Archive for the ‘linguistics’ Tag

Grammar, linguistic and literary production, and related matters: a note for Kent Johnson

If there’s one thing that indefatigable gadfly of a poet Kent Johnson and I share it’s a stubborn, irritable tick of concern with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poetics and their “post avant” wake (so wide now few poets or critics seem aware how much they operate within its horizon…).

Recently, his most recent online persona linked an article he had written for absent, “competence, linguistics, politics & post-avant matters”. Therein, he rightly takes to task Charles Bernstein et al. for their loosey-goosey way of discussing (and thinking about) language, grammar, ideology, and society. I can’t say I’m in full agreement with Johnson on all points, but the drift of his argument is surely in the right direction.

It was with no little delight I read in a recently acquired copy of Slavoj Žižek’s 2012 Less Than Nothing the following passage, which sums up pointedly and neatly the fundamental misunderstanding of language (the identification of linguistic or literary production with that of commodities) that underwrote, at least, the early days of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E:

The basic premise of discursive materialism was to conceive language itself as a mode of production, and to apply to it Marx’s logic of commodity fetishism. So, in the same way that, for Marx, the sphere of exchange also obliterates (renders invisible) its process of production, the linguistic exchange also obliterates the textual process that engenders meaning:  in a spontaneous fetishistic misperception, we experience the meaning of a word or act as something that is a direct property of the designated thing or process; that is, we overlook the complex field of discursive practices which produces this meaning. What one should focus on here is the fundamental ambiguity of this notion of linguistic fetishism:  is the idea that, in the good old modern way, we should distinguish between “objective” properties of things and our projections of meanings onto things, or are we dealing with the more radical linguistic version of transcendental constitution, for which the very idea of “objective reality” of “things existing out there, independently of our mind” is a “fetishistic illusion” which is blind to how our symbolic activity ontologically constitutes the very reality to which it “refers” or which it designates? Neither of these two options is correct—what one should drop is their underlying shared premise, the (crude, abstract-universal) homology between discursive “production” and material production. (7)

I am skeptical Žižek’s characteristically canny observation settles the question (one that extends back to the advent of philology (the science of language) and literature-as-such), but it is surely sharp enough to cut through much of the underbrush!

Barbarian benefits

Those who know will know the English word barbarian comes from the ancient Greek for foreigner, barbaros, one who speaks a foreign tongue so other it resembles a dog’s barking, bar bar! Presently, I’m in Würzburg, Germany to participate in a workshop at an academic conference, and, although I do speak some German, my fluency places me outside the community of those for whom German and its local dialect(s) are their mother tongue, which (along with a taste of the local, famous vintage) gives rise to the fragmentary notes that follow on this experience of being a linguistic outsider.

1. A while back Johannes Göransson posted on Montevidayo a short quotation from Yoko Tawada that made me impatient, as it seemed to draw too neat a contrast between the reflexive transparency of the mother tongue and the relative opacities of a foreign language. Those of us who have ever had to take a “critical” or “hermeneutic” stance toward a poem in our mother tongue, or one informed by linguistics, know that such a stance distances, renders foreign or other, the mother tongue, such that its strangeness and materiality come into view. One need think only of Roman Jakobson’s (in)famous analysis of the linguistics and consequent aesthetics of “I like Ike” to understand that all discourse is always susceptible to a “defamiliarizing” gaze. However, it struck me as I ordered this evening’s dinner that when I speak German I hear my voice as if it were someone else’s, very differently from how I hear myself speak my mother tongue, which speaking I identify with my thinking, my stream-of-consciousness, and hence with myself. Though I can readily function in German, in a very pedestrian manner, when I speak in German I don’t exactly hear myself speaking German but another, “me-speaking-German.” This effect arises in part due to the relative opacity of the German I speak and hear:  I may know (or believe I know) what I’m saying, but I still hear the sound of words more than their meanings, a kind of phonic residue that hangs in the air, the opposite of what happens when I speak English, where the sound of the words is muted by their meaning. Happily, there are moments of sufficient immersion, excitement or engagement, that are self-forgetful, when I do arrive at an immediate fluency, an identification. Of course, in such an instance, as the multilingual will know, when I speak German I am different from myself when I speak my mother-tongue. Fluent or not, the foreign tongue distances the speaker from (in this case) himself….

2. A tremendous benefit of abiding in a place alone where one is hardly fluent in the local dialect(s) is that one ends up talking to oneself, i.e., as Plato would have it at least, thinking, and, therefore, for a writer, in the best of all possible worlds, writing.