Friday, July 03, 2009

Craig Dworkin, Parse

Craig Dworkin's Parse (Atelos, 2008).

From the note at the back of the book:
Parse is a translation of Edwin A. Abbott's How To Parse: An Attempt to Apply the Principles of Scholarship to English Grammar. First published in 1874, the book played a leading role in the pedagogic debate over whether English should be analyzed as if it were Latin, and thousands of copies were printed as textbooks in the last quarter of the 19th century.

When I first came across the book, I was reminded of a confession by Gertrude Stein (another product of 1874): "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences." And so, of course, I parsed Abbott's book into its own idiosyncratic system of analysis.

What this means is that the bulk of the book consists of Abbott's sentences converted into descriptions of their own grammatical structure. Almost all the original content has been replaced by self-reflexive language like this:
Cardinal Roman Numeral period Preposition Noun parenthesis cardinal arabic numeral parenthesis colon dash

(I believe the capitalized words correspond to those that are capitalized in Abbott's text, but I'm not sure.)

At nearly 300 pages, even the most diehard conceptualist might balk at the prospect of actually reading Parse front to back, and in fact Kenny Goldsmith has used it as an example of conceptual texts that don't actually need to be read: the idea is enough. As appealing as I find this notion in many ways, I don't ultimately find it fully adequate to an assessment of Dworkin's work (or Goldsmith's, for that matter). What I think books like this do is ask us to reconsider what it means to read, and to find ways of actualizing new reading practices. This might mean something as simple as flipping around here and there throughout the book rather than reading straight through. It might mean reading one or more sections in an intense state of attention, and generalizing outward from such readings to a larger engagement with the total work. It might mean submitting for extended periods of time to the monotony of the governing structure, so that when there is some kind of variation in the pattern, it takes on an added value of surprise, as when Dworkin occasionally retains an entire phrase or sentence from Abbott without "translating" it, often creating the effect of editorial comment ("plural first person subjective case pronoun used in bad faith to suggest a camaraderie with the reader auxiliary verb adverb" etc.).

The truth is that the more one looks into Parse, the more one discovers in it--not "depths" in the familiar sense, necessarily, but details and complexities that activate underused and underappreciated areas of the intelligence. Highly recommended.


Patrick said...

I keep dipping back into this one, too. I'm curious about transcription as a form of "imitation." But that's too much to think about here. Easier, or quicker, is to relay the analogy with Stein, whose _Making of Americans_ produces much the same effect, from a reader's standpoint. "Exact reproduction of inner and outer states" is, I think, working from memory here, how Stein described the work of the "contemporary" writer. This sounds like transcription of a sort, though not the supposedly bald transcription of much of Goldsmith's work. A reader is also tantalized by the impossible though effective analogy of their labor with that of the author. Part of why the concept is never enough is the feat, which is substantial, temporal, and historical.

I think one thing that might go missing from remarks on conceptual poetics would be the fact of publication, as a form of instantiation and realization of the work/concept. At some level, one is amazed by the physical fact of making these works into books (see KG's _Day_, for instance). Of course, Stein long despaired over the reluctance of even the most daring publishers to tackle _Making of Americans_. Unreadability began as an avoidance behavior, perhaps.

Cowboy_Bill said...

I think you're absolutely right that the book raises questions about how we read. When I picked up Parse a few month's back, the book initially struck me as a kind of missing link between conceptual texts and Oulipean constraints in that Dworkin transforms the structure of Abbott's text into an ever expanding number of possible texts. Kind of like a giant Mad Lib, or an almost inexhaustible set of Scattergories cards. Come to think of it, Parse is not just a book; it's a party in paperback.


Bryan Coffelt said...

So is extrapolation the new reading?