Velimir Khlebnikov and ‘Displacement’ as Poetics

1 August 2014

For Khlebnikov, the theoretical foundation does not exactly sum up his aesthetics and ideas, but is more of a code to slovotvorchestvo (Futurist ‘word creation’), where ‘languages will remain for art and will be freed from a humiliating burden, [that] we are tired from hearing.’ Introducing the idea of language as a benign and malleable force sans frontiers, Khlebnikov does not seem confined to the landscape of the urban, industrial aesthetics usually associated with Futurism. Literary parallelism, for him, is not only between the gentrified, combustive energy of cities, but can also be exchanged and melded through national folk motifs, elements, allusions and linguistic borrowings.

In trying to determine this accentuation of defamiliarisation (ostraneniye) in Khlebnikov’s world, it is important to explore the idea of ‘the word as such’, where the word itself is an object, evoking the possibility to refer to everything that hasn’t yet been proposed, as signage to a copious relation between one thing and another. The linguistic sign represents what is unsaid: an univocal identity of meaning; the illicit and repressed are the attempt of the unconscious of language to voice itself – in itself an impossibility. Khlebnikov’s word-experiments – for example the misleading use of suffixes and prefixes forming from the same root words, the invention of neologisms, or his attempts to create new Russian terms in exchange for long-borrowed foreign terms – all bring about a sense of defamiliarisation with poetic language. His experiments were a serious attempt to recreate a psychotropic world of folklore with the means of high art: a mediation between fairy tales (skazki), folk culture, the cosmopolitan, a blur of intertextual allusions from the world’s literary canon, as well as the languages that comprise world culture.

Khlebnikov was also devoted to the rational, ‘scientific’ relations of the word, confounding any element of emotion. He created mathematical systems to determine the secreted meaning of individual letters within the alphabet and, in one essay, he makes a distinction between ‘the language of general understanding’ (yazik ponimanie) and ‘the language of trans-reason’ (zaumnyi yazik) to prove that his quasi-equations are actual eternal structures to language. (He also surveyed the different consonant sounds in other languages to prove that these structures existed other than in Russian.) Like Balmont, Khlebnikov was fascinated by ‘the primitive stage of language’1, bringing this pre-verbal manner to the Russian language and to Russian poetics, creating a poetic revolution. Poetics would not only become strange by returning to Slavic folk motifs and elements but also by returning to the root of language. Khlebnikov’s word formations raised the level of objectification that could be utilised in Russian grammar and vocabulary in order to create an unexpected aspect of sound to the ear, to haul out the eternal mystery within language itself, stripping it back to its barest bones of groundless, arbitrary meaning.

Khlebnikov’s notion of the ‘word as such’ is an attempt to discover this ‘something’ intrinsic to language itself – perhaps language itself being zaum. ‘Zaum’ was a poetic attempt by Khelbnikov and Alexander Kruchenikh to create a universal language, where a bodily function, an expression of emotion, or any other phenomenon could be expressed by the hyperbolic usage of a word. Zaum was a revolutionary practice to rupture language by going back to the materiality of the word, taking it beyond itself to a pre-foetal and timeless state. It was created at a time that the culture itself was on the verge of war and revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. By emphasising an unusual register of words and their relations to one another, Khlebnikov has evoked insight into the world of words: this infinite poetics and the internal networks within language to unite people all over the world is a concept echoed in many of Khlebnikov’s essays. It is not only his theoretical assertions, but also his baffling semantic structures, which elucidate a mural of soundshapes (‘zvukopis’), which widen and decentre the scope of play abundant with personifications, accents, and obsolete Russian words.

In Lacan’s theory of subjectivity, the self is necessarily divided, intertwining with that which (or whomever) is believed to be other to itself: the Self cannot see itself except through the agency of the other. In his essays from the collection Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan introduces the concept of vision and how internal it is to the structure of our desire and our perception of the desired other. ‘The Gaze’ is an opening; it is not a singular act of observing in a quasi-Kantian model: in Lacanian terms, the concept of the gaze is a point of loss and a series of relations. This relation to things is where ‘something slips, passes, is transmitted, from stage to stage, and is always to some degree eluded in it – that is what we call the gaze’.2

This consolidation and loss of self via the gaze is a construct that benefits readings of poems such as ‘Ra’, whom we find ‘seeing his own eye in the red swamp/ contemplating his dream and himself.’ The poem puts forward the question: who is Ra really looking at? The fixation on others, the hallucinogenic relations that sprout from each and every gaze in the poem – ‘a thousand eyes of the Volga,’ which somehow subsume one eye, although it is not clear whose, by this stage. These malleable notions of the self and how they co-exist between elements, gods, and folkloric motifs require a psychoanalytic tool of interpretation in order to lead to an interrogation of the notion of the self, unfolding as it does in the poems.

Lacan’s essay ‘Subversion of the Subject and the Dialect of Desire’ in Ecrits also provides a theoretical conception of the desiring subject, one in which I frame readings of the speaking ‘I’ in the Persian poems. The representation of subjectivity as shaped by a projection of otherness in the poem can thus be related to the idea of Lacanian desire.

Khlebnikov’s notion of culture is itself not entirely Euro-centric or Russo-centric: culture is something transitional, a declamation of primordial world revolting against the destruction of ‘bourgeois society’ Although Khlebnikov was nurtured by the Futurists’ leap to reveal, defy and invade the unknown and the unexpected, his extraordinary articles, passages and poetic references were devoted to the expressive possibilities that other cultures and languages could bring to the poetic revolution of the Russian language, thus transcending other Futurists in this regard. In order to analyse and understand Khlebnikov’s work, there has to be some understanding of his ideas of language and culture, and his attempts to apply these concepts in his poems.

The fundamental concept of the materiality of the word central to Khlebnikov’s poetics requires clarification. In determining this materiality of the word becoming the space of the word (‘the word as such’ as theorised by Khlebnikov), which is not fully formed, we are led to a poetics of ‘displacement’: where language, words, units, morphemes and syllables are not autonomous, but a space. (For an example of which, Khlebnikov coined the term ‘soundshape’ (zvukopis), which is always in a flux of multiplicity and displaced from its familiar, clichéd usage.)

In order to define ‘displacement’ and why it is utilised in the analysis of the works of Khlebnikov, Deleuze and Guittari’s notion of the ‘rhizome’ has been drawn upon, as it is a theoretical construct that assumes the diverse forms of language as a chain of actions, an event ceaselessly ‘othered’, a channel open to change. Their method of the rhizome is conceived of as a weed of multiplicity, infinite in dimension, encompassing subject and object, image and world, and holding the potential possibilities of signification projected within language. The rhizome is depicted as a series of connections, lines and flights, envisioned by the authors as a valid variation to the standard, binary logic that has dominated Western thought.

By advocating the rhizome as a metaphor for ‘displacement’ within Khlebnikov’s poetics, I will elaborate on the scheme of the rhizome in terms of Khlebnikov’s notion of ‘the word as such’ (slovo kak takovo) as a poetic of displacement and the specific mythopoeia of Khlebnikov that is also one of displacement. In each of these areas, displacement has occurred as a diversity of forms of representation within the word; its related concepts are structured as a configuration of the language of possibility and of otherness central to his poetic experiments as depicted by the concept of the rhizome.

In the poetics of Khlebnikov, language is the very otherness that is a metaphor for displacement. The idea of displaced meaning – a displacement of a unified, autonomous meaning – is outlined in the following extract, where a dialogue between a student and teacher is created to convey the materiality of language in order to substantiate his own poetic excavations. (The dialogue itself is complete with meta-narrative; as it comments on the nature of this literary form itself, it is reminiscent of Plato’s dialogues and attempts to reconfigure the form of dialogues as we have understood them since Socrates, thus reintroducing the form to the avant-garde.)

The dialogue explores the role of words’ internal materiality, as the student is indignant that his philological findings demonstrate that the perimeters of meaning are within a word and are dependent on certain conditions. These conditions, as demonstrated by the internal variation of vowels, are diverse and not independent: they rely on what is both absent and present (as the student asserted with the example of a bald spot and a tree trunk). Conditions of language are exposed to conditions beyond what is present: in Khlebnikov’s poetic world, words have a displaced relationship to what they represent. There is an attempt to cleanse language of its unnatural, static and tired references, and reject the ‘common’ associations of words, which are an artificial and arbitrary construct.

Although this is somewhat speculative, the point can be made that Khlebnikov’s poetics of displacement may have been influenced by his probing into foreign languages. The idea of an ‘internal declension’ is nothing new in terms of Semitic languages. For example, this can be illustrated by the Arabic root verb ka-ta-ba (to read). If it is declined internally, it could mean kitaab (book), kaatib (writer), kutubu (books), etc. As short vowels are generally not written in Arabic, meaning is gathered by context. This visualisation of an internal declining system may have appealed to Khlebnikov, as the idea of visualisation was rather impertinent to Futurism and the absence of the vowel may have had an impact on him. Similarly, the presence of radicals and homophonous logographic characters in Chinese (symbols for words that sound alike but have different semantic meanings) may have also had an influence on the poet, given the ‘visualness’ of these languages.

From the play, Zangezi, Khlebnikov’s improvisations are realised by formulating words with the Russian root ‘um’ (‘mind’) in order to overturn both conventional and unconventional prefixes, affixing to the root word meanings that do not exist, but within the rules of language could be possible, thus displacing the meaning of ‘um’ as it is usually perceived. Khlebnikov’s linguistic developments also represent the possibility of becoming a poetic in itself – an otherness that exists within language. This displacement calls into question the notion of poetic language as a form, rather than as a substance – a protest against semantic conditioning. Like the rhizome, it is a system of relations, as any prefix in Russian can be applied to the root word.

In his notes on the play, Khlebnikov explains this elaborate system and what could essentially be seen as the destruction of a standard language as we know it. As if on exhibition, the root word begins to lack definition: with the prefix ‘v’, it is explained as ‘an invention’. Un-love of what is old leads to ‘vyum’. Or the letters ‘Go’ can be explained, as noted in the play, ‘high as those trinkets of the sky, the stars, which aren’t visible during the day.’ From fallen lords (gosudari in Russian) ‘Go’ takes the dropped staff. ‘Noum’ and ‘Daum’, with their common meanings of ‘No’ and ‘Da’ (‘but’ and ‘yes’ in Russian), signify the argumentative and the affirmative assigned to the mind. The mind is a key to refer to in terms of Khlebnikov’s poetics: the principle of Zaum, trans-sense, or literally ‘beyond-mind’ (za in Russian meaning ‘beyond’), is central to how the Futurists were informed and inspired by language construction and how word-creations existed as form and not only as technique, revealing unexplored norms of poetic language. Like the rhizome, the word ‘um’ is a world – and a word – unto itself.

Already, the life of the word – and the forms it could take – is the essence of poetry: an idea that could arguably be said to have formulated the poetics of Futurism. Significantly, this essence, the life of the word, is the key to the history of a people, which here could also be in opposition to the past, on in confluence with it – a life ‘detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and [that] has multiple entryways and exits and its own line of flights’.3 The power of poetry is to unlock that life, which exists in opposition to the past as it is, and should be expanded and opened to the present.

  1. Vygotsky, Lev.S. Thought and language. Ed. Alex Kozulin, Trans. Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press ,1986).
  2. s. Alan Sheridan. (New York: Norton, 1998), 73.
  3. G Deleuze & F Guittari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. B. Massumi. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1986), 21.
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