breathe is a brief, prose-poetic essay in explicitly paragrammatic language art. The ‘supply text’ that underlies a fundamentally dynamic, temporal making of meaning is what in other contexts might be read as an original composition by myself, its subject the interior oceanscape of breath that we experienced during the pandemic year of 2020, our respiratory rhythms threatened, invisibly, by disease. The piece is also representative of a category of still largely potential poetic artifacts to which computation lends a dynamic and here, a paragrammatic concretism.
Despite Julia Kristeva having made a convincing formalist-polemical case for the paragram,1See Kristeva, Julia. “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams.” The Tel Quel Reader, edited by Patrick ffrench and Roland-François Lack, Routledge, 1998, pp. 25-49. it seems to be more or less absent from most contemporary milieux of poetic praxis as an explicit, generative principle.2One of the most notable exceptions, comprehending his extraordinarily erudite and articulate expositions and theorizations, is Steve McCaffery, who highlights the explicitly paragrammatic work of crucial artists – John Cage, Jackson Mac Low and B.P. Nichol in particular – in several essays across his books of criticism: North of Intention, 2nd ed., Roof Books, 2000; Prior to Meaning, Northwestern University Press, 2001; The Darkness of the Present, University of Alabama Press, 2012. The mesostic ‘writings through’ of Cage are influential as much for Cage’s occasional poetic essays – contextualized by his reconfiguration of organized sound – as with respect to language art or poetry as such. But Cage’s appropriation of actual computation does link his work directly to what I call digital language art. (Pritchett, James, James Tenney, Andrew Culver, and Frances White. “Cage and the Computer: A Panel Discussion.” Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, edited by David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 190-209. The chart of programs on pp. 194-5 has an indicative proportionality in the music/poetic balance of Cage’s work and features mesostic-generating programs by Jim Rosenberg, a pioneer of language art with computation. Remarks in the discussion signal the loss, once computation is introduced, of a ‘devotional’ dimension to formal and chance operations performed manually, also a feature of Jackson Mac Low’s work. But re-iterability, re-configuration and speed of generation are now fundamental characteristics of computational aesthetics insofar as we take them as integral to certain specialist practices.) The paragram in Mac Low is absolutely crucial, in itself and in McCaffery’s readings, but durational procedure, manually authenticated process, and performance strictures somewhat overwhelm an underlying address to (la)language as such. In B.P. Nichol the paragram is always already also generated by his concrete and visual poetics integrated with a language poetry informed aesthetics. Again also, Nichol’s more or less autochthonic First Screening provides a prefiguration of language art in digital media. Nonetheless, it seems to me that language artists whose work, on the face of it, engages3 explicitly with paragram might well not characterize it as such. It is remarkable that, whereas ideogram certainly is, and parataxis, for example, might be recuperable as generally understood principles of theoretically engaged poetics, the poetics of paragram, as proposed by Kristeva, remains all but unelaborated despite its generality and broad applicability to language art with or without computation, especially when this kind of art exceeds the combinatorial, as it must to be an art of language as such.
For ‘poetic praxis’ I might have said ‘writing’ or ‘literary practice’ but the common usage of the former is overly constrained, and its sense after Derrida is, perforce, radically ambiguous. ‘Literary’ (with its root and other derivations) I now tend to reserve for language art practices within the domain of which the letter is properly and compositionally constitutive. Is breathe an instance of ‘writing’ or ‘literary practice’? Well, literary practice: yes, but not as usually conceived. ‘Letteral,’ definitely.
In Kristeva’s abstracted models of poetic language, the paragram is everywhere in both prose and poetry as such: the (chiefly) literal inscription of alternate, multiplied, yet readable ‘grams,’ at once within and beyond those of the text as received, generative of new meanings, and of various modes for the aestheticization of poetic objects. In subsequent or adjacent criticism – regardless of whether or not it is psychoanalytically inclined – paragram may be further associated with Lacan’s “lalangue” (surfacing in breathe as ‘lalanguage’), that part of Language (an anglophone term, distinctly capitalized) which clearly exceeds and eludes most of the dubious, fundamentally orthographic, or designative ‘sciences’ of linguistics.3See Jean-Claude Milner’s brilliant short book, translated and superbly introduced by Ann Banfield: Milner, Jean-Claude. For the Love of Language [L’amour de la langue]. Translated by Ann Banfield, St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Paris, 1978.
But even lalanguage is only ever at best commensurate with the ‘not all,’ despite (or perhaps due to) the ineluctable fact that, as T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney puts it, “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” What should be clear, however, even from this most cursory of outlines, is that paragrams should be read as poetic and that – particularly if allowed to embrace non-literal, metaphoric instances – a case may be (has been) made that paragrams are (Kristeva would have written =) poetic language.
In actually existing ‘literature’ we might suggest that paragrams are hypostasized or stunned (historically, by literal inscription) in latency or in hiding but, clearly, there are potential movements and/or transformative processes, realized through reading, from the ‘grams’ of the received text to their paragrams. While the usual sense of the prefix ‘para-’ is “parallel to, separate from or going beyond” (OED), Kristeva and others call attention to this real if usually implicit movement. (I quote extensively from her essay without further comment except to point out that these words are highly suggestive of other aspects of language art in digital media which are not directly addressed in the present, more focused remarks.)
[…] the literary text presents itself as a system of multiple connections that could be described as a structure of paragrammatic networks. […] The term network replaces univocity (linearity) by encompassing it, and suggests that each set (sequence) is the outcome and the beginning of a plurivalent relation. In this network, the elements will be presented as the peaks of a graph ( […] ), enabling us to formalize the symbolic operation of language as a dynamic mark, as a moving ‘gram’ (hence as a paragram) which makes rather than expresses a meaning.4Op. cit. 32. Original emphasis.
The movements-as-transformative(or deformative)-process in breathe are various modes of letteral replacement, particularly of letters which are very similar in typographic form and, to an extent, phonological indication (a graphically similar ‘vowel’ is not allowed to replace a correspondent ‘consonant’, e.g., not: ‘o’ -> ‘c’, but, yes: ‘o’ -> ‘e’). The processes of replacement are quasi-random and algorithmic but considerable effort and research has been put into granting them vectors of both significance and affect, with respect to the implicitly (paragrammatically) structured lexicon of English in particular. I will not elaborate on the processes in detail since the algorithms are online, in the notebook, and any close reader who cares to do so should be able to extend their practices of literary or language art criticism with close readings of the code and my comments on it.
And there are other visible forms and movements in this piece that I have characterized above as paragrammatic concretism. The paragrammatic replacements are fashioned in their temporalities to generate a rhythm-image of breathing – five seconds of inhalation, pause, five seconds of exhalation – while the visual forms and colors that move in this temporal envelop suggest waves emanating from points of propagation. So, here is a linguistic artifact taking on characteristics and also certain behaviors-over-time of concrete things in the world: concrete poetry. Not my personal favorite amongst the poetics, but here it is also actually dynamic in a manner that the dimensionalities of print typography would not easily allow and, moreover, it is intimately integrated with those paragrammatic movements and processes that I have indicated above, granting it a properly visual (VizPo) poetics, with which I am, again personally, more comfortably accommodated.