Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Notes on Notes

/ðɪdɔɡzbark andðɪkaravanmuvzɔn/ (Truman Capote)


The fundamental components of any literary articulation — as a babbling in sound or a squiggling in ink — are phonemes or graphemes, verbal or visual figurae. Two phonemes: a voiced dental fricative and a schwa. Three graphemes: a standard-bearer’s wooden pole and cross-bar; a little hut with a rounded roof and a tall chimney; a tadpole, or maybe a smiley muppet head seen from the side. The word The. The babblings and squigglings may be pretty or ugly, may carry certain associative meanings, (I think “e” is sort of… endearingly cute as a visual figurae, in its smiley muppetyness,) but these figurae are mostly just jabber and daubings until they’re built-up into morphemes, the smallest units that can have meaning. The word “babbling” is itself made up of two, the unbound “babbl(e)” (unbound because it can be used as a word in its own right) and the bound “-ing” (bound because it can only be used as an affix).

Mostly just jabber and daubings, I say, because while many of the visual figurae of various languages have their roots in pictograms, in English these figurae can now safely be described as arbitrary. In phonaesthesia however, some simple combinations of phonemes (like “fl-” in English) have taken on a degree of meaning in their own right, if not iconic (with “fl-” resembling a sound associated with the flick, flap or flourish, the fluttering flight of the fleeting, flouncy flibbertigibbet,) then at least conventionally symbolic (as with the cluster of words in English associating “gl-” with glistening, glittering glints of gleams we glance or glean.) Given that, and simple associations we might have with the hiss of sibbilance, the guttering of gutturals, and so on, it’s worth noting that even pure babble may have a layer of iconic meaning. Drop the “b” in “bark” and shout the /ark/ — “Ark! Ark! Ark! Ark!”. Take out the /r/ and roll it, extend it, drop a /g/ in front of it and you have a grrrrowl.

Faced with a figuration like the one at the top of this entry, an articulation of figurae in two strings separated by a space as a pause, our first act is to try and parse it into morphemes. /ðɪdɔɡzbark andðɪkaravanmuvzɔn/ becomes /ðɪ dɔɡz bark and ðɪ karavan muvz ɔn/ as we sort the babble. Or to put it in the conventional visual figurae of written English rather than the patchwork of Roman alphabet and IPA it’s in above, “The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.” At this point it’s tempting to see each morpheme as a sign within a system of signs, since morphemes are “the smallest units that can have meaning” and “having meaning” usually implies signification. But I’m more interested here in exploring a notion of meaning that is not based in signification. To that end, I’m going to treat these morphemes as notes in a system of notation.


Notes are not to be understood as signs — signifying symbols arbitrarily ascribed to signified ideas in a code, a game of differentiation where the meaning of each sign is determined by its not being the other signs in the system, where its usage is delimited by its difference from them. Not yet. Signs are the content metaphor in disguise, words as frames of meaning even if our perspective is flipped inside-out, even if that frame (of determination, of delimitation, of definition) is seen as excluding rather than including. Signs are the object metaphor, and that is always already collapsing into the content metaphor.

So the word “note” is chosen for its root in the Latin nota, meaning “mark”, for the sense of an imprint, an impression, because the type of note we mean here is not an object but an action. When we talk of a note, we mean this as we would talk of a punch, a kick, an impact. It is not that signs are objects with content inside (or with an IOU signed by Derrida.) Rather when the figuration is heard or read, when these notes occur — /ðɪ/ and /dɔɡz/ and /bark/ and so on, or “the” and “dog” and “bark” and so on — that action has import. Surface import and deep import.

Surface Import

Surface import has, potentially at least, three components: 1) the subvocal articulation of the verbal morpheme into an inner monologue of figuration in the mind’s ear, so to speak; 2) the articulation of representative icons into an imaginative montage; 3) the direct aesthetic response to the phoneme pattern and montage of images.

Some clarifactions:

1. The inner monologue may be muted by focus on our perception of the actual figuration and/or on another component. We’re unlikely to notice the monologue as a process in our mind’s ear when it’s manifest in our actual ear, or when we’re accomplished enough at dealing with scribblings not to have to sound out /dɔɡz/ in our head when presented with “dogs”. Unless we are reading for the poetic qualities of the babbling — rhythm, rhyme and other such formal patterning in the verbal figuration — the articulation may not just be subvocal but subliminal, maybe even wholly absent. Particularly with narrative we may well seek to ignore the babbling to the best of our ability, immerse ourselves in the imaginative articulation, turning a tin ear to the butchering of the Muses.

2. Where we talk of representative icons this is not to be taken as implying that the note /dɔɡz/ (or “dogs”) functions as a signifier for some abstracted icon of *dogs* as a signified idea. These are representative icons only in so far as these imaginative simulacra are modeled on sensations of referents in the real world. The term “icons” is being used in the semiotic sense, including not just images, but sounds, smells, etc.. Reworkings of memory or original artifacts in the multi-media project of the imagination, these icons are to be understood as notes themselves, actions in response to actions. The aesthetic responses are only separated out here as notes that do not represent but simply present themselves. Both are fundamentally notes that occur in conjunction with the note /dɔɡz/. Which is to say, the icons and aesthemes are co-notations… connotations.

This is the crucial point of treating meaning as import rather than content — which is, admittedly, the approach of a poet rather than a linguist. Rather than an icon of *dogs* as a signified idea, that montage of connotations may include not just icons of dogs, but of wolves, puppies, cats, squirrels, kennels, leashes, sticks, bowls, bones, the sound of growling and snarling, the smell of wet dog fur, the wagging of a tail, the pain of being bitten, anything that is connotated with the note /dɔɡz/. Much of this may be subliminal. With narrative, much of it will be clear and coherent, articulated into a vivid, albeit vicarious, experience.

If we are tempted to bring back signification at this point to explain the coherence as determination, narrative offers reason to hold off. Where readers ignore the babbling in order to immerse themselves in the imaginative montage, it may not just be poetry they are oblivious to but logic. The prose of one of the most popular books in recent history, The Da Vinci Code, is not just ugly but oxymoronic in places. On the first page of that book, we’re presented with the line, “On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.” That this is a self-contradiction — to freeze while turning one’s head — speaks to how much the figuration is, for many readers, simply a means to an end. That many readers would not even notice this is of more interest though, suggesting that the articulation of the montage of icons may be a creative act on the reader’s part, the connotations an imaginative material which they themselves render coherent, with scant regard to the content we imagine encoded in the figuration as signification.

They are not determining content. They are making sense of import.

Deep Import

Where the figuration is less narrative and more cogitative, that streaming montage of icons is, of course, of less import. (Being import does not mean being important import.) What we likely focus most of our attention on with ruminations like this is the deep import which this stream of notes and connotations, icons and aesthemes effects as: 4) an abstract articulation of ideas, a cognitive stream of connotations in the form of notions; 5) an affective response to all of it. There’s not much in this scribbling you are reading right now that’s conducive to iconic representation. When I use the word “icon”, I’m not inviting you to imagine James Dean or a Russian religious painting. When I use the word “articulation”, I am inviting you to picture a flexible structure of jointed segments, a physical form of articulated articles, but I expect that image to be barely registered by many readers. The poet in me does prefer words with a bit of iconic import, but in a scribbling like this it’s the stream of notions that counts.

Yet — and again particularly in narrative — that cognitive stream may be muted or so wholly bound to the stream of notes, icons and aesthemes that it is indistinguishable from that experience, cognition itself taking the form of a flickering daydream of simulated events. Even in this I’m not sure that the most abstract word like “abstract” doesn’t evoke a subliminal montage of Kandinsky paintings, geometric sculptures, a summary section on a research paper, a blue sky. I’m not convinced that the deep import is not, in fact, entirely constructed from surface import, with any apparent distinction between the experience of reading and abstract cognition of reading simply a matter of the usual stream of personal thought being maintained as a distinct articulation of symbols, icons and aesthemes in its own right, running in parallel, with the focus staying on that instead of being surrendered to immersion in the experience. This could just be the poet in me again, right enough, and the one who’s read “The Man With the Blue Guitar” far too many times. It does have my favourite lines in any poem:

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that we view the notion as the sublimation of the notation, imagine the act of abstracting as the extracting of the “at” at the heart of “notation”, as if specificity were an impurity to be boiled away in a boiling down. What I might well be suggesting is that this is what all thought is, what language is, where it is not (if it can ever not be) a game of symbols and ideas defined, delimited and determined by difference (if symbols and ideas can ever be so bound).

An Example

“The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.”

I read that sentence and I hear — in my mind’s ear, so to speak — /ðɪ dɔɡz bark and ðɪ karavan muvz ɔn/. I see the scribbling on the page but I also see, in my mind’s eye, two dogs barking. I see them as short-haired, middling-sized, with dark-brown fur. Because they’re barking most likely, I see them as mongrel curs, as fighting dogs — a mix of bull-dog, doberman, rottweiller. I see them as junkyard dogs, guard dogs chained up in a backyard, agitated to anger and aggression, circling outside kennels that sit to their right. It’s night and their heavy steel chains reflect the moonlight. Behind them is a wooden fence beyond which, under the full moon that dogs howl at, sand dunes or arid hills rise as low mounds and a trail of lights marks the jangling, clattering departure of the caravan. And the caravan itself? This is a composite of liminal images, of a line of loaded camels, of horse-drawn Gypsy caravans, of the modern “caravans” that an American would call trailers, pulled by cars and trucks, a circus of carnies and freaks, a carnival leaving town. Traders and tricksters who refuse the security of a settled existence. There’s an air of American Gothic to it all, of a Ray Bradbury story, of Carnivalé, of the Tarot’s eighteenth Major Arcana card, the Moon. An air of mystery and romance.

“The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.”

This is what that sentence means to me — its import. If you think I’m reading too much into it, building an elaborate fancy around the bare bones of its actual content, I say there is no content other than what we place into it as readers. If “dogs” offers an illusion of simplicity, an instantly identifiable signifier for an instantly identifiable signified, “caravan” explodes that illusion. We might assume Capote wouldn’t be using the term in its British sense, but is it a Persian camel train trudging or a Gypsy wagon trundling? What is the connection between the barking dogs and the moving-on caraven, left unarticulated in the simplicity of the “and” conjunction, and aren’t we invited to supply it ourselves? The answers to those questions asked by the sentence are its import. The import is its meaning, its full meaning, to us as readers.

Too much of this is lost when we slip into the metaphors of objects, of Saussure’s signifiers and signifieds — or Pierre’s signs, objects and interpretants — as things set down upon a draughtsman’s blueprint, white circles drawn round them in chalk, arrows marking out their relationships, pointing from here to there. We could imagine that those five components are discrete things brought into one-to-one relationships:

1) note
2) icon
3) aestheme
4) idea
5) affect

We could perhaps relate the note to Saussure’s signifier, Pierce’s sign, relate the interwoven icon and idea to Saussure’s signified, Pierce’s interpretant and object. But this is to imagine a determinacy that does not exist. The subvocal note /dɔɡz/ is not bound to a singular icon but rather evokes a montage of many — bull-dog, doberman, rottweiller — overlaid like the images of an experimental film. Context controls the montage, corrects and directs it, /bark/ revoking any icons of, say, a collie catching a frisbee or a labrador rolling onto its back for a tummy-rub, priming us to employ icons of the types of dogs that bark. There are many types of dogs that bark. We might select excited dogs, happy dogs, dogs at play, but the context “and the caravan moves on” tells us that what they are barking at is not a boy with a ball or stick, not a visitor with tasty treats in their pocket. In telling us what they are barking at, the context tells us why, what kind of barking this is; it specifies that these are the sort of dogs who bark at traffic, at noise in the distance at night, at things they consider strange and wrong… intruders on their territory. These are dogs as defined by Heraclitus when he said, “Dogs bark at what they do not know.”

The important thing is that there’s no one-to-one relationship of note and connotated icon, but rather a one-to-many relationship unique to each context. The montage of icons does cohere into a sort of meta-icon perhaps, of dogs that are (for me) short-haired, middling-sized, with dark-brown fur; but this is… a sort of cubist collage of perspectives that spills out beyond its casual frame, each dog a Cerberus with three heads superimposed one over the other, snub-nosed and long-snouted, ears pricked and flattened, slavering and not slavering. Every one of us will construct our own unique montage for each unique instance of the note. The note /dɔɡz/ effects four connotated icons it is impossible for most of you to share: you never knew the first dog I remember, Nye, the Eater of Socks; or the dog I grew up with, Captain, Guardian of the Millionaire’s Shortbread; or Bonny, the Duchess of Kilwinning; or Koré, who cannot be described in such terms because she is the term that describes. And these are only a few. You have our own.


The idea of *dogs* is the palimpsest of all these montages. It is the product of each montage of icons evoked by each instance of a note, laid down one over the other over the other, over-writing but never entirely obscuring. Or perhaps rewriting is a better metaphor than over-writing. It is as if each cubist collage of connotations is itself only one perspective to be integrated into the multi-faceted mosaic that is the idea of “dogs”. In that integration the montage may be largely subsumed, or it may claim a place at the very centre, command a radical overhaul of the idea. The montage of icons evoked by the “dogs” in a stream of words such as “the dogs tear at the little girl’s throat” might well have a distinctly revisional effect for a five-year-old girl whose idea of “dogs” was largely a palimpsest of montages evoked by “dogs” in more positive contexts, such as “the dogs wagged their tails happily”.

I say that the idea is the palimpsest, but this is only my perspective. Others might argue that the idea is not actually this palimpsest of icon montages, but rather an abstract concept bound to it, informed by it but formulated in some other media of cognition, a mentalese. The difference is that between a view taking its lead from Hume, in which all ideas are built from senses, and a view taking its lead from Plato, in which ideas are pure morphology. Like a class defined in Object-Oriented Programming, a CDogs class which has, as its main attribute, an array of objects of the class CDog, and which has a method, a function that objects of this class can carry out: CDogs.Bark(). But the class is only an abstract set of protocols for storing and processing information, an encapsulation of functionality. It is not an idea as we experience ideas, not an object in ideation itself, but the schematic instantiated in an object. Not a concept bound to a palimpsest, but the protocols for accessing it and any connected palimpsests (of wolves, puppies, cats, squirrels, kennels, leashes, sticks, bowls, bones…), in order to produce a montage in any given context.

Even if we’re inclined to the Platonic view, unless we’re going to follow him into the metaphysical mists in which thought is a sort of soul-substance, we’re still dealing with ideas that are instantiated in a media, concepts that are constantly formulated and reformulated. What we are dealing with, I’d argue, in this programming metaphor, must be a constant compiling and recompiling of the palimpsest-as-concept into mentalese as a sort of cognitive machine code. The end result is the same. For the little girl, the incorporation of that new montage into the palimpsest, whether this is all that takes place or there is an extra step of compiling the palimpsest into mentalese, still results in a fundamental revision. That extra step would mean the addition of a method to the class CDog: CDog.TearAt(objThingBeingTornAt as Object) with that method specifically accommodating objects of the class CLittleGirlsThroat as a parameter.

That these ideas or concepts are ever shifting, being formulated and reformulated as they are invoked leads me to prefer a term with less Platonic connotations. Ideas can be fixed. Concepts can be proven. What we’re talking about here are notions. And it should be pointed out that when the note /dɔɡz/ is struck, with all the montages of icons it effects of wolves, puppies, cats, squirrels, kennels, leashes, sticks, bowls, bones, and so on, it is not only one notion that comes into play but many, not just the notions of *wolves*, *puppies*, *cats*, *squirrels*, *kennels*, *leashes*, *sticks*, *bowls*, *bones* and so on which are distinctive but those of *mongrels*, *curs*, *hounds*, *pooches*, *mutts*, *canines*. Where one notion ends and another begins may be hard to discern.


So, our model of five components needs to explicitly recognise the pluralities:

1) note in context
2) montage of icons
3) aesthetic responses
4) notions as palimpsest of montages and/or cognitive class structure
5) affective response

The generation of deep import, of a notion and an affective response, does involve a concretion of all that surface import into a coherent unity. This allows us to imagine we have a signifier, /dɔɡz/, and a signified, *dogs*, as things being brought into a referential relationship with one another, that /dɔɡz/ is being made a pointer to *dogs*. But a note in this model is not a sign or signifier but rather an action of signaling which engenders multiple icon responses. What we have is not discrete objects but processes: the procedure of signaling within which /dɔɡz/ is just one action; the procedure of imagining which articulates icons and is constantly revised by ongoing signaling activity; the procedure of interpreting which navigates the connotations as a cognitive stream.

It seems fair to say that this last does result in a formal structuring of notions as things in relation to each other, a structure that is mapped back to the notes as things in equivalent relations. In binding *dogs* to /dɔɡz/ the relationship of signification comes into effect this thing being signified by that thing. But this interpreting is a summation of meaning which can only work by the rejection of connotation. It is a decision, a constant decision with each notion and note, that of all the connotations effected by the note — of all the variant notions of *dogs*, *mongrels*, *curs*, *hounds*, *pooches*, *mutts*, *canines* (and all their associated notions of attributes) — that only this *dogs* binds to /dɔɡz/. The word “decision” is chose for the connotations in the root sense of the term (echoed in “incision”, “concision”, “circumcsion”, “precision”), the sense of cutting-off. This is a removal of meaning, a removal of notation, a de-notation… denotation.


Is denotation always the point? Are we always aiming to flense the rich complexity of connotation and find the bare bones, to parse structures of signifiers into structures of signifieds? Or can the interpreting find its way through the connotations without bringing the knife to bear in the name of denotative certainty? Here’s some cod-Joycean shenanigans:

moongrowl curss gruffrough and rowl, raurk raurkas they rowl the clunkyard, rowl snarlavery agrrestive at thee, night carnivan of straingers hauksters ratscal roogs — roogs! — clarterinkling on ye aways a way outer ur town.

It’s by no means impossible to interpret that in denotative terms, split the portmanteau words back into their roots — “moongrowl” as “mongrel”, “moon” and “growl” — take coinages as new signifiers for new signifieds — “rowl” as a combination of “prowl” and “growl” — and so on. But this babbling doesn’t really invite us to translate it into a nice neat formal structuring of signifieds all sitting here and here and here in relation to each other on the blueprint, each with an arrow drawn to it from its signifier over there and there and there. Rather it’s a construct of connotations which invites us to navigate through it, constructing a notional summation of meaning as we go — a cognition of mongrel curs in a yard at night, making a ruckus at the departure of travellers regarded with deep distrust — but to understand as we do so that this is only a chosen path through a wide valley of meaning.

Something similar is true of, I’d say, “The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.”

Still, this denotative interpreting is how we ultimately arrive at — or at least think we arrive at — content, the cognitive stream processed into two core components: 1) the articulation of denotations; 2) the implications of purpose. (Implications of purpose may even be excluded from content, considered as a subtext of the articulation rather than text.) This “content” is denotation which is a crude gloss on the full meaning of an articulation, a coarse hacking away of import. Bound within its metaphor of vessel and substance content interprets the articulation from an almost wholly referential viewpoint, characterising meaning as residing “within” the words (and the relationships between them), all too often essentialising this situation of meaning as inherent (such that an articulation has a definitive meaning). If it can be seen as adding a hypothetical reconstruction of rationale — why that content was “put into” that specific form and communicated to us in the first place, what we are meant to “get out of” the articulation — this is actually, I suspect, born of the same act of decision, the same act of denotation applied to the connotations I have barely touched on — the aesthetic and affective responses.

It is a folly, this content, an act of contention, as much a conceit as the object metaphor that sustains it. In the imagining that we can “get out” what was “put in”, all we are really doing is cutting-off import in the hope that when we have cut enough off we will be left with a hard certainty. We cut away this connotation, that one, another, saying that this is *wolves* and this is *puppies* and neither of these are *dogs*, insistent on the notion that these can be separated. Still we find that when we cut into the notion of *dogs*, the host of connotations “within” it spills out, all those *mongrels*, *curs*, *hounds*, *pooches*, *mutts*, *canines*. And if we reach the core of the notion of *dogs* all we find is a note, pointing to all that we have cut away, saying “Look for the content in those to find what I am not.”

If I were Derrida, I might coin a term diversience here, for content, meaning neither divergence nor diversity nor diversion, but all three. Divergence because the content is the end-point of separation. Diversity because the content is the end-point of assembly. Diversion because the content is the end-point of redirection. None of these because all three act against each other, divergence and diversity implacably opposed but equally directed, diversion by its nature deflecting all aims. The term itself, as a note rather than a sign, connoting all three and their various combinations (and so embodying diversity), refusing to act as synonym for any one of the three (and so embodying divergence), refusing denotation in favour of a gesture to those three terms that it is not (and so embodying diversion). I’m not sure if that would be deconstructionist or zen though.


Blogger Daniel said...

By palimpsest, do you mean something like the radial structures in Lakoff's Cognitive Models? You seem to be drawing on a lot of his theory, although I must admit I find the admixture of sound symbolism and Wallace Stevens more than a little intriguing!

2:51 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I can certainly see the comparison. I'm drawn to a less determinate structure though, I think. It feels to me like he's still working with signifiers and signifieds -- just that you have multiple signifieds for one signifier, with relative weightings of the relationships between them. So that one icon would be a "central" representation of "dog" while another would be "marginal". And I'm not sure that goes far enough for me.

5:29 pm  

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