“Modern poetry aims at creating a semantics that is seemingly without syntax, which is to say a semantics in which the opposition between word and thing — between the two articulations of language or between the opposition of linguistic and motor activity — pushes toward the ‘rediscovered truth’ of a simple rather than a double articulation.” ~ Ronald Schleifer
Have you ever heard that one Selena Gomez song, “Love You Like A Love Song”? You know, the one that goes, “I, I love you like a love song, baby / I, I love you like a love song, baby / I, I love you like a love song, baby / And I keep it in re-pe-pe-peat.” Linguistically and musically, it’s not the most stylized, polished, or sophisticated (or necessarily likable) song, but, jinkies, can it get a point across. The repetition throughout the chorus forces the song into your (or, at least, my) mind and keeps it there for eons. As nostalgic as I am (not) for my early teenage years, this song does not come to me unprompted; rather, I was reminded of it when thinking over the relevance of repetition in the context of art and communication. In my last post I discussed the importance of maintaining and engaging in an awareness of the implications of the words we use and came to the conclusion that we must pay a similar level of attention to the words we use and hear as Steve Prince does to his art. When toying with the implications of Prince’s deep consideration of his art, I found myself wondering about the repetition of certain images and motifs throughout Prince’s pieces — for example, the four horsemen, the handkerchief/dove, the pregnant women, or the Kara Walker-esque silhouettes. This repetition is something we’ve touched upon in class discussion before but has continued to fascinate me, especially as Prince’s self-repetition in his art functions as a microcosm of a wider recycling and repetition of forms, motifs, images, and so on in art — and not simply visual art, but in music, poetry, and prose as well. What’s the point of this repetition and recycling of images and content? How does this repetition create meaning as opposed to redundancy?
My thoughts on repetition began to draw me back to Dr. Paku’s Literary Theory in Disability Studies course (which Claire Corbeaux and Katie Sullivan are also taking) in which we read Ronald Schleifer’s article “The Poetics of Tourette’s Syndrome: Language, Neurobiology, and Poetry.” In this article, Schleifer forges connections between the verbal tics of Tourette Syndrome (TS) and the ways in which poetics uses material aspects of language in order to create meaning. Research on TS has found that the verbal tics manifested in the syndrome are verbal expressions of the so-called reptilian brain (that is, the more primal parts of the brain, which have been a part of our mental evolution since our reptile stage); due to a dysfunction in the cortical and subcortical regions of the brain (stick with me here), those with Tourette’s Syndrome make unconscious verbal expressions that are rooted in the reptilian brain. The science behind the verbal tics of Tourette’s is relevant because it demonstrates that there is a mental materiality to language; this materiality has long been denied by the Cartesian conception of mind-body dualism, which states that the mind and body are distinctly separate entities, with the mind. As language is associated with the mind under the conception of mind-body dualism, operations of language (speaking, reading, writing, poetry) are then conceived as entirely separate from the material operations of the body and the brain (the brain being a physical entity). However, the science behind Tourette’s proves that human language is deeply rooted in areas of the brain meant for primal expression; thus, the words we use can operate upon these mentally material aspects to produce a primal and deeply felt effect. Thus, poetics imitates, and at its best, operationalizes the same material neural pathways that the vocal tics of Tourette’s operate upon in order to create or emphasize meaning. The verbal tics of TS further emphasize the material aspects of language through their manipulation of the sounds of certain words and phrases (take an example given by the protagonist of Joseph Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, who has TS: “It became harder and harder not to notice that when a television pitchman said to last the rest of a lifetime my brain went to rest the best of a loaftomb, that when I heard “Alfred Hitchcock,” I silently replied “Altered Houseclock” or “Ilford Hotchkiss” ). These connections are not meant in any way to romanticize TS or to attempt to frame TS in a poetic lens; rather they are meant to illustrate that via the science of Tourette’s we can learn that the language utilized in poetics creates meaning and effect.
So, how does this relate to repetition?
Repetition of certain sounds and phrases, operating along those previously mentioned primal neural pathways, often occurs during verbal tics due to TS; in poetics, many authors use the repetition of various sounds, phrases, and words within a piece. Literary theorist A.J. Greimas observes that about forty percent of redundancies in verbal communication are immediately filtered out by the brain, as normally redundancy and repetition in normal speech are found to be meaningless by the brain. In the verbal tics of TS, these repetitions are often filtered out, ignored, or simply seen as strange by those observing the tics. However, in poetics, Greimas states that “the reception of the poetic message can be interpreted as the valorization of redundancies” (142). In other words, poetics uses these purposeful redundancies in grammar and semantics in order to create meaning. However, these redundancies in poetics go beyond simply functioning as a vehicle for meaning (if the grammar or semantic choice solely communicated meaning it could be eliminated after the meaning is communicated, meaning that the repetition would not be significant) and instead serve to communicate what Greimas calls a “meaning-effect.” That is, the repetition found in poetics communicates both the meaning of what the author is communicating (“the felt sense of comprehension, the signifying whole beyond the individual elements of a sentence… the logic of an argument”), but also the effect of what they are trying to say — that is, the “felt senses… such as sadness, anxiety, fear, and joy.” This is done by using the material aspects of language, those that are demonstrated in Tourette’s, and manipulating them so as to not only operate upon those verbal pathways in the brain but use them to communicate an emotion or effect. Thus, this use of the materiality of language via repetition of words, sounds, and phrases in poetics attempts to, as stated in the epigraph, close the distance between signifier and signified so as to create a single, unified meaning-effect (Greimas states, “What is common to all [poetic] phenomena is the shortening of the distance between the signifier and the signified.”). In semiotics, the linguistic sign — a thing which stands for something other than itself — is composed of the signifier, which is the pointer, the word, the sound, and the signified, which is the concept that the signifier represents. For example, a signifier would be the word “chair,” where the signified would be the actual idea of a chair that comes to mind when we say the word chair. Thus, when Greimas makes the point that poetics uses the materiality of language to close the distance between signifier and signified, he is making the point that — as stated in the epigraph — poetics is attempting to create a single, unified truth through making signifier and signified one.
I have the feeling that I’m getting caught up in this concept and sometimes the best way to explain a concept is through example. So, take Sylvia Plath’s equally revered and reviled poem “Daddy,” wherein she expresses her frustrations with the tyrannical grip her father, a German immigrant to America, held on her childhood home through comparing him to a Nazi (yes, it’s very intense). She writes “I could never talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw. // It stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak.” The “Ich, ich, ich, ich,” communicates meaning-effect through using the materiality of language both through the meaning of “Ich” — which communicates both the German word for “I” and a sound of disgust — and the effect of the purposeful repetition of this sound — which connotes a feeling of stuck-ness, of being caught in a loop, due to fear or frustration. Thus, this repetition of the word “Ich” creates meaning-effect and closes the distance between the signifier — the word “Ich” — and signified — the “I” of Ich, which communicates Plath’s conception of self, or conception of self through the lens of her father’s strict, German upbringing in order to communicate the singular truth of her stuck sense of self due to her father’s hold over her family and her young life. The same occurrence and use of language occurs in Gomez’s “Love You Like a Love Song.”
So, Steve Prince’s art! Selena Gomez! The concepts with which our (my?) journey started! Just as poetics uses repetition to close the distance between signified and signifier, meaning and effect, mental and physical, to express a deeper truth, in a similar manner visual art utilizes repetition to create and maintain meaning, closing the distance between represented and reality. Prince’s repetition of motifs throughout his art — such as the horsemen or the silhouettes — serve to close the distance between their physical representation in separate pieces and their signified meaning, as each repetition of a motif re-contextualizes the repeated image into a new story. The repetition throughout pieces serves to tie these pieces together into a wider story, while also communicating a meaning-effect. For example, in their redundancy throughout Prince’s paintings, the four horsemen do not lose meaning, but rather are seen to gain meaning as each repetition brings the horsemen into a wider context, thus, redefining them. Each use of the horsemen communicates their meaning — as redeemers, as judgement, as death — but with each repetition, their effect — the feeling of fear, implications of death, is also communicated.
It might seem like a bit of a leap to connect the repetition of visual images throughout Prince’s work and throughout art in general (here I am thinking of Prince’s use of the position of the man depicted in Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream in his own linocut Job: Take Me to The Water; Prince stated that this repetition of Homer’s imagery is meant to communicate the feeling of relaxation and apathy in a time of extreme distress) to repetition in poetics in language; however, as Helen Warfle points out in her blog post “The One Where I Talk Too Much About Maps,” “The first known instances of art, cave paintings, were likely created both for the function of depicting hunts and for the beautification of communal spaces. According to Psychology Today, human memory is largely based upon the visual, so using visual mediums is the most natural way of recording information pre-written word.” Visual representations are a similar form of signifier-signified to lingual representations, thus, the repetition in Prince’s art can be seen to be attempting a similar reduction of double-articulated meaning (through signifier and signified, meaning and effect) into one singular truth.
** Full credit to Dr. Paku’s ENGL 427: Literary Theory in Disability Studies course for the reading on the connections of Tourette’s Syndrome to poetics. Along this line of thought, I am by no means an expert or meaning to claim to be an expert on neurological disorders such as Tourette’s Syndrome. Thus, if anyone has corrections or suggestions, I would be more than happy to receive them.