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by Laura U. Marks
Mute GodsLaura U. Marks
Civilizations are built on agreements about what is figure and what is ground. Languages determine what merits attention and what should recede into the background. In a highly visual society, images embody these filtering qualities. Alexia: Metaphor and Word Blindness suggests there is not a great difference between word and image; rather, both arise from gesture. If the body is the ground, gestures arising from it become figures, at various removes from the body: the pointing finger, the spoken word, the diagram... The argument of this video essay is that meaning has a prediscursive and synthetic quality that cannot be reduced to the symbolic.
Tran T. Kim-Trang’s “Blindness Series” is always working the border between the representable and the unrepresentable, or, we might say, between figure and ground. Within it Alexia is perhaps the work that most slips away from the visible, while asking questions about how meaning arises from figuration. There is very little to see: diagrams, droll sketches, and a haptic close-up of hands laboriously manipulating a punch label machine. These recede from view, in a technique Tran has developed throughout the series of frustrating vision, withdrawing objects from perception. Many of the works in the series express a particular embodiment—Aletheia privileges touch, Ekleipsis simulates hysterical blindness. For its part, Alexia seems sleepy, like a person who is trying to speak while still only half-awake. The notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” arrive with deliberation, one by one. Tran’s voice-over, slightly disguised as usual, is a low murmur that barely allows the words to escape. Black-and-white drawings of visual metaphors float groggily into view. Half-seen, as though through a veil, the punch label machine cranks out words with difficulty, as though pulling them from a half-conscious mind. “DO ... NOT ... MISTAKE ... THE ... FINGER ... FOR ... THE ... MOON.” Alexia is dense with concepts that hover just below its somnolent surface. Thus its form is a metaphor for a particular human dilemma.
Alexia plays a kind of sonic hide-and-seek. Tran utters complex quotations from Wittgenstein, Vico, Wheelwright, and other thinkers in the aforementioned deadpan murmur. Arriving to the surface of the video, the ideas burst like bubbles. Yet above and below the dry words, the grave, deliberate notes of the “Moonlight Sonata” seem to embody the sound of thought. This sonic contrast is one of the hints Tran drops that what appears to be ground is always ready to yield figure, while what appears to be figure is always on the verge of dissolving back into ground.
The charming, troubling sketches in Alexia are supposed to illustrate the intuitive quality of metaphor, both visual and verbal. Three objects or scenes, merged and indistinguishable, resolve into focus with superimposed titles naming them, inviting a mental game. What is there in common between a fish, a winding river, and a snake? Between a woman with jewels, a city street, and a city lit up at night? Intuitive connections surge up that take much less time to realize than to explain. Tran lifted these from a book called Understanding Visual Metaphors that seems to beg its own question. Apparently these sets of images were shown to participants for 90 seconds, first without words, then with the text description as in the video. Participants had to pick the two that were most similar. Usually, of course, they did much better when the descriptions were shown. The verbal metaphors spark the brain, but for me it is the goofy drawings illustrating them that incite emergent meaning through their idiosyncratic plasticity. The relationship between a watering can, a woman with long hair, and a hanging plant is more evident in the sinuous line used to describe long locks and dangling vines. And whatever there is in common between a drowsy person, a “droopy” house, and a living room must be argued by the biomorphic drawings. These funny metaphors remind me of the thought process of schizophrenics, with their word plays and canny pattern recognition. Schizophrenics enjoy meaning at the expense of communication: they extricate figures where normal people perceive nothing and flatten into ground what normal people accept as figures. People with regular brain function can also enjoy the intuitive connection that precedes, grounds, language, in the game of metaphor. Thus the metaphors also illustrate the struggle between cliché and invention.
Human communication is a fall from grace. Tran delicately tenders Giambattista Vico’s fable of the origin of language, which came into being like a thread stretched between gods and humans. Vico claims that gesture arose before speech, as well as spoken word and visual image, and that it was their prototype. Thus “pointing with the index finger is the most rudimentary form of signing.” Closest to the source of meaning in Vico’s fable are the gods, who communicate in hieroglyphs but remain largely mute. Then come heroes, who speak in metaphors and are halfway between mute and articulate. Then humans, who speak in prose and are entirely articulate.
So then language evolved from gesture to speech, from poetry to prose. “Metaphors have their source ... in their long-lost mythic capacity, the sense of the ultimate unity of internal and external experience.” This is spoken over diagrams of the development of alphabets from expressive glyphs to regularized symbols. There is certainly something ancient about signs that seem to have come into contact with the thing they represent, something that presupposes a connection between world, body, and language. Maybe signs were born as mimetic and gradually became more symbolic. As the poet-philosopher Gongsun Long (Kong Souen-Long) noted centuries ago in his “Discourse on Pointing at Things”, language tends to peel the meaning away from its objects—or as the Zen saying goes, “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Vico’s fable of the birth of language invokes a time when words and deeds were inseparably linked; humans’ fall from grace, he suggests, is to have lost that intimate, material core of language.
While humans have become increasingly talkative, the gods have become mute. A strange thing about our species' language is that the more it carries out its function of precise description, of crowding the universe with the verbal counterpart for every atom of existence—the more it does this, the more we become aware that realms of experience continue to eclipse the bounds of language. Lately it seems that language, and perhaps particularly the English language, is being deployed for infernal purposes. Terms for the gods and sweet emotions are twisted to generate names of patent drugs. Phrases and ditties that populate each English-thinking unconsciousness are being copyrighted so that we have to pay a corporation to use them. And the language of empire continues to invert the meanings of peace (war), democracy (plutocracy), and security (apartheid), among others.
We might believe, with the maverick neuroscientist Julian Jaynes, that the voices of the gods heard by Odysseus and others are no more than communication from one brain chamber to the other. But I would prefer to pretend with Vico that it is the gods themselves that gave us the infinite ground from which we might tentatively pluck figures--words, images, sounds, meanings. And confronted with the visual cacophony of petrified, useless words we humans have created, bristling like a forest of swords, the gods have retreated.
Yet metaphor, for Vico, like the mimetic capacity, for Walter Benjamin, remains the trace of godly grace in human language. A metaphor is a vestige of the mimetic capacity. Metaphors often originate in the body, where we feel the connection between the fish, the winding river it swims in, and the snake that wiggles like the winding river. Despite our fall, we can imagine that an echo of language’s divine capacity remains in profane language—when the gods pluck the taut thread of language, humans feel it reverberate. Or to speak in Vico’s secular terms—as these three languages arose simultaneously, “for of course it was humans who imagined the gods,” Tran quotes dryly—even as humans segregated poetic language from the prosaic, we perfumed our quotidian with the occasional whiff of poetry. Poetry is waiting to pop out at us from the most prosaic description. Consider this exchange between two of my family members.
Jan: Last night I saw a coyote.
Bill: Are you sure it was a coyote? Their rear end is higher in the air than their front end.
Jan: This one was even.
The poetry straining to emerge from prosaic language often finds the best escape routes in translation. For the shift from one language to another reveals the uneasy, thrilling space where meanings lift off words and attach themselves to things, where metaphors are more truthful than prose. My VAPE instructions, translated from Italian, transform my mosquito-smitten chamber into a loose space waltzing with the open air.
Each VAPE MAT ‘E’ plate is effective for 8 to 10 hours without loosing its effectiveness. It kills common and Tiger mosquitoes present in the room and keep them away when in the open air (balconies – porches – etc.)
Alexia approaches its second subject, word blindness, indirectly. A fictional character, while researching this condition among people with brain damage who can perceive individual letters but not words, or vice versa, writes with increasing alarm that he is beginning to lose his own ability to read. He finds he prefers to have words spelled on the palm of his hand. Tran mimics word blindness for the viewer with sheets of typed text whose deteriorated characters are almost impossible to read, or papers that are sluiced with water, rinsing the words away. This combination calls to mind Helen Keller’s learning to read when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, held her hand under the pump and spelled WATER on her palm. Keller learned writing in the most mimetic way, by learning to associate the object of knowledge and the symbol for it, water, through touch. Children now who have trouble learning the alphabet are sometimes taught to read using letters and associated objects they can touch, smell, and eat.
So the mimetic source of language tends to surge up again when its symbolic quality is weakened. At such times we remember to what degree the mimetic is the ground of the symbolic. And—in what is a tender point for this work and this series on blindness that are so steeped in ideas—the mimetic seems finally to be what makes life worth living. In the last words of the video, Tran reads softly the modest researcher’s writing in his journal: “I am thankful that my ability to read music is not lost. For what would life be without music making?”
By blurring language’s figurative quality and focusing on the mimetic ground from which it arose, Alexia invites a reenchantment of language. Not a refusal of language—for after all, most people want to communicate with each other and do not envy the schizophrenic’s isolated inventiveness—but a readjustment that would move us a bit closer to those imagined gods.
Laura U. Marks is a scholar, theorist, and programmer of independent and experimental media arts. She works on experimental cinema, the media arts of the Arab world, Islamic genealogies of Western philosophy, and the embodied, process-based analysis of information culture. Her newest book is Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (MIT Press, 2015); she is also the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke, 2000), Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minnesota, 2002), and Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art ( MIT, 2010). She has curated programs of experimental media for festivals and art spaces worldwide, including the Robert Flaherty Seminar in 2015. She teaches in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, where she is Grant Strate University Professor.