11.06.2015

Sense & Sentence


We take sentences for granted. Of course we write in sentences. It's how we make sense to one another. Or, well, that's not quite right as we don't always speak in sentences and we understand each other, more or less. So we demand that we all write in sentences because, uh, hmn, uhhhhh...why?

The sentence is a sense machine, a technology that takes up various elements — doers, actions, qualifiers, objects — and distributes them in a certain relationship. In its rules of operation, there are agents independent of action — the I is distinct from the seeing, running, reading — that do things to and with and for and toward the world. These terms of distribution and operation are themselves premised on certain assumptions, for instance, that doers and actions are in fact distinct.

Nietzsche says this a lie. The agent and the action are not separate; there is no doer behind the deed. In his example, the lightning doesn't strike. Because what would lighting be if it wasn't striking? You can't separate lightning from striking. And yet that is precisely what the sentence mandates we do. In Nietzsche's grammar, lightning lightnings Or, better, just lightning — as a gerund, an action as a form (and vice versa). 

But if you were to write that, your teachers and everyone else for that matter would correct you. That's not a proper sentence, the comments would read in the margins. The demand to write in sentences is a demand to make a certain sense that is linear, in which distinct bodies do things to other bodies. To write in sentences is to forge an entire cosmos with its own ideology, its physical and ethical laws, its own proscriptions and way of meting out justice (those red marks on your school essays!). But there are other universes of sense with different laws and different ethics.

William Burroughs refused the sentence as the dominant mode of sense making. His sentences sometimes lack subjects or verbs; subject and verb don't always agree; sentences meander without finishing. Often, he writes in fragments, word-images, a kind of collage: Outside a Palm Beach bungalow waiting for a taxi to the airport. My mother’s kind, unhappy face, last time I ever saw her. Really a blessing. She had been ill for a long time. My father’s dead face in the crematorium. “Too late. Over from Cobblestone Gardens.”

Poetry, of course, rarely operates with sentences. See how ee cummings breaks sense in order to create friction as words starts to collide, running into commas, the order of sentences giving way to the poignancy of desire, of longing. The experience insinuates itself into the exposition, making the linearity stop and present itself as immediate and palpable.


i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body.  i like what it does,
i like its hows.  i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones,and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric furr,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new


This all makes different sense. As David Theruailt (read his great blog), Sean Ziebarth (his prodigious blog), and I were discussing the other day over a leisurely crab cake conversations Mermen posters and pedagogic allusions, fragments offer a sense of sense that often feels right, that articulates the fragmentation of thought and life and meaning and experience that we all know so well. And yet we continue to teach the sentence as if it were the only way to write and, well, make sense. As if everything ordered and in its place were somehow edifying rather than stultifying.

But what if we taught writing differently. What if we focused on different architectures of sense —  conceptual, narrative, affective, purely linguistical or rhetorical (such as repetition, alliteration, and the like), through associations of form, meaning, history. What if we taught the rhythm of sense making that moves between and among meaning and mood, affect and association. What would its pedagogy look like? What new kinds of comments would show up in the margins?

Mind you, I like the sentence. Besides being highly effective for a certain mode of exposition, I like it precisely because of its strictures, because it sets limits. Which is a constant challenge: how do I make this sentence work, wind, fly, meander, drift? How do I make this linear trajectory multiple? How can I take in this technology and put it to other uses?

The sentence, then, as one mode of sense among many. Too much fragmentation and we enter chaos — not necessarily nonsense but no-sense. Nonsense can be affective, effective. No-sense is a still birth. It's a subtle balance, this sense, perched as it is on the frontier of form and becoming, shape and movement, chaos and order.

Burroughs always traveled with his writing tools: a typewriter, a box of writing cut up into pieces, and a pair of scissors. Sense is not always linear as the sentence imagines it. Sense goes in different directions, often all at once. It stops and starts again. It folds and breaks and leads us astray in the best possible way. It at once provides footing and undoes that footing. Which is what all great writing does. It doesn't just lead from subject through verb to object. It situates us at the cusp of chaos, running the seam of flux and form.

No comments: