Response to O. Mayeux

To begin with two quotations - a double epigraph, of sorts: Bjork: ‘I thought I could control freedom/how Scandinavian of me!’ Ted Sider: ‘If something is made of atomless gunk then it divides forever into smaller and smaller parts - it is infinitely divisible. However, a line segment is infinitely divisible, and yet has atomic parts: the points. A hunk of gunk does not even have atomic parts ‘at infinity’; all parts of such an object have proper parts’

Why would I want to start by talking about Bjork? Bjork’s native Icelandic is a kind of ur-English. Old English, in many respects, bears more similarity to modern Icelandic than to modern English, which latter was substantially changed following the 12th-century invasion of the Normans.

Moreover, it’s practically a cliché these days to note that Icelandic is one of the few languages that has remained relatively unchanged over a long period of time (cf. ’you can still read the sagas if you learn Icelandic today’) -> It seems important to me that, in fact, this slow rate of change is largely because of Iceland’s geography, and the reality that it is an isolated country. Geography is intimately related to the development and transformations of language, despite what contemporary linguistics says about universal elements embedded in all languages, and we can all take another look at the music video for ‘Joga’ if we need proof of this…

This fact, the geography present in language, should be taken as of a piece with the prevalence of bodily/animal structures in Bjork’s lyrics (I am thinking particularly of ‘Medulla’).

The point I am trying to make here is a dual one: 1) Bjork approaches languages through [the sounds of] the body, and 2) Bjork, in a certain sense, makes a creole of English. We will return to this second point in the paragraph below. For now, however, let us think briefly about what it means for Bjork to come to language in biological time, rather than, say, the tempo of discourse (Janacek would be the artist who uses the spoken word as a structure, and sort of Wagner, also)

Bjork knows that she uses biology in this way, obviously, and it is increasingly part of the image she cultivates for herself (see the music video for ‘Bachelorette’, which begins with the singer digging a book out of the ground, followed by the acting out of a pre-scripted existence, and ending in nightmarish scenes of a city being consumed by a resurgent nature; more generally, consider the latest album, ‘Biophilia’ - perhaps the clearest formulation of her programme to date! - where hybrid electro-mechanical instruments were created specifically for the recording of the album). If language is in some senses a productive/computational machine - and in fact it is here that O Mayeux’s poetic examples come into play, in particular ‘Code’ and ‘3SG.MASC.ACC’ - it must rest uneasily, in Bjork’s music, on the foundations of flesh, which, after all, is locked into the time of decay, rebirth (sexuality), and fragility. But more on this later. (What I want to say for now is that: language perishes, just like all other things. Phonology is probably the discipline which does best at linking the fleshly nature of language with its abstract ‘sense’).

My second point: Bjork’s music, because it is largely sung in English, an English heavily inflected by Icelandic intonation, pushes this English back to its roots (that is to say, roots like the roots of the tree in ‘Bachelorette’ - if this tree-image/idea of language [inherited from Chomsky?] were to be, for a moment, believed - takes English back towards its mother-tongue Old English); Icelandic debases English, makes it a creole. Creole like a child’s language. And it’s true that if we listen closely to Bjork’s music, we can hear that she pays intricate attention to the phonemes of the word (the backing track in ‘Triumph of a Heart’ is composed of distorted rapping human voices, and the music video features the singer embracing a cat who occupies the role of a lover). Indeed, sometimes the words that Bjork sings are incomprehensible; ‘how Scandinavian of me’; I originally heard this - and for a long time, until a friend corrected me - as pure noise.

It is here that the third of O Mayeux’s poems which I wish to draw attention to, ‘analphabète’, which in French means ‘illiterate’. Like Bjork’s songs, ‘analphabète’ tunes in and out of a channel of pure noise, but it’s a noise which does something to us.

Collage functions on the splitting up of the world into atomic units which can then be arbitrarily scrambled together in order to produce a re-presentation. The creole poem of O M functions in such a way, at both the level of the word and of the morpheme. ‘analphabète’ may mean ‘illiterate’; it is also the stuttering (‘bègue’) of the creole speaker towards an alphabet; indeed, illiteracy is the outcome of the alphabet’s transformation through French (‘l’alphabet’), then English (‘an alphabet’) and finally down into this weird hybrid which perhaps means nothing. ‘I MUST BE REDUCED’ says the voiceless narrator of O M’s [later] ‘Code’; creole is a redux of language par excellence.

Like Bjork’s music, too, the syntax of this collage ‘analphabète’ is musical - ‘updown uptown’ and the ‘lektrisite’ (= readability? ‘electricity’?) of Mississippi delta jazz. Take the line ‘pou justifier jistifyé zheestifee-ey’, where the phonemes of the creole are ground down from the composed French through the creole notation and into an aggressive representation of the sounds themselves; aggressive because it is foreign to French and to English. ‘Zheestifee-ey’ forces the reader to pronounce the word - almost out loud! - in order for her to know what it means (in English = ‘justify’). It makes the reader become a speaker of the creole. It effectuates the collaging operation of the creole - the devaluation/reduction of the word to its constituent parts - at the level of the phoneme/morpheme (‘codeswitché codemixé codefluxé’).

Syntax is broken at the end of the poem with ‘chants inélégants’, and the clearer definition of the French/English boundary; it is not clear whether this ‘chants inélégants’ stands in apposition to the previous couple of lines, which after all have concluded (rhythmically speaking, with the triple stress on ‘bleeding out’) so well. They are islanded.

‘move through and select’ we are told by the author of ‘analphabète’, and so from the outset, his poem too is mechanical, a kind of mechanical cabaret - or, better, a piece of ragtime music recorded with mechanical precision onto a piano role; indeed, it is like the early experiments of Conlon Nancarrow. But I am getting ahead of myself, and so will back up, slightly: ’the syntax of struggle does not suffice’.

The presiding tension - indeed, the musical tension - of ‘analphabète’ is that ‘il fallut que la lettre fût illetrée’ in order for the creole to come into being in the first place. It must be purely oral/aural. Try reading the lyrics to a Bjork song written down on paper and you will lose half their meaning. An opposite strategy is taken in one of O M’s other poems ‘3SG.MASC.ACC’, which is - if we are to stick with genre for the time being - loosely a kind of ‘found’ poem . The elements here are not, 2 strictly speaking, those of language: the collaging effort is instead focused on assembling various fragments of images. These images are a kind of detritus, washed-up words found in places where words and objects are not intended to be poetic, but instead be imperative; sort of words drawn out of the collective memory constituted by commerce (the language of commerce - even of advertising, if only subversively - is inherently imperative). The fact that these bits are brought together in this way highlights the syntax of the operation - it is the fact of being together in one place (one frame, a canvas) which makes these disparate elements up into ‘3SG.MASC.ACC’.

From the depths of a creole, then, we have instead arrived at a place where English has become purely superficial, and where the reorganisation of these surface forms hopes to pierce through to significance (a poem about subjective fragility written in the fragments of objectivity).

‘Code’, too, has an intimate relationship with the image (if we are to establish image-music as a dichotomy for helping us think about the creole poem (music) in opposition to the others (images); at least, we will bear with this dichotomy for now!)

What is crucial here (‘Code’) is that the form of a Python program is taken and turned into a poem; 3 the author has not simply written a program to produce poetry as an output. Again, then, we have an example which on the surface is like ‘3SG.MASC.ACC’. Only this time the syntax is dictated by the syntax of the programming language, which is necessarily impoverished when contrasted with that of natural language (computing syntax is built with a purely functional aim: the processing and manipulation of information).

What is fascinating about this example is the author’s choice of a dead metaphor, ‘the wolf’, in a poem dealing with computing (it is like importing a software package from an outdated system). The metaphor is not established within the poem, instead simply used as if its meaning/implication is evident. This poem is almost a joke. It is mocking the seriousness of the computer program, and at the same time, uses a trite metaphor to convey this fact, because how could a computer program ever convey feelings, and so create metaphor that was truly emotive?

…It is nonetheless this metaphor which brings a human/animalistic element into the code (like the techno/animal fusion of Bjork’s songs), and, I believe, draws it closer to the author’s creole example. For a creole, too, is a question of selection amongst an array of elements [‘words’] which are more or less close to the ‘native’ language; the fluidity of the creole allows O M to write lines like ‘codeswitché codemixé codefluxé; / sé toujou été jist comme ça’.

This ‘toujou’ (= ‘always’), moreover, draws attention to the fact that the creole - like the programming language - can have no real history, that is, a history demarcated by memorialised events, events that have become symbolic. (As with Bjork’s music, history, for creole, is biological, and it just goes on from instant to instant: ‘those beaux mots they ached sad / rust-coloured in the songs we sung’).

To come back to this metaphor: a dead metaphor is a metaphor consigned to history. The title of the poem is ‘A COMPUTATIONAL MODEL FOR THE SUBORDINATION OF THE SELF’. It takes place within a room, which at first seems to be empty, and then later is filled with an undifferentiated crowd (‘we all / tell ourselves and murmur’); the action takes place in an array, sexuality picked out with static nouns, ‘filth’, ‘tonguelengths’, ‘grasp’ etc. (there are very few verbs in this poem). The room is empty when the values (x,y) could be anyone - they are co-ordinates, spatial markers in a non-space, ‘they float’; later they are selected out, defined in terms of other words - like a dictionary definition (‘the_wolf(x) == {(evermoving,toothed,pointed) …’). (This kind of definition, to borrow a Kantian term, could be called synthetic, because it is simply defining words in terms of other words within the same system. It does not lift us beyond the system of language - that is, if we consider language to be a system).

The verb, the thing most problematic for a computing language, because computers operate based on discrete changes of state is the grammatical element in which a creole language is most, if ever, at home. The verb is dealt with in Python by representing its action as a mathematical function. Ripped away from the sense that there is a character pronouncing these words, they become instead shapes on the page, somehow denuded of fear (‘cannot_relate’, ‘frightened_of’ etc.)

The sounds of this computational poem - if we do proceed now read it out loud, Gentlemen - close swiftly back in upon themselves, and words predominantly have no more than two syllables (‘assign, / define:’ or ‘anticipate the / inchoate state:’, or, even better ‘i(y)’ = ‘i, why’, perhaps?). Elements are constantly waiting for other elements to occur, hence the proliferation of colons throughout the poem, and as I’ve said, all the action takes place - as it were - in closed rooms, on the right-hand side of the page. Indeed at the end it is not clear what has occurred, we are left floating in between precise/scientific language (‘pulmonic egression’ or ‘skull’ - the raw elements of a scientifically-described biology) and poetic metaphor (‘the shadows kneel’).