June 09, 2005

Cubist syntax

Michael Kimmelman's NYT review of Richard Serra's installation in Bilbao had (at least) two examples of the incompletely-parallel conjunction that Neal Whitman has dubbed "FLoP coordination":

It rejuvenates and pushes abstraction to a fresh level.
Mothers now cheerfully push strollers and kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds.

The basic pattern is a "right node raised" coordination of the form [A B] and [C D] E, meaning [A B E] and [C D E], in which the right-hand piece has an extra part that only belong in the second conjunct: [A B] and [C D] E F[A B E] and [C D E F]. In this case, we have [It rejuvenates] and [pushes] abstraction to a fresh level[It rejuvenates abstraction] and [pushes abstraction to a fresh level]. (More Language Log commentary on FLoP coordination can be found here, here and here, and Neal's posts on the subject are here).

In general, Kimmelman seems to have a sort of cubist approach to syntax, at least as far as the New York Times' copy editors will allow. He likes sentences that juxtapose a set of phrasal fragments whose integration requires analytic effort, as in this example from his June 3 review of Lee Friedlander's show at the Modern:

So in pictures like the one he took in 1972, of a dog sitting at a vacant street corner in Albuquerque, N.M., what results is not a moral parable, although it is, in its regard of the mundane, uplifting.

Sometimes his structures would be clear in a spoken form, but strain the capacities of punctuation in the absence of prosody:

With Winogrand's appetite and aplomb but with fewer neuroses than either Winogrand or Arbus; without Mr. Frank's anger or Evans's caustic wit - just by being rather cool and nonchalant, he has, over the years, refined a mischievous but fundamentally rigorous and unforgiving style.

Here's another example, from his May 27 review of the Jasper Johns show 'Catenary':

To give him his due, he's still a virtuoso control freak, and the sheer fluency and imaginative energy of his multifarious techniques, while nothing new, inevitably elevate his closeted and obfuscating enterprise to a level that commands admiration, if purely on formal terms.

In other cases, a spoken form might be harder to assimilate, since several readings and even a few calculations in the margins may be required. From the Jasper Johns review again:

The massing of remote private symbols, whose decoding Mr. Johns invited by devising them, then said missed the point, alternated with the most obvious and banal subjects, which were easy to read on the surface.

[Update: John Cowan thinks it's fine to interpret the second quoted sentence to mean "[Mothers now cheerfully push strollers through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds] and [kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds]". He could be right, but my experience of strollers and playgrounds is that you push the stroller to the playground, then stop and let the kid get out to play. I guess you could design a playground for stroller-slaloming, though, and perhaps that was what Kimmelman had in mind.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 9, 2005 06:59 AM