1| Writing Language Writing: A Preface (Of Sorts)
Problems begin when people speak, Beckett wrote, referring to what a flawed instrument the “mirror” of language is for reflecting the human condition. And the animal condition. And the condition of vegetables and minerals as well as God, or the unconscious, or other entities, ideas, and abstractions with far less body, including language itself. Yet it is the means by which we know. And how we order our world. It determines who serves and who is served, and even who lives or dies. To varying degrees, nearly all the authors in this anthology have, by a variety of means, subverted the passage of language from use, to repetition, to convention. But the works in this cluster do so at the order of the word, or the syllable, in order to focus attention on the workings of language itself. “Why don’t you write like I talk?” a reporter once asked Gertrude Stein. Stein replied with an answer that much conceptual writing asks (no matter what else it also asks): “Why don’t you talk like I write?
Embedded in this question is an even more problematic one: How have our social practices allowed some language practices to emerge (e.g., political, religious, or epistemological), and be valorized, or demonized and / or normalized? Why do we think the way the reporter talks is normal? How, for example, are we able to take for granted, as Paul Ricoeur asks, the existence of a sentence like “Tomorrow was Christmas”? That is, how are we even able to make sense of a sentence that describes an event to take place in the future but uses the past tense? Or what about the opening line of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Years later, when he was to face the firing squad, General Buendía thought back and remembered the time his father took him to discover ice.” If one thinks about it, the temporal backflips this sentence does are breathtaking, leaping ahead as it does, to recall a future memory of a time that takes place before the present of the sentence. Ricoeur’s answer is that systems of grammar are like grids that we use to map unmediated experience. That is, these grids are like the one that Alberti would look at subjects through in order to determine spatial relations between their body parts in order to paint them using linear perspective. In the case of grammar, it is the form of tenses, for example, that conveys relationships between the author and the text, the reader and the text, and between characters within a text. That is, much of the meaning of a text is inherent in its form, the manifestation of the underlying concept. And then, repetition hardens these concepts into “the way we talk.”
This is not only a formal or aesthetic choice(s)— you say toeMAEto, I say toMAtoe— for they carry an underlying assumption that to use a grid to organize a view will result in a particular kind of art (an emphasis on mimesis, rendered in three-point perspective) as surely as representing the world via the conventions of the world is to reinforce the status quo (Why is God referred to as 'He'?).
Conversely, to recast language in ways that require readers to relearn their own language foregrounds the accidents of history, or convention, or imposition of will: it draws attention to what an accident of history usage can be, as well as the power relations that flow from the requirements of language as an organizing system: William Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife stages the hermeneutic circle as a typographical and linguistic spiral where repetition turns specific ideas into general ideas that mutate back into specific ideas far from their origins. Consider the names for plumbing parts, Gass writes, derived from names for body parts— elbow, nipple— while his narrator wonders, just before Jews go up chimneys as smoke, why it is so easy to equate people with objects? When Ben Marcus creates an invented language by swapping words and usage (e.g., ‘my error’ for ‘penis’) or by writing as if a metaphor were literal (our all- too human “suits of meat”), he doesn’t do so to make speech strange so much as to expose power relationships naturalized in language, and so overlooked by its users. He exposes hierarchies that have become embedded in language, or “natural” through familiarity. When Claudia Rankine makes microaggressions rhyme, it isn’t to make language new so much as to make visible what is already present: the toxic atmosphere unwittingly (or intentionally) created by words and deeds. When Lynne Tillman or Ron Silliman creates a language of non sequiturs, invented vocabulary, fractures, and enjambments— when they frustrate expectations—they foreground how easily we sleepwalk down the ruts of everyday speech. That is, the writers in this section do not have a unified agenda or aesthetic; they do not make language strange for the sake of strangeness even if there is often delight in this strangeness. And yet the works on the following pages often do demonstrate how the grid, like the rules of any game, make possible some outcomes while ruling out others. They demonstrate how language can generate ideas of what is or isn't "realistic" or normal. Or even possible. They show us the grid, as well as the view through it.
Note: Statements by the authors about their work can be found at: