Of Grammar

Grammar's a great word. Gram is something written or letters or writing itself (this of telegram).  When I think about that, I see grammar as one who forges with words. Forges is funny in that it means to fake as well as to create. Funny, as well, that grammar came to mean the rules of forging as distinct from the act of forging.

Whence rules? Sure, there's something to be said for creating consistency in communication so that we can understand each other and hence do business, mate, forge a society and culture (there's that forge again!). On the other hand, who gets to make up these rules? And, for that matter, are we sure we want and even need to forge such communicative commonality? I mean, if I want you to understand me, I'll communicate in such a way that you can and do. This happens all the time when traveling — we gesture, gesticulate, stick words together like blocks. And, often, it works: we forge sense together. But that's between you and me, not some dusty grammar book and me.

The act of forging is always grammatical. It puts things together according to a logic, a sense that may be internal rather than external, immanent rather than extrinsic, but with sense, nonetheless. Burroughs and Brion Gysin used something called the cutup to write. The name of the method is self-explanatory. Here's an example of a cut up Rimbaud poem:

Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.

The great skies are open. Candor of vapor and tent spitting blood laugh and drunken penance.

Promenade of wine perfume opens slow bottle.

The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist. 

Fragments of sense and image shards and odd euphonies emerge from putting things together. This doesn't mean that if you put any things together they'll be so conspicuously enticing. But, I have to tell you, most people who follow the so-called rules of grammar don't always create something meaningful and enticing. In fact, I might go so far as to say that most writing, with its staid grammar, is lousy. Which isn't necessarily the fault of the rules.

Which is my point. Sense comes from lots of things, lots of places; it comes from juxtaposition, from the relationship between things. The best sense emerges in surprising ways. And some of the best sense doesn't make sense, not in that sense of the word sense. But it does make sense in the sense that it forges sense, much as a blacksmith forges metal into, I don't know, a horseshoe or some primal, elongated whimsy.

Grammar from a book is akin to a moral code. It stands outside the fray, determining from afar. Thou shalt not diddle thy neighbor's wife! Even if the wife is miserable in her present relationship and the two of you are in mad love! Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition! Even if it means doing so makes perfect sense and not ending in a preposition is, in fact, confusing and douchey!

The grammar I'm talking about is what Deleuze would call an ethics — the emergent terms of behavior between things, in this case, words and punctuation. Here, grammar becomes a kind of verb, the very act of putting things together in order to forge sense. The risk, of course, is that you create no sense, or nonsense (I have to think about what that is), or boring sense. But that's a risk worth taking.


Wesley Norman said...

Found this after listening to your Rhetoric 10 lectures on iTunesU. Soooo glad you guys put those up for people to freely listen to. You have quite the gift for making this subject consistently fascinating and unpredictable. I'm hoping to imbue my own educational topics with a similar level of intrigue when I get the opportunity to teach.

Daniel Coffeen said...

You're very kind — thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it tremendously. It's rather strange writing into the abyss; it's nice to hear an echo, as it were.