• Kate West

Pathologies of Laterality and Linearity

Guest post by Gareth Farmer, academic of English Literature and Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bedfordshire. Gareth has published books, articles and essays on poetry and experimental writing and has also published as well as not published poetry, a novel and radio scripts. Gareth's e-mail is

An audio-visual version of Gareth's post and accompanying poem, 'Pathology of Laterality', is available here.

Nestled in a collection of poems published in 2014, there is a poem called, ‘Pathology of Laterality’ with the dedication ‘i[n] m[emoriam] clarity of thought.’ The opening lines read:

The means for thought assemble now,

askance, oblique, through dimmed eyes.

Flanking by cursory sidelines

and filtered through forethought,

you come.

The poem muses on what might be called a constraining ideology of ‘clarity of thought’ and how such a thing may either be a myth or just something that the speaker cannot fully understand or attain. In these opening lines, thoughts assemble, ready to be expressed, but they appear oblique and dim, with eyes looking at them distrustfully. Some thoughts are ‘cursory’, others a consequence of forethought; but they all clamour at the sidelines waiting for the ‘you’ of language to arrive and express them. With so many pre-thoughts and thoughts, it is no wonder that the language to express them – like a flimsy cake-icing funnel of linguistic expression – splits and splurges out in various directions. ‘Pathology of Laterality’ proceeds to dramatise the affective, psychological and downright cloacal strains and stresses of attempting to manipulate natural processes of thought, comprehension and writing into linear patterns and codes. Against the tyranny and rationality of linearity, the poem suggests, the lateral workings of mind and language are pathologised; the more-comfortable flailing of limbs in a hula-like dance are straight-jacketed and Bedlam-bound to wonky wail and waltz in safety and away from a sane society in linear lock-step. The closing lines of the poem amount to an ironic lament for lost life:

Look, out from Wardour street it strides;

whilom glanced on the switch-way to pride.

Ruminant, it’s chewed and half-tried,

its pathological laterality we must abide.

In the distance, the speaker seems to suggest, there strides a spectre of aspiration. It can just be seen, but like a memory (‘whilom’ means in the past) it rapidly fades. The aspiration is some kind of stridently and straightforwardly achieved clarity, but it can, paradoxically, somehow only be perceived by following pathologically lateral paths of thoughts and language. The speaker is stuck between ideal aspirations to the linear walk of clarity and the deficient tools of thought and language to grasp these things. They are stuck in a present realisation that the aspiration may forever be too far ahead, or too dim to grasp. They are stuck, in other words, in a battle between thought and cognition on the one hand and language on the other.

Looking back on this, my, poem from what might be archly described as wizened older age, I wince; not so much from the perspective of aesthetic judgement but from the way in which my poetic ‘expression’ contorts, buckles and crumbles under the weight of the main theme of the poem: that of feeling marginalised – linguistically, neurologically, experientially – from what I knew from years of reading, researching and writing were the appropriate or desirable modes of expression. I simply could not do that, at least in poetry. This piece – 500 words of which have already happened – is not a claim to any special ‘marginal’ status. It is not an identity-politicking plea and corrective to perceived lack of academic or poetic achievement. I don’t feel particularly ennobled or emboldened by the ‘struggles’ I have faced in education and academia, the special attention I had to give to certain tasks over the years without realising that there was an issue, nor by a diagnosis of ‘learning difference’ during my PhD studies at Sussex amounting to a form of dyslexia, among other things. I do not feel special, or want to claim any identity that will mainline me into great jobs as some sort of ambassador of difference. But, why am I here, writing linearly about and around-about the subject of the pathologisation of laterality?

If I am honest, the ‘intent’ of ‘Pathology of Laterality’ had nothing to do with dyslexia, but to do with distraction and, in particular, the ways in which we are led to pursue ever more crass and useless lateral paths to fulfil rampant desires to consume. In a way, the poem is a diagnosis of the potential pathologisation of consumers under regimes of advertising. These regimes rely on people’s attention obsolescence as much as the goods they sell contain in-built obsolescence. Being a lecturer of English literature for a number of years, I often remind my students that they need to cultivate modes of attention that are iniquitous and resistant to the types of fractious and frantically ravenous modes of attention cultivated under late-capitalist and technologically-ravaged conditions. [Checks Twitter] So the poet’s intention was not to describe individual cognitive and linguistic estrangement, but rather the cognitive dissonances produced by societies and cultures. Nevertheless, ‘Pathology of Laterality’ does explore observations of what might be called my own amused self-hatred of my lateral and laterally-organised thought processes and writing techniques and how these were perhaps incompatible with the rationally and linearly organised academic worlds, work environments and modes of writing I was so painstakingly and painfully trying to navigate at that time and now.

I have already claimed that advertising and late-capitalist cultures may promote forms of lateral pathology, where bombardments of distraction pull us away from the time and attention required for linear and, perhaps, deep thinking. I have also claimed that, in the main, academic discourses – in the form of essays, articles, papers and, even, debates – are necessarily linear. Academics and other writers of prose need to carve out linear pathways of argument even where broader culture and society default to ever more lateral and hyper-lateral distractions. Learning to argue, and learning the skills to forge linear arguments, is already a struggle for any writer. Such work is necessarily hard for all writers; writing is a skill and one to practice, work at and improve by reading and writing. But, given that these things are already difficult, how does an academic with a learning difference or difficulty navigate these contradictory terrains while also accepting that these skills do not perhaps come as easily to them as they do to what might be (or has) been called ‘neuro-typical’ writers? It might be useful for those who do have learning differences to accept that the contradictions I have outlined above do make things hard for everyone and that it is fine to take time and space to work on the skills that others might find a little easier. But, here is another thought: if our cognitive capacities and ‘peculiar’ linguistic usages appear ‘pathological lateral’ within the rational frameworks of writing, perhaps there are ways in which we – the struggling lateralites – can claim superiority: we already affectively, experientiality and linguistically battle with these contradictions as we navigate between broad culture and academic specificity. An acute sensitivity and critical engagement with these conditions perhaps puts us in a slightly stronger position to explain and understand the contradictions of the conflicts between linear and lateral pathologies. Maybe.


Pathology of Laterality

i.m. clarity of thought

The means for thought assemble now,

askance, oblique, through dimmed eyes.

Flanking by cursory sidelines,

and filtered through forethought, you come.

Like so many decisions,

you awkwardly awaken,

a half-life kindled in unorthodoxy,

or at-leasts and the urge to such.

Whose heir apparent here fuels and mimics

these means? You are, as ever,

a caricature of decisiveness.

Whilst you are attained through familiar

passages to thought, you’re only warmed up

clarity, a mincing sidedish claritas,

sideways consumed.

You’re only obligingly digested

and unfolded as solution.

Deciphered here, like a colonic exam,

are pitiful half-truths,

puckered fruits but unfulfilling.

Enough of a view, at least, to cause a pathos,

jarring enough to present in jars as such,

and, and firm enough to persuasively command

a cause and aetiology in so many words.

So, so very many words.

Wearied with hiding and peeking out from

eye-evading lines, you are vomited,

discrete though, and with a certain dignity.

The dignity of feigned certainty.

You are, alas, the bolus under palm shade

plopping with a plop on the plate of conversation.

Stealthy, like a frog-in-the-throat,

you expectorant! Cleaving a clearing

before the alarm of speech.

A-hem. A-hem.

Materialise in a moment’s politic,

after having paced the labyrinth halls

of stutter and the grooves of a tongue-tip.

Pathetically emerge

naturally inaccurate,

inarticulate as description.

You, thought, are bowel forged,

curved through, over and out from

the erstwhile depths;

settled on for seconds best.

Look, out from Wardour street it strides;

whilom glanced on the switch-way to pride.

Ruminant, it’s chewed and half-tried,

its pathological laterality we must abide.

From Gareth Farmer, Pomes: Incidental, Uncollected Poetry 2008-2013 (Newton-Le-Willows: Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2014), pp. 40-1.

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