The text I described earlier this week has 554 words and 39 of them are “can”. In total there are only 173 different words in the text, and all the others are repeats. Whenever it was possible to use a word I had already written, that’s what I did.

The high incidence of functional words is unremarkable in the text. There are 31 instances of “the”, 29 of “to”, 16 “and”s, 15 “them”s and 14 “a”s. They don’t particularly show.

Most of the other repeated words do pretty much the same job each time they come up: “tell” (10), “each” (9), “inhabitant” (9), “rhythm/s” (10), “tap” (3), etc. But I’m interested in the words like “make” (11), “part” (9), “play” (6), “pause” (6), and “you” (37), which from time to time shift their referents in significant ways.

The first few appearances of “you [can]” in the text refer not to any specific “you” but rather a generic, non-specific possibility that something can be done:

“The materials you need to commandeer the frequencies of short-wave radio stations are things you probably already own. You can make the transmitter part small enough to carry with you to somewhere high up above the buildings. Then you can turn the transmitter on and the people in the buildings you can see can hear you.”

But as the instructions increase in detail through the text, the generic use of “you” becomes increasingly improbable. So although the grammatical construction remains unchanged throughout, the meaning of “you can” evolves from generic to increasingly specific and hence instructional. “You” begins to implicate “you, the present reader”.

Nevertheless, because it begins as a generic, abstract address, the text never quite manages to shed the abstraction it started with.  The ambiguity between the expectancy of instruction and the distance of possibility resolves into equivocation over what’s expected of the reader of the text: to read for information? To follow the instructions? To create the work the text describes? Is the maker the writer or the reader – or even the thrice-fictional inhabitants at home listening to the reader’s broadcast? And what’s being made – a typed text, a reading, an announcement, a piece of music? A shape of silence?

So the development of “you” throughout the text marks a tension in the roles of subject and object, both in terms of the author-reader relationship and also the author-reader-text relationship.

Through its repetitions, the word “make” oscillates between its modal verb form (“you can make them [be] quiet”) and its lexical verb form (“how to make constructions”). The modal form means something like “cause x to”; the lexical form means something like “create x“. This connection between causing something to do something (modal), and doing something directly (lexical) reinforces the equivocation between subject and object already going on in the text.

I’ve caused the text to cause the writer to cause the reader to cause the listeners to cause their instruments to do something. (Perhaps the something – the segment of silence? – is the real work of the text.) At each layer of causation, things slip upwards and downwards to conflicting layers, and the repeated words are symptoms of this slippage. Three other words to think about are “pause”, “part” and “play”.

Instructions for the reader/instructor to “pause” for the listeners are conflated on paper with pauses between paragraphs for the reader.

“Part” refers to three things in the text: an element of a mechanism (“the transmitter part”), the voices playing the music (“you can tell some of the parts to stop playing”), and the participation of the speaker in the music (“you can almost altogether avoid being part of the sound”).

The repetition of “play” I’ll come back to another day when I can find my Barthes book. It’s still in a box somewhere from the move.