The Quiddities

by Joe Milutis

“Take this from this, if this be otherwise”: an essay on literary minutiae.

"The Quiddities" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

“How do the ages page the this.” —Ron Silliman

A SEARCH FOR THE WORD THIS on the Web will get you RickRoll’D. The various unrelated hits that appear include This American Life, This Is Why You’re Fat, and a site that asks: “If you are feeling suicidal now, please stop long enough to read this.” When one takes advantage of a more sophisticated Google device, the increasingly popular Ngram Viewer, the statistical portrait served up from the depths of Google’s digitized book collection is just as opaque. Even though it carries with it an aura of the scientific, this Ngram tells us no more about the demonstrative pronoun’s most interesting uses than do even the ridiculously irrelevant top search results for this.

Yet this is a piece of literary minutiae, which, while straining the capacities of any search engine, has had a profound effect on literary experimentation. Why, for example, is our search not topped with William Carlos Williams’s:

—of this, make it of this, this
this, this, this, this          .

Or Charles Olson’s:

           I have this sense,
that I am one
with my skin

           Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield, to
is this

One of the top search results for this: "RickRoll'D."
One of the top search results for this: "Miss Teen USA 2007 – South Carolina answers a question."
Michael Snow, So Is This (excerpt), 1982.
Charles Olson in Polis Is This, 2007, directed by Henry Ferrini.

Even with the ability to consult a specialized database like the Chadwyck-Healey, a digital collation of literary texts from the eighth century to the present, the task of making a systematic literary survey of this is daunting. Because of the word’s sheer frequency, it would be difficult to use a computer to search out thises that are significant rather than perfunctory: the meta-thises, the thises about this, all this. As a “stop word,” it isn’t even considered by most search engines.1

1 The rules of search engines aren’t “absolute”; they can distinguish, for example, between a search for “Tom Jones” and one for “This Is Tom Jones,” “pipe” and “This Is Not a Pipe,” “polis” and “Polis Is This.”

MICHAEL SNOW'S 1982 ALL-TEXT structural film So Is This perhaps best captures the strange physis of this commenting on its own workings: “This is the title of this film. The rest of this film will look just like this…” The title of the film becomes its description becomes its substance; each word is enclosed in a separate shot, this being the keyword that allows the film to escape the logic of clear, sequential meaning. Snow’s film allows us to dwell on the powers of this as a semantic unit isolated from its surroundings; in doing so, it implies that the word radically resists such isolation.

Snow’s film reflects the infiltration of the arts by structural linguistics and discourse analysis in the 1960s and ’70s, an alliance that spawned Language poets such as Ron Silliman, who explored an increasingly slippery field of referentiality. Artists like Silliman have mined this—full of overlooked paradoxes, but generally invisible to the casual reader—for its literary potential (even as it directs one toward the presumably unliterary). This, as a pointing word—direct, even documentary—pokes its way out of the sentence and into the world and gives a momentary sense of our connection to it. Yet because it exists in language, especially if spoken in a space where the contract with the real is a loose one (e.g., in film, theater, and poetry), this can just as well fall on the ghost, the mirage, the blue-screen effect, Rick Astley.

Not this one or not this one?: Google Image Search for "this is not a pipe."

This Bodes Some Strange Eruption

In its most interesting uses, this acts as a call to pay attention, not just to “this,” but to what makes this this. Not for nothing has Magritte’s The Treachery of Images ("This is not a pipe") become such a chestnut for rethinking the relation of word to image. His this gets at the Surrealist desire for a superior perception of reality—which inevitably leads to a sense of irreality when one takes into account all the ways in which our most natural conventions are fraught with inconsistencies, misdirection, and illusion.

It would be a mistake to limit the consideration of the consciously mobilized this to artworks of the twentieth century. Since this tends to keep to its silent ubiquity, it might not be apparent to literary historians that the word is as key to Shakespeare as to Silliman.

Were we to create a concordance of all the unattributed or floating thises in Hamlet, we would reveal something remarkable. The play is thistly with thises, and with many of them, it’s unclear what this refers to. Indeed, Shakespeare is unequivocally aware of the linguistic certainties this sunders, and his use of the word compounds Hamlet’s obsessive attention to the mechanics of representation. Throughout, text and onstage events conjoin in a way that’s absurd, if not ridiculous—which is why T.S. Eliot considered Hamlet a literary failure. Yet if we understand the lack of correspondence between Hamlet’s literary and emotional content as the play’s strength, if not its theme, then Hamlet becomes an important precursor to the defamiliarizing strategies of Language poetry and other experiments with deixis that emerged half a millennium later.

In 1968, Marvin Spevack developed the first computer-assisted concordance to Shakespeare. Only then were we able to get a full sense of the statistical array of the bard’s this.
The thises of Hamlet.

LANGUAGE HAS LOST ITS POWER in Hamlet, or rather, language is too intimately connected to the operation of illegitimate power. Wordplay, doublespeak, and sanctimony dominate; there is a dearth of clear speech linked to direct action. When all the senses are aligned, this happily points to the concrete, to the world we know. Yet Hamlet is about the senses deranged by a responsibility toward what’s not there—most obviously, the Ghost. While Hamlet’s Ghost is easy stagecraft—we see its invisibility, mark its entrances and exits (there are five)—this announces a more troubling presence. Feeding this into the online Open Source Shakespeare concordance for Hamlet shows us that the word appears 207 times, more than in any of the Shakespeare’s other plays.

What Noise Is This?

In 1968, Marvin Spevack developed the first computer-assisted concordance to Shakespeare, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare. Only then were we able to get a full sense of the statistical array of the bard’s this. But the data, while revealing, is still indiscriminant, conflating artistic uses of this with more utilitarian ones. The human operators of this mainframe—an IBM 7094 that was fed punch cards and recorded on magnetic tape—could have treated the output as mere system noise rather than significant information. But Spevack wanted pure data laid out “in as direct and uncluttered a manner as possible, and yet as seen from different angles, to avoid editorial tinkering and conjecture.” And so this was not filtered from the results.

As Spevack says in the preface to his Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, for which he was obliged to condense the computer’s output to one volume, thus severely truncating the data on this (in addition to “the, and, I, to, of, a, you, my, that, in, is, not, me, for, it, with, be, his,” etc.): “The decision as to which entries were to be compressed was not simple, for it is well nigh impossible, linguistically or otherwise, to arrive at a satisfactory distinction between ‘significant’ and ‘insignificant’ words, especially when the variegated interests of all the users of a reference work of this kind are considered.”

In any editing of such a corpus, it is (understandably) the most frequently used words that get left out. Their frequency points to their importance, but they remain inscrutable in their overabundance. Shakespearean humdingers like honorificabilitudinitatibus, and various other Elizabethan ten-dollar words that leave even the savviest PhDs scrambling for an OED, of course make the cut. This needs another apparatus. Maybe there is something particularly human about this, something that cannot be grasped by a computer collation. Does the word’s pointing function retain something of the quality—and not just quantity—of perception?

Left: A page from Marvin Spevack's computer-assisted concordance. Right: A page from John Bartlett's traditional concordance.

EARLIER CONCORDANCES could not be nearly so thorough. They could, however, be more thoughtful, a result of the conditions of their composition—for if the prefaces of the nineteenth-century concordances are to believed, concording was more genteel sport than professional data mining. John Bartlett’s 1894 Complete Concordance to Shakespeare admits that his was “prepared chiefly in the leisure taken from active duties,” whereas The Complete Concordance to Shakspere: Being a Verbal Index to All the Passages in the Dramatic Works of the Poet (1847), by Mary Cowden-Clarke is described by her biographer as “the sudden whim of a July day in Somershire.”2 While most of these handmade concordances do not venture into the data quagmire of this, Bartlett does include a selection of some instances of the word that he perhaps finds meaningful or puzzling.

2 It was, for all that, no trifling labor. In his biography of the Cowden Clarkes, Richard Altick reminds readers, “There are approximately 309,600 entries in the Concordance, a fact which immediately makes all criticism seem mere cavil. The work is a monument of feminine tenacity, of resolute, unquestioning devotion to a self-chosen labour. That Mary Cowden Clarke should have emerged from her sixteen years’ task with her mental and physical health unimpaired is almost miraculous.”

Maybe the problem—for machine readers and their human amanuenses—is that the abstraction of this is not so much legible as performative. Because this can create a force field around which time and space congeal into a particular moment, filmic data provides us with more certain clues as to how the word is directed, whether passed without notice or allowed to resonate. The power of this to bring us to that strange conjunction between real and dramaturgic space is epitomized in Hamlet’s famous graveyard scene. The Dane holds a skull and, on being told to whom it belongs, is consumed by a sense of mortality:

First Clown: This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull,
    the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
First Clown: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. [Takes the skull]—Alas, poor

By the time we get to “Alas, poor Yorick,” we have perhaps, as modern audiences, tuned out—the scene has been overplayed; it comes off as a quote of a quote of a quote. Before the soliloquy starts, however, Hamlet’s “This?” prompts a pause, almost a complete stop. The audience’s and actor’s perceptions are briefly in sync, an ephemeral alignment after the gravedigger-clown’s vertiginous punning. What was just another skeleton, in passing through this moment, becomes nothing less than the moment itself. When, subsequently, the skull elicits a living memory of the jester, it is irrevocably lost, even revolting (“now how abhorred in my imagination it is”). We have been softly prepared for this loss with the clown’s last wisecrack. While “e’en that” can mean simply “the very one,” it is also punning on the nature of this to just as well be that, as the skull passes from hand to hand, or into the distant realms of past or future time.

"This?" "E'en that." The scene in various adaptations of Hamlet.

THE TENDENCY OF THIS to slip from this to that, from something essentially present to a vague externality, makes it open to corruption—which is part of the theme of Hamlet. One can’t but feel that the play’s core dilemma is the inability of language to catch up to action, the constant displacement of words attempting an impossible “concordance.” Polonius, the toady and spy, sets much of the tragedy in motion by insisting that Hamlet’s “tenders” to his daughter, Ophelia, are merely “springes to catch woodcocks.” In doing so, he shows himself to be a poor reader of what goes on around him, whether because of a general cluelessness or a desire to recode all reality so as to align with his moral and political aspirations (after all, he does want Hamlet to marry Ophelia, in order to increase his own status). Polonius tries to convince the king that Hamlet is mad—but without offending the king or losing his chance at gaining Hamlet as a son-in-law. He must show both how his faithful vigilance has kept Ophelia and Hamlet apart (as he admits the inappropriateness of their love) and how Hamlet’s madness is the product of Ophelia’s unavailability (thus implying that the only way to restore harmony is to have an official marriage). His correspondingly elaborate report to Claudius regarding Hamlet’s madness, which like the graveyard scene is rife with wordplay, culminates with the odd line “Take this from this, if this be otherwise.”

No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives us the flattest translation: “Chop my head off if I’m wrong.” The meaning is usually made clear by the gesture performed as the line is delivered: Polonius dutifully points to his head and then shoulder for the first and second thises; the third one points to Hamlet’s madness. But has No Fear’s Hamlet given us a properly fearless translation? Shakespeare has used the madness of blank repetition in more famous lines, such as “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” (Macbeth) and “Never, never, never, never, never” (King Lear). This time this is the culmination of a speech so laden with extreme devices that it gets away from itself. A fevered recitation of an impounded love letter, rhetorical somersaults on the nature of madness, and a formalized insistence on Polonius’s invaluable service to the king—these elements accumulate and, in the end, undo the speechifier. What started with utter calculation ends up—with, finally, “Take this from this, if this be otherwise”—in a bureaucratico-sexual tizzy.

Felix Aylmer as Polonius in 1948. "This from this," solemnly delivered, as if he were Father Time and not the bitch of political expeditiousness.

Richard Briers in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996). More in keeping with the complexities and strangeness of the words, the camera angle skews clarity, destabilizing the line, and heightening Polonius’ own ‘madness.’ It seems as if he is saying “cut off my hand,” or, more radically, "cut off my hand from its function of what it is doing right now. Expel thisness. Have done with gesture. Distrust the logic of indication."

Bill Murray’s body performing as a pure object of power, a political actor pretending he's not acting, under a gesture that looks like a sign of the cross turned to unholy ends.

Ian Holm’s this is not his head, but his silly hat, so the injunction is less dire, more devolving upon personal honor; yet, after dispatching with Polonius, Mel Gibson’s Hamlet appears wearing and toying with this hat, as if it were a synecdoche of Polonius’s death.

NOWHERE IS THE THIS of Hamlet more phantasmic than in the bedroom scene with Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude. Hamlet attempts to justify his killing of Polonius by comparing images of his fathers—his actual father and the uncle who, in killing his father, became his mother’s new husband and king: “Look here, upon this picture, and on this.” But while in some performances each this points to a physical representation of the new or old king, the comparison is undeniably occurring in the space of Hamlet’s own head. In other performances, this is already unreal from the start, with no prop to fix it to reality.3 Richard Burton, for example, holds up two nothings, as if to engage Gertrude’s inward eye. In either case, the comparison between “this” one man and “this” other man is played as Hamlet’s maddening—or maddened—attempt to explain the narrative, to make it cohere even as it unravels, as words and actions lose their meaning.

3 The presence or absence of props in any scene can, however, contribute to such a phantasmic effect. Depending how a director wants to pitch Hamlet’s madness in the graveyard scene, for instance, there could be no skull visible, and, for that matter, no grave or gravedigger, and no Hamlet (the conversation between Hamlet and the gravedigger, after all, is about Hamlet himself, as if he weren’t there). Indeed, in many versions of the play it is implied that the skull is Hamlet’s, not Yorick’s, cf. Olivier’s shadow falling neatly around the outlines of the skull. Herbert Blau offers a more explicitly weird staging of this memento mori in his “analytic scenario,” Elsinore (1975–76). He has described an actor from this legendary performance piece—a kind of force field of Hamlet fragments—as putting “the figure of her truncated body, spasmodic, jiggling at the knees, into the idea of Jorick’s skull.”
“Look here, upon this picture, and on this.” The scene in various adaptations of Hamlet.

Thunders in the Index

Fast-forward five hundred years, to a time where we are more at ease (or resigned to our unease) with fragmentation, the slippage of meaning, etc. But though we now aestheticize such breakdowns of language, that doesn’t make them easier to pin down. For Ron Silliman, this is struggle itself, and the word is a key one to understanding his oeuvre. Silliman’s this is no mere floating signifier. In fact, this often speaks of the work itself, as with Snow’s film, pointing to the status of the whole one moment, then reverting to mere pronoun, thereby collapsing a perception of the whole into the particle of language. This allows him to create quilting points between localized reflection and all that lies beyond it, resituating the particular and the universal in a way that would have befitted the Bard.

Silliman’s this is, however, more epiphanic than tragic. Yet even though each Sillimanic “New Sentence”—his distinctive syntactic unit—approximates a kind of haiku-satori, Silliman’s sentences are predominantly bodied forth in the paragraph rather than the poetic line. Each this, then, in its relative insignificance and plenitude, becomes more plebeian than Hamlet’s but no less transcendental. It connects everyday life and language—the inside and outside of the book—without asserting the primacy or even existence of one before the other. It instigates an attentiveness to the radiance of the quotidian without New Agey self-regard, since this is kept in constant play, becoming the rhythm of a pure conceptual music.

Silliman’s this also documents the ephemeral contact, or even contract, with the reader, who is urged to “make it of this”—whatever the hell this may be from moment to moment: “Everything you hear in your head, heart, whole body, when you read this, is what this is.” However, because these unmoored thises are locked on the page rather than embodied and performed by actors, this becomes a reservoir of indeterminacy to be activated with each reading.

Now available via Lulu: This, a print-on-demand book containing a selected concordance of Ron Silliman's thises and an accompanying essay.

THE ANTHOLOGY ISSUE #1 is a 3,785-page PDF of contemporary and historical poets, including new poems attributed to Ron Silliman and William Shakespeare. In fact, the entire anthology was authored stochastically. The living poets included were surprised, if not angered, to find that the poem attributed to them was the output of some inscrutable algorithm. The issue of authorship dominated discussions of Issue #1 in the blogosphere; hardly anyone noted its formal qualities as a poem.

However, using this and the Command-F function, we see patterns emerge. It becomes apparent that all of Issue #1’s artistic uses of this are formulaic, falling under the heading of three recognizable tropes, which helps explain how such a massive compilation of “original” poems was generated. If these uses of this are replicable on such a grand scale, perhaps the more self-conscious this has come to be used by humans in a mechanical way, to create a kind of meaning effect that is ultimately meaningless, or at the very least a generic cliché. Which is to say that most instances of this in Issue #1 are characterized by the unearned gravitas and coy textual play of the “workshop poem.”

Issue #1 contains 978 thises. Of those ostensibly meant to draw attention to their thisness, 89 are at a line break; presumably, they exhort readers to reflect on the abstract materiality of the pronoun before it is nailed by a modifier in the next line—a soft Sillimanism. There are 95 instances of the “this is what it is like…” format. Here are a few examples:

This is what it
             is to be heedless

This is what it is like
             to be denominated

This is what
        it is like
             to be arctic

This is what it
             is like to be original

Many of them repeat. They are similes with a black hole at the center, one that needs no further justification because it presumes pure origin of affect.

There are 203 instances of this with a clear modifier that nonetheless become, in their blasé frequency, a metacommentary on this. Some examples include:

         between this reason and
that reason

this throe and that throe.

 this wine and that

                  between this arch-priest and
that arch-priest

And finally, the particularly Shakespearean:

Between this father
           and that father

As we Command-F through the text, we discover other formal repetitions. There are long sequences of anaphoric simile as well as comic overuse of like, sort of, and kind of; various doublings and phatic comparisons (“Slim as an immobility, slimmer than intruder”); lists with a lo-fi easy-listening parataxis. In all, it becomes clear that the whole text has been composed out of a handful of generic structures—all of them glorying in certain “easy” or abused effects—to create a megastructure that is interesting in permutation and statistical array, dwarfing the significance of a singular poem, or its author, and by extension, word choice. Thus the notion of a traditional concordance becomes less useful than a concordance of algorithm, of structure, of genre, and of context.

Stay, Illusion

How is it that a word so attuned to our presence in a single moment has led us to such a comedy of absence? Is there a way to return to the shock of our thisness in the world, after we’ve moved through the humbling uncertainties of these notable thises? After all, each this—digitized, arrayed, and quantified, as if in a gallery of pronominal butterflies—tells us very little about its life, even though it’s animated every time we eye it.

This dwells in the ephemeral; it passes. When not pinned down, it announces freedom from meaning and interpretation; it “designates, but keeps silent,” as Roland Barthes has written. So try as we might to classify that freedom, we are left without words. But is the presentist philosophy announced by every this ill equipped to fathom the very world that allows one to access and organize these instances? When we make this speak, from the depths of its massive archive, what is the terrible sound? Is it everything that literature seeks to avoid, or everything it seeks to say?