Surrealism War & Language

from December, 2009

A person walks down a city street. Everything seen, heard or felt is passed through the language appropriating, symbol generating and sorting process of the mind–some of this conscious, much of it not. The very act of naming things and events as they move through the perceptual field is a form of continual classification, assigning every ‘name’ its place in relation to the imaginative hologram (mis)taken for ‘reality.’ Nothing is encountered as raw material. Everything has already been ‘cooked,’ manufactured and set in motion as a part in that world–fabricated to perpetuate a self-generating cultural process… what, with a completely unjustified lack of irony… we reorganize and narrate afterwards as ‘history.’
A quote from Barrett Watten’s War=Language.

The critique of the language is the first place to begin to attempt remove the veil to perception that has been imposed on us and to see things as they are. Pseudo-rationality based on lack of evidence or supporting argument: “It is difficult to conceive the volume of supplies required for a large combat force or the difficulty of delivering them where they are needed in a timely fashion.” We need to take the mechanized hardware of the language of war apart—by locating alternate evidence in multiple media, by questioning the pseudo-objectivity of its delusional conclusions, by unpacking its embedded metaphors and narrative frames, by thinking otherwise. [ … ]To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself.

Read at a Day of Reflection on the War on Iraq, Wayne State University, 26 March 2003.

The problem isn’t confined to language about war–and I imagiine Watten would agree; but to the whole language constructed cultural universe within which war is but one set. Deconstructing the distortions of propaganda is like trying to rid the house of an investation of roaches by stepping on the ones you can see; they will just go on breeding behind the walls. The language of war is not generated by a misuse of language about war; the misuse of language about war is a reactive need to hide the more obvious deficiencies of the whole self-generating network of economic, political, social (read, CLASS) activities by which we sustain ourselves. We overvalue the symbolic if we ignore the way the habitual structures of economic and social life become themselves both generators of those symbolic representions requiered to sustain them (neoliberal ideology), and active conditioners appropriating for its service all language and symbols felt to be alien to its aims.

This is why reason and evidence–when used to critique and expose the fundamental presuppositions of the culture, and even more, when perceived to attack or alter habitual structures of activity, have so little impact. The harshest, the most rigorous critique, as long as the object of the critique retains the appearance of its culturally constructed representation, is merely reinterpreted in terms which support the continuing adaptive evolution of the system.

To return to Watten’s assertion that “To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself;” besides broadening the concern to encompass, not only war, but the whole destructive historical, cultural cul-de-sac we’ve been heading down, I would add that we must begin below the level of language–that before we can alter the constructions, we must come as close as possible to reducing them again to raw materials… that is, by learning, or relearning… how to play.
Play is not recreation… it is re-creation. We cannot magically wish away the symbolic configurations of our received world, stripping away the names with which we dress our perceptions. But we can play with them, and in play, serious or whimsical, named things regain their plasticity, loosen their attachments to the assigned order. In a sense, what is most fulfilling in any human relationship–friendship, love, the companionship of work–is a kind of play, unfixing the other from the conditioned; if there is any meaning to ‘freedom,’ it would be this. In language, too–we can either rehab the old structures, repairing and rebuilding–or make new. And yes, we can ‘make new,’ by unfixing the parts, razing the building, turning bricks to clay and glass to sand and fire. When poets pry loose the joints of syntax, and novelists refuse to follow the established maps of narrative–this too, is play, play that makes us free, and while poets cannot themselves remake a better world, they can make it easier to imagine how it might be done by unlocking our vision from the received conditions of the terrible hologram, this script we’ve been following to our untimely end. I see this as an endorsement of both the surrealist project(s) of the last century, though not neccesarily of (their take on them) the psychoanalytic theories they used to defend it), and of poetic movements like LangPo and Flarf–and of the least entertainment driven Rapp and Performance poets (Ursula Rucker) “I didn’t come here to make you feel good… “). Less than that–and we, as poets and artists, will again and again find ourselves, against every intention, having our work, at best, serve to comfort and reinforce believers in the Hologram… and at worst, transformed into propaganda to fuel the endless cycle of war and economic exploitation.