Grammar, Burroughs, and Making New Sense
Grammar is strange. It is the way different things can go together in order to make sense. We might say grammar is the ethics of sense. Sense just is — or, rather, sense just happens: a thing enjoys sense from the get go. Grammar is the logic of different senses working together.
Burroughs claims that heterosexuality and the sequence of life and death are inter-related grammars supported by the grammar of the word and its linear insistence on meaning. Heterosexuality and the time-birth-death gimmick — as he calls it — try to pass themselves off as common sense: they just are the way things are.
But there are other ways of making sense, other ways of organizing bodies, other grammars. When Burroughs cuts the word and its linear/causal insistence, he seeks to cut these logics, ushering in new modes of reproduction (scissors!) and new modes of life (immortality through writing).
When we first think of grammar, however, we think of language. After all, without grammar, all we'd have is a string of random words: nonsense. The space, for instance, is a basic ethical demand of language: give each word its own space. For the most part, this is a good rule that preventsalotofconusionandnoise. But much of what we call grammar is silly. The right to joyfully split an infinitive is, to me, inalienable.
Linguistic grammar organizes the way words can go together to make sense — the way subjects relate to objects via verbs, the way words are inflected as they go: I becomes me; he becomes him; am becomes is becomes are. Once strung together, the words conspire to make sense.
Grammar, then, is quite powerful. But it does not sit outside the world like some god on high. Grammar is ideological. And what makes it so powerful, so insidious, is that it passes itself off as making "common sense" — as if common sense were not ideological.
English, for instance, demands that a subject is distinct from a verb; that the verb is inflected by this subject; and that this subject acts on an object. Sounds like common sense, sure, but it's not: it privileges a subject as the dominant actor distinct from his or her action. Nietzsche discusses this in On the Genealogy of Morals: our grammar posits a doer behind the deed when all there is is the deed. We say the moon rises — as if the moon could do anything else! The moon doesn't rise. The moon moons.
There are, then, different grammars that make different senses. Burroughs and Brion Gysin used the cut-up to push at grammar to create different kinds of sense — to see if they could create new ways of going, new ethics of being, new constructions of time (read Burroughs' essay). Here's a cut up:
a blow of
one step/ / /
This teeters on the edge of sense, slipping into chaos and back with each read. Burroughs was interested in creating a grammar of simultaneity, some way to make different times speak at once. He was frustrated with the inherited grammar and its causal linearity. He preferred the grammar of film that could show multiple times all at once. And so he treated words like images, streaming them as if on a reel, their only inherent connection being contiguity but creating sense anyway on the fly.
Now consider the conversation which is an odd kind of cut up or game of exquisite corpse, all parties contributing to the collective sense on the fly. Have you ever been in a conversation and, after about a minute, you have no idea what you're talking about? Somehow, the discussion shifts from point A to point G to point B to point A to point Z via an allusion to point G. Conversations teeter on the edge of sense, occasionally detouring into nonsense before returning to a different sense all together. This is one pleasure of the conversation — its non-linearity.
In the workplace, this is quite counterproductive. And capital must produce more capital! That's why, at work, there is often one person who tries to steer the sense, stipulate it, bind it, move it along a linear trajectory. This is a very useful person. That conference room, with all its voices saying this and that, is a grammar of the social operating within a grammar of language.
We can talk about the grammars of this and that — the grammar of language, of film, of images, of love. I like that phrase: the grammar of love.