Wednesday, June 20, 2018


The following essay is from 

(Luna Bisonte Prods, 2018)


“That day, the great trumpet will be sounded,
and those lost in the land of Assyria will come,
and those exiled in the land of Egypt...”
-Isaiah, 27, 13-15

I've said before that "visual writing" gives the completed logos.  Textual writing, on the other hand, gives something else.  Textual writing gives the completed logos but as it’s seen from an impossible vantage. Textual writing is said to be subjective, but the logos so continually brings subjectivity into question that it's difficult to keep in mind what subjectivity is.  Is it simply infinity?  Is it incompleteness?  I think there’s much more that subjectivity is able to tell us about language.

It is true that the logos might be described as a monolanguage or metalanguage.  This would be more a number of linguistic principles than a language per se; it would be conceptual or, possibly, also, pictorial, like a set of interacting symbols but also like a strangely ornate house.  A metalanguage would be a general description of the nature of all languages.  It would be a dark, stormy alphabet, a schematic syntax; it would be, as Wittgenstein described it, a “philosophical grammar.” 

Jacques Derrida himself, in the epilogue to his tract on monolingualism, expresses the annoyance of feeling his words continually turning into a gesture or logos.  Having just referred to the "unreadability" of the "highways of...ongoing globalization," Derrida writes:

What then are the chances of the readability of such a discourse against its unreadability?  For I do not know whether what you have just heard me say will be intelligible.  Either where, when or to whom.  Or to what extent.  Perhaps I have just made a "demonstration"; it is not certain, but I no longer know in what language to understand that word.  Without an accent, a demonstration is not a logical argumentation that imposes a conclusion; it is first of all, a political event, a demonstration in the street....a march, an act, an appeal, a demand.  (emphasis added) (1)
It is interesting to think of society evolving toward an atomic "trace," an “act gratuit,” a wisp of smoke, a letter of a Phoenician alphabet, an archeological artifact, “the God particle,” perhaps a Latin verb, without syntax, intent, meaning or, as Derrida says, conclusion.  It seems society is attracted to a nexus of associations, a verbal mirror of itself.  In my opinion, the words "monolanguage" and "metalanguage" are too consistent with totalitarian impulses for use.  We are not talking—ultimately—about correctness in a proscriptive sense.  I have no quarrel with elementary grammatical rules, but sophisticated artistic levels of writing are no place for facile dogmatism, censorship, capricious formalism, superficial rectitude ("circumcision"), hollowness.  In discussing language characteristics from an historic perspective, I prefer to look for effectiveness in some wide sense, something more substantive and imaginative that I would not want to define too specifically—a “deep structure.”

Though I very much endorse typographical artworks, poems representing forms of consciousness—“visual poetry”—the visual prose that emanates from terminology, political propaganda, religious  debates, ideology, “empty rhetoric,” some of which we have seen in American politics in recent decades (in the intimidating use of words such as "socialism" for example or “regulatory state” but even in more ordinary words such as "taxes"), verbal iconography that corrupts and menaces origins—these are warning signs of a "demonstration" of something different:  not a limitless impressionistic well-considered street-level lodestar of Mankind but a groundless deceptive banner of brutality that constitutes Mankind’s self-betrayal.  In his article on his mentor Foucault, Derrida warns, "The reason and [the] madness of the classical age had a common root....which is [the] logos." 

Thus the question presents itself whether Derrida’s self-confessed “‘unreadability,” his philosophical word use is tending toward reason or madness.  Does this type of writing create a formal authoritarian category of non-meaning, linguistic status-symbols that undermine substantiveness and well-established social practices?  More importantly, are the writings of Derrida important in terms of what is taking place in modern society today?  American Noam Chomsky, in his early writings, criticized Derrida’s style on just these grounds.  Many writers, since, have criticized Postmodernism in this way, calling it a “dead language” and “a new kind of superficiality,” 

…a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely. (2)
In the end of Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt expresses concern that Modernism and modern science, in search of “true reality,” may have lost the ability to be objective and, in a common-sense manner, realistic at all. 

Under these circumstances, speech and everyday language would indeed be no longer a meaningful utterance that transcends behavior even if it …expresses it, and it would much better be replaced by the extreme and in itself meaningless formalism of mathematical signs. (3)
Does Derrida’s Structuralist language divorce itself from reality and open inquiry and put in their place a provisional type of “communication” that secretly mechanically censors thoughts and reality?  The discussion hearkens back to Lenin’s distinction between “idealism” and “materialism,” though history informs us that the discourses of Soviet Communism were, in fact, idealistic and eminently subject to “decay.”  All language is.  Only “free speech,” that provides no “disconnect” of false credibility, no border lines of inconsequence, offers a language whose sole egalitarian function is to establish truth and avoid dishonesty.
* *
In Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy is a chapter titled "Language and Reality in Modern Physics."  Heisenberg is the inventor of the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle," which asserts that it is impossible to know the speed of an object and its location at the same time.  But this is a recurrent theme in Modern Physics, similar to conclusions by other physicists from the same era, such as Max Planck's writing that the ability to observe atomic particles depends on the distance from them and that the closer an observer gets to the particles the less reliable is the information about them. 

Predictably, Heisenberg says that this uncertainty affects language.  Heisenberg says that the language "has already adjusted itself" to the presence of an ambiguity that contradicts classical notions of logic and substantiveness.  Borrowing Aristotle's term "potentia," Heisenberg says that concepts have been defined in a new way that cannot be called “objective.”  He says that their descriptions "retain a certain vagueness."

...quantum theory has encouraged the physicists to use an ambiguous rather than an unambiguous language, to use the classical concepts in a somewhat vague manner in conformity with the principle of uncertainty, to apply alternatively different classical concepts which would lead to contradictions if used simultaneously.  In this way one speaks about electronic orbits, about matter waves and charge density,... (4)
Heisenberg equates this ambiguous, contradictory imagistic language to ordinary in the sense of non-rigorous language.  He also compares it to "poetry." is not a precise language in which one could use the normal logical patterns; it is a language that produces pictures in our mind, but together with them the notion that the pictures have only a vague connection with reality, that they represent only a tendency toward reality. (5)
Heisenberg emphasizes that experiments with atomic events are not in themselves exceptional or fantastical; they have to do with "phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life."

But the atoms or the elementary particles themselves are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts. (6)
The point is that, in the hundred years since they were made, the radical breakthroughs of quantum physics and relativity have infused language use "to an extent" and in a way that the academic use of terms from various intellectual disciplines no longer achieves or goes in the direction of achieving an objective status of "things and facts."  Because scientific rigor itself is shown to produce fundamental contradictions, the most erudite and complicated writing is reduced to being "ordinary."  Derrida quotes Artaud as saying, "poetry and science must henceforth be identical." 

Thus, in his style of writing, Derrida may be creating a linguistic high place by systematizing ideas, deriving a persuasive value from beyond his own words.  Perhaps he goes so far as to be exclusive.  Yet in many ways he shows that he has no intention of inventing a text that is intimidating or authoritarian.  He rejects strict formal logic and grammar and, in casualness and impressionism, shows little interest in conclusiveness (drawing strict conclusions from his writings).  He shares attachment to many types of verbal offenses and failures and is ostentatiously playful and systematically poetic.  Perhaps most importantly, he is not pretentious in the sense that is detached from realistic conceptualities in some demonstrable sense.  It seems clear that Derrida is merely employing language in the multiple  creative styles that have evolved from twentieth century scientific and cultural discoveries.  In other words, he is using language in the rigorous manner prescribed in order to bring out the very ambiguity, unusualness, creativity and "unreadability" that will save his writing from the crimes that he is well aware he might be accused of and that he himself detests.  
* *

The question seems to remain however in what sort of hierarchical position do we place a writing that is not unreadable in this sense, that is not essentially a picture; that does reach a conclusion; that uses the imperative mode; that is practical, unselfconsciously pointed, definite, direct. 

Chomsky emphasizes the physiological aspect of language, the fact that the human species has developed a culture based extensively on language, writing, communication and scholarship.  To Chomsky, the powers of linguistic expression shown by the human brain (and brains of other living animals) are remarkable to the extent that they appear unfettered by physical or natural limits.  Language is autonomous, outside judgment.  In speaking in particular about humans, Chomsky writes,

The fact surely is, however, that the number of sentences in one's native language that one will immediately understand with no feeling of difficulty or strangeness is astronomical; and that the number of patterns underlying our normal use of language and corresponding to meaningful and easily comprehensive sentences in our language is orders of magnitude greater than the number of seconds in a life time. (7)  
What subjectivity is, then, is freedom, the straightforward capacity to make up one's own mind in the most far-reaching situations, to approach the role of creator via the problem of ambiguity, to choose and decide for oneself, without any inherent predisposition.  Subjectivity is our (response)ability to be readable, to make sense in so far as we are able to do so—outside of the context of language’s inherent infinities.  Subjectivity is a depth of Being, without any frame of reference; the loneliness of Being, absurdity.  In this way it becomes “objective.”  Subjectivity becomes “presence,” a demonstration. 

 * * * *

The current exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, is an extensive international endeavor.  It includes many scrolls and fragments of scrolls from the well-known 1940s discovery, a more recently discovered Jeselsohn Stone (inscribed with "Gabriel's Revelation"), a hand-sewn photocopied replica of the 24-foot "Great Isaiah Scroll" (one of the complete scrolls in the original discovery), fragments from the earliest codex of the New Testament, pages from rare Medieval Bibles, Native-American Bibles in the native languages, part of the earliest known Old Testament manuscript, a page from a Guttenberg Bible, a scroll fragment that has never previously left Paris and similar pieces from the country of Jordan.  About half of the exhibit consists of artifacts from the time to which the writing of the scrolls is dated (the first century B.C.E.), supplied by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

As one waits to enter the exhibit, there is the sound of ancient music and blowing desert winds.  On a partition that ushers in the viewers is a large reproduction of uniform columns of ancient scroll writing.  Upon entering the exhibit, one sees a Byzantine mosaic of Alexander the Great, small limestone coffins excavated from sites in Israel, an architectural model of ancient Jerusalem, a Bedouin tent and table, a brass oil lamp, a menorah, maps, coins, photos of the area around the Dead or Salt Sea, news photos from modern-day Israel, photos of some of the people involved in discovering and preserving the scrolls.

There are many, many Dead Sea Scrolls.  The original discovery was made in 1946 or -7 in a cave on the west side of the Dead Sea on the far eastern boarder of Israel.  Others made subsequent discoveries in different caves and at other sites.  The first discovery occurred near the ancient settlement of Qumran Khirbet with its ruins of what is considered the location of a religious sect called the Essenes.  The Essenes are mentioned in the writings of the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  Other scrolls appeared in a near-by ruins of a fortified city called Masada.  Although aerial photos apparently do not indicate a path from the ruins to the caves, it is believed that the Essenes were a religious sect of scribes like the Pharisees that mainly made copies of books of the Old Testament and that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Essenes.  It is believed that part of the ruins near Qumran is a scriptorium for scroll copying and that possibly an impending Roman military attack caused the Essenes to hide the scrolls in the caves before fleeing their settlement. 

The exhibit contains only a fraction of the scrolls, about fifty of them, not counting the replica of the Great Isaiah Scroll.  Most of those exhibited are fragmentary, in some cases so much so that there’s hardly anything to view.  In my opinion, the best of the scrolls are copies of well-known books of the Old Testament.  The Essenes possibly made scrolls, copied them, rather than being writers of original material, although many of the scrolls purport to be original.  The sometimes mysterious prophetic scrolls not from the Old Testament have a content that has captivated some scholars, but fragmentary tales about “the Teacher of Righteousness,” “the Man of the Lie,” “the Wicked Priest” and the “Children of Light” seem to me apocryphal and unskilled compared to Old Testament symbolic writings found in books such as Ezekiel, Daniel and (later) Revelations, which contain far more insightful and conventional surrealist images than most of those discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The long "Temple Scroll" seems to be a cosmetically aged, recycled Old-Testament-imitation tentatively offered as a "new Deuteronomy."  Most of the interestingly titled scrolls, such as “Israel and the Holy Land” or "The Book of Giants" are so fragmentary that they indicate nothing conclusive one way or the other.

* *

Yet, in my view, if the writing in the scrolls is not divinely inspired, the appearance of the scrolls themselves is.  Hidden predictions and puzzling symbolism are not what is of interest here.  It‘s important to remind ourselves that the scrolls are illegible essentially to everyone attending the exhibit, first, because they are written (in various no-longer-used scripts) in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek languages and, second, because they are so fragmentary.  The tiniest fragments seem to be offered in this vein.  Less is more.  With the Dead Sea Scrolls "the medium is the message.“  Nowhere is Marshall McLuhan's dictum so hopefully given free reign than with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The fact that the writings cannot be read for what is written in them only leads to a different sort of imaginative reading of what is on view—as Derrida says, “For where, when and to whom.”  We discover and we read a more prophetic language of rock, lamp, paper, tool, wind and bone.  The scrolls are unreadable in the same way that Derrida's modern rigorous scientific style is unreadable--in a way that introduces us to the ontology of language, Mankind and God.  In sum, is language important as a tool of communication or as sacred presence? 

The literal unreadability of the scrolls forces us to assemble in our minds these artifacts into a Scroll of Man.  Amidst the shrouded significance of what is here, we search for clues about the meaning of life, about axiomatic cosmological directions.  We search for grand threads of humanity’s unrepeatable journey of civilization, indications of what events might be ahead, what fate awaits us.  We sense an overriding synthesis, an overriding set of rules or quality of character.  In every part of the dimly lit exhibit (in which subjectivity is lost but, also, in which we are lost in subjectivity)—from the broken off rocks to the inscribed coffins, to the nose shape of Alexander the Great, to the handles of the Great Isaiah Scroll, to the sad downward directions of the cursive Hebrew script markings written on goat skins and papyrus, to the geographic features of a small reedy section of desolate land powdered with salt—we search for unifying insights, a metaphysical pesher (commentary); we search for humanity's beginnings and ends, for sympathetic emotional connections concerning the tribes from which we may have indirectly descended and through whom (by adoption) we gain equality and common traits.  

Rather than seeing as experts what we are told to see, we are able to open our eyes to the one thing no expert sees better than we--ourselves.  The question of God vs. atheism is pervasive, somewhat underscored by the problem of authenticity.  The discourse of sacredness itself acquires a type of sacredness, a heavy thoughtfulness.  The valuable religious books from various collections, that carry also a secular value and validity, are impressive if not sacred.  An historic but uninhabited landscape presents itself.  Emptiness becomes invisibility.  We sense presence.  A cast of characters appears before us:  Moses, David, Egyptian opportunists, Bedouin nomads, Greek Orthodox Archbishops, the Wall Street Journal, international archeologists, Golda Meir.  Like a remnant of a people waiting for Godot or for a space ship from Mars in the wastes where no crop other than the plaintive weed of civilization has ever been able to grow, we are invited to gaze on the walls of the tents of our black-and-white past and witness the brief film about existence as it is projected in familiar shadows gesticulating before bright penetrating light.  The fact that there might be charlatans in the troupe only brings out untrustworthiness—the end is not yet.  We seek profit amidst loss; treasure amidst ruin.  Along the canyon walls around the Dead Sea, the lowest dry land on earth, every scored promontory appears as a holy text.  Every eroded boulder poetically proclaims a world of nations someday eternally at peace. 

Civilization is structure.  At the end of his life, Antonin Artaud said that humanity had not yet begun to exist.  The scroll fragments in the exhibit confirm this.  In the land of words, language remains a picture of Laws.  Nothing is revealed.  Everything is missing.  Where people are absent we sense Being.  With electron microscopes, we are able to bring into focus several individual beings:  Emmanuel Tov, Professor John Strugwell.  But we haven't graduated beyond the pictures, the evidence.  We haven't attained autonomy, resistance.  We are still endlessly wandering in the indeterminate labyrinth of useless possibility.  In speaking of "the Being that is announced within the illegible," Derrida claims that "illegibility is therefore the very possibility of the book."  Yet we continue to wait; we remain wrinkled, blind paleographers, wondering if we will ever see. 

* *

Upon leaving the exhibit, there’s nowhere to go.  Though barely able to afford the price of admission, we dutifully purchase gift shop mementos.  We bump into people as though they are furniture, the black lady at the parking booth talking on a cell phone.  If we asked her the time of day, she would run for the security guard.  We greet butterflies, Mastodons from our youth.  We push through a strange little-used door, back into the parking garage, to a precarious concrete sky.  The Parking Garage Scroll.  The Street Signs Scroll.  Everything has this same illegibility that we feel we might begin to read.  In the streets, consolation is still illegible but perhaps slightly audible.  Our problems only get worse.  We struggle with memory, slam the door of our falling-apart jalopy lives.  We search the horizon.  We feel the need to invoke Derrida and rigor: "Freedom is granted to the nonpagan Land only if it is separated from freedom by the Desert of the Promise."  Didn't I tell you?  We aren’t free unless we perceive the promise of freedom being denied us.  So, now, you too are a ghost.    
It isn't so much a question of discovering that there are "limits of freedom."  What we discover in the Dead Sea Scrolls is much more substantive, the way that freedom is complicated, not by lack of knowledge but by knowledge itself, not by weakness but by strength.  The logos of Man or the logos of God--it‘s up to you.  The general concept of a monolanguage (metalanguage) that we put to the test in actuality but is neglected in our understanding and conceptualizing is more than a set of rules or an outline of certain objectives, a holistic or global vision.  It is hardly a vision at all.  It is the ashes of truth mixed with the sands of lies.  It is a living body that is lovingly presented to us, without pretense and without intimidation, as contradictory, tenuous, plural and mysterious.  It is an incoherent vision.  Not a Dead Sea vision but a Sea of Death vision.  What we read in it is never an explicit, easily transcribed clear message of instruction.  Rather we read the traces of human lives, tragedies, endings, falls, stubbornness, oblivions.  We read a Being to whom all humanity is alive.  It is a vision of unquestionable authenticity because it is created out of a concerted attempt to disprove it. 

The message of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a message of substance but a substance that is ambiguous, a message of knowledge but also of mystery.  We are presented with a text whose recognizability is so intimate to us that it walks and talks, that it is part of ourselves and in many ways is ourselves.  It is a text symmetrical but heterogeneous.  It is a text our own bodies threaten to alter and destroy.  There are no codes but only axioms.  We value it even though it may be false.  It is a text not of the importance of political power but of its vanity.  It is a text that we have read again and again and that continually leads us in hope back to our everyday lives.  Yet it is an irrelevant and marginal text that most people ignore.  It is a text that in its nebulousness, its gentle sturdiness and consolation, its everlasting persistence and fertility, its most overriding quality is the fascinating meaning of its unreadability.  Derrida:  "Categories must be missing for the Other not to be overlooked." 

Somewhat uninhabited or deserted city, reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art.  A city no longer inhabited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture.  This state of being haunted, which keeps the city from returning to nature, is perhaps the general mode of the presence or absence of the thing itself in pure language. (8)
The message of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a message that reconciles us with the possibilities of existence, of Being.  

1. Monolingualism of the Other, Jacques Derrida, Stanford, 1998, p. 72.
2. Modern Criticism, David Lodge and Nigel Wood, eds., “Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes, p. 315.
3. Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt, London, 1977, p. 274
4. Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg, New York, 1958, p. 179.
5. Ibid., p. 181.
6. Ibid., p. 186.
7. On Language, Noam Chomsky, New York, 1977.
8. Writing and Difference, Jacques Derrida, Chicago, 1978, p. 5.
Artwork:  random internet sample of text from Dead Sea Scrolls.


Recent publications of Tom Hibbard are writings on Surrealism and translations of Surrealist poems published in Big Bridge online magazine. Moon Willow Press in Vancouver published his collection of poetry, Sacred River of Consciousness, in 2011. Several long essays on ecology and Existentialism are published in John Tranter's Journal of Poetic Research.  He has read his poetry at Myopic Books in Chicago, Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, Bonk Series in Racine, In Your Ear poetry series in Washington D.C. and the Lorine Niedecker poetry festival in Fort Atkinson, WI.