Friday, June 26, 2009


I'm very ambivalent about cultural politics, which is why I like Pound's concept of kulchur. It captures what John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) meant, I think, when he said simply that "culture is a hokey fraud" (NINBND, p. 20). This temperament can, perhaps, also be applied to the study of language, call it grammur. "In no case," Pound suggests, "swallow fat greasy words which conceal three or four indefinite middles" (GK, p. 344). The study of grammur is the study of "the fogged language of swindling classes" (ABCoR, p. 33). It is an attempt to expose those indefinite middles, to regain a real sense of style.


Doug said...


i've seen your blog around and often find it interesting, just wanted to comment here:

I like the concept of kulchur also, but I don't understand why language needs to be a target. All one needs to do is conflate human nature with language in a deterministic way, and then the target can become physical rather than abstract, much in the same way Pound's original target of abstraction later became a concrete target - the Jew. In other words, one could begin to wonder : is oppression in the language or is it in the 'blood?'

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for the comment. I think I know what you mean...

I sometimes wonder whether Pound was not often using the word "Jew" as carelessly as many people use the word "Muslim" today. They think it can reasonably be used to mean something that is obviously objectionable, something debased or retrograde. When you scratch them, they quickly qualify the term with "fundamentalist" or "radical" or even "terrorist". That is, the ethnic slur is completely dismantled and replaced with a piece of kulchural critique. Pound likewise meant "financiers" (and not really especially Jewish ones).

I use the word "kulchur" as an irreverent reference to culture, i.e., as a way of talking about actual or factive culture without having to valorize it as a species of "refinement".

I'd like to do something similar with usage, hence "grammur". Pound points out that "You receive the language as your race has left it, the words have meanings which have 'grown into the reace's skin'; the Germans say 'wie in den Schnabel gewachsen', as it grows in the beak" (ABCoR, p. 36). Kulchur and grammur are inextricable, I would think. Ben Marcus's writing has given me some of my strongest experiences of the relation between usage and posture.

Heidegger said that language is part of our "equipmental contexture". That would be another way of "conflating human nature with language", I suppose. Though material and linguistic culture are certainly analytically distinguishable, I'm not sure it's altogether wrong to insist on their interrelations.

I word like "kulchur" lets us study, say, literature as an extension of, not a break with, ordinary language.

Doug said...

Yes I've wondered that also, if he used the word carelessly, in the way many people of the time followed abstract principles right into the war zone. I was just thinking of how he moved away from the Bank of England and toward Jews specifically in the Rome broadcasts.
I guess we can't really know.

If oppression is also part of the 'equipmental contexture' like Heidegger would say, maybe it is in the blood, there are scientists today looking for 'warrior genes' and so on.

The concretization of what was at one point an abstract target, it appears to me, is due to a mishandling, within oneself, of the concept of affective fallacy, or something thereabouts. 'Certain language makes me feel oppressed, therefore it must be oppressive itself.' Or, maybe there's something in 'grammur' as you are describing it, which can be more useful for us all. I've never read Ben Marcus, will leave it to you :)

Thomas Basbøll said...

Pound warns somewhere against thinking that if something is wrong with the arts it is wrong with the arts alone. The same can, perhaps more obviously, be said of language. If the grammar is debased, then there is probably something wrong with culture. Literature can make a focused attempt to improve the language, but that's not likely to fix the root problem (or even the linguistic problem more generally, i.e., beyond the rather small group of serious readers).

I don't think "in the blood" can ever mean simply "in the genes". "Bloodlines" imply the transmission of a great many manners and tastes. Now, many of those manners and tastes (like rowing, to take an arbitrary example, or classical music) depend on a certain physique or nervous system. So there is certainly some "genetic" component.

But I think it is madness to leave it to science to discover the secret. By a similar token, I don't think we need a program of linguistic regulation. On the contrary, we need direct engagement with the grammur. Perhaps that's what Flarf is?

Doug said...

sounds like a good goal
kind of like Orwell's concern in Politics and the English Language

Doug said...

Also, I'm just trying to imagine a group of British scholars studying German, for example, with the idea in mind that they are doing so because something in the teutonic culture is debased, in their opinion.

Wouldn't that raise some eyebrows? I suspect it would because I've never seen it happen.

But it doesn't have to be German. I don't see it happen toward Chinese or Arabic, even though the people living amidst those language groups are in highly repressive societies in comparison to virtually any society in the West. Just toward the English language I see that happening.

Maybe its because English is the language of globalism, and its a comparatively easier target than any of the other mechanisms of globalism itself.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Pound did actually criticize Islamic culture in his Guide and had what I think we would today recognize as "orientalist" notions about "why the Chinese language had to stay poetic".

Also, I think all languages are subject to internal critiques suggesting their "decay". The idea that words are worn down by (ab)usage, etc. I'm not necessarily endorsing that view when I say that some words (in use) have "indefinite middles" that we need to guard against.

I don't think there is an external critique of the English language as "oppresive". There is a critique of "cultural imperialism", normally directed at the U.S. And there is a concern about how English influences smaller languages, like Danish. But I don't think many non-native speakers of English worry about the state of the English language as such.

Outside English-speaking contexts, the question is not normally put in terms of whether English is improving or degenerating, but in terms of whether English, will or will not, should or should not, replace the local idiom.

Doug said...

the external critique that I'm hearing is that WASPS are inherently oppressive in themselves, and 'whitey' no longer includes anyone teutonic.

Therefore the language is justified in the eyes of the critiquers- in being attacked for another reason.
The reason why Chinese or Arabic are not approached in the same manner, Pound aside, is because the critiquer is not actually interested in righting the wrongs of debasement-through-language, righting them as a professional principle which they think is true (otherwise, they would go do it, right?), but is instead interested in some kind of proxy war against a perceived oppressor who stands in as a representative of a system which has to them become incomprehensible.

I don't agree either with things like Euro-disney and so on, if the people don't want it. But I know that the efficiency of the English language that allowed someone like Nixon to deflect journalists, can be used by anybody, once they've mastered it, to deflect any source of information they want to deflect.
Therefore, liberal education interested in this kind of approach doesn't succeed in 'defeating' Nixon, just building a better one.

Presskorn said...

Social coercion and logical necessity coincide in grammar.

X and X coincide in grammur?