www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

[Nettime-bold] Striking at the Heart of the Grammar Police State
Mark Dery on Thu, 24 May 2001 21:35:39 +0200 (CEST)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] Striking at the Heart of the Grammar Police State


Such axe grinding! Such score settling! Such hair-on-fire fulminating about
the grammar police's plans to stomp the ePoetry out of the "language" (I use
the term advisedly, in deference to Ken) and pack off to Safire's
resettlement camps every free spirit whose effusions are simply too, like,
wired, d00d---too *now*, too *retribalized* (props to McLuhan) to be
shackled by the mind-forged manacles of your deadening conventions, Grammar
Man. Why, Nettime hasn't been so lively since Mark Stahlman's last
installation of the Protocols of the Elders of Barlow.

Still, a few reasonable voices, unburdened by lovingly nursed grudges and
personal fatwahs, struggle to make themselves heard, first and foremost Ken
Wark's. Amid the hail of rotten eggs and ad hominem invective, a vitally
important issue can be glimpsed:

1. IS A CALL FOR CLARITY AND CONTEXT IN NETTIME POSTS REALLY A TROJAN HORSE
FOR A CULTURAL-CONSERVATIVE AGENDA WHOSE ULTIMATE GOAL IS THE IMPOSITION OF
SOUL-SHRIVELING GRAMMATICAL AND STYLISTIC STANDARDS INTENDED TO SUFFOCATE
ARTISTIC EXPRESSION, AVANT-GARDE INNOVATION, AND CULTURAL DIVERSITY (BE IT
AFRICAN-AMERICAN, DIASPORIC, FEMINIST, NON-ANGLOPHONIC "ENGLISHES," OR
WHATEVER)?

Obviously not. One can be a grammatical/stylistic conservative *and* a
political liberal/radical. Noam Chomsky and William Safire---whose politics
(Safire's) I find puerile, whose grammar columns I find dryly amusing, and
whose style I find enviably lucid, on balance---are brothers under the skin
when it comes to their mutual insistence on brevity and clarity in writing.
I take my masterful style wherever I can find it, from James Baldwin to
Jello Biafra, Katha Pollitt to Georges Bataille, Mike Davis to Samuel
Delany, Christopher Hitchens to David Brooks. It's one of life's cruel jokes
that moral slime molds (like Celine!) can, at their best, write peerless
prose that scalds the mind's eye and sears the brain, while earnest
progressives, on the side of the angels, can turn out writing so
grammatically mangled and stylistically clotted that reading it guarantees
all the effortless pleasures of snowboarding through quick-drying cement.

This bitter irony should in fact be a balm for the souls of
post-structuralists, for whom the obsolescence of binary oppositions is a
received truth. Tarring as a paleoconservative Babbitt anyone who argues in
favor of grammatical and stylistic standards is the first refuge of the
knee-jerk ideologue. Here as elsewhere, the old bourgeois/boho dualism
simply doesn't serve us anymore. In fact, I'd argue that the pro forma boho
argument---namely, that the defense of grammatical and stylistic standards
is inherently elitist and reactionary (an argument that is getting a little
creaky in the joints after being dragged around the dancefloor by over a
century's worth of avant-gardists)---too often masks the *parallel elitism*
of the avant-garde, whose contempt for the clueless booboisie was a salient
of intellectual life throughout the modern age. Insisting on the fundamental
importance of *self-expression*, in writing, the vanguardist argument
consigns to the dustbin of history (in ironically WIRED-esque style!) those
who Don't Get It. The burden of responsibility is shifted from writer to
reader. In contrast, insisting on the primacy of *communication* in writing
seems to me inherently democratic (or at least populist).

Let's return to the scene of the crime: Sondheim's post, which I seized on
as emblematic of an unfortunate tendency on Nettime. The post in question
was expressive, in its own way, but not effectively communicative. How was
the reader to know that the speaking subject was shifting, from line to
line? Was the "I" Sondheim, or each animal, or some transcendental poster
child for Nature, encompassing all the creatures in Sondheim's Whitmanesque
epic catalogue? What was the source of the material in quotes?

The debate, here, isn't about whether language is a figment of the
linguistic imagination---which is, incidentally, separate from the
"englishes" debate. There's the notion that language is really a theoretical
extrapolation of disparate instrumental effects, on the ground. There's the
notion that "official" language, scrutinized up close, reveals itself to be
a heterogeneous collection of dialects, professionalized argots, and the
like. There's the notion that, in the Net age, local corruptions of English
are subverting and appropriating it even as English becomes the lingua
franca of a creeping corporate monoculture, the world over.

To my mind, none of these arguments really relates to the issues raised by
the Sondheim post, which wasn't an interrogation of the essential
nonexistence of language, nor a challenge to the hegemony of an "official"
version of the Mother Tongue (like, say, the BBC's standard English).
Rather, it was one man's (quasi-autobiographical?) attempt to come to grips
with Homo sap's unhappy tropism toward anthropomorphosis---our tendency to
see our glory reflected in the eyes of the beasts of the field, or to
ventriloquize them as furry actors in our morality plays.

My point was apposite: Nettime isn't a mirror, reflecting our diary entries
and dream-journal jottings and Notes To Myself, in ASCII. It's one-to-many
medium, with two thousand minds on the other end. There's a sweet irony in a
post that decries the use of Nature as a mirror to reflect our world-view,
yet replicates that very tendency in its self-absorbed style. This is the
moment where the personal (style) *does* become political.




_______________________________________________
Nettime-bold mailing list
Nettime-bold {AT} nettime.org
http://www.nettime.org/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/nettime-bold