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Exploding the Sentence: Jack Kerouac’s Othering and the Cultural Production of Art

Rachel Thompson

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Rachel Thompson

Harvard College


Exploding the Sentence:

Jack Kerouac’s Othering and the Cultural Production of Art


Between the late 1940s and 1960s, the art world underwent significant changes, particularly in the United States. American writers, painters, and musicians were reworking the meaning of art by pushing parameters, and of the main actors in this ideological shift was Jack Kerouac. Through the lens of Saussurean linguistic theory, we can see how Kerouac denies and expands the signification structure usually followed by novelists and even once followed by Kerouac himself. Gender literary theory can also help us understand what this difference that Kerouac achieves actually means to the production of art. Specifically, the theories of Judith Butler will offer a perspective on how contrarian artists and their art were produced historically and culturally. Ultimately, art performs itself through each new piece that is internalized as artistic tradition by the art community, but this process requires a kind of art that denies boundaries and works from difference.


In Saussurean linguistics, the sign is made up of the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the sound-image produced in the head when a word is spoken or read, and the signified is the entire nebulous concept that comes with that sound-image. However, this theory can be extended beyond individual words existing abstractly in opposition to each other. For English, the structural categories of sentences and paragraphs and chapters can serve as a signifier, and what we conceptually attribute to fill these categories can serve as the signified. For example, a sentence is a single thought expressed through a capital letter at the beginning, a subject, verb, and object in the middle, and a punctuation mark at the end. Thus, the form or shape of a syntactically proper sentence in English is a signifier, and the single, complete thought expressed in this sentence is the signified. In his most famous works, Kerouac continuously the categories usually so elemental to written communication.

            Kerouac expanded this signification relationship at the structural level, and this expansion was achieved through a process of personal development and production. His early works show understanding of the uses of conventional syntax, but his later works show a strong desire for originality through a seeming misuse of structural signifiers. This denial of expected content following the comfortable form of a sentence represents the moment when Kerouac becomes an “other” from cultural and artistic points of view. The examples from these two novels illustrate Kerouac’s separation from a “heterosexual” imitation of signification structures to a “homosexual” expression of his own voice. This concept can be explicated through the origin/derivative theories presented by Judith Butler in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” As Butler states:


…heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmic idealization of itself—and failing. Precisely because it is bound to fail, and yet endeavors to succeed, the project of heterosexual identity is propelled into an endless repetition of itself (21)


This same pattern is expressed in art and specifically in Kerouac’s history. The tradition of realism in modern American literature (following World War I) established and internalized an ideal of what served as art, but this perfect concept does not exist in actuality. Just as heterosexuality would not need to anxiously perform itself over and over if it were the true origin, art would not need to continually be created throughout the centuries if the original could be attained. Thus, artists repeatedly attempt to perform the true originalthe heterosexualand always fall short. They copy a nonexistent original and inevitably fail because the original was only conceptualized through the arbitrary differentiation of what “should be” and what “should not be” art. In other words, just as the idea of heterosexuality was born because of the acknowledgement of and opposition to homosexuality, standards for art, whether they be proper prose or mimetic paintings, only exist because things were decided to be art or not be art.

            Art even mirrors the reverse causality found in gender expression. As Butler says, “…coherent gender, achieved through an apparent repetition of the same, produces as its effect the illusion of a prior and volitional subject” (24). Although we assume that the logic is, “I wear blue because I am a boy,” it is actually, “I am a boy because I wear blue, I wear blue, I wear blue.” We perform gender repeatedly until we internalize the cultural ideas surrounding those performances and justify all of our prior and following performances with that naturalization. The established signification structure that Kerouac entered into had been internalized, and he challenged this by repeatedly expanding what a certain form signified. Of course, Kerouac is neither the first or only artist to use run-ons or leave dependent clauses hanging as if they were complete sentences, nor is he the first to string together spontaneous thoughts onto the page. However, his project of On the Road, a piece so different from his earlier writing, offers a meaningful example of repeated defiance to expectations for English prose that ultimately helped expand artistic boundaries. If, as Butler argues, gender must be performed repeatedly through acts in order to be established, then Kerouac’s repeated performance of a new kind of signification at the structural level becomes particularly salient.

            But the nature of art as imitation of itself in the case of Kerouac diverges slightly from Butler’s argument. While performing heterosexuality is the unmarked standard accepted as natural for western ideas of gender, performing as the “other,” performing as the homosexual, performing as a poor rendition of the ideal, and then later being internalized as tradition is how Kerouac came to be culturally produced. In other words, before the works of contrary artists become as if they self-evidently belong to artistic tradition, they must become the stigmatized homosexual—the bad copy—and later be absorbed as another example of the heterosexual, rather than simply being yet another anxious performance of the heterosexual. While the perceptions revolving around the homosexual are never rendered otherless in the gender world, this development is necessary for artistic production—what constitutes art—to change.

            Those playing the homosexual understand that they cannot exist wholly independent of literary or artistic history. As T.S. Eliot says in “The Tradition and Individual Talent,” “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists…what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (5). In reacting to or opposing conventional forms and structures of expression, the artists rebel against their artistic moment from within their artistic world. They not only alter the art world by creating something new but also by fundamentally shifting the conceptual framework through which we view artistic tradition.

             Thus, Kerouac was well-versed in proper syntax and artistically aware of the examples of realistic, generally proper prose of authors he cites in Visions of Cody—Proust, Melville, Steinbeck, Hemingway. He could competently perform this idea of what art “should be”—imitating the heterosexual ideal. However, Kerouac shifts from this feeling of structure in literary work to a neoteric feeling of no structure or radically new structure and is subsequently othered by the literary community for this transition; Truman Capote openly derides Kerouac on David Susskind’s Open End, saying of Kerouac’s style, “It is not writing; it is only typing” (Grobel 32). Kerouac becomes the homosexual for the art world, deliberately rebelling against the norm, but, if reinclusion occurs for his art, then norms will have expanded to accept more experimental forms of expression. Capote’s questioning of Kerouac’s validity provides an instance in which art is culturally produced through its initial denial. Kerouac defies the expected structure, and Capote derides this performance of the heterosexual. However, ultimately Kerouac’s individual expansion of artistic parameters causes the overall artistic boundaries to bulge and shift to accept new forms.

           In terms of approach, Kerouac parallels a very specific aspect of Butler’s literary theory. As mentioned before, he can be considered the “other” or “homosexual” for the art community due to his expansion of the sign/signifier/signified triangle, but his method itself takes him a step beyond just acting as the bad copy—he becomes an exaggerated “structure of impersonation” (Butler 21), precisely like Butler’s drag queen. As Butler explains, “Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation” (21). The drag queen exaggerates the idea of femininity, and this radical rendering of a norm illuminates that it was nothing more than a baseless perception in the first place. In other words, we are always pretending our gender, and the drag queens simply pretend harder to show how much of a game the ideas “masculine” and “feminine” really are.

            Kerouac also goes beyond being the others in the art world and becomes the drag queen by literally exaggerating art. Kerouac writes an entire novel in three weeks, allegedly without pausing, that contains as much content as he could pour out of himself through language. His works exhibit a sense of immediacy, as if they aim to represent reality without the multiple layers of mediation required by usual syntax regulations. Even if Capote was correct and Kerouac merely types rather than writing with guidelines and formulas, the cultural production of new kinds of art through othering allowed “typing” to become art as well. Whereas other writers produce works with a familiar structure, Kerouac opposes himself to the expected by making On the Road an almost structure-less work. His sentences fail to consistently express complete thoughts, his independent clauses are strung together with commas, and Kerouac breaks through artistic boundaries until we must question the fundamental meaning of literary art. The drag queen makes us ask, does gender even exist? And likewise Kerouac makes us ask, does art even exist?

            Kerouac offers us an example of the cultural production of art through difference. First, he “others” himself by repeatedly defying convention. He expands the expected Saussurean signifier/signified relationship on a syntactic level; his iconic voice operates on exploding the form of the sentence, paragraph, chapter, and novel. However, recognizing the ways in which he differs fails to fully explain the reforming of artistic boundaries. Using Butler’s gender theory, we see how Kerouac’s opposition, his “othering” as the “homosexual,” becomes meaningful in the artistic world. Kerouac stylistically explodes what constitutes as structure, and this in turn explodes what constitutes as art.



Works Cited


Begnal, Michael H. "'I Dig Joyce': Jack Kerouac and Finnegans Wake." Philological Quarterly

77.2 (1998): 209. Print.

Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay

Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991. 13-29. Print.

Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace,

& World, 1950. 3-11. Print.

Grobel, Lawrence, and Truman Capote. Conversations with Capote. New York: New American

Library, 1985. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin. 2003. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. The Town and the City. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Print.



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