Apr 192016

Helen Palmer, Deleuze and Futurism: A Manifesto for Nonsense. London: Bloomsbury, 2014; 280 pages. ISBN: 9781472534286.

Reviewed by Julian Jason Haladyn, OCAD University and Maxwell Hyett, OCAD University

A word is a tool. It is used to describe the world around us; the specific choice of one word over another provides us with vastly different perspectives that support and guide us through the world. For example, if we describe a piece of writing as “literary” it speaks to the general narrative or successive qualities of the text, whereas to describe it as “poetic” is to reference the more fragmentary and intuited qualities of the writing or ideas. While both words are tied to the concept of literature, the distinction between them is vital and telling because it signals a difference in the structuring of thought and the choice of word. In the former, the singular word is tied to the communication of a larger structure that it creates and supports linguistically. In the latter, each word exists as simultaneously inside and outside of the larger signifying system of the text, both supporting and challenging any attempt at a direct act of signification. We see it as a similarly important underlying choice of words when Helen Palmer describes the manifesto that is her book not in terms of (good) “sense” but rather “nonsense”—“its meaning is, arguably, entirely unfixed.” (10)

For Palmer, it is this conception of nonsense that connects the writings of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the work of the early twentieth-century futurists. She bases this connection on the ways in which these two practices treat language as poetic. Palmer develops the relationship between Deleuze and futurism—mostly Russian, but she does discuss the Italian futurists—beginning with an outline of futurist poetics. As she states: “The aim of this book is to identify the dynamic element that constitutes or drives a ‘futurist poetics’ and examine it in its various guises, both in futurist writing and in the writing of Deleuze.” (viii) What does she mean by futurist poetics? In a sense, the whole book is an answer to this question—or, more accurately, a series of possible answers, the “ultimate goal” of which is “the idea of the conceptual neologism.” (viii) As an approach to language, to the treatment of the word at the moment of its creation, this futurist poetics speaks to a moment of nonsense in Deleuzian and Futurist modes of thought. The term “futurist” also plays a core role in this study, designating a mode of linguistics that is not limited to the current structures of language. Near the end of her text Palmer notes “that Deleuze and a number of key futurist thinkers manipulate certain linguistic spatiotemporal preconceptions, in order to present their own radically new reconfigurations of the space-time in which language operates. Bridging ‘Deleuzian’ and ‘futurist’ thought, together these figures constitute a paradoxical manifesto for nonsense.” (185) While this argument remains rather general throughout much of the book, it is for us one of the most rewarding aspects of the study.

Particularly, it is Palmer’s discussion of zaum in the first chapter that develops the idea of a futurist poetics most fully. The Russian futurist word zaum is commonly translated as “transreason,” “beyond-the-mind,” or “beyondsense”: “Rather than a negation of reason, it suggests a movement beyond reason to a transcendent location. Zaum language is a language of neologisms, deliberate errors, misspellings, phonaesthetic effects and glossolalia.” (2; xxii) This is a particularly interesting method in relation to communications through texting. The incorporation of emojis, images and gifs as stand-ins for words, along with the neologisms created for texting shorthand, creates something similar to what can be seen in the zaum project. As a linguistic phenomenon, zaum pressures language to embody meaning, to make meaning a material quality of the signifying process, as opposed to simply functioning at the symbolic level. This is a very interesting problem for meaning seems not to exist in anything but the perceiver’s mind. To embody it would require an act from the spectator, which is spurred by distorting the normal, automatic, or expected act of reading in some way. The futurists, Palmer clarifies, “treated the word as a thing in and of itself rather than a symbol standing for something else.” (31) The central focus of a futurist poetics, then, is epitomized by a desire to go beyond the logic and structure that language allows; words, as Saussurean linguistics tells us, have an arbitrary connection to the objects they signify. Through zaum, language is distorted and preconceived notions of what words and ideas should look and sound like are challenged: “Zaum, and avant-garde practice in general, exhibits the desire to get beyond the arbitrary conventions of naming and synonymy, and make language resemble its object.” (16)

It should be noted that Palmer’s extension of this argument from futurism to “avant-garde practice in general” is problematic, since the concern with the relation between language and its object cannot be unilaterally applied to the artists and movements associated with the avant-gardes. In fact, even her own brief examination of the avant-garde focuses on it as a theoretical and creative “critique of time” that is intimately related to questions of history and historicization. Linguistically, we can argue that the word “history” embodies a dual quality that modern artists have to negotiate, what Palmer will refer to as a paradox that “is a key question of this book”: “the concept of the avant-garde can only ever be historically determined, but historical determination is exactly the opposite of the concerns of the avant-garde.” (35) The difference between these understandings—between “history” as a development of history and “history” as a break with history—is for Palmer an intrinsic conflict that we see embraced by (embodied in) futurism, a “question” she will also apply to the writings of Deleuze.

The second chapter explores Deleuze’s poetics, which is compared to, even treated as an extension of, the futurist poetics explored in the previous chapter. Palmer appears convinced that Deleuze was directly influenced by futurism, even though she admits that he does not discuss the movement “at length”—and does not provide an example to demonstrate he was at all interested in the futurists, “although his oeuvre is peppered with references to the avant-garde,” she adds. (41) Why then does Palmer write a book arguing for the connection between Deleuze and futurism? She provides us with one clear answer: it is the “inseparability between the linguistic and the conceptual that links up Deleuze and futurism.” (42) If we accept Palmer’s connection between Deleuze and the Futurists, then the overriding consequence is that Deleuze’s theories exhibit a latent “futurist” drive. In other words, the main subject of this book is Deleuze, whose writings are located within a critical trajectory that significantly includes, even originates within, the ideas and practices of futurism: “What the futurists share with Deleuze is a desire for the speed of the ‘becoming’ to become so intense that we no longer have any need of a conjunction separating tenor and vehicle; the two items should be placed next to one another with no mediating term in between.” (160) Such is Palmer’s vision of a Deleuzian futurist poetics that operates through the “becoming-material of language,” a complex process that is predicated upon the notions of violence and speed. (75)

In chapters three to five Palmer goes on to look at the materialism of language in the manifesto and through shiftology. Palmer introduces shiftology near the beginning of the book through a quote from Aleksei Kruchenykh’s 1923 manifesto Shiftology of Russian Verse: An Offensive and Educational Treatise: “It is impossible to teach all possible artistic effects because the work of art is a live organism. However, shiftology brings them to the fore and gives us a new tool, a new way of reading, a new alphabet.” (Quoted in Palmer, 7) Directly related to zaum, shiftology signals a transition from performance to drama, as well as from metaphor to metamorphosis—each of these shifts being given its own chapter. Palmer describes the manifesto as generally making “a set of demands,” noting that “it calls for change.” (73) It is here that the idea of language’s materiality is given a nonsensical history, one that allows Deleuze (and futurism) to stage the questioning of language within a larger cultural stage. What all three of these discussions have in common is their development of the “concept of becoming” that, extending out from the sphere of linguistics, “allows language to become something other than itself.” (127) In Deleuzian terms, this is a becoming that affirms difference by negating the mediating systems that keep “word” and “thing” separate. Instead, “word” “encompasses ‘thing’ within its structure,” collapsing the perceived dualism; this “foregrounding of language’s materiality, vital in both futurism and Deleuze, works towards precisely this end.” (148–9) These chapters are particularly engaging and accessible because they do not require as much background-knowledge as the previous chapters, which at times can be difficult for readers not already well-versed in the topics discussed. As a result, the development of these treatments of language as material enables the larger scope of this study to really show through.

Palmer begins her conclusion by telling the reader exactly what this larger scope is:

“Throughout these chapters it has been demonstrated that Deleuze and a number of key futurist thinkers manipulate certain linguistic spatiotemporal preconceptions, in order to present their own radically new reconfigurations of the space-time in which language operates. Bridging ‘Deleuzian’ and ‘futurist’ thought, together these figures constitute a paradoxical manifesto for nonsense.” (185)

At the core of this argument is the speed or acceleration that defines the “futurist” element of a futurist poetics. Palmer could have developed this aspect much more than she did, especially since both futurism and Deleuze are tied to the early and late twentieth-century manifestations of accelerationism as an aesthetic response to the speeding up of culture, both technologically and psychologically. Whereas the futurists celebrated the beauty of speed (F. T. Marinetti), Deleuze embraces the idea of accelerating the process of deterritorialization—what he and Félix Guattari theorize as “schizo.” “If acceleration is a form of reconfiguration,” Palmer tells us, “then neologism is the result.” (187–8) It is the creative capacity of this futurist poetics, its acceleration of the desire for language to be both “word” and “thing,” that this book traces in Deleuzian and futurist thought.