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You do the Math: Parataxis in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath and Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory (1 & 2)

This paper was originally presented at a conference on postmodern poetry in Plymouth in 1998. I was still rather young and had not yet finished my PhD. Hejinian was in the audience along with other people I really admired. Having given the paper the chair, a well-known experimental British poet, passed a comment suggesting the paper was simply deranged. Luckily the audience didn't think so and the paper become a mini cause-celebre during the conference on the back of which met Hejinian, John Kinsella and later Rachel Blau duPlessis. So thanks curmudgeonly British poet. Written in the technical, rather high-blown style I used back then, the terminology in parts is a bit off now but the observations are still valuable I think. The paper was never published.

You Do the Math
One might argue that the phrase is the optimum unit of poetic language. Whilst its limits are fairly flexible, it can be as small as a word or even a mark, and it can extend along beyond the semi-mythic pause of a line break, they are not infinite. The topography of the phrase between the smaller unit sometimes called the word and the larger units of say sentences, verse paragraphs, stanzas, sections and poem units as a whole, suggests perhaps a point of pause. In the phrase one might be spared at least briefly the rage of ideological discourse conducted at all points around it; one might be given a space for reverie. Yet in fact this median position, this optimal between-ness, locates the phrase in the centre of the double dynamism of poetic language. There can be no rest for the phrase.

Like all phrases the colloquial “you do the math,” has at the very least a double topographical dynamic. Along the vertical axis, my association of the phrase with a certain aggressively inclusive capitalism democratically inviting me into the process of an economy, indicates a myth which I would call “American.” This contracts the phrase to the status of a sign, it signifies a highly localised and personal ideology of nationality, which is however not one that has developed in me in isolation. Such vertical myth-making says something about nation and something about subjective interactions with such larger ideological constructs both of which are political.

Along the horizontal axis the phrase works away from the coherence of the sign and its larger contexts towards the level of its local syntactic contextualisations. It is after all still a phrase consisting of a string of four words articulated by three gaps and framed by an indefinite or possibly infinite field of non-writing. A field which is however overlaid or possibly undercut by a collection of trace signs and trace phrases.[1]

The “you” would seem to locate the work of postmodern poetry somehow within the realm of the second person. I want to make it clear immediately that I do not take for granted that this other person is the reader. Certainly the inter-subjective is a force to be reckoned with but the nature in which the other person is invited into the process of the poem is such that one can only speculate as to the identity of this subject: reader, critic, poetic self as other, other self as poet?

The “you” which concerns me here is not a particular identity but rather the means by which poetic identity has shifted from a model of first and third person interaction to that of a localised interaction contained within this mid-identity second person pronominal zone. The hermetic and somewhat despotic certainty of the poetic ego is to some degree disseminated and its organic self-sufficiency breached at least by a direct interpenetration with one other person. Whilst the unwieldy monster of the “them,” usually expanded out impossibly to include all of us, all humanity, is drastically reduced to produce a communal framing which at its minimal and maximal boundaries really consists of two people. This “you” then has the topographical status within ontology that the phrase holds within poetic language.

In this cosy intersubjectivity some work must be done. The “do” of the phrase suggests perhaps one defining feature of non-rational or so-called postmodern poetry, which is its emphasis on process. If identity and agency are held in a motility between the one and the all, indicated by the median regulation of the “you”, so too the poem unit seems subject to this dynamic. It is not that it is defined by its having or not having closure, but that its structure is defined not by being a work of art and all this requires in terms of tropes of limitation, but rather by it being art at work.

This work which keeps the poem open and closed in a seemingly endless motility, is predicated on the peculiarity of the “you” and so concomitantly the phrase. Essentially the “you” is a double self, at each point being both writer and reader but neither identity in full. The process of art at work is doubled up by its consisting seemingly simultaneously, in reading and writing the self through a complicated relation to the text, which requires that the writer be reduced to the level of the reader and the reader elevated to that of the writer in a chiasmatic economy. A complex double doubling, it is based on the interaction of two mediating faculties.

The first is the mediation in poetry between the heterogeneous realms of author and readership, and the second is the mediation between what these two identities do: writing and reading. The means by which this double process is conducted relies to a great degree on the phrase which, like the pronoun “you,” can regulate between two heterogeneous realms, (let’s say for now the word and the sentence) at no point becoming subordinate to either realm and yet also never attempting to elevate its status above these realms. The phrase then seems to take on its own mythic status, held between two powerful political/ideological aesthetic tendencies, that is the word as semantic plenitude, and the work as semantic plenitude.

[It is interesting to note that many years before I knew of Badiou's work, the interest in relation to poetry and the matheme, as he calls it, was somewhere on my mind. In fact, as one reads in Being and Even, the matheme and poetry are almost opposing forces in the development of ontology]

Parataxis and Taxonomy
Parataxis, the piling up of phrase upon phrase without any apparent telos is “the math.” By definition it is the opposite of organic form and at an ideological discursive level it seems to convey a sense of meaningless fragmentation or perhaps even mindless glossolia. However at the syntactic discursive realm it is in fact as relevant a mode of combining phrases within larger units, perhaps called sentences and paragraphs than say the form of traditional syllogism which suggests a basic paradigm for the integration of two phrases into a third higher phrase which, as Ron Silliman notes in his “The New Sentence,” is often then suppressed in literature.[i]

One of the problems of parataxis is that it is a form of combining which in itself is somehow more simple than the complex phrase-units that it comprises of. Any theory of concatenation must simultaneously be a theory of articulation, meaning that postmodern form is by definition based on an aporia. Thus the adding up of phrases is problematic in that phrases themselves in non-rational poetry are often combinations of word clusters which I call taxonomy or, word selection based on metonymic /contiguous precepts rather than metaphoric/associative ones. Parataxis works in a similar fashion to syntax in that it moves between two totally determinant systems: that of the taxonomeme and its restricted cluster of trace phrases, and that of grammar and meaning. However the method of paratactic combination is not that of creating a unity between the local discourse of word strings and the ideological discourse of meaning as a whole which is the aim of syntax. Instead its restlessness between individual units and the whole produces a synthetic deconstructive motility the result of which is the postmodern poetic unit.

Taxonomy and parataxis then form the basic copula of post-rational poetic syntax. This copula is dominated by two aspects of the sublime both of which tend out from the local to an infinite totality. The first means of expansion is very familiar it being the leap from the local to the general that one might call ideological. However what I would like to consider is the other, less analysed side of the sublime which in a sense is often relegated to the status of being the precursor to the dynamical sublime, that of the mathematical sublime. The mathematical sublime is the addition of small individual units into an ever expanding string with no discernible telos, best represented by the mathematical sentence 1+1+1+1+1.... The effect of this accumulation of units of equal equivalence is to push the local to a point of expansion wherein it can no longer be conceived of in a localised fashion at which point the reflective faculty makes the terrifying leap from syntactic discursive levels, which it can conceive of, to ideological discursive levels which it cannot paradoxically proving that they at least exist. Thus the dynamical sublime seems to come at the moment when the sum 1+1+1+1+1... becomes equal to infinity. In other words when it breaks out of a frame of conception. This mathematical process is very much in evidence in the relation of each phrase or paratax to the total mythical system we call the poem. But the leap from the local frame into the general frame is, due to the duality of the phrase, immediately to be followed by a falling back down into localisation. This is then how discourse works by being double discourse. My phrase “you do the math,” means both on a mythical level of discourse, Americans in the eyes of the English say, and yet also at the local level of discourse, the actual words in the phrase. What I would now like to do is turn my attention first to the local realm of parataxis, and then consider the ideological realm by way of conclusion.[ii]

[i]Ron Silliman, “The New Sentence,” The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987) 63-93.
[ii]In my work on the sublime here I use extensively Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1994)

[1]The idea of the frame in relation to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry comes from George Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1989). My preferred version of text closure in relation to non-rational poetic units is “decollation” which is an idea I have developed elsewhere, however Hartley’s sense of framing is in this context simpler and apt in that is was developed in specific relation to the poetry in question here.


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