3.21.2011

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:

Raise everywhere
a blow of
one step/ / /


and the

Ta T
he too


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.

9 comments:

Chad Lott said...

Elevator Pitch: Gysin/Burroughs instant cut up app.

Alternate: Dream Machine pattern generator for iPad.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I love it. But you know they are all over the web. I assume someone's done an app. Maybe not. Dream machine, too: at least there are lots of light show apps.

Keep thinking! Make us rich!

Chad Lott said...

I'm too slow this time:

http://boingboing.net/2010/10/05/gysin-dream-machine.html

Daniel Coffeen said...

Doh! The kids these daze don't miss a thing — I'm always too slow.

drip said...

I have found that grammar has meaning. In other words, grammar is not just a structure, or an analytical tool, but an actual part of the information conveyed, disguised as a mere neutral vector. Is that what you are saying? Or am I missing your point (again).

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Drip: Yes yes: grammar is necessarily information. I like your construction better than my contrived version. My point, too, is that there are multiple grammars that perform, facilitate, different kinds of sense.

drip said...

Well, I'll try the grammar of language for a while and then see what I can dig up for other grammars. It wasn't until I started teaching English as a second language that it even occurred to me that the grammar itself conveyed meaning other than the words themselves and as someone who has read and written, listened and spoken to make a living for most of the last 35 years, I am having enough trouble untangling language. Then I'll try love. Thanks.

jemtallon said...

Yes! Observe programming languages. There is a rhythm and flow to constructing an object from these mathematical grammars. Even programmers speaking the same computer language write and read them differently but the computer responds to our prose in the same predictable ways. We take the physical, describe it in grammars both humans and computers speak, and computers will it into their mathematical universe. So interesting that hundreds of grammars exist to perform that same function, just as spoken languages perform the same function, but with different subtle focus. And all to follow this "common-sense" culture - of time or action or mathematics.

dustygravel said...

Good good I love it! I think of this as a streamlining(not a reduction but a revamping) of what grammar can and should be. I recognize that gaging grammar as quite powerful as opposed to omnipotent is a crucial move in that streamlining.


The stoics certainly thought grammar was powerful.
They thought that allegory and etymology, subsets of classical grammar, where the keys to all wisdom. (Deleuze critics this sentiment as it appears in Freud and Jung, favoring "the unconscious as a factory" over this "classical theater".)

I have to say as much as I hate freud and, love the infinite flux of desiring-production production production, I also truly enjoy that pre-socratic hermeneutic alchemy.

I love the idea of filmic grammar, and the non-lineare grammar of discussion shifts are great too but, I have to say the cut up is lost on me. I like "Ah Pook". Is that a cut up?