“Her Lips Are Copper Wire”: Linguistics, Networks, and the Great Migration

Presentation by Erin E. Edwards (Miami University).

This paper forms an assemblage between Jean Toomer’s 1923 Cane and Deleuze and Guattari’s “November 20, 1923—Postulates of Linguistics,” from A Thousand Plateaus.  November 20, 1923, marks the date when the Weimar Republic pronounced the replacement of the Papiermark with the Rentenmark at an exchange rate of one trillion to one—a vertiginous moment when the circulation of an “order word” effects a far-reaching deterritorialization of existing material conditions.  This proclaimed “valuation” of the Rentenmark whose material backing was largely fraudulent provides the starting-point for Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of linguistics: they argue that “information is only the minimal condition” of communication, while noise and circulatory redundancy are its primary conditions.  Emphasizing the extrinsic conditions of language over the individual enunciator, the chapter fittingly opens with a still from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in which a bullet-ridden dummy of Mabuse is nevertheless poised at the microphone to deliver a radio address.

Tracing a “superficial” connection between 1923 Germany and 1923 United States, I argue that this circulatory model of linguistics is useful to understanding not only the emancipatory “order word” that inaugurates the African-American migration depicted by Cane, but also the material conditions and enunciative possibilities enabled by that order word.  Cane depicts the move from South to North not as a minoritarian-majoritarian confrontation but, more unpredictably, through—and as—a series of networks: teeming beehives, tactile words circulating atmospherically, blood flowing through the circulatory system of streets, and audio technologies that obtain corporeal form.  Cane imagines “order words” not as “inscribing” the body but as passing through the body, effecting multiple corporeal instantiations and, I would argue, as being transformed in turn such that “noise” becomes a mode of inhabitation (it is useful to recall here Atalli’s claim that noise “indicates the limits of a territory and the way to make oneself heard within it, how to survive by drawing one’s sustenance from it”).  Critics have often regarded Cane as a kind of jazz improvisation, but I would suggest that radio—simultaneously tuned to a spectrum of modes and voices—offers a better model.  My paper thus argues that radio and other networks in Cane (as analogs for language itself, according to Deleuze and Guattari) function not by spiriting the voice out of the body but by deterritorializing (and reterritorializing) a range of material, geographic, and bodily forms.

Erin E. Edwards is Assistant Professor of English at Miami University.  She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled “Corpse and Character: Modernism’s Posthuman Bodies.”

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