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Where there is void: J. H. Prynne's Kazoo Dreamboats or, On What There Is.

In this essay I explore the moral crisis of modernity as identified in J. H. Prynne's latest book Kazoo Dreamboats or, On What There Is. The analysis focuses on the idea of "void" that in Prynne's book both grants freedom for the linguistic creation of reality in line with the textualist viewpoint of such thinkers as Richard Rorty and allows for a threat to the moral existence of man as diagnosed by Zygmunt Bauman. I argue that Kazoo Dreamboats challenges the discourses of science, philosophy, rationality, and popular culture as means to impose order on a reality in which gross violations of morality have become a routine that evades direct exposure.


In his work from Kitchen Poems (1968) to Sub Songs (2010), J. H Prynne has pushed the boundaries of poetry to the extremes in terms of vocabulary and syntax. His range of lyrical expression, which as early as 1987 was characterized as revolutionary by Peter Ackroyd (quoted in Reeve and Kerridge 1995, vii), has embraced terms and concepts from the province of science--such as advanced mathematics and quantum physics--that had rarely been used in Anglophone poetry before. While specialized idioms are successfully employed as means of addressing the complex nature of human relationships with language and social reality, Prynne's radical implementation of parataxis has shown the extent to which syntax-dependent word order dominates and eventually reifies our perception of the world. In his latest book Kazoo Dreamboats or, On What There Is (2011), Prynne tests the form of the long poem to the point of breaking in order to penetrate the nature of reality, both at the level of the linguistic and social and at the level--unsurprisingly for Prynne--of the subatomic. The present article investigates his critical insight into the constitution of the modern world. I will argue that in Kazoo Dreamboats Prynne shows that implicit dangers to moral coexistence are inherent in the premises from which such ideas as justice and responsible critical thinking have been derived.

Gerald Bruns opens his essay on Kazoo Dreamboats by observing, "its absence of line breaks marks a new departure" (2013, 57). The volume comprises paragraphs rather than stanzas of pentameters and seems to continue the poetic-essay form of the earlier "A Note on Metal" and "The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts"; but in Kazoo Dreamboats Prynne's use of paratactic technique, which has come to dominate his poetry at least since The Oval Window (1983), destabilizes the implication invoked consistently by the two earlier pieces, that we are dealing with an essay. At the same time, however, Kazoo Dreamboats may be viewed as continuing the experiment of Blue Slides at Rest (2004), where the stanzas are divided into rectangular patches of text, thus suggesting regularity and cohesion, while the centripetal arrangement of words and phrases predicated on frequent use of parataxis and anacolutha subverts that apparent cohesion. Similarly, in Kazoo Dreamboats, the essay-like use of paragraphs--although varying in indentation, thus pointing to the jagged line arrangement familiar from Prynne's earlier volumes such as Brass (1971)--and in-text and block quotations with "references cues" added at the end of the book, are beguilingly suggestive of order and strictness of argument. But such an interpretation is problematized by the extremism of syntactical operations.

The interdependent processes of the establishment of meaning and its immediate dispersal constantly revise the conceptual grounds on which Kazoo Dreamboats operates. No term or concept can be taken for granted; hence the linguistic field that is deployed in the book requires any reading of it to progress by an incessant questioning of its necessarily tentative conclusions. Thus Kazoo Dreamboats may best be described as essayistic in the sense Theodor Adorno gave to the term: "the essay urges the reciprocal interaction of its concepts in the process of intellectual experience. In the essay, concepts do not build a continuum of operations, thought does not advance in a single direction" (2006, 101). In his latest volume, Prynne is also aware that what is to be brought forth calls for a special form of presentation. Kazoo Dreamboats insists on its poetic genealogy by making its formal features, such as extensive use of parataxis and metonymical strings, vehicles of meaning; by the same token the book maintains its link to the Adornian essay, being conscious of "the non-identity between presentation and presented material" that "forces the form to make unlimited efforts" (Adorno 2006, 105).

Moreover, Kazoo Dreamboats may be placed in the tradition of the visionary poem; this is justified in its reference cues, for among the works quoted there are Langland's Piers Plowman, Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," and Shelley's "Mont Blanc." Piers Plowman is identified as a principal model for Kazoo Dreamboats (Bruns 2013, 58) and indeed Langland's vision does underpin the construction of Prynne's book and points to some of its central motifs, to which I will shortly return. Therefore it seems difficult at the outset to know what to call Kazoo Dreamboats, for it is as much an essay as a poem. Prynne seeks to shed light on a problem, garnering sources and interweaving concepts that may help him further his points; at the same time he makes the formal arrangement expressive of meaning, playing on the resources of language to creatively rework it into the Poundian "news that stays NEWS" (Pound 1960, 29). It is with this in mind that I call Kazoo Dreamboats a critical lyric, both seriously devoted to analysis of the issues it focuses on and emphatically aware of the need, as Ackroyd put it, to "change the vocabulary of expression" (quoted in Reeve and Kerridge 1995, vii).


As the book's subtitle, On What There Is, suggests, Prynne seeks to investigate the nature of late modern reality, reaching out beneath the veneer of the visible to "brilliant clusters horizontal to their points of origin steel-tipped" (Prynne 2011, 5). The clusters refer to invisible particles that comprise the world of objects: cells, "filmic particles," "droplets en masse phantasmal," and dendrites that "run fast even flash-like." From the level of cells, the visionary speaker of the poem takes us deeper still, quoting from Adrian Parsegian's Vander Waals Forces: A Handbook for Biologists, Chemists, Engineers, and Physicists: '"We now recognize that "empty space" is a turmoil of electromagnetic waves of all frequencies and wave-lengths. They wash through and past us' or, say, 'we are all bathed in this "vacuum infinity" of virtual electromagnetic waves', provoked and then quelled in reciprocal perturbation" (6). The quotation from Parsegian (2006, 10) shows that at the subatomic level there is no such thing as emptiness, for waves of energy fill all space. Moreover, by citing scientific research Prynne, as he has done throughout his oeuvre, endeavors to join science in the investigation of the nature of reality. However, this effort is underlain with deep criticism of the authority of science, a challenge he has articulated since Wound Response (1974), where he opposed the claim that science can provide us with foolproof evidence of its theses.

In Kazoo Dreamboats, scientific idiom is shorn of its authoritative aspirations, for Prynne emphasizes its inability to capture precisely the protean nature of reality. In his book, Parsegian tries to explain that what one might imagine as emptiness is in fact a field of electromagnetic waves impossible to measure due to their chaotic flow. However, he ends up resorting to metaphor in order to describe electromagnetic waves as they "wash through and past us in ways familiar from watching the two-dimensional version, a buoy or boat bobbing in rough water" (2006, 10). This is in no way an uncharacteristic method of explanation in science textbooks. Prynne amplifies the poetic aspects of scientific language on the one hand to reveal the arbitrariness of the specialist jargon, and on the other to show that it is only through a joint effort by science and poetry that the nature of reality can be explored. Peter Middleton observes, "taking account of science is a responsibility that faces poetry, and should allow room for many other responsibilities arising from the injustices and destructions of our recent history." Poetry is thus a legitimate form of what Middleton calls "counter-science," approaching the same problems that science does but remaining conscious of the fact that both are forms of organization of currently available knowledge rather than final statements on "what there is" and "how it works" (2009, 955).

In Kazoo Dreamboats, Prynne manages to create a language both capable of honestly investigating the unstable reality and able to pursue a self-questioning as to its truth-content. Therefore the quotations from scientific and philosophical works that are interspersed throughout the critical lyric enter a double context. First, they provide always tentative information about the nature of the molecular universe. Second, they test and push the limits of a purely informative idiom, suggesting that the apprehension of reality can only be attempted in a poetic composition of language that, as Prynne observes in one of his essays, "projects into the textual arena an intense energy of conception and differentiation, pressed up against the limits which are discovered and invented by composition itself' (2010, 596).

In this light, another quotation from Parsegian may be taken to underlie the formal structure of Kazoo Dreamboats: "In all matter there are continuous jostlings of positive and negative charges; at every point in a material body or in a vacuum, transient electric and magnetic fields arise spontaneously;" moreover, "the momentary positions and electric currents of moving charges act on, and react to, other charges and their fields" (Prynne 2011, 7). When looked at from the viewpoint of science, this fragment explains the reason it is possible for us to determine the electromagnetic properties of fully formed condensed materials, liquids or solids (Parsegian 2006, 4). However, in the context of Kazoo Dreamboats, the question accounts for the meaning-creation process that underpins the text. To make sense of the words and phrases on the page, their position in respect of other words, both closer and more distant or taken from outside the text, needs to be taken into account. This never guarantees that the meaning of a passage will be uncovered, for meaning, like "transient electric and magnetic fields," arises spontaneously at each perusal. Thus, "now goggle-eyes revert or new Poseidon nudging to click by its sonar filtration charm" (Prynne 2011, 7) deploys a dense structure of interweaving meanings. The "goggle-eyes" may phonetically point to the famous internet browser, with eyes being a metonym for browsing. The context of Poseidon's nudging and its proximity to "gravamen" conjures up the context of The Odyssey, but in this passage of Kazoo Dreamboats the journey takes place in the virtual world, another reality like the molecular universe that exists beyond the visible.

Reality is thus pictured as an ever-shifting field of evanescent electromagnetic waves that exist in perpetual motion, affecting each other and influencing "what there is." What needs to be explained now is the source of motion. To this end, Prynne leaves science behind and looks for an explanation in the language of philosophy. The text observes, "there is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes" (Prynne 2011, 8). This is the beginning of Mao Tse-tung's essay "On Contradiction" in which he elaborates on the indispensability of materialist dialectics to all development. However, in Kazoo Dreamboats, the law of contradiction, no longer dialectic but "dielectric," applies also to the internal working of the text, in that it is the tension between individual words and phrases that produces meanings, "dielectric and profuse" (8). In consequence of that proliferation of meanings, "nothing changes for this is the self-change of nothing as a saccadic variance, substantially composed of its moments in transit, in the field most winking and unrespected" (8). "Saccadic" denotes the rapid jerky movements of the eye, for example when reading; therefore the perpetual change, "composed of its moments in transit" seems to refer back to the act of perusing any text, including Kazoo Dreamboats, thus suggesting that during this process a field of tensions is being created with each readerly approach.

Reality, as it is projected in Kazoo Dreamboats, shows itself as a field of perpetual change, tension and contradictoriness that sparks movement. Since "the language must be able to talk about real materials in which electric fields or charge fluctuations occur, oscillate with natural frequencies of the substance, and die away" (Prynne 2011, 14-15), it is necessary that it should conform to the principle of uncertainty. Bruns describes this language as "always falling behind or stumbling over what it tries to grasp" (2013, 64-65). But a more positive view seems also justified, in that to express so fluctuant a reality, an equally fluid language must be produced. Granted that the condition of the world imaged forth in Kazoo Dreamboats is that of perpetual motion caused by contradiction, the language on a par with such a universe must operate on the same principle, that of difference; it must be a language whose meaning comes from tensions between individual words, which in isolation do not signify, for they have no inherent meaning. Indeed, they are "nothing."

This brings us to Prynne's engagement with Ferdinand de Saussure's "first principle," expressed in Cours de Linguistique Generale (1916), that "the sign is arbitrary" and "designates the correlation of the idea with the image of its acoustic performance, taken together as a unit; both parts of this bipartite entity are mentalistic, existing within a system of differences by which separate ideas are distinguished" (Prynne 1993, 5). This, of course, allows de Saussure to postulate the arbitrariness of linguistic signs. In Prynne's summary, "the sounds of a word have no 'internal connexion' with the idea" (6). Language is a system of differences that is separate from the world of things to which particular words are only arbitrarily connected. (1) However, it is this arbitrariness of language that makes it suitable for depiction of subatomic reality, with its constant motion and contradictoriness. This idea is emphasized in Kazoo Dreamboats:

From itself auto-immune the bit force of covalency is uniquely sexual, what is not is to be what is and due, corrosion impact seminal and sublingual dissolved, shudder to part, part to whole, not complete. Enter the time stream arbitrarily, chance by random necessity in its flux at concept of unfinish: the lamp decays by renewal, floating wick not within question or scarce at all for tenderness. (Prynne 1993, 10)

The result of the process of forming covalent bondings is like sexual intercourse (not to be confused with love, for it takes place "scarce at all for tenderness") in that both result, at least in theory, in the formation of a previously non-existent entity; so what is not there as yet is to become "what is" and what is due to come. This constant, orgasmic ("shudder to part") creation is compared to the way sentences are formed by adding new elements along the metonymic axis ("part to whole"). Both processes are endless and arbitrary. The emphasis on the haphazard nature of language and the reality of contradictions, expressed in the excerpt above through a dense deployment of words synonymous with "arbitrary," leads to the assertion that the only necessity in this field is "its flux at concept of unfinish."

It thus becomes transparent that in Kazoo Dreamboats subatomic reality and language inform each other. Just as reality is a field of constant motion, so language sheds all stability:

I saw seeing itself dissolve rail to contest bounded, to scale by inversion not exact vented out to porous incline, a quantum ledge of known intercostal exclusion. Thus being-itself deletes far out its consisting notational selfhood, the nouns illicit as bounded only by neglected states as not coming or going to be or be relinquished, the inclusion of un-never at contradicted mutable edging. (Prynne 2011, 9)

Nouns, "bounded only by neglected states," signify stability and fixity in the space of the "contradicted mutable edging" of language; as a result they must be deleted. Language is then "composed of its moments in transit;" it becomes "this arbitrary schedule at each sentence handed down as a tremor birdlike against fitment, leave of sense" (9). Sense, here understood as the logic of "thus" (25), is revealed as the effect of simplistic reasoning, a truncated syllogism that is applicable only to surface reality. At the subatomic level no such sense, or "fitment," can prevail, for reality is a field of permanent change "bathed" in colliding forces. As a result language comes to be seen as similarly constituted by "turmoil" as is the molecular universe. Sense is thus an effect of critical thinking, not a one-to-one correspondence with reality.


This understanding of language and reality is by no means a reason for joy in Kazoo Dreamboats. Ostensibly, the postulate of the freedom of language from any logical, empirical, or ideological constraints appears to grant the text a license to develop however it pleases. Indeed, playing with words, as in the case of covalent bonding being compared to sex or The Odyssey to surfing the internet, partakes of the ludic free play of associations. The uncontrollable changeability of linguistic meaning and the criticism of sense as the logic of "thus" would seem to place Prynne's critical lyric in the same league as postmodern textualist thinkers such as Richard Rorty (2). Rorty advocates the view that all there is to know about reality, all "problems, topics, and distinctions are language-relative--the results of our having chosen to use a certain vocabulary, to play a certain language game" (1994, 140). This is not mere relativism, which Rorty dismisses as a childish reduction of the pragmatist endeavor (166-167), but an interesting attempt to "substitute Freedom for Truth" (1989, xiii). For Rorty, this freedom consists in one's private right to unconstrained self-creation and in delimiting a public language as "a medium for argumentative exchange" (xiv). Within the society developed in accordance with these two principles, Rorty argues, people who no longer believe there is final Truth to be found will struggle with one another in arguments whose sole purpose is extending the field of human freedom (60-61).

In Kazoo Dreamboats, however, the fact that language is arbitrary and non-essentialist, and as such parallels the decentered subatomic reality, is shown to allow for a moral peril. Prynne's volume can thus be viewed as a challenge to Rorty's assumption that morality will be taken care of if people discard the Idea of Truth and only seek to elaborate their vocabularies of both private auto-creation and public solidarity. Assuming, after Rorty, that all people are open to and accepting of human otherness, there is essentially no danger to the individual, who can describe himself in whatever way she chooses provided she does no harm to others; but words, since they are rooted in no pre-existent moral framework, may also be put to evil use. (3) Wordsworth, one of the poets featured in Kazoo Dreamboats (and not only in the several invocations to "heart"), observed that "words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts" (Wordsworth 1974, 154). Prynne explores that implication in his essay "Huts" (2008).

In this essay, Prynne canvasses the history of English poetry and "the mental imagery of modern life" in search of connotations of the seemingly innocuous word "hut." He notes that the hut refers to a temporary shelter at the edge of the known world "to allow outward watchfulness (originally of grazing animals), in distant or non-social locations, often at language-margins" (2008, 629). However, it also brings to mind the watchtowers of the "divisive and punitive regimes" that separated the two Germanys or those established on the perimeter of "the final-solution camps during the Third Reich;" they could also be the Stalinist "huts" of the deportation and death camps or "the shanty-settlements of desperate refugee populations and casualties of war." Finally, they could denote the surveillance posts raised "at the entry to Camp Delta of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay" (629-30). In the light of these irreconcilable associations with the word "hut," it may be posited that language as a whole is by no means innocent and does not merely function as a field for the playful juggling of vocabularies; on the contrary, in the absence of any vigilance that could ensure that no malpractice is possible, language is free to harbor a most dangerous potential for turning a homely context into a horrific prison. According to Prynne, it is the poets that must keep an eye on the current state of the idiom. Like scientists, who monitor invisible processes in the universe in order to spot potential dangers and possibly prevent them, poets watch out for "the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does" (630) in order to sound the alarm: "A fire there! 'das fahrt von der Erde'" (Prynne 2011, 7), as at one point we hear in Kazoo Dreamboats, itself an echo of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (1925).

This is a paradoxical situation, because the vision of language that Prynne offers in Kazoo Dreamboats and in his earlier volumes suggests that he accepts the freedom that the arbitrariness of words gives to composing poems that can "grow into their own multiple forms" (Punter 2002, 125), so avoiding "totality and closure" (Reeve and Kerridge 1995, 2). However, this freedom is then shown to be the very path that leads language to various perversions that permit oppressive discourses and practices to take hold in the field of linguistic play. As Prynne observes, "It's all too clear that, in whatever stage of social evolution, a discourse practice defaults in a wink to facile acceptance of the commonplace, to bending compliantly under commercial or political distortions, to accommodate by self-corruption" (Prynne 2010, 598). As a result, whole societies might become "intricated" in such "corrupted" discourse practices, as Rod Mengham argued in reference to "L'Extase de M. Poher" from Brass (2009, 72); partly unwittingly and partly willingly, men yield to the languages that organize the everyday structure of the social environment. This is visible in Prynne's earlier works such as The Oval Window, where it is a particular perception that can rework data, rather than the data being responsible for the formulation of a new perception:
   Changes to the real data
   are visible through the view; and operations
   against the view are converted through
   a kind of unofficial window on Treasury policy,
   into operations on the real data.
   (Prynne 2005, 319)

Depending on the interpretation imposed on the data by that "unofficial window of Treasury policy," it may indicate totally different things. Data does not signify in itself; rather, it is made to signify by an external authority, which thereby keeps a hold on society's perception. Prynne's insight into this kind of entrapment in the hegemonic linguistic practices of the modern world may be referred to Zygmunt Bauman's analysis of the morality of late modernity.

Bauman observes that "Because meaning is always round the corner, always in-waiting and not-yet, the 'what is' has no authority over 'what ought to be.'" This non-essentialist condition, as in Rorty, "makes the world construed by technology exquisitely flexible, fluid, bursting with opportunities and resilient to all fixation" (Bauman 1993, 194). However, unlike Rorty's account, for Bauman this

also makes {the world} pliable, vulnerable, indefensible: a docile prey to technological ingenuity and know-how, a grazing ground for insatiable appetites; "the other" whose treatment cancels the distinction between the love-relation and rape. (Bauman 1993, 194)

As a result of the "progress'-induced fluidity of the world, we cannot tell a love embrace from rape just as we cannot expect tenderness to derive from sexual intercourse that, in Prynne, becomes an act of energy transference that results from endless "bonding" and separation.

Moreover, granted that meaning is no longer ascertainable and there remain only "tremor{s} birdlike," Bauman notes that we suffer from ambivalence: "With the pluralism of rules (and our times are the times of pluralism) the moral choices (and the moral choices left in their wake) appear to us intrinsically and irreparably ambivalent. Ours are the times of strongly felt moral ambiguity" (1993, 20-21; emphasis in original). Although we manage to live with this ambivalence, our existence remains tinged with fear:

Fear of the void, that (according to Adorno) most acute of psychological effects of modern Enlightenment, has been blunted and assuaged (though never quelled completely). We learn to live with events and acts that are not only not-yet-explained, but (for all we know about what we will ever know) inexplicable. (Bauman 1993, 33)

Since fear of the void persists, even if in a lessened form, it is our natural response, as one of Bauman's sources, Soren Kierkegaard, observed, to "herd together.... The truth is that in a herd we are free from the standard of the individual and ideal" (Bauman 1993, 31). For Bauman, this freedom from individuality manifests itself in shedding our responsibility for another person. Therefore responsibility reveals its paradoxical nature:

We miss responsibility badly when it is denied to us, but once we get it back it feels like a burden too heavy to carry alone. And so now we miss what we resented before: an authority stronger than us, one which we can trust or must obey, one which can vouch for the propriety of our choices and thus, at least, share some of our "excessive" responsibility. (Bauman 1993, 20)

It is thus the implicit anxiety with which the complete freedom of the pluralist world fills us that, according to Erich Fromm, beguiles us into "submission to new forms of authority or ... a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns" (1960, 116). This acceptance of an easy way out of the pluralist predicament of postmodernism is tantamount to shedding the responsibility for critical thinking, which, according to Bauman, is man's responsibility. Submitting to a strong authority, one loses the critical faculty and accepts what in Biting the Air Prynne calls being "the shadow unendurably now calibrated" (2005, 564).

In Kazoo Dreamboats, Prynne projects a similar image of a fearsome void in which man comes to be calibrated and optimized like a well-designed tool. Having quoted Aristotle's discussion of the impossibility of the existence of void, Prynne goes on to speculate that

if the void does not exist it must be full of non-existence, out to the brim which must exist in its location since not all is void, thus it is the void is not nameless but at its natural frequency else generic within limitless non-existence it could not be named, into its proper non-being. The song of birds that do not sing, because there are none where else they would sing, not from absence nor migrancy, the not-song is from not-being and not merely not there nor non-possible nor silentness falling rapt upon attentive deaf ears. (Prynne 2011, 15)

In its opaque manner, the passage asserts that the void can be named, while non-existence as that which constitutes the void remains beyond the grasp of language. "The song of birds that do not sing" comes "from non-being" and cannot be heard anywhere. Unlike the skylark in Shelley's ode, whose song "Better than all measures / Of delightful sound" could teach the poet the "harmonious madness" (1951, 766), the "not-song" represents an emptiness that is totally outside the spectrum of being--whereas the void is negatively evoked in its non-namelessness. The above fragment from Prynne's text, never fully bringing the idea into focus, seeks to register the void in "moments in transit" as it absconds and yet scuds across the line of vision. The entire paragraph recursively tries to approach this void but the analysis, in stark contrast to Aristotle's precision, trails off as conditional sentences pile one on top of another. Eventually, the attempt at speaking the void concedes defeat: "Downward into darkness" (Prynne 2011, 15). Thus the disjunctive argument reaches the point at which it can only give in; as Shelley put it in "On Life," "words abandon us, and what wonder if we grow dizzy to look down the dark abyss of how little we know" (1951, 973). This admission that language can only penetrate so deep and no more rings with the anxiety that is identified by Bauman: we may accept the fact that "all that is solid melts into air" but this does not mean that such knowledge is fear-free. We thus seek a remedy for this fear, as Kazoo Dreamboats comes to show, in our faith in authority-predicated rationality.


The recurring phrase "I saw"--which at times works as a transition device in Kazoo Dreamboats, pushing the critical lyric to another field of interest--is derived from the visionary technique of Piers Plowman, as are the various travesties of the subtitle of the Prologue, "The Fair Full Field of Folk."

There is, however, another line of similarity between Prynne's volume and the fourteenth century poem. In the Prologue to the poem, the eponymous Piers describes representatives of various occupations of the England of that time and points to their moral flaws. In Kazoo Dreamboats, a quotation from Langland also serves to demonstrate the sullied morality of late modernity:

The fair field of want for pitch just a foot-hold drained by the screen to its pittance ungraded at work avert how then triage delayed stab wound drainage not reconciled, scarce blood in this group attachment. Warfarin by need plug the host, all is known. Thought is free, nede ne hath no lawe, from severance or drawn conflation, in the limit of close approach liminal not boundary, variance closer to its own zero word for word reflected. (Prynne 2011, 13)

The opening phrase "the fair field of want" and the formula "nede ne hath no lawe" together focus on the general panorama of poverty that results from the unfair distribution of wealth. In the fragment of Piers Plowman from which the quotation is taken, "nede" tries to justify theft on the grounds that "necessity knows no law" (Langland 1982, 362) and so, if an impoverished man should steal food to survive, "he synegeth nat" (Langland 1982, 262). In Kazoo Dreamboats, impecuniousness is shown to lead to a delay in receiving medical treatment. Moreover, treatment itself is no guarantee of regaining health, for Warfarin, a popular medicine for thrombosis and thromboembolism, tends to produce numerous side effects, to say nothing of the fact that it is still used as a pesticide against rodents. What is more, medicine, a direct response by rational humanity to the plight of disease, is shown to be fraught with morally shady questions: Warfarin, ironically enough, is also indicative of "war-faring."

In a subsequent passage, Prynne quotes from Boethius's definition of the difference between Nature and Person (Boethius 1918, 93) and shows that this distinction too can lead to a perversion: "Nature is the specific property of any substance, and Person the individual substance of a rational nature" (Prynne 2011, 13). The precise definition is then problematized by evocations of a biohazard that seem to stem from rationality: "Shall be toxic outside the moment for poisonous future." As opposed to this toxic peril, "ants make their turbulence of species but cannot want to pity at any cost to the full system, clouds above them laden with contaminants" (13). Ants know no pity when it comes to the survival of the whole colony, so their "turbulence" remains a way to preserve the species. This seems to be the property of Nature, whereas the rational nature of Person leads him to contaminate the environment, jeopardizing not only his own kind but also the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem. This "lake of toxic refuse, waiting to be born," as Prynne calls such contamination in "Biting the Air" (2005, 561), is not the only outcome of human rationality, for there is "heavy gunfire also rational by target heart-work intercepted onshore line securely drilled, to make convergent cascade outflows" (Prynne 2011, 13). The "onshore line" suggests the craving for petrodollars that may have been among the reasons that led to military interventions in the Middle East under the guise of the "war on terror" and the "war for freedom." It is rationality that has been claimed by the Western coalition as the chief justification for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the results of those "liberation wars" have been far from satisfactory Furthermore, Prynne suggests that the same rationality has benefitted the rich rather than the average individual: "On a hybrid debenture allowance violent by proxy, big shots to get enlightened giving way, by force merely indeed, fields laid low and unfed" (13-14). The "big shots" become the sole beneficiaries of a rationality that is shown to consist in ensuring the sustained increase in capital accumulation that, in turn, spurs financial speculation, obtaining "a hybrid debenture allowance."

As rationality thrives as the sole bulwark against the fear of the void, it turns out that nature is under ever-greater strain. There are several passages in Kazoo Dreamboats that conjure up pastoral landscapes: "Do you recall the birthplace in bright sunlight its gleeful partition knowing the unknown"; and "on every green spray, and the larks they sang melodious, canorous in every high degree" (Prynne 2011, 14). However, these invocations of the serenity of nature reveal it to be a thing of the past, capable of being "recalled" but not regained. This is again a deeply Wordsworthian notion, for Prynne attempts to invoke those moments when "with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things" (Wordsworth 1978, 164) and discover "in nature and the language of the sense / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being" (165). Unity with nature being impossible, language is thus no longer a part of the "soul of all my moral being." Instead, it resounds with "hot cluttered void, promote weapon system aggression nowhere near contradicted nor in show trials of adversary forensic lubricants" (Prynne 2011, 20). Paradoxically, the response of rationality to the fear of the void is to hasten the coming of this void in the form of a global catastrophe, a man-induced conflagration. Where complete freedom ushers in the dread of the void, rational thinking disposes of what, logically speaking, is the agent of the dread: freedom itself. Prynne leads us to the point where humanity seems to dissolve in the void.

Rationality, sense as the logic of "thus," poses a threat to man's existence and consciousness of the many moral transgressions made by authority figures. That threat, however, goes unnoticed partly because the fearsome freedom of Baumanian postmodernity opens up a field for various cover-ups of the potentially catastrophic actions of the "big shots." Continuing the criticism of "consumerism" of his earlier work (Reeve and Kerridge 1995, 33), Kazoo Dreamboats focuses on is the glitzy simulacrum of celebrity culture that fuses the collective dreams of a society and keeps its population locked in a world built on illusions:

Equalised to run its surplus attached to overdrive each word capsule clamped at reward issue upper to lower jaw purchase grind on this scam of scams. Celeb indenture whitened unfeeding ever lustrous the screen flashed innocent joy by retort flicker mendacious smiles mandible shortfall tended early in hurts are they minimal collect is friendship classified? Proximity fuses tell you this matrix censorship impersonated clock device, each word feels out for the next its soft vibration to match by click on this. (Prynne 2011, 16)

The "mendacious smiles" of the "celebs" and the "surplus attached to overdrive each word capsule" cast a shadow over the reality of bloodshed and environmental degradation. Indeed, the passage plays on the idea of "impossibility of the real and the imaginary" put forward by Jean Baudrillard, who observes that the proliferation of images that "ultimately have no finality and proceed by total contiguity, infinitely multiplying themselves according to an irresistible epidemic process which no one today can control" have made our world "become truly infinite, or rather exponential by means of images." The image, according to Baudrillard, has fatally replaced meaning. "This fatality lies in {an} endless enwrapping of images (literally: without end, without destination) which leaves images no other destiny apart from production--overdetermination of production by itself' (2008, 95). Both the real and the imaginary, understood as existing in the mind's eye like Shelley's skylark, are swallowed by the procession of images, whose development is completely self-motivated. However, whereas for Baudrillard this "overdetermination of production," which leads to the creation of a simulacrum world where no truth can be ascertained, is beyond good and evil (94), for Prynne the simulacrum of "celeb culture," where "each word feels out for the next its soft vibration to match by click on this," perpetuates the degeneration of morality, thereby creating an apocalyptic world wherein "living trees burn, the smells are intense" (Prynne 2011, 16).

The world that Kazoo Dreamboats conjures is thus a field underlain with a void that induces dread in man. Apparent freedom--granted by the discovery that both the subatomic world and the language with which to describe this world are essentially arbitrary relational constructs in perpetual conflicted motion--cannot alleviate the pain induced by the lack of a point of reference that would mitigate the panic of the void. Therefore, as Bauman has shown, humanity turns to rationality, hoping it will provide aid in the crisis. However, as it is suggested in Kazoo Dreamboats, rational discourse is the province of "big shots" who resort to it to further their economic position even at the cost of inciting international armed conflicts. As a result, they become agents of the actualization of the void. This catastrophic working of the rational mind is furthermore covered up by the lustrous "celeb culture" that frames man in a world of self-propagating images of wealth and happiness, while "out there the dreamboat faction rally their coupons, slice for slice before the shrine of self-preference, trimmed with gold leaf packets scattered in profusion" (Prynne 2011, 19). Amidst the kazoo-like "humming sound" and the "tweet and bleat" (20) that swallow up any possible voices of dissent to the practices of the "big shots," the "dreamboat faction" selfishly count their profits.

A number of passages in Kazoo Dreamboats attack the immorality of the world directly and vehemently: "No dream all hunger in the mouth get the fuck out of joy and beauty come on be direct for a change truth to tell not even war but abject misery the nothing to not have not eat, feel your mouth lost for words and minimum fluid intake." The fury of the speaker goes without saying, but the directness and clarity of the language is too easily absorbed and perverted by the rational dreamboat faction: "What language is this unable to be spoken tongue cracked" (Prynne 2011, 22). Eventually, the anger tires the speaker, who seems to address their own waning strength when they admit that they are lost for words and dry in the mouth. It is impossible to tackle rationality and unreal mendacity in their own language, for "there is no unity in the mind its line in stolen property its fainting breath absurd: a property of the void itself' (Prynne 2011, 23). Prynne, as so often before, demonstrates that plainness of address and the delineation of rules that directly criticize the modern world (21) become the prey of the rational order of reality. The arbitrary nature of subatomic processes and of language may be free to fluctuate in a decentered movement propelled by contradictions, but such a situation is susceptible of stirring anxiety that will find alleviation in accepting some form of status quo as a reference point. "To be light and bright dilates passion across the full corridor in profile of what conduces to void, serial negation drainage of spirit intake, out of the way of the Way" (26); the struggle with the void thus leads to the reification of human perception of the world either through an escapist embrace of the "light and bright" "celeb culture" or through a surrender to the seemingly supreme "way of the Way."


Kazoo Dreamboats ends with an evocation of a cremation pyre taken from Richard Bradley's article "The Land, the Sky, and the Scottish Stone Circle," a source duly listed in the reference cues. In the context of the last passages of the volume, the quotation seems to paint a dreary picture of a funeral rite. The excerpt from Bradley comes as a commentary on the notion that "a language may die also from the record of currency exchange to full pair-convert transumed in surrender value, decalibrated" (Prynne 2011, 27). The act of "transuming" language "in surrender value" points to the degeneration of its creative potential, of the Shelleyan "vital metaphoricity." But for Bradley, the pyre may also have meant a portal between worlds, "the stone doorway {that} connected the cremation pyre and the sky." Although the portal was shut with a recumbent stone (Bradley 2002, 136), the symbolic link between this world and the past suggests that language might still be enlivened, its degradation compensated for as in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," in which the speaker discovers "abundant recompense" for the loss of the "aching joys" of his youth (1978, 164).

For Prynne, this restitution of language seems to lie in resisting the reification imposed by the rational discourse motivated by violence, greed, deceptive foresight, and "fractional deponent" (2011, 27). Prynne's critical lyric finds a means to combat the void through radical departure from ordinary word order. If the molecular universe is a field permeated with arbitrarily flowing waves of energy spurred by contradictoriness, the language that can embrace such freedom without falling prey to "the dreamboat faction" of "big shots" and "mendacious smiles" must constantly question itself: "To be this with sweet song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling and spinning and probably grateful, in this song" (Prynne 2011, 27). This is the idea of what Prynne has called "poetic thought": the "recognition and contest" between "self-disputing and intrinsically dialectical" thought projected into the textual field and "the whole cultural system of a language" (2010, 598-99).

The many vistas of infernal imagery that constitute the immoral modern world depicted in Kazoo Dreamboats are finally offset by the vision of innocence that is informed by William Blake's "Infant Joy" from Songs of Innocence. However, unlike Blake, Prynne cannot sing the praises of childlike happiness for his is not a world of "pretty joy" (2008, 16) but a complex reality with no backbone. Thus Prynne's song seeks freedom in rotation between "been and gone," a momentary assertion and its rapid deconstruction. It is in such tension that rationality and dishonesty cannot establish themselves fully. The paratactic arrangement of Prynne's text, the frequent use of anacolutha that signify a rapid transition such as that from "been" to "gone," indeed all of this syntactic jaggedness and lexical complexity represent an attempt to oppose the onslaught of reification that cannot be pinned down against a wall of dogma. What this formal resistance offers is not a language free of the fear that Bauman diagnosed but a language aware that the cure for the void might prove worse than the disease. And for this lesson in negative dialectics, at least, we can be "probably grateful."

WIT PIETRZAK is Assistant Professor of British Literature and Culture at the University of Lodz, Poland. He is the author of Levity of Design: Man and Modernity in the Poetry of J. H. Prynne (2012) and various essays on Anglo-Irish literature.


(1) Prynne argues that poetic language is never fully arbitrary, for it uses words that have developed a halo of meanings over time and so their signification is as much the result of the synchronic play of differences as of the diachronic context from which they derive (1993, 14).

(2) Although he does not include Rorty, Punter suggests that Prynne's oeuvre could be read as a continuation of the postmodernist experiments of such theoreticians as Theresa de Laurentis, Paul de Man, Linda Hutcheon, and Homi Bhabha (2002).

(3) Rorty sees this peril as well. To combat it, he argues that there are two types of books that help us further the "democratic polity": on the one hand, there are "books which help us see the effects of social practices and institutions on others," revealing "how social practices which we have taken for granted have made us cruel." On the other hand, there are books "which help us see the effects of our private idiosyncrasies on others" and these are "about the ways in which particular sorts of people are cruel to other particular sorts of people" (1989, 141). Nevertheless, Rorty does not seem to recognize the threat that less obviously "cruel" forms of being in the world may come to be developed and justified in the dominant social discourses unless language itself is critically investigated.


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Author:Pietrzak, Wit
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Date:Jan 1, 2015
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