Part II: The Stringfellow Hypothesis

Geraldine Jorge

Part II: The Stringfellow Hypothesis

“Available significations, namely, previous acts of expression, establish a common world between speaking subjects to which current and new speech refers, just as the gesture refers to the sensible world.”1

David Cronenberg’s film “Stereo” follows Dr. Luther Stringfellow’s experiment in establishing a communal experiential space (i.e., a common world or shared consciousness) among eight telepathists, thereby transcending speech. Gestures and prostheses flow into the space vacated by spoken words: a cane, a mannequin, round fruit, a rubber pacifier.

“What would be the organic nature of communal experiential space, shared among eight psychosomatic entities? Would one person, one mode of perception and reaction, one experiential space continuum dominate this over-soul? Or, would each mind participate in the synthesis of a uniform, newly-created emergent space unlike any of its constituents?”2

Despite and in addition to the natural development of a flow of objects, images, and gestures, Stringfellow hypothesized the initial necessity of a single dominant will to cohere the group, a necessary central authority figure who would stabilize the group on behalf of the researcher before the group could later evolve into a true, nonhierarchical conglomerate:

“The function of the dominant [participant] would then be to select from among his fellow subjects the one psychically most vulnerable and by the application of subtle social intimidations, followed by a careful series of potent symbolic gestures, draw this subject into the field of his psycho-telepathic dominance. Once a true conglomerate exhibiting complete telepathic bonding has been established between this primary couple, the progression towards a larger and more complex conglomerate may begin.”3

The project–conducted in 1969–was to propose an alternative structure to the obsolescent family unit, and took place in isolation at the CAEE Sanatorium in the Ontario Northwoods.4 This isolation, along with existing structures of power both intentionally and unintentionally imposed throughout the course of the experiment, brought about the reterritorialization of structures of dominance within the small commune.

Perhaps it is just as well that Stringfellow’s approach, utopian in concept but nevertheless and therefore rooted in the academic institution, began to mirror aspects of that institution.

Is there, enfolded somewhere amidst the pronounced strata of the cultural institution, any semblance of a kernel or aspect that could someday give way to something organic, let alone something totally unheard-of?5

The institution is predicated upon representation. The present must be re-present-ative of the future. A group of eight white Canadian university students must be representative of all Anglo-American bohemian types–if not the contemporary western counterculture at large.

Merleau-Ponty on the phenomenological impact of customs, habit, and intentionality:

“The piece of leather “to be cut” and the lining “to be sewn.” The workbench, the scissors, and the pieces of leather … define, through their combined value, a particular situation that remains open, that calls for a certain mode of resolution, a certain labor… [T]he phenomenal forces at work in my visual field obtain from me, without any calculation, the motor reactions that will establish between those forces the optimum equilibrium, or as the customs of our milieu or the arrangement of our listeners immediately obtains from us the words, attitudes, and tone that fits with them – not that we are trying to disguise our thoughts or simply aiming to please, but because we literally are what others think of us and we are our world.”6

While interpretation remains necessarily open, Merleau-Ponty points here to the curious and somewhat unnerving manner through which customs, arrangement, milieu, attitudes, words, and tone–that entire field of human, cultural, and linguistic context–nevertheless contribute to our taking-up of a given situation in particular, predictable, essentially closed ways. Before we can take up a situation, our representations rush towards it, modulating the range of perceptual possibilities available to us. Institutions broadcast these representations–Stringfellow’s CAEE, academic journals, memes, tropes, physiological and non-physiological pandemics.

Edward Said describes a feat of epistemology made possible through the manipulation of representations:

“Between 1922 and 1947 the great issue witnessed by the world in Palestine was not, as a Palestinian would like to imagine, the struggle between natives and new colonists, but a struggle presented as being between Britain and the Zionists [my italics].”7

Said implicates, in part, western orientalists and the western institution, which esteems and trusts those orientalists’ biases and necessarily context-poor observations while not even considering to regard the voices of the indigenous people themselves. Accumulating in the cavities created by the violent displacement of indigenous bodies are not other bodies, but inorganic debris, institutions, declarations.

Millennia earlier, the Eucharist itself must have been instituted–in the absence of the body of Christ. Transubstantiation. Thus are bodies made word.

There are bodies which feel light on the tongue, bodies whose mere pronunciation emanates dominance; there are politically-correct bodies; there are bodies only exotic enough as to still be pronounced. There are the commonplace bodies, the extraneous bodies; there are obscene bodies imbued with so much spite as to mark despicable anyone who evokes or associates with them as well.

Earlier I had compared the body with the word. But bodies only take on their significations once taken up socially, just as sounds only become phonemes once understood linguistically.

Among writers’ institutions, the “proper” use of language–for example, word choice or syntax–is generally understood as a factor of aptitude rather than (or at best, alongside) one of culture. Craft itself is a cultural institution. Matthew Salesses discusses the implications of the institution for those partially or entirely outside the dominant culture:

“The writers of color in [a] workshop where craft values are white, or the LGBT writers in a workshop where craft values are straight and cis, or women writers in a workshop where the craft values are male, end up in the position then where they are told that they need to “know the rules before they can break them,” but the rules are never only “just craft,” because the rules are cultural.”8

Naturally, craft is always determined by the dominant culture–the assumed audience. To fail to speak clearly to the assumed audience might as well be to fail to speak at all. To speak and be heard by the dominant culture, I must first learn the rules of my assumed audience’s language. I must master the use of their symbols, myths, and archetypes. Essentially, I must come to inhabit language as they do. But does their language have the necessary syntactical, conceptual, or mythological mechanisms to express my culture altogether? Will a word intentionally left untranslated, an evocation of a foreign-to-them archetype, be construed gibberish at worst and obscurantist at best? Perhaps my fellow extra-academic comrades and I ought to keep silent and hold out for some tenured ilustrado9 to come around and speak for us.

Nature is culture.10 Culture is at its origin natural. The institution of language abstracts away the visceral, embodied creation of the word in first speech. Merleau-Ponty predates Cronenberg by more than twenty years: “Speech is the excess of our existence beyond natural being.”11

Each language is a unique excess, an accretion within an embodied field of contexts: land, myth, history. A reflexive smile, a grimace, an outcry. The Flehmen response.12

Then there are excess excesses within a language, flowing at the level of territories (dialect), groups (vernacular), and ultimately, individuals (idiolect).13

What is lost in translation, let alone in coerced assimilation? Forrest Gander is a translator of Yoshimasu Gōzō, a Japanese poet whose cross-linguistic and polyvocal sonic, visual, and visceral wordplay has sometimes been construed as dense or obscure:

“I wonder if the goal of “representing” the original is the goal of translation at all, given that the work is necessarily subjected to alteration, transformation, dislocation, and displacement…maybe there are times when NOT “representing” the original is precisely what permits the creation of something less definitive but more ongoing, a form of translation that amplifies and renews the suppleness of the original poetry’s meanings.”14

Sayuri Okamoto, another translator of Gōzō:

“Gozo’s language is so extreme that, paradoxically, it forces a translator to think about elemental questions such as what constitutes the Japanese language and how is it different from other tongues.”15

Gōzō’s poetry reverses the abstracting institution of language, resurfacing the unique, embodied experience at language’s origin. The goal of translating (not just Gōzō but arguably anyone) is not to re-present, but to re-consider. The goal is not so much a goal as rather an open-ended and continuous attunement. The attunement not to consume and regurgitate other bodies. The attunement of becoming over being, process over possession, dynamic inchoateness over rigid conclusiveness.

Unlike Cronenberg’s Dr. Stringfellow, Merleau-Ponty shares Gōzō’s translators’ optimism about the possibility of shared experience. But like Cronenberg, he traces this possibility to our embodiment. Embodied consciousness, writes Merleau-Ponty, discovers in itself an opaque (because pre-conceptual and pre-lingual) and originary past, shared among all embodied and conscious beings.16 “If I experience this inherence of my consciousness in its body and in its mind, the perception of others and the plurality of consciousnesses no longer present any difficulty.”

That we allow others to speak for themselves is urgent now but also has always been urgent. Perhaps our worry should not be that we fail to make sense of the language of others, but instead that our pre-established concepts, archetypes, and myths rush towards and usurp their words before we can grasp it viscerally if not semantically.

Any attempt to construct a communal experiential space must orient itself towards the mysterious originary past which Merleau-Ponty names, and therefore away from and beyond any dominant institutions–linguistic or otherwise–if it can hope to accomplish its end. We hold belief in this mystery as we ultimately hold any of our other beliefs in the world–by a cat’s leap of faith, accomplished with utmost grace and accuracy not through an individual act of calculation, but through our subjective embodiments, and through the epochs of muscle memory, tradition, and customs passed on from countless ancestral predecessors and which together just are that same embodiment.

1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012) 192. 2. David Cronenberg. (1969). Stereo. Toronto: Emergent Films. 3. Ibid. 4. That the CAEE (Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry) and Dr. Stringfellow are creations of Cronenberg’s is less relevant here than the thought-temptation such an assemblage with such consequences poses. 5. Deleuze and Guattari go beyond the organic-inorganic distinction. The limits of territorial structure give way not to the organic–organs imply specific function–but rather to the smooth, uninscribed “body without organs.” Cronenberg explores this in a literal way in his much more recent film Crimes of the Future, where the growth within one’s own body of strange new organs with unknown functions (if any) becomes a futuristic art form. 6. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 108. 7. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, (New York: Vintage, 1992) 68. 8. Matthew Salesses, “Pure Craft is a Lie.” 9. Ilustrado (as they were mostly men) was a term referring to a member of the often western-educated, upper-class Filipino intelligentsia of the late 19th century, to which national hero José Rizal belonged and of which he is widely considered representative par excellence. 10. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro echoes the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in Cannibal Metaphysics. 11. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 203. 12. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception: “For man, everything is constructed and everything is natural, in the sense that there is no single word or behavior that does not owe something to mere biological being – and, at the same time, there is no word or behavior that does not break free from animal life, that does not deflect vital behaviors from their direction [sens] through a sort of escape and a genius for ambiguity that might well serve to define man.” 195. 13. How many languages go extinct every year? 14. Yoshimasu Gōzō, Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo, edited by Forrest Gander and translated by Jeffrey Angles, et al. (New York: New Directions, 2016) 9. 15. Ibid., 26. 16. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 366.

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