From Hakim Bey's "T.A.Z."

Previous Next

Appendix A. Chaos Linguistics

NOT YET A SCIENCE but a proposition: That certain problems in linguistics might be solved by viewing language as a complex dynamical system or "Chaos field." Of all the responses to Saussure's linguistics, two have special interest here: the first, "antilinguistics," can be traced--in the modern period--from Rimbaud's departure for Abyssinia; to Nietzsche's "I fear that while we still have grammar we have not yet killed God"; to dada; to Korzybski's "the Map is not the Territory"; to Burroughs' cut-ups and "breakthrough in the Gray Room"; to Zerzan's attack on language itself as representation and mediation.

The second, Chomskyan Linguistics, with its belief in "universal grammar" and its tree diagrams, represents (I believe) an attempt to "save" language by discovering "hidden invariables," much in the same way certain scientists are trying to "save" physics from the "irrationality" of quantum mechanics. Although as an anarchist Chomsky might have been expected to side with the nihilists, in fact his beautiful theory has more in common with platonism or sufism than with anarchism. Traditional metaphysics describes language as pure light shining through the colored glass of the archetypes; Chomsky speaks of "innate" grammars. Words are leaves, branches are sentences, mother tongues are limbs, language families are trunks, and the roots are in "heaven"...or the DNA. I call this "hermetalinguistics"--hermetic and metaphysical. Nihilism (or "HeavyMetalinguistics" in honor of Burroughs) seems to me to have brought language to a dead end and threatened to render it "impossible" (a great feat, but a depressing one)- -while Chomsky holds out the promise and hope of a last- minute revelation, which I find equally difficult to accept. I too would like to "save" language, but without recourse to any "Spooks," or supposed rules about God, dice, and the Universe.

Returning to Saussure, and his posthumously published notes on anagrams in Latin poetry, we find certain hints of a process which somehow escapes the sign/signifier dynamic. Saussure was confronted with the suggestion of some sort of "meta"-linguistics which happens within language rather than being imposed as a categorical imperative from "outside." As soon as language begins to play, as in the acrostic poems he examined, it seems to resonate with self- amplifying complexity. Saussure tried to quantify the anagrams but his figures kept running away from him (as if perhaps nonlinear equations were involved). Also, he began to find the anagrams everywhere, even in Latin prose. He began to wonder if he were hallucinating--or if anagrams were a natural unconscious process of parole. He abandoned the project.

I wonder: if enough of this sort of data were crunched through a computer, would we begin to be able to model language in terms of complex dynamical systems? Grammars then would not be "innate," but would emerge from chaos as spontaneously evolving "higher orders," in Prigogine's sense of "creative evolution." Grammars could be thought of as "Strange Attractors," like the hidden pattern which "caused" the anagrams--patterns which are "real" but have "existence" only in terms of the sub-patterns they manifest. If meaning is elusive, perhaps it is because consciousness itself, and therefore language, is fractal.

I find this theory more satisfyingly anarchistic than either anti-linguistics or Chomskyanism. It suggests that language can overcome representation and mediation, not because it is innate, but because it is chaos. It would suggest that all dadaistic experimentation (Feyerabend described his school of scientific epistemology as "anarchist dada") in sound poetry, gesture, cut-up, beast languages, etc.--all this was aimed neither at discovering nor destroying meaning, but at creating it. Nihilism points out gloomily that language "arbitrarily" creates meaning. Chaos Linguistics happily agrees, but adds that language can overcome language, that language can create freedom out of semantic tyranny's confusion and decay.

Previous Next

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.