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

Published in essays

Alice in the Casino

Friday, 16 October 2020 00:00

 

My Alice never fell down any rabbit hole. Instead, she went to the casino to play roulette. She was a very curious girl, and although some claim that she hoped to win money and others that she did it for the thrill, I believe she went there out of scientific curiosity. The era of great inventions was long gone, but still one has to invent herself. My Alice was fascinated by the idea of a perpetual motion machine and although she knew that newtonian physics wouldn’t be of much help in building one, she decided in her search for inspiration to see an example of Blaise Pascal’s efforts up close. One can’t blame her, for it is one of the peculiarities of youth to find the idea of always staying in motion intriguing.

It was curiosity that led my Alice to the roulette, and not the wish to win. But as with all Alices, her casino ride wasn’t meant to be an uneventful one. Impressionable as she was, it didn’t take long for her to start spinning with the ball. Passing over each new number opened another, and yet another, set of possibilities and brought with it a new point of view, a new point of reference. One moment the world was a scary place and the next it was a playground. Even worse, and as the fate of Alices demands, as the world around her changed, so did she. Alice would not be the same person she was half a second before or the one she would be half a second later. One moment her hair was short and brown, the next long and purple. One moment she spoke English, the next Chinese.

“But what does it all mean?” she wondered, like a pure Alice. You see, it was the first time that her sense of identity felt like a joke. It was the first time she couldn’t take herself seriously, because “her self” seemed to be a simple prop in an otherwise elaborate play. Before long, the inevitable question arose with an underlying hint of panic, as she realized that stopping a ride that you don’t enjoy is a difficult, if not altogether impossible, task: “How long will it last?” Perpetual motion seemed fun, but not for eternity. It was hard to keep up with the spin, because motion means change, and constant change, as all Alices eventually learn, can wear you out, and one doesn’t need newtonian physics to know that. Could she eventually rest on friction to do the job? Feeling quite nauseous and dizzy, she turned to the seasoned player next to her, a somehow distant figure chewing on a pipe: “Can you make it stop, sir?” The Caterpillar raised his brow: “Once you start spinning, you can only roll with it,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“I’m not a spinning ball,” Alice reasoned within herself, looking at the aerodynamic drag behind her. “I just have to find something to hold on to”. With all this movement, of course, nothing seemed to be in place. Caterpillar, enjoying himself, was humming a tune, very well known to Alice. “That’s where I’ll hold on to!” she thought. Trying to sing along, she discovered that she had forgotten the lyrics. “That’s odd. I probably need to search deeper,” she decided, too stubborn to give up. “Who am I?” She questioned herself. Patched up memories and stagnant remnants of old feeling came to her in the form of alternate song lyrics to the very familiar tune that Caterpillar was humming provocatively, feeling at home in the casino. Alice, still spinning, still changing, wanted then to cry out in frustration, unable as she was to string the right words together, since everything, including herself, kept on changing. Where would she find an anchor and where would she cast it?

She moved, and the movement turned her present into a photograph, a relic of the past, speeding, the one moment holding it as her truth and the next having its ashes run through her fingers. Seeing herself going fast above all those possibilities, with nothing more certain than her own instability, unreliable as she felt in her spin, finally she managed to grasp the frailty of identity.

“If life had thrown me in a war, I'd probably have picked up a gun. If it had thrown me in an orchestra, I might have picked up the violin. In any case, I’d do my best with what would be given to me” she told herself. “All the things that define me, mean nothing in a new context” she decided. “And when my old anchors are gone, I drift / and the bigger the paradigm shift the bigger the drift / and as I drift I search for or recreate familiar patterns to hold on to / like the tune of that song I used to know and I’m singing now too”. Then she paused for a moment – or for as long as a spinning ball can pause:  “But I’m not sure what to fill these patterns with, when all I have about me is an assembly of loose ended rough patches: A tuft of purple hair here, an old sense of commitment there, all belonging to the past. The wind blows and I’m naked, empty”. And then, the ingenious Alice came up with a solution to her problem: “Let it blow through me, then, and carry away the stale stench of resurrected memory!” She exclaimed and let herself go, becoming a living perpetual motion machine.

And just as she was starting to get the hang of it, just as she grabbed the pipe out of Caterpillar’s mouth and puffed, just as she made an art out of spinning, the ball began to lose momentum. Alice figured out in dread that she was about to fall, that the spinning would soon stop. “Will I end up bald? Will I have a moustache? Will I be too thin or too thick to fit in the world?” All that she said out loud, and the Caterpillar burst into laughter, just as all Caterpillars are prone to do: “Now now, dear” he said. “Worry not. The croupier is quite experienced, and he has performed the same gesture at least a thousand times, and in fact knows how to spin the ball. There is an approximation. No matter how many times you play, you will find that you seldom fall far from your circumstances. And after all, it’s just a game”.









Published in essays
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