If you speak & mean & think, you might be a subordinator:

I suppose I should get around to real manifestoing eventually, right? Manifesto point number one: Stop subordinating.

Whenever I talk about the problems with our understanding of literature, I tend to use subordination as shorthand, but I fear this leads to misunderstanding: “By God, I’d never subordinate in a million years.” But you do subordinate. We all do. Here is, according to my definition, what subordination means: it means meaning. If I just said meaning, that would lead to the opposite type of confusion: “By God, of course I use meaning. I do all kinds of meaning. How could that possibly be wrong?”

I’ll explain: we subordinate and we mean because we’re afraid of death, and we don’t want to be afraid of death. We do lots of stuff to make the world less scary. These mechanisms include dualism, stratification, generalization, abstraction – um, well, communication and thinking for the most part. All that Greek stuff. Practical mechanisms for 1) knowing better how to survive while trapped in this mortal flesh, and 2) elevation of the fleshworld into the immortal abstract. Words are just abstractions representing – in other words, subordinate to – “real” things or representing the abstract (and I’ll discuss later how these two ways of understanding meaning lead to false understandings of difference between “real”ist and imaginative literature). Words, in this sense, are just little machines meant to make things easier and help us avoid the predators. If you think about all this as a mechanism of survival, you’ll recognize that it’s not a universally bad thing. I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to not try surviving. If your uncle Gronk gets poisoned by the purple strawberries but not by the speckled strawberries, dualistic thinking and generalization can be a life saver. If you tell your caveman family “purple strawberries bad” – because cavemen knew English, I guess? – then those words subordinated to “real” objects outside of them, and this becomes a very good thing, if survival is your only consideration.

It goes beyond this, though. This subordination is designed to eliminate stimulation of any kind, to make the whole being as efficient as machines. You do the same things every day like a machine because that helps you survive, but it also dulls all sense of stimulation. The more dull your day to day activity, the less vulnerable you are to smiladon attacks, the less you have to think about the tenuousness of mortality, etc.

But literature (and all art really) is the opposite of this. Literature is stimulation and vulnerability and death and life and danger – but that’s the joy and glory of it; that is the value of it. Too often people confuse “meaning” in the sense of words subordinate to concepts and “meaning” in the sense of value. The first meaning of “meaning” is just something incidental and secondary, not something necessary to literature; the second meaning of “meaning” – that book gave my life meaning, etc. – has very little to do with subordination to the abstract. And words don’t have to be machines. They can be predators.

We’ve always tried to rationalize this frustrating oppositeness. For example, lies like this: literature is designed to teach us to survive. But the joy of it is how it brings us so close to death with no lesson necessary. Or: literature causes us to eject all those really nasty emotions that cause so much chaos. But the emotions are the source of the value, not the ejection of them; the stimulation of the chaos is the value, not the thing literature is meant to eliminate. Or: literature presents us with a portrait of the human condition so we can learn what it means to be human. But that’s no more valid a generalization than any generalization about what women or like or what a certain ethnic group is like – when the simpler answer is much more compelling: the humanness of a character allows us to feel the same thing as the character, and no learning is necessary to make it good. It’s like Frank O’Hara says: he’s not writing for all history and all humanity (an unnecessary impossibility); he’s writing to one person at a time for that one momentary interlocution.

So if you think you don’t subordinate, you do. And that’s fine. But please stop doing it with literature or anything else human.


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