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Order and Chaos in Samuel Beckett’s Not I and J.H. Prynne’s Not-You

- Jon Clay


Language produces order. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari say, in A Thousand Plateaus, “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience” (Deleuze and Guattari, TP 76) and, to this end, it is composed of order-words. Although Deleuze and Guattari’s declaration emphasizes an imperative force of language, order-words need not be imperative as such; this is clear from any everyday enunciation. Rather, language not only gives orders, it produces order. It does this in any number of ways, from the repetition of cliché to the reliance of signification on convention for its operation.

However, language can also produce a sense of chaos or an encounter with the chaotic; a literary or enunciative practice that disrupts convention or reveals language beyond signification is a practice that both draws on chaos and, to an extent, releases chaos, even if it also produces a new order. This is, in particular, characteristic of modern literature and modern poetry. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write of classical art as that which organises chaos and creates order (Deleuze and Guattari, TP, 338-340), and of romantic art as ‘deepening itself’ via ‘the forces of the earth or the people’ (Deleuze and Guattari, TP 340-342). They write, however, of modern art as ‘cosmic’, saying that it ‘no longer confronts the forces of chaos … but instead opens onto the forces of the Cosmos.’ (Deleuze and Guattari, TP, 342). 1  This opening onto the forces of the cosmos is also an opening onto chaos insofar as such forces are beyond the tendency of language to produce order and to subsume ‘the things themselves’ under the presuppositions that language is itself always composed of (Agamben, P, 33). Further, in What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari claim that an opening onto chaos is definitive of poetry per se, let alone modern poetry:

In a violently poetic text, Lawrence describes what produces poetry: people are constantly putting up an umbrella that shelters them and on the underside of which they draw a firmament and write their conventions and opinions. But poets, artists, make a slit in the umbrella, they tear open the firmament itself, to let in a bit of free and windy chaos and to frame in a sudden light a vision that appears through the rent … artists struggle less against chaos (that, in a certain manner, all their wishes call forth) than against the “clichés” of opinion. (Deleuze and Guattari, WP, 204)

I intend to look into the relationship between order and chaos in poetic texts (though one is also a dramatic text) by writers of, to use a term of importance to Deleuze and Guattari, great sobriety and control in their uses of language but who nevertheless draw chaos into their works with enormously powerful effect.

Samuel Beckett’s Not I presents, on one level, an ambiguous attempt to produce order:

was on the point . . . after long efforts . . . when suddenly she felt . . .
gradually she felt . . . her lips moving . . . imagine! . . her lips moving!
(Beckett 379)

The movement from ‘suddenly she felt’ to ‘gradually she felt’ might be read as a correction, implying a search for a more accurate expression and therefore an attempt to produce an order of representative truth. This kind of order, of representative truth, is prompted at a number of points in the play by an inaudible interlocutor (who may or may not be identified with the Auditor) who apparently offers corrections that are taken up, for the most part, by the speaker, Mouth; although they are also refused at certain vital points. However, this particular pattern, the movement from ‘suddenly’ to ‘gradually’ is repeated precisely at a number of points throughout the play and does not appear to involve any external intervention.  It is also worth remarking that the movement is not, in fact, from a vague to a more accurate expression of a separate content but is rather between antonyms. This indicates not a correction but an experiment: experimental attempts to produce order from the chaos of a virtuality of language in which all enunciative or narrative possibilities exist simultaneously. Such simultaneous virtual existence on a collective plane of enunciation (all enunciation being first and foremost collective practice) would be a plane of chaos from which individual acts of enunciation emerge to actualise specific possibilities and so produce order. In this case, however, such order is left in the balance: two virtual acts of enunciation are actualised, with no satisfactory way of settling on one rather than the other without assuming a significance for linear order that would be difficult to justify. Even if such a significance were justified, then the linear movement to ‘gradually’ would still fail to erase the existence of ‘suddenly’. Thus order becomes unstable; the actualised enunciation fails to signify and has a deterritorialising affect that opens onto the chaotic.

J.H. Prynne’s poetry sequence Not-You works in rather different ways but produces somewhat similar affects. Divided into three sections, marked by changes in consistency of form, the sequence is, in many respects, tightly ordered. However, looking at the first poem, it is immediately apparent that there are serious difficulties for a reader intent on interpretation:

The twins blink, hands set to thread out
a dipper cargo with lithium grease enhanced
to break under heat stress. Who knows

what cares arise in double streaks, letting
the door slip to alternative danny boy in-
decision. She’ll cut one hand off to whack

the other same-day retread, leaving its mark
two transfiguration at femur length. Ahead
the twins consult, shade over upon shade.
(Prynne 383)

There is an opening to a chaos of enunciation that refuses any contextual markers that might give a reader purchase on signification. There is no sense of who, or what, the twins might be; yet the use of the definite article implies that a reader ought, somehow, to know. Further, there is no way to a conceptual understanding of the twins' apparently intended action – the combination of ‘thread out’ with ‘cargo’ and ‘lithium grease enhanced to break under heat stress’ suggest the engineering or the industrial, but lithium grease is a lubricant and so is unlikely to break under anything (leaving aside the question of why something might be enhanced to break under heat-stress), while it is certainly difficult to grasp the notion of threading out cargo, dipper or otherwise. One thing readers are left with is a sense of the industrial, though it is a sense that cannot be assimilated in the usual way of concepts; in fact, to name it ‘the industrial’ in this way is to translate it into a concept that has a relatively minor purchase on the poem itself. In fact, what ‘the industrial’ here names is not a concept at all but a sensation composed of signifiers whose signification is simultaneously constrained and opened onto chaos by their juxtaposition. Readers are confronted by this sensation as an encounter – it cannot be assimilated to a conceptual order and thereby interpreted, which means that it cannot be assimilated to a reader’s subjectivity.  Readers cannot ‘get it’.

The impossibility of interpretation and assimilation by a reader indicates that the sensation of the industrial produced by the opening lines of this poem is what Deleuze and Guattari call a percept.  They state that percepts ‘are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who perceive them’ (Deleuze and Guattari, WP 164). The sensation of the industrial, though perceived by a reader, remains independent of a reader through the fact that she or he cannot assimilate it, rendering the sensation not only independent but, ultimately, non-human, even though it requires the human reader for its actualisation. The percept is not in the reader, nor quite in the relationship between the reader and the poem. The percept exists virtually in the poem: as I have said, it only requires the reader for its actualisation. Not you: the reader is not addressed by this poem, it is not for you or addressed to you, it stands in itself and confronts you.

Returning to Not I, the play begins:

. . . . out . . . into this world. . . this world . . . tiny little thing . . . before its
time . . . in a godfor- . . . what?. .  girl?. . yes . . . tiny little girl . . . into this . .
. out into this . . . before her time . . . godforsaken hole called . . . called . . .
no matter . . . parents unknown . . . unheard of . . .
(Beckett 376)

Concentrating on the text for the moment, what I notice first of all on a graphological level are the ellipses that do not mark omissions but rather breaks in the movement of the text. These breaks do not slow the text down, but instead produce rapid shifts, implying a search for and a grasping after language. The ellipses are miniscule hesitations, flickers in the movement of the language as it attempts to produce expression. They are fractures in the flow of enunciation, lines of disturbance; the text is segmented. Segmentation can be, as Deleuze and Guattari say, ‘well determined, well planned’ (Deleuze and Guattari, TP 195) and as such is the segmentation of a life of habit and the production of order. The supple segmentations of Not I, however, ‘are like quanta of deterritorialisation’ (196); the lines are not lines that separate and connect well-ordered areas of a life but are cracks in discourse, shifts of enunciation. The repetitions, hesitations and interruptions of enunciation are movements along the lines of the ellipses that mark struggles. Everything in the language of this play marks a struggle around order and a disruption of order.

Mouth refuses, for example, the order of identity or subjectival interpellation:

what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . .  (Beckett 377)

This explicit refusal of identity between the speaking voice and the subject of the enunciation is not the only expression of such; fractures in the subject occur throughout the text. For example:

but the brain still . . . still sufficiently . . oh very much so! . . at this stage . . .
in control . . . under control (378)

Here there is a fracture between the sense of the brain as the seat of control and as the object of control, a fracture that is embedded in certain difficulties of the language itself and of everyday forms of expression. The hesitation between the options of the brain being in control or under control, and the knotty philosophical and theological problems that these very normal expressions imply, reveals further the problem around the relationship between language and the subject, a problem that is inseparable from the collective plane of enunciation. Both expressions have a prior virtual existence on that plane and there is no justification for choosing one over the other; yet each implies a very different understanding of human being. The question of who or what is in control, and the question of the identity or otherwise of enunciation and subject are clearly closely related; and if that identity is being explicitly refused, then who or what is refusing?

It would be too simple to make a straightforward claim for the autonomy of language itself; language is, after all the product of collective practice, it does not spring into the world fully formed. However, language and enunciation clearly stand apart from the speaker:

and now this stream . . . not catching the half of it . . . not the quarter . . . no
idea . . . what she was saying . . . imagine! . .  no idea what she was saying!
. . till she began trying to . . . delude herself . . . it was not hers at all . . . not
her voice at all . . . (379)

The stream of enunciation is an event, a line of flight that the speaker is propelled along beyond ‘her’ control, that she is incapable of deciphering; signified meaning is not where the significance of this event lies. It lies rather in the event itself. It is an infection of chaos that comes neither from inside nor outside. It certainly does not have its source in her subjectivity, yet it comes from the mouth (which is, of course, all the audience is able to perceive), an orifice that marks the permeability of the subject, the uncertainty of the border between inside and outside – or between order and chaos. While language is an element of the individual, it is also not that individual or the order of a subject; it has its basis for existence in the chaotic plane of collective enunciation. Even while it is not strictly autonomous, yet it is not exactly under the control of the individual who speaks, and does not have its origin in her; it is inside and outside and, through the deterritorialising force of this both-and (or neither-nor – it amounts to the same thing), when it is revealed through a non-signifying and deterritorialising disruption of the subjective, then it produces a confrontation with the world itself. The opening onto the chaos of language provides an opening onto the unassimilable world – not I – that language is an element of, even as it is an element of the human individual.

There is an address to the audience in Not I; the audience is addressed through a confrontation with themselves that is neither, strictly speaking, identification nor alienation. The audience is invited, or even compelled, to address that which traverses their selves, that which is not only inscribed within them but which actually inscribes them, without which they would not exist as human, but which is also not them. Prynne’s movement is similar, although, as has already been stated, the poetry is not addressed to the reader at all. Looking briefly at another poem from Not-You:

As will go to stay back,
       to tell of a cut-out hand
which well and hardly long
       in this, laying the band

of colour marks, no thought
     can swell a fear to rise
up to early missing parts
     inturning as with new eyes.
(Prynne 400)

This poem is from the middle section of the sequence. It might be noticed that there is a similar difficulty of reference here as with the first poem, a failure or refusal to signify in a way that a reader might safely assimilate. On the other hand, there is reference – an echo, possibly, across the sequence between ‘She’ll cut one hand off / to whack the other same-day retread’ there and ‘to tell of a cut-out hand / which well and hardly long’ here. The sensations, though are different. As well as the industrial-percept in the first poem, there was a sense of threat, an affect of violence produced through ‘break’, ‘stress’, ‘cut’, ‘whack’ and ‘mark’, as well, possibly as the suggestion of the uncanny or the ghostly (and so a sense of threat) through ‘shade over upon shade’. Here there is a different affect, still dynamic, but less active – though there may be a suggestion of a response. The hand here is ‘cut out’ instead of cut off and there is no sense of violent agency; the fact that this hand is ‘laying the band // of colour marks’ might suggest a similar violence to ‘whack’, but ‘laying’ doesn’t have that same kind of force, suggesting rather a job of work. Also, ‘no thought / can swell a fear to rise’ suggests a dynamic process that is specifically not amenable to agency, like the swelling of a sea perhaps, although fear may be an automatic response to the violence threatened in the earlier poem. The final line, ‘inturning as with new eyes’, again suggests a process beyond agency, possibly as a result of the swelling fear.

What is presented by this poem is a tight poetic order in itself – the poem has a regular meter and it rhymes – and the suggestion, through echoes and possible responses to the earlier poem, of an order across the sequence. This might suggest to a reader something of the world she or he inhabits, but it simultaneously, again, refuses any assimilable signification, the poem’s signification instead being productive of sensations that cannot simply be conceptualised and assimilated that way. Not-You not only draws on the chaos of the collective plane of enunciation, but it produces the apparent chaos of non-signification within and across a tight poetic order. This is the production of an ordered new world out of the chaotic undertow of everyday order. In this way, Not-You not only does not address readers, thereby confronting him or her with its own existence, it also does address the world across readers, inscribed within it but also inscribing out of it, if I may put it that way, the production of a new world. This possibility of a new world is what readers are confronted with.

Not I, then, addresses itself to the audience as a refusal of identification with the recognisable subject and the unified order of the self and as such presents the audience with an encounter with the real of language, with the chaos of language and with the chaos of the other with which they are inscribed. Not-You, on the other hand, produces a certain chaos from its own order as that which cannot be assimilated to the dominant order of a reading subject but rather draws readers into an encounter with its alien aesthetic force, which is a confrontation with possibility. Both texts produce openings onto the chaos of the world of the real beyond the ordering dominance of the signifier; both texts trace different but clearly related lines of flight through chaos that may transform the relationship of the individual with that which lies beyond it.



1 This seeming unhistorical account of ‘modern literature’ refers, I believe, to a possibility that always exists in the literary text, co-existing with the ‘classical’ and the ‘romantic’ (Deleuze and Guattari, TP, 338-342 and 346). The ‘cosmic’ is modern because it is a possibility that is brought to the fore as ‘modernism’ by historical conditions and forces.



AGAMBEN, Giorgio, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

BECKETT, Samuel, Not I, in The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

DELEUZE, Gilles, and GUATTARI, Felix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by MASSUMI, Brian. London; New York: Continuum, 2002. References to TP hereafter in my text.

DELEUZE, Gilles and GUATTARI, Felix, What is Philosophy, trans. TOMLINSON Hugh and BURCHILL, Graham. London and New York: Verso, 2003. References to WP hereafter in my text.

PRYNNE, J.H., Not-You, in Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1999.


Jon Clay


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