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Which side are you on: Language use in artistic practice

home psy*
home psy*


Every thinker, artist, and revolutionary who ever attempted to challenge the barriers of communication has used parataxis. John Cage talked in an interview about the demilitarization of language, and rightfully so. The terms syntaxis, hypotaxis and parataxis are indeed militaristic. Grammarians saw language as an army that had to be organized (or was organized by itself) and, considering that language is a weapon, their vision was at least partially truthful. In the Hellenic army, parataxis (“parataksi” in modern Greek) is the arrangement of soldiers in linear formation and in the navy the arrangement of ships for battle. In language, parataxis is the arrangement of equal units one next to the other. The contrasting structure is hypotaxis, a hellenistic term that meant in the army the arrangement of the lightly armed soldiers behind the phalanx and nowadays is used almost exclusively in the worlds of syntax and taxonomy. Hypotaxis in the context of interest –that isn’t taxonomy– is the hierarchical structure of language, where certain dependent constructs, such as subordinate clauses, exist for and gain their meaning by serving the independent constructs (main clauses). The other definition of the word “hypotaxis” in Greek is identical to that of the widely used “hypotagi”, deriving from the same verb and meaning, of course, subordination. 


Parataxis has many virtuous qualities, its highest being seeing all parts as equal (and individual). As a way of meaning-making it is relational, fluid and dynamic, as it allows room for diverse interpretation, and this is why it is so loved by poetry: It doesn’t tell a story in itself but invites multiple combinations. This is what charmed the modernists and among them Ezra Pound, who is thought to be a pioneer in bringing the stark juxtaposition of images in the forefront of English-language poetry. Pound had probably also read Heidegger and Auerbach, who were fishing for paratactic structures in Parmenides and Homer respectively. But Heidegger and Ezra Pound had another thing in common, beyond their fascination with parataxis: They both found Nazism appealing. 


Of course, parataxis has always been, among others, a favorite rhetorical structure and had its heyday in Classical Greece, where it was widely used as a rhetoric device in the 4th and 5th c. BC. However, parataxis can also be populistic, in short a dangerous tool in the right hands. Popular accusatory narratives, parenting all shorts of discrimination and injustice, are leaning on (a silent) hypotaxis in order to work, but largely employ parataxis. Example: “He is tinted. He robbed the store”. This is paratactic syntax, where the connection (or non-connection) of the two clauses relies on the relational ability and breadth of the individual listener. Things get nasty when relational ability is of limited scope (and of course this can be a product of systematic and systemic conditioning). In such a mind, a logical hypotactic structure could easily be: “He is tinted, so he robbed the store”. 


Thus the dual strength of parataxis and its allure to anyone seeking to make an impression. Because of course parataxis has also been a favourite of the dadaists, the beats and the punk rockers, as well as the leftist philosophers, such as the ironic Derrida and Adorno, who in his homonymous essay defended parataxis and criticized its use by Heidegger. In other words, what can be seen as positive, synergetic fluidity can also be seen as confusing obscurity, stylistic abstraction, cheap firework show. Nothing impresses a (often impoverished and culturally famished) crowd more than fireworks. Lysias knew that, but Gebels knew it too. The artist, just like the tyrant, needs to propagate her ideas, and propaganda needs of course, as the media too well knows, short messages. “Veni, Vidi, Vici” said Julius Ceasar, in this famous example of asyndeton, which is parataxis in its extreme. 


It would appear very appealing to claim that this makes sense because parataxis possesses a primordial quality that lies closer to our instincts. There is a chance that it is indeed the oldest of the two, although that would defy the uniformitarian hypothesis of state in language (the idea that the same principles have governed language from the start), at least based on today’s Universal Grammar. Quantitative evidence shows that the older the text the more frequent the paratactic syntax, but then again, most ancient texts are in rhyme. It seems nevertheless probable that hypotaxis at least gained its popularity later in language, maybe along with the phrasing of more complex concepts of causality and temporality, providing the confining answers to the “when” and the “why”, and that it established itself at about the same time that the hero of the song stopped being a shepherd and became a landlord and a king, with dependents and minions. In any case, at least developmentally, children form paratactic structures in speech first. Simply, they are more simple. And these simple structures are also, uncanningly, the syntax of overflowing feeling, and of ‘madness’: The concept of parataxis played a nominal role in the development of psychoanalysis, as Freud figured out that more important than the story as a gateway to the unconscious were the individual words and their semantic and symbolic burden. 


In any case, besides the obvious and the underlying qualities that lead opposing ideologies to the abundant use of paratactic structures, there’s a common feature connecting them: The mutual abhorence of hypotaxis, although for different reasons: The progressive side hates hypotaxis because of its literal essence and its linguistic and social connotations: Hypotaxis is subordination. It is slavery of words and slavery of thought. The wet dream of the progressive thinker and artist is to deconstruct language, and in this struggle hypotactic structure is inevitably the enemy. On the tyrant end, on the other hand, hypotaxis is both feared and revered. Feared exactly because hypotaxis is the echo chamber of logic and thus a powerful tool of justice (most hypotactic structures appear in legal texts). In a healthy society, the tyrant’s tricks shouldn’t stand a chance. In an ailing society, the tyrant controls and revers the hypotactic syntax, but only as a condition for the ‘other’ to succumb to. The tyrant dictates (and thus becomes the ‘dictator’) in beduzzling parataxis and relies on the already poor hypotactic and compositional abilities of the crowd.


As with accusatory narratives, the dictator too relies on a simplistic approach to composition. Systemic conditioning makes sure that horizons will be limited. Parataxis potentially leads to but also presupposes a certain amount of freedom. It opens up possibility. Realizing that there are interpretations, instead of feeling comfortable with being fed the verdict, is evolution. Of course, subjectivity and uncertainty make people who aren’t accustomed to the idea of responsibility – usually the victims of systematic pampering and babyfication – nervous. It’s hard to have to think and decide for yourself, even come to terms with the probability that there is no causality, that not all things have an explanation, that perhaps order is a construct, and eventually chaos more than a possibility. And it’s even harder to develop the ability to experience this as a blessing, as a freeing agent from possibly problematic hypotactic structures and mentalities, and not as a curse. Perhaps one role of the artistic practice and storytelling is to signify parataxis as suggestion, as invitation to critical thinking, so that the receiving end will be less impressed when a magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat.


*Image: home psy from the red collages

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Wednesday, 26 May 2021 08:51
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