SBC

Language: a Diverse and Expansive Collectivity that Needs Constant Tending

Raymond Boisjoly,

Raymond Boisjoly, “The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo” (2012)

The spirit of No Reading After the Internet, in its reading aloud-ness, is to approach texts improvisationally. Instead of the regular acts of scholarship that characterize attending university classes—having done the required readings—or the preparedness on display at artists’ talks, No Reading constructs a triangulated relationship between artworks, texts and readers that plays out in real time. Artworks become a way of understanding the texts, and texts a way of understanding the artworks, so that neither text nor artwork are approached as having some true meaning to be ascertained, but rather that meaning emerges through a dynamic encounter generated by being in a space, close to each other, contemplating the shapes made when setting things in relation. At SBC Gallery, as part of A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, Chelsea Vowel and I hosted an iteration of No Reading, taking on her essay “The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated.” First published in FUSE Magazine, the essay was set in relationship to Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie. Both deal with language, though where Hiller’s film is a haunting portrait of dead and dying languages, Vowel’s essay advocates for the learning of languages, specifically those native to wherever one may find one’s self. From learning to loss, somewhere in the middle, we gathered together, spoke to one another, transformed the written word through voice, listened as Vowel voiced Cree words and puzzled out the pronunciation of the Kanien’keha:ka people, on whose traditional lands the city of Montréal sits.

The not-knowing of No Reading is usually in relation to the ideas in a text, but this gathering felt different, because though we were reading Vowel’s essay, we all already bear a relationship to language. In Montréal, a robustly bilingual city, this movement between languages is banal. It’s the every day. The title of the exhibition, A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, points to the things that language is not, evinced in many different ways in Hiller’s film. Language is not a record of speaking. Language is not vocabulary lists. Language is not scientific deconstructions of vocal patterns. Language is a diverse and expansive collectivity that needs constant tending. And it’s a morphing thing. At one point in Hiller’s film, a Cajun French speaker talks about popcorn balls, and it is my own ignorance or romanticism that places language loss in the past and thus registers this mention as a strange step out of time. Popcorn balls? I know popcorn balls! This is the stuff of my life, and yet I read these words and am jolted because of the assumptions I bring to listening to these voices, that they are distant ghosts. But they are not. This loss that Hiller documents is on-going and present-tense. 

Why care about language loss? Because languages represent unique ways of knowing the world. When languages are lost, so are their specific insights into the relationship between being alive and living. In her essay, Vowel suggests that it is possible to come around to the unique wisdom of specific languages through other languages, but that it takes work. A lot of work. But when the last speaker of a language dies, no anchor to the knowing can be maintained. It is doubtful that those paradigms of knowing can be recouped, despite work, when there is no living connection to the knowledge embedded within a particular language. Language structures movement, sight, sound. A straight-forward example is the observation, often made in the field of science, that the distilled results from an experiment are directly related to the questions asked within the initial parametres. How we think is determined, in part, by language, and what we think about determines what we see. Conversely, when we learn a language, new kinds of thought become possible. A simple example in the move from English to French is the way that gendered nouns propose new (if not necessarily substantiated) relationships between objects, if only as a prompt for consideration of what strange bedfellows certain things make. (When organizing bookshelves by colour, for instance, one can’t help but ask why so many philosophical texts sit in the orange-red colour range.) 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the proposition between language and knowing is taken to extremes, as when the ruling government attempts to control thought by constricting the language. Does an experience of freedom depend on having a word to name it? The villains of 1984 have a stake in the constructed nature of social reality, and there’s a term for this idea that language influences one’s worldview: linguistic relativity. In its strong form, language determines thought and therefore linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. In its weak form, linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour. [1] Perhaps it is to betray my politics to admit that I think that more ways of knowing are better than fewer.

In the context of the exhibition, that afternoon of No Reading…, not only were we on Kanien’keha:ka land, but we were gathered around a table made from deconstructed fences, and while there is a utopic gesture at play in turning something used to keep people apart into a place to gather, tables are also places where hard conversations are had. People break-up sitting around tables. People throw wine into other people’s faces. Food is launched in the air. Legal disputes are settled in back rooms, around tables. The conversation that afternoon was suffused with a generous spirit, but we were talking around a table, about language, in Québec. And as it stands, an upcoming provincial election has prompted some political parties to instrumentalize language as a force of opposition, proposing once again the possibility of Québec separating from Canada under the rubric of sovereignty.

In English-speaking Canada, the political use of “sovereignty” in Québec is proposed as a synonym for separation and it is precisely this debate/proposal that has been raised again. But the colonial reality of Canada is erased in the confrontation between French and English. French/English relationships have not ever played out on a blank slate. When the French arrived, when the English followed, there were people and cultures and languages long entrenched in this land. When sovereignty is used as a euphemism for separation, the reality of aboriginal title is skirted around. And yet, if the claims for sovereignty rest on ethical arguments, then the reality of aboriginal title must be addressed. What if the political climate in Québec was leveraged for an accounting of colonization and the collective and intermingled sovereignty of all cultures in Québec? The colonial reality of Canada must impact these discussions, in Québec and elsewhere. The inclusion of Vowel’s essay is one attempt to confront language and colonization in Canada, within the space of the exhibition, using translation as another way of understanding negotiation.

Above, an image from Raymond Boisjoly’s The Writing Lesson series. When Vowel’s essay was first published in FUSE, it accompanied an image folio of Boisjoly’s work, which Editorial Director Gina Badger described as “[writing] Indigenous languages and histories into the practice of text-based post-conceptual art. Each image is a black-metal-styled graphic presentation of a place name with an Indigenous origin. Reinforcing Indigenous histories and knowledge of the land through both language and pop culture, Boisjoly’s project offers an example of the resurgence Vowel describes.” [2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

[2] Badger, Gina. “Survivors and Survivalists,” FUSE Magazine 36-3, Summer 2013, page 2.

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2 thoughts on “Language: a Diverse and Expansive Collectivity that Needs Constant Tending

  1. Pingback: Chelsea Vowel’s “The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated” | No Reading After the Internet

  2. Gertrude Stein in Composition as Explanation: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.”

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