of the word or the small linguistic unit.

Another way of thinking about these two types of relationships is that syntagmatic relationships are the relationships that allow for larger units of meaning to be constructed out of single words, and that paradigmatic relationships are the non-syntactic, associative relationships within our vocabularies and lexicons that inform our use and interpretation of particular words.

So far this has all been pretty standard structuralist linguistics. However, one of the things that Silliman points out is that the rules for grammar and syntax only extend so far as the sentence, and as such the syntagmatic only really refers to the accrual of meaning up to and to the point of the sentence-then something else takes over, this paragraph language integration which allows for higher order content. The syntagmatic relationships between words get re-set by the full stop. Meaning, however, does not. What Silliman is positing with the new sentence is an investigation of this fact. What happens when you only work with syntagms and functionally inhibit endophora? “So meanings appear only as acts of will.” or in other words, the integration of language into “meaning” structures larger than the sentence level is done purely through the intervention of the reader (Perelman 6). The sentence as a metrical unit of composition rather than as a logical unit of composition suggests the possibility of a radically different kind of linguistic integration-one based on poetic, connotative values rather than denotative, logical ones. Again, Perelman recognizes this with his enigmatic “This all connotes.” in the seventh (“words”) section of a.k.a. (52). The language integration of paragraphs of new sentences work along associative paths rather than along intentional, logical ones simply because the markers for that logical structure are not there:

There are two types of story: something happens, or it doesn’t have to. To register a change of state, water freezes, explorers bob on isolate floes. Taste deranges its choices. Perceptibility walks in backwards, disappears into the chair. At the end of the tale, the robot turns out to be made of flesh and blood.

(Perelman 36)


In this paragraph the logical links between the sentences are somewhere between tenuous and completely conjectural, yet the five sentences cohere as a unit and all add something to an overall gestalt of meaning. The integration occurs through the work done by the reader piecing the text together into a kind of “story” where “something happens, or it doesn’t have to.” Maybe this is all obvious, but one of the things that I find fascinating here is that by limiting the paragraph to the purely syntagmatic, the larger unit linguistic integration begins to resemble the paradigmatic. I might also add that Silliman’s “new sentence” is not really a new sentence, but a newly articulated idea about how sentences work together to form large semantic/linguistic/meaning structures.

Perelman, Bob. a.k.a.. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1984.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguisitics. trans.  Wade Baskin. New York, Toronto, and London: McGraw Hill, 1966.


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Language at the Level of the Sentence

April 22, 2009 at 3:41 pm (Language as Medium) (, , )

Language at the Level of the Sentence

The two main avenues that language writing seems to have followed were exploring language at the level of the sentence or phrase and exploring language at or below the level of the word-to use Saussure’s terms: the syntagmatic and the pardigmatic axis. In this entry I will be discussing the first of these two modes: language at the level of the sentence. Language, as structuralist and post-structuralist linguistics tells us, works through a temporal accrual of meaning from one word to the next, one phrase to the next, one sentence to the next and so forth. This articulation of language into higher order meaning structures is exactly what language writing sought to interrogate. The hierarchical structures of society are mimicked by the hierarchical structures imbedded in language itself, and for many of the language writers in order to begin to systematically change the external hierarchies (social, political, interpersonal, sexual, etc.), the hierarchies of language and textuality (the uses language is put to) must be interrogated and made visible. The implications of this are wide ranging, but for the moment I would like to look at just one of them. The political-power relationship between/among the reader-the text-the author is one of the prime examples of hierarchical structures imbedded in language and textuality that, following this line of thought, needs to be exploded into view.

The relationship between author and reader through the text is normally one of disproportionate power . . . the author controls the nature of the text and the communicative act-the reader passively absorbs and “learns” from the author. The text than is the tool that the author uses to control the reader-text as means of oppression. By writing a piece of transparent prose that manipulates a reader’s response through rational and emotional triggers and thereby making the reader become absorbed into the story or argument, the author is engaging in an asymmetric power relationship with the reader. The reader in turn is ceding control to the author-willingly if the choice is made consciously to participate in an escapist activity, un-willingly if there is no alternative presented. Transparency in a text on the one hand seems to indicate a kind of direct communication between the author and the reader, and on the other is a means for the author to oppress and control the reader . . . denying the reader a level of agency or participation in the communicative act. So, how might a text be written in such a way to shift the power structures around to the point that the reader and the author have equal stakes in the communicative act . . . how might a text be written so that the text is not being used as a tool of oppression?

Charles Bernstein answers this question in his poetic essay “The Artifice of Absorption” with ideas centered around anti-absorptive techniques. If a text constantly reminds the reader that it is text, not direct communication, then agency is re-inscribed on the readers part in terms of the communicative act. nullRon Silliman, I think, answers this question with his exploration of syllogism and narrative structures. He suggests that traditional prose “sentences take us not toward the recognition of language, but away from it” with their emphasis on a prolonged syllogistic movement and transparent integration into higher order units (82). Silliman suggests that language integrates at two separate levels: the simple sentence level or phrase level and the paragraph and above level (the last pointing to Stein’s “The difference between a short story and a paragraph. There is none” [How to Write 30]). Language integration works first at the level of grammar and then at a higher level that transcends simple linguistic units and move into “higher orders of meaning-such as emotion” (Silliman 87). This higher order of integration is the playground of fiction . . . it is the extended syllogistic movement between phrases and sentences created through the systematic use of anaphora and cataphora to create a complex web of sustained intention that results in large narrative and/or expository structures-prose. null What Silliman saw was by manipulating things at the lower level of integration, one could interfere with the higher order integration in such a way that the higher order structures become “unit[ies] of quantity, not logic or argument,” in other words paragraphs become structures of form, not content. Content is clearly resolved at the level of the sentence and not above. All higher order integration of textuality is in the reader’s hands and entirely due to the reader’s efforts. One result of this halting of the syllogistic movement at the level of the sentence is that it points us back to language and the immediacy of a reader’s interaction with the text rather than towards higher order structures which tend to require a reader’s ceding of control. In the case of works produced using these New Sentence techniques, higher order integration is in the reader’s control (conscious or not), and not primarily a function of authorially coded endophora. Sentences become metrical units rather than logical ones. The interlocutors meet at the level of the sentence.

Silliman, Ron. The New Sentnece. New York: Roof Books, 1987.

Stein, Gertrude. How to Write. New York: Dover pubs, 1975.

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Language Writing and the Medium of Language

April 20, 2009 at 12:20 pm (Language as Medium) ()

One of the things Language Writing did that was, I think, very important for the development of the language arts and poetry was to perform the essentially modernist task of investigating the medium of poetry. Out side of a very few cases (Gertrude Stein in particular) there had never been a concerted effort in English on the part of a group of writers to investigate the medium of language as such. A task that had been done repeatedly in the visual arts (minimalism, cubism, abstract expressionism, futurist sculpture and painting, etc.). Starting with ideas rooted in Marx and Saussure the language writers engaged in a decade plus exploration of language as medium and content, or rather what the possibilities were for the content of writing to be language itself.

This investigation, broadly speaking, went along two separate paths: an investigation at the level of the phrase, and an investigation at or below the level of the word. Many of the core language practitioners (from both coasts) worked in both modes. However, for a variety of reasons, the phrasal level of language writing seems to have been historically preferenced and has had the greatest influence on post-language writing here in North America. Over the next three or four posts I will be exploring what I mean by these modes of writing.

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The Medium of Poetry

April 17, 2009 at 10:42 pm (Language as Medium) (, , )

What is it to explore the medium of an art? Modernist artists tried to figure out what made painting different from other forms of 2-D art . . . namely the crisis was the advent of photography. Photography did the whole representation thing so much better than painting ever could that it called into question what really was the purpose of painting. What is it that painting does that separates it from all other aesthetic endeavors? Painting isn’t primarily about representation . . . it can be representational, but that doesn’t define what it is to be a painting. A painting is pigment applied to a surface—all else that follows is a refinement of that central quality. The act of painting is the act of applying pigment to a surface. So, an investigation of the medium of painting is an investigation of how pigments might be applied to surfaces: an investigation of texture, color, light, surface effects, brush stroke, pigment interactions, temporal effects on surface and pigment, and on and on.

What is it then to investigate the medium of poetry? What is it that poetry does that is different from other forms of expression? What is it that separates poetry from fiction for instance? Fiction, by its very nature, is better at narrative expression than poetry. Fiction works through prolonged syllogistic development of narrative structures. These structures can in themselves be very poetic, but at its root fiction is about prolonged engagement with narrative content. Conversely, poetry can engage in story telling—just look at Pope’s The Rape of the Lock or Homer or Resnikov’s Testimony or or or. Story telling though is not what makes poetry poetry. In fact I would argue that like painting, content does not define the art form. A particular content does not make something a poem; a poem is a poem irregardless of content. What makes a poem a poem is an attention to detail—to, as Creeley used to say, the particular. When a work preferences an attention to the particulars it is preferencing the poetic in its nature. the important thing about a poem is how something is told or said rather than what is being said: A. C. Swinbourne’s decadent word choice and over the top rhyme, Walt Whitman’s expansive line, William Carlos Williams’ line breaks, Edna St. Vincent Milay’s re-purposing the form of the sonnet, Allen Ginsberg’s catalogue, E. E. Cummings’ broken words, Basil Bunting’s, Maggie O’Sullivan’s, or Geraldine Monk’s sound of place, Steve McCaffery’s idiom of place, Ezra Pound’s composition through allusion, Ron Silliman’s composition through aggregation, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s place composition, Dieter Rot or Christian Bök’s iterations, Emily Dickinson’s punctuation, Bob Cobbings’ xeroxed recontextualizations and blow ups, . . . and the list just keeps expanding. The medium of poetry is the use of language, and as poets like Cobbing have taught us, the use of language extends to mark making and reading as seeing (or maybe seeing as/is reading). An investigation of the medium of poetry is an investigation of how language works and can be made to work.

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Hello and Welcome

April 17, 2009 at 9:49 pm (Uncategorized)

Hello and Welcome.

One of the things I want to use this blog to do is to explore some of my ideas around language and language art. So, for the first few entries I am going to set out some parameters for the discussion of language as a medium for aesthetic expression.

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