Radical Language

An Introduction

Language has been so debased by media that even in so-called “high art” (poetry, drama) sentences that one might easily hear spoken on Oprah or some other “real people” show, or sit-coms, has been “current” for the past 20 years.

While poets like William Carlos Williams wanted poetry to represent “natural” speech, his work became more complicated later in life when he realized there is no “natural” speech. There are as many different dialects of English as there are Burroughs in every English-speaking city.

Politically, poems and novels written in “regular” language, are using the language that injected racism, sexism, capitalism and nearly everything we know into our brains, where language either is or influences thought.

Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky, who remain unreadable to many, though it is not difficult to learn to read them (the idea that art and literature be “demanding” of close scrutiny, as opposed to “throwaway culture” of mainstream media is consistent throughout the avant garde in the 20th century) began to challenge the language of the dominant society by repeating words and sentences, re-ordering syntax (grammar rules either form spontaneously or are dictated from ON HIGH) etc. They were followed by the New York School of poets and painters, which included John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, De Kooning and other radical artists.

Since the early seventies, a new group of artists, loosely referred to as the LANGUAGE school, took the breaking off of “allegedly reality-based natural language” as a serious political issue. First of all, they began, taking off from Stein, to view words as signifiers first and foremost, rather than as “pointers” to the signified. This means that, rather than describing an object “realistically,” which is a form of artifice in itself, they would use words as singular units of both meaning and ambiguity. For instance, the famous Gertrude Stein sentence, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” refers to the fact that the word, “rose,” means nothing but itself. Also, Stein, and later the LANGUAGE poets, described objects often with nouns and syntax that evoked the thing without using dead, cliched, description.

More recently, LANGUAGE poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman (also an inveterate blogger) have conducted poetry and prose “experiments” in which, for instance, in the case of Silliman’s “Ketjak,” each sentence is viewed as an individual unit, often unrelated to the ones that came before and immediately after. In the same work, he repeats various sentences throughout, in order to show that the same sentence can have numerous meanings, depending on context.

In addition to creating what Silliman called, “The new sentence,” these writers have written brilliant literary criticism on how to read their work, why they write against, rather than for the language of Newscasters and politicians and even many respected writers. Marjorie Perloff’s “Radical Artifice,” is an excellent introduction to avant garde poets and painters who create “unorthodox” works, like Jackson Pollok and Andy Warhol, and others who influenced both poetry and painting (the two have had an incredibly creative relationship with each other since the turn of the century, when Stein began to try to write like Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and others painted, creating “landscapes” with words). Her “Tender Buttons,” which you can download for free on line, and “The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolklas,” are also primary introductions to this radical theory of art.

I am writing a series on Stein, Zukofsky, the New York School and the LANGUAGE school not to enhance people’s appreciation for poetry, but rather because I believe the Left, in order to create a new world, must toss the racism, sexism, egotism etc. that is inherent in “regular” language, the language we were born to, receiving daily doses of images and words by the thousands each day. What one learns immediately is that nearly all the sentences created by copywriters, who often write better poetry for advertisements than many Establishment poets publishing in the New Yorker, are in accordance with the alleged “plain speech and grammar approved by the corporate culture that commissioned them.

This is directly applicable to the cliches, tropes, “pre-fab” sentences (i.e. “Have a nice day!”) of corporate, mainstream media and advertising, print and image, that leftists rightly complain about. Yet, though the average article found in most “alternative” zines/sites is better written and reported than anything one might find in the mechanistic “journalese” of the Post or Times or reinforced, along with carefully selected sound bytes and video clips of TV, they are using the language of the Master to tear down HIS house.

Thus far, only a small group of avant garde artists have found the means to combat this language. Rather than complain that Americans are duped by the Media into wars, corporatism, environmental neglect etc. etc., we should present an alternative method of reading as well as writing. William Blum’s “Killing Hope,” was researched by Blum using the radical technique of relegating his sources to mainstream reports available to anyone. For him, it is not so much a matter of reinvigorating the language with real (original) sentences and syntax, but teaching people to “read between the lines.”

In addition to teaching us a different way of reading, many writers are creating texts, such as Lyn Hejinian’s wonderful, short (115pp) MY LIFE, an autobiography in which places, times, dates, are deliberately ambiguous, and proper nouns are never used. The author transitions continually between “her” and “she” and the present and past tense, and reaches an element of “strangeness” which I’ll talk more about in a later essay, that one will almost never encounter in mainstream TV, advertising, or literature. Reading LANGUAGE poetry requires thought and concentration, as contrasted to “mind candy” of Media.

Linear narratives, a phenomenon of 19th century Industrial culture, are no more “real” than non-linear. Does the story really end on the last page? Does “realism” actually describe reality? Perhaps the surface world created by corporatism, but it is no more absolute than Newtonian physics, which was taken to be “reality” until Relativity and Quantum Mechanics went deeper into the “unseen” in the 20th century. Just as painters became more abstract when “realism” was supplanted by photography and film, language must reflect the subjectivity of the author, not the accumulation of artificial detail and dialog that creates the “heroes” and “characters” of mainstream fiction. In LANGUAGE writing, the main event is the language itself, in which the smallest unit of signification is not the paragraph, as with the novel and many poems and plays, but the sentence.

Thousands if not millions of brilliant essays have appeared on the web, but how can we expect people whose minds were deliberately closed by the age of 12 or so by media and “education” to refute corporate media or even understand alternative ways of thinking if their deepest thoughts were not come upon by research or experience but “injected” by media? People say we are a nation of children, and they are right, but that is because the language of capitalism/corporatism/militarism, the language we were born to, is supplemented daily by the very sources that are allegedly “informing” us, i.e. mainstream “news,” political speech, corporate advertising, and even corporate approved Pulitzer prize winners who appear on Oprah. Does anyone even know who Pulitzer was and what he was about? It sure wasn’t excellence in what we might call reporting or literature, but tabloid, “yellow journalism,” like that of William Randolph Hearst’s empire, pointers to the status quo and compliance to corporate/government authority.

I will try to present various “alternative” writers not to study literature or writing, but to explore how various techniques of reading, writing and the creative use, of grammar, idiom and words, once learned, can literally radicalize readers by pointing to new ways of thinking and deflecting the explosion of propaganda that fills our days, whether we’re looking at magazine ads, billboards, TV, listening to radio, or even reading mainstream newspapers without seeing what the words, in their “correct” (economically and politically authorized) grammar are really saying.


In the spirit of LANGUAGE writing, I tried an experiment of my own. Using a program called Stumble (http://www.stumbleupon.com), which “spins” the web like a roulette wheel, stopping randomly at a site culled from the millions of English language pages in existence, I “lifted” a sentence from each site, then randomly stumbled on to the next. Of course, there is an element of subjectivity, for I chose the sentence from each website; nevertheless, my options were limited to the sentences available on each site. A few times I linked some sentences with connectives or added a word or two of my own – in brackets – but ultimately, this is a sampling of the language of the web (I did deliberately skip the occasional “lefty” site.). My “theory” was that, outside the small number of left/progressive sites, a more-or-less random sampling of sentences pulled from mainstream websites would create a “collage narrative” of our culture. Additionally, though I chose sentences from numerous sites arbitrarily, one sentence per site, the “voice” of the piece would sound as if it were written by one author, for in the general discourse of our “society,” there really is one AUTHOR, and that is the language itself, an “official” language reflecting our obsessions with money, technology, violence. Again, my purpose is not literary so much as political. To explore the possibility of subverting the language of Media, suffused as it is with the predatory, authoritarian propaganda that, regardless of the text or who actually “wrote” it, is ultimately the language of Power in the form of technology/corporatism/militarism.

“The page is only the documentation,” wrote the poet/blogger Silliman, “or the page is more, the field, resistance.”

Below is the result of my experiment of creating a “prose-poem” using a sentence from each page I randomly “stumbled upon:”


At about the same time University College London published a number of establishment legal positions, the US declared itself Libya. “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it,” said Oscar Wilde (or maybe he wrote it). Archery goes back thousands of years, yet today’s equipment has made improper advances. Anyway, there are various ways to exploit and use the Internet profitably.

Where did that end and this begin? ‘This’ is everything to everyone, regardless, so why not let our mortgage experts help you determine “how much house” you can afford. Or perhaps refer the matter to Mr. Johnson Wang, Managing Director of Sinosteel Corporation. We deal on the following Products listed: [product product product, uhn; product product product, uhn!] One of our backers is an American soldier about to eat the spilled brains of a dead Iraqi man with his brown plastic Army-issue spoon.

“You want to catch them off guard,” he whispered. “You want to catch them in their sleep,” he winked.

A kitchen then they have a storage shed-type deal. Each tool is described by one or more attributes: natural cleaning formulas, concoctions and witches brews. MOST are non-poisonous.

As any geek can tell you, Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottoes, slogans, symbols, songs, and of course, flags everywhere, not to mention the C++ and AWK programming languages.

Arrogance, ignorance, and principal errors of judgment created the anarchy and warfare that engulfs Iraq today. And lest we forget, “seven” is the smallest number of faces of a regular polygon that is not constructible by straightedge and compass. [On the lighter side], hundreds of well-known on line stores like Barnes and Noble, Staples, and Amazon.com have a place within their shopping cart that gives a percent or dollar amount off your purchase. You might even know someone who has had it removed.

As Sun Tzu said, “All war is based on deception.” This is only the beginning of proof we were all lied to. For instance, according to the Constitution, Congress cannot suspend habeas corpus except in times of rebellion or when public safety requires it.

George Bush originally displayed neither a love for nor disdain for religion, but the feeling that the New World Order should not involve itself in matters of religion. He had fallen into a classic trap — he forgot why he went into politics in the first place. But, he reasoned, fundamentalist skills make you look great in the kitchen. Final Signs are everywhere. APOCALIPSA is coming Soon. Your picture will be shown.

Whether you work for a business or want to start your own, check out our articles on marketing, hiring and more. String theory is radically changing our ideas about the nature of space, opening up the possibility that extra dimensions, rips in the fabric of space, and parallel universes actually exist, leading to focuses on top management and those aspiring to positions of corporate leadership in business. Don’t keep it to yourself.

Want to melt those years away? Travel to an outer planet! Stop wasting time folding shirts the normal way!

Here come the odious excuses. If you have set yourself on fire, do not run. A lighthearted measurement of which famous artists have the greatest “mindshare” in our collective culture. Manage your server infrastructure efficiently.

A little known naturally-occurring gemstone called [moishenite] is superior to diamonds in every essential way: cut, color, clarity, durability, fire, brilliance, and cost. The house was designed for young professionals who need minimal space while they focus on career… For everyone’s easy reference, let’s discuss plunder. If you need help, start here.

A South African monkey was once awarded a medal and promoted to the rank of corporal during World War I. With this in mind I started to ponder making my own book: Building from natural materials does away with producers profits and the cocktail of carcinogenic poisons that fill most modern buildings.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, a large underground debate raged regarding the future of the Internet. Do not feign respect for technical incompetence. We are not claiming to be experts on anything, we are merely doing what we can to gather knowledge and share the acquired information with the public.

We are conducting a survey about your usage of media. It describes the laws of motion for atomic particles and describes the spin of electrons that had previously been predicted.

Where did that end and this begin? ‘This’ is everything to everyone, regardless.

Adam Engel lived for your sins -- and he lived well! -- in Fear-and-Trembling, Brooklyn, one of the last gangrenous toes of NYC not yet severed and replaced with a prosthetic gentrification device. Engel has traveled the farthest regions of cyberspace, where Dark-matter meets Doesn't-matter; and Anti-matter, despite its negative connotation and dour point-of-view, excercises rights of expression protected by Richard Stallman's GNU/Free Software Foundation and CopyLeft agreement, if nobody and nothing else. Having spent many years studying Boobus Americanus (Summum Ignoramus), allegedly the most intelligent mammal on earth -- after its distant relative, Homo Sapiens -- in various natural habitats (couch, cubicle, bar-stool, ball-game -- televised or 'real-time') -- Engel has thus far related his observations of and experiences with this most dangerous of predators in three books -- Topiary, Cella Fantastik, and I Hope My Corpse Gives You the Plague (the combined international sales of which have reached literally dozens, perhaps as many as seventy, with projected revenue to top three digits by decade's end! Truly a publishing phenomenon). Engel is Associate Editor of Time Capsule Books, a division of Oliver Arts & Open Press, published in limited editions for a tiny, highly specified, though eclectic, target-audience: people who actually read books. He can be reached at adam@new.dissidentvoice.org Read other articles by Adam, or visit Adam's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Dan Clore said on July 22nd, 2007 at 2:26am #

    The Gertrude Stein line was “Rose is a rose is a rose”, and referred to a woman named Rose.

  2. Adam Engel said on July 22nd, 2007 at 7:55am #

    Yes, and both Hamlet and Captain Ahab were based on real people. Susie Asado, who Stein honored with an eponymous poem, was a living Flamenco dancer. The point of Stein’s work, especially after “Three Lives,” was that Rose may have been Rose, a living person, but the sentence, “Rose is a rose is a rose” is a sentence. It is not “Rose.”

    Adam Engel

  3. Green Scribe said on July 24th, 2007 at 3:22pm #

    Taking back the vernacular? Or creating your own, liberated version?
    I like the sound of your disembodied speech….haha
    I have a linguistics project that perhaps might interest you. I am compiling a “green lexicon” as part of an ongoing linguistics degree, and the purpose follows: to make accessible, though not “dumbed down” in syntax, vocabulary or aesthetics, the language of our environment and the science necessary to comprehend and participate in solutions while contributing to a local intellectual and activist community. The finished product will be copy-lefted and made available to the public on my university’s digital commons, and the nature of language change involved is one of eliminating propagandized phrasing common to advertising (per your above discussion) and instead focusing on a new linguistic reality, that of human and environmental interdependence, biodiversity and human intellectual diversity. The main focus now is a collection of misrepresented “buzz words” in the public discourse community regarding current environmental issues, and there are numerous other phases of the project planned as well, ranging from public rhetorical education to the aesthetics of language and a return to the beauty that exists in nature beyond mere profit or utility.
    If this sounds at all like a project you’d want to send a contribution to, let me know.
    My blog on word press is Green Scribe.
    thanks for the diverting thoughts…