Voice and language are different but entwined things. Roland Barthes defines the difference between language and voice as I understand it. Language is a semiotic system of understanding and being understood. Through language we describe the meaning, feeling, experience etc. Voice is emotive. Voice conveys meaning, feeling, experience etc. The difference here is subtle but distinct and Barthes illustrates it through relation to music. It is the difference between pheno-song (language - "everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression, everything which it is customary to talk about [in musical critisisim]"(2)) and geno-song (voice - "the space from where significations germinate from 'the very language and its materiality' - in a very simple word but which must be taken seriously the diction of the language."(3)). Whilst Barthes is speaking about music and, by proxy speech, I feel this is equally transferable to text. Diction is something that can be used spectacularly in a text, especially in dialogue and poetry but not exclusively. Be it through use of punctuation and phrasing; the exposition of stereotype, location or status through dialect; and sometimes most effectively the avoidance of adjectives allowing a reader to draw their own voice from the character. The heart of what I am getting at here is that we can produce voice through our writing that shows us, the writer, as the human we are.
Whilst the tool of the voice may be widely appreciated in prose, poetry and the production of textual artwork it seems to be something often frowned upon by institution and academia. Use of the voice is often seen as evidence of emotion. In something of a Victorian hangover, institution and academia often seem to view this as evidence of weakness, inability to come to rational decisions and hysteria. It ultimately is a gatekeeping tool which speaks to all of the misogynist and colonialist narratives that institution and academia still seem wholly wedded to despite their protestations to the contrary. The insistence on evidencing academic skill through the use of language; the correct, approved, accredited, non-colloquial language displaying your dedication to ironing out the creases in your personality, the control of your emotions, the ice in your blood. Your level of linguistic mastery, or conformity, tells the gatekeepers everything they need to know - because, of course, those without a home-counties accent, perfect diction and the ability to never 'umm' or 'err' are morons...
This brings me to Lish Journal whose first volume, released in December 2020 (4), I came across this week. Edited by Evelina Hägglund and Adrian Olas, Lish is a "contemporary journal the Foreigner's English" where Foreigner's English is viewed as "the language that belongs to and is shaped by all who speak it"(5). This is the language I want to speak. A collective and limitless version of English with boundless voice.
In reading the first text in the collection, The Return of Sonafabitches by Boris Buden (6), I hit upon a connection to the relationship between language and voice, institution and academia, and me. Buden frames a distinction between classical English (academic, approved, certified, bonafide) and English-as-lingua-franca (ELF, Foreigners English, and I would cautiously suggest heavily dialect influenced English) in the same way as that between classical Latin and vulgar Latin. This is both concerning class (classical Latin being spoken by the elite classici, and vulgar Latin by the proletarius) and longevity (one is a dead language and one morphed into a large portion of the languages of southern and western Europe)(7).
"This profound normative difference between “classical” and “vulgar”, together with its social genealogy i.e., class origin, strangely applies to the relation between the two Englishes. Whilst it has indeed achieved a high level of independency from “Classical English“—so high that it can be considered a separate linguistic entity, “a whole other language”, as Manard put it—the “Vulgar English” has not yet established its full sovereignty. Like in a linguistic remake of Hegel’s master-slave dialectics, it has got stuck with its “classical” counterpart in a relation of mutual dependence, however, without challenging the common hierarchical framework and its subordinate position within it."(8)
In the quote above I think is the key point. I would like to preface this by saying I'm not suggesting that English-as-a-native-language speakers should colonise English-as-lingua-franca. I do, however, believe there is a bunch to be learned from it in terms of how we treat language, how we treat others in language, how we express language and generally just being a bit more chill and accepting on all fronts. Buden goes on to challenge the hierarchy of native - non-native language users and call for "non-native speakers of all languages, unite!"(9). Perhaps this, the text and the collection more generally resonate with me because I am also a non-native speaker (of Swedish as opposed to English). I understand the complications and confusions. I have a constant feeling of inadequacy and frustration in Swedish. I have hit some of the roadblocks that not being fluent and not being a native speaker can throw up. But you know what? I'm quite content in my vulgar English (though this text is probably a little more on the classical side I'll admit) and I'll grow content in my vulgar Swedish. I intend to revel in it since these forms of the language are more flexible, malleable, dynamic and frankly fun to use!
Buden closes the text with the Latin word translatio;"from the Roman times up until its early modern usage bore a double sense: a linguistic conveyance or transfer and a “carrying or removing from one place to another”(10) - this could be metaphorical or physical. "translation “involved a wandering beyond the enclosure of property into the foreign, the distant, the alien.” (11). This sentence, I think, is beautiful. For me, whilst this is framed through the right to use and ownership of English as a language in Buden's text, there is something in that sentence that speaks so much to the acceptance and use of voice also. So much that speaks to the root issue of accepting that people are different. People think different things and have different things to offer. Language of course shouldn't be owned by any one group. The human capacity for producing a semiotic system of communication has gone through so many changes, even just within the past century, that it would be ridiculous to try. Whilst defined structures of course help in this there is still so much in the voice that transcends those bounds and necessities. I don't need to be fluent in Czech or Urdu to infer meaning from the qualities, tonalities or patterns of voice used by a speaker. The same extends to the non-human animals we share our environments with. The esoteric verbal characteristics, the diction, is translatable, regardless of complete understanding of the syntax.
What I'm getting at in a roundabout way is that from an institutional perspective, and from the perspective of an AL&SO project or organisation there should be total acceptance of voice as well as language. Whilst the imperfections supposedly present in English-as-lingua-franca, vulgar English, dialect, colloquialism, non-native speech or whatever other formation academia and institution may take umbrage with as inappropriate or unprofessional, it's the reality. In this sense, working out how to hear and understand these formations in the remit of voice, is key in developing accessible, representative, approachable and relevant programming and relationships with the audience.
There seems to be an interest in direct interaction with communities and audiences from funders, critics and various cultural structures currently. Open calls at A Tale of A Tub (Rotterdam) and Lofoten International Art Festival (Norway) amongst others in recent months exhibit a desire for dialogue and engagement directly with the communities surrounding them, but, to do that there has to be a concerted effort to listen to those voices. Ever astute, The White Pube have called this out in their current billboard installations in London and Liverpool, 'Ideas for a New Art World'. Number 003 reads: "Curators should ask the public what they want to see and what they think galleries and museums should be used for"(12). It seems obvious, and many institutions would probably protest that they do this through public programming and visitor surveys and analytics. The problem though comes back to voice again. The voices that are heard when institutions ask these questions are often the voices who already feel included and represented. Other voices might be written off as messy, colloquial, unappreciative, uneducated because they don't fit into an 'appropriate format', ie. something the institute already has planned. There are hierarchies wrapped up in this inability or unwillingness to hear. Whilst I can understand a desire to produce the shows you want to produce, that meet your interests, push your agenda and valorise your position as a curator; what is that achieving outside of personal gain? I am not suggesting that all output should be produced by a community committee, but there has to be engagement with those surrounding your project. We have to make contact and find out what needs and desires are if you intend to fulfil them, not assume what those needs and desires are.
A set of baby steps towards this from an institutional perspective might include working more collaboratively with other institutions in their geographic vicinity. Working to produce collaborative programs, share resources (material and intellectual) and listening to one another to develop a community on that level can form a good first step to then reaching out to the other communities which surround the institution. In engaging those communities, go to them, find out what they need, explicitly invite them in, involve them in the conversation and listen to their voicenot just their language to find the things they are passionate about. These ideas tie with and are informed by the ideas in The Care Manifesto (13), written by The Care Collective and released 2020. Specifically, the section Caring Communities (14) and the four main factors that The Care Collective identify contributing to a caring community: mutual support, space to care, sharing stuff and democracy.
Care, respect and acceptance of voice, and the emotion that is tied to voice, are super important factors in developing AL&SO project or just in being a nicer person, to be honest. In being conscious of biases that may arise from unfamiliarity with a specific voice, confusions relating to linguistic imperfections and discomfort in dealing with emotional responses we can start to overturn them. Communication is a two-way street and we have to work to make sure that we are understanding as well as being understood. As AL&SO organisations, projects and institutions we have a certain responsibility to those who do choose to give their time and energy to communicate with us to make sure we are expending at least equal effort in understanding them. These are tools that can then be used to actually enact some of these expanded community-driven programming aspirations in more effective and inclusive ways.
(1) Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana. 1977. pp179
(2) ibid. pp182
(3) ibid. pp182-183
(4) Lish Journal. Hägglund, E. & Olas, A. (eds). Vol.1. issue 1, December 2020. URL: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IZGINgcupdsKssG_U9DJsaJLr5eExyJy/view (accessed 2020.01.28)
(5) Burn, S., Hägglund, E. & Olas, A. Lish Journal. About: https://www.lishjournal.com/pages/Page_2 (accessed 2020.01.28)
(6) Buden, Boris. The Return of Sonafabitches: On Vernaculars, Properties, Translations and the Language of the Future. Lish Journal, vol.1, issue 1, December 2020. pp16-39. URL: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IZGINgcupdsKssG_U9DJsaJLr5eExyJy/view (accessed 2020.01.28)
(7) ibid. pp23.
(8) ibid. pp24.
(9) ibid. pp36.
(12) de la Puente, G. & Muhammad, Z. The White Pube. 2021. Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/CKilkm7ldLH/ (accessed 2020.01.28)
(13) Chatzidakis, A., Hakim, J., Littler, J., Rottenberg, C. & Segal, L. The Care Manifesto. London: Verso. 2020.
(14) ibid. pp45-58.
Joe Rowley - Jan 2021
The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.
Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.