I. Language is the Enemy: A Revolution of Poets
One of the cliches of the turn-of-the-century avant-garde most regularly reasserted, even today, is that language is the enemy. One of the facts most often not noted is that this idea originated, for the most part, with poets, those very practitioners of language art who sought to question and explore their medium.The history of this idea has been well-documented, so I will only reiterate it briefly here in order to emphasize the role of poets in its inception and continued practice.
With roots in Romantic and Symbolist poetry, movements such as Italian Futurism, Russian Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism were led by their respective poets, F.T. Marinetti, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Kruchenykh. Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, and others, to explore language as an abstract medium. Although their expressed motives were often political and, with the exception of Marinetti, were political stances with which we feel some kinship, their practice resulted not in changing their impossibly war-torn world, but in aligning language with both the visual arts and with music in a relentless impulse toward abstraction, minimalism, and the void. Both philosophical analogies with concepts that had originated in the visual and aural media and the social life of the groups of artists (poets, visual artists, composers all joining together to exchange ideas) resulted in a wealth of possibilities which pushed poetry beyond its usual boundaries and helped to push all of the arts to dissolve their boundaries and move toward intermedia productions, many of which we now call "performance." In some ways, this merging of art media has been the most powerful heritage of the poet-instigators of the avant-garde.
Explorations of language as an abstract medium continued well after the 1930's. In France in the 1940's, the Lettrists set out to list and categorize a number of sounds made by the human voice and body. In the early 50s François Dufrene broke with the Lettrists and extended their way of working by using first the microphone and then the tape recorder. Following Dufrene, writers as diverse as Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidsieck, William Burroughs, and Brion Gysin began early experiments with the tape recorder that heralded the beginning of "poésie sonore”. This exploration of the human voice in conjunction with machine was evidenced all over Europe and found a home for many years at Fylkingen, Sweden.
Underlying all of this exploration is still the suspicion that language is dangerous. Paraphrasing Norman O. Brown, John Cage reminds us that
Syntax...is the arrangement of the army. As we move away from it, we demilitarize language. This demilitarization of language is conducted in many ways: a single language is pulverized; the boundaries between two or more languages are crossed; elements not strictly linguistic (graphic, musical) are introduced; etc. Translation becomes, if not impossible, unnecessary. Nonsense and silence are produced, familiar to lovers. We begin to actually live together, and the thought of separating doesn't enter our minds.
(Foreword, M)
Rearranging language, in the modernist tradition, seems to Cage (our great modernist poet) to have great potential for changing the world.
Because the history of groups such as the Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists is generally seen as part of the history of the visual arts, performance has been seen to have a history as acts of body not as acts of body and language. The physicality of language is certainly one of its aspects worth exploring, as evidenced in the work of artists such as Jean-Paul Curtay, Charles Stein (with George Quasha), Michael Peppe, Larry Wendt (both Peppe and Wendt have other types of discourse structures in their work such as narrative), and countless Industrial Culture groups (documented in the West Coast magazine Unsound). But what of the rest of language? Is it to be left unexplored? Is that a safe and proper treatment of the enemy?
II. The Unspeakable: Spiritual Path, Political Protest
The most useful article documenting and explaining the idea that language is the enemy is Susan Sontag's "The Aesthetics of Silence" (in Styles of Radical Will). In this article, which begins "Every era has to reinvent the project of 'spirituality' for itself...", Sontag compares the modern artist's attitudes toward language with that of the Christian mystic.
Traditionally, it has been through the religious vocabulary, with its meta-absolutes of "sacred" and "profane," "human" and "divine." that the disaffection with language itself has been charted. In particular, the antecedents of art's dilemmas and strategies are to be found in the radical wing of the mystical tradition…
At the center of the mystic experience, whether it be Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhist, Dionysian, etc., is the unspeakable. The mystic experience is characterized by physical asceticism, hallucinations (for the most part visual in nature), paradox (which the logic of language cannot solve), and by a merging or union with the absolute. This merging has been described by countless mystics; the medieval Christian Adam of Dryburgh, for example, explains:
We wish to talk about God, but we cannot say what He is, because we are unable to understand it, and what we cannot comprehend with our minds it follows that we cannot express in words.
(Adam's "eighth stage of meditation" in "Introduction", The Medieval Mystics of England, editor: Eric Colledge)
In The Scale of Perfection, Walter Hilton describes three ways of praying: 1. vocal prayer; 2. vocal prayer which is not "set, but follows the impulses of those who are in devotion." (a kind of improvised prayer); 3. prayer "which is only in the heart and is not vocal." Of the third kind of prayer, he writes: "The third kind of prayer is only in the heart, it is without words, and it comes through great peace of body and soul." (Hilton quotes from Colledge's The Medieval Mystics of England). Thus, not only is the experience of the spiritual impossible in words, but silence is valued as a positive sign of spiritual enlightenment in this tradition.
It should be noted that Sontag includes in her survey of artists who have explored silence (white paintings, black paintings, etc.), those who have done so through language, and quoting Novalis, she hints at a way out of the dead end of silence:
There is something strange in the acts of writing and speaking,... The ridiculous and amazing mistake people make is to believe they use words in relation to things.They are unaware of the nature of language- which is to be its own and only concern, making it so fertile and splendid a mystery. When someone talks just for the sake of talking he is saying the most original and truthful thing he can say.
Those who first declared language as their enemy grappled with it in this way. It was their enemy, their mystery, their medium; through it they explored that which is unspeakable.
Can this exploration continue? Sontag prophetically notes that "silence is likely to remain a viable notion for modern art and consciousness only if deployed with a considerable, near systematic irony." We hear this irony in the despair and laughter of contemporary performance artists who use noise, babble, appropriated and culturally mediated language in their work.
In her recent article "Imploring Silence", (High Performance), Kristine Stiles reiterates the avant-garde's plea for silence. Rather than seeing this plea as an alignment with a spiritual tradition, Stiles carefully documents the political nature of the plea: "as order crumbled and society successively babbled its confused, meaningless rhetoric, the performed arts repeatedly surrendered discourse to the power of the 'act'." Stiles' history of these acts is accurate, but exists purely in the context of the history of the visual arts. In fact, her arguments are tinged with a kind of provincialism that defines "performance art" as something that came out of the visual arts and should stay within its boundaries. Thus, she argues:
Performance art, with its origins in primeval essence, possesses special powers of transgression that can uniquely shatter the norms of post-industrial, electronic discourse exposing silence and corporeal experience to be the truly complicated languages of communication and expression that they are. These ancient codes, especially when employed by visual artists accustomed to communicating through non-verbal means, must become agents against the diseased rhetoric of our culture, circling round its death before the apocalyptic count-down.
I have no argument with the concept of silence and corporeal experience as complicated languages, but I wonder why no one has viewed them as suspicious. In an age often described as one of heightened visual awareness (albeit through electronic means), that which we experience through our eyes has become just as suspicious if not more so than that which we take in through our ears. What is left? The body in pain, the scream of anguish, projections of the visual and aural that t.v. has inured us to, our reaction often one of disbelief? Stiles weakens her argument when she asserts that she isn't arguing against all language in performance:
It is neither silence, nor the abandonment of that rare experience, humor, that is advocated. Neither is it a call for an anachronistic return to primal behavior befitting a time when humanity lived in fear of nothing but animals like itself... The purity and strength of language remains embedded in its ethical and transformative capabilities; and our performative acts would demonstrate the results of finely-honed intellectual beliefs (philosophical system originating in language.) We would only abandon the use of our deformed, co-opted discourse that perpetuates our equally distorted social order...
Stiles also seems to be arguing that language in performance since 1973 is linked to a fascination with entertainment that has perhaps soiled the purity of the fine arts. Here we might question just what kind of verbal utterances are possible in the model Stiles recommends. Since her central example is the brilliant performance work of Paul McCarthy, who uses every type of verbal utterance from grunts to phrases to narratives, from highly original poetic material to ironically delivered cliches, we begin to wonder just what Stiles means by "our deformed, co-opted discourse."
More importantly, what Stiles neglects to notice is that all languages are suspicious, subject to misinterpretation, carriers of lies and betrayal. It does no good to plead for silence, to single out words as carriers of deceit. We must examine all of the languages available to us, verbal, visual, corporeal, silent, with the same suspicion and distance. Only in this way, do we begin to explore the human dilemma, the paradox of language that contains both our destruction and our salvation.
III. Language is the Enemy: Unexamined Codes
I asked a young friend of mine why he had spray-painted a swastika on a wall. He explained that it was because he was against it.
In their "visual landscape" called "Renaissance Radar," Alan and Bean Finneran (of the theater company Soon 3) present three murders. The victims are all a nude woman murdered by elaborate technical devices constructed in such a way that the audience can see that the murders are fake. In press releases and interviews, the Finnerans explained that this piece was about the "idea of murder and violence as product, especially the illusionary product of the California movie industry." (quoted from Theodore Shank's American Alternative Theater). This stated exposure and criticism of violence and illusion in the movies is belied by the images and soundtrack of the piece in two ways. First, the murder devices are fascinating and beautiful in themselves; the whole piece is permeated by a skilled used of technology. Second, a movie of the ocean is projected on a screen while a woman tells an interrupted narrative: she is walking on the beach; suddenly she feels that she is being followed; she feels afraid; she screams. This segment is repeated several times, underlining the murders. Many of the audience members, especially women, felt this piece as an attack; the images and sounds were haunting. Yet, when asked about the use of violence against women in this piece, the Finnerans insisted that what they were presenting was "visual" and that they did not feel aligned with the images of violence in the piece.
This attitude among the directors of West Coast "visual theater" leads to a disturbing body of work. Groups like Soon 3, Nightfire, and George Coates Performance Works present technically dazzling and often stunning visual work. The performances tend to be slick, professional, and sometimes beautiful. The groups are against the use of words because they feel that words will limit the possible meanings of the work. When they use words at all, they use them unexamined, often denying any responsibility for their meaning. Sometimes the results, as in "Renaissance Radar," are frightening and reprehensible; more often, as in Coates' work, the results are inane. In all cases, this unexamined use of verbal utterance proves what the creators of these works believed all along that language, the enemy, isn't worth their time. However, this self-fulfilling prophecy backfires because the visual codes, also unexamined, betray them.
IV. The Unspeakable: That Which Lies Inside the Speaking
There has been a great deal of very strong performance work that depends on language. Yet, these works are not naive to the dangers of language: their creators know that the enemy lurks within the very words they use, but they also believe that through words the unspeakable is attained. This is the other side of the mystic coin. Some examples:
The Wooster Group presents their version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible in LSD Part 1 by speeding through the text at a break-neck pace. Ron Vawter, as the prosecutor, speaks through his lines, reproducing the intonation patterns of the original without their sense, getting sense through those patterns. Since Miller's play was in part a critique of and warning against the McCarthy trials, the Wooster Group's version seems particularly apt. At Salem, at the Congressional Hearings, and in countless contemporary political moments, language controls and betrays. The formal elements of performance in LSD Part 1 becomes a powerful metaphor for the dangers of language; this play hits with incredible and visceral emotional force because the audience interprets the babble not as language with meaning, but as a sign of language itself. By pushing listeners to interpret at this higher logical type, the Wooster Group is able to get its point across without risking the opposite interpretation.
In his current monologue, "Swimming to Cambodia," Spalding Gray tells stories about his experience as an actor in the movie "The Killing Fields". These stories, often humorous or gruesome, are interspersed with facts about the self-genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge. In this piece, Gray is Everyman; his stories reflect the views of his audience with all of their prejudices, their wish to forget or ignore the violence that doesn't directly affect them; their prurience, racism, sexism. At first, Gray talks fast, as though he'll never have time in the two-part 3 hour piece to tell it all or tell it right. As Everyman, he's shocked by much of what he's seen and titillated and can't find the right tone or the right words. At the end of the piece, as he tells a dream, he explains that he's telling the wrong story to someone in the dream because he cannot tell the real story. Inside the stories, facts, admissions of stupidity and petty obsessions, he hopes to communicate that which he cannot say.
Leeny Sack sits on a bed wearing huge earphones; she's translating. In her bilingual performance "The Survivor and The Translator", Sack speaks the Polish of her grandmother, survivor of the Nazi death camps, and her own English, child of survivors who must try to translate their experience into her own typical American life. She has stories to tell that aren't her own (in Polish we hear "Dachau", "crematoria" and other words we recognize though we know no Polish) and her own stories to reconcile with those of the survivors (in English she tells us about highschool, about wanting to be liked by boys, about weddings.) The metaphor of translator allows Sack to explore language in many ways, (through mistranslation, sound, narrative, jokes, etc.) and she does this brilliantly, while she speaks the unspeakable in some way that makes sense to us.
V. Language is a Medium
Awkward, I felt, at first, as if a stranger to my own tongue
(Peter Rose. Secondary Currents)
Acts of language must intercept meaning, intercede with meaning, or interact with meaning in complex ways. We must both be ourselves speaking and watch ourselves speaking. We must listen. One of the most exciting artists working today with language is the filmmaker/performance artist Peter Rose. His film Secondary Currents can almost be seen as a compendium of possible experiments with language on all levels from the phonetic to the semantic and narrative. There are no images in Secondary Currents; we see a black screen with white subtitles. These subtitles translate a strange voice that seems to speak in something like Swedish, Italian, Japanese, and gibberish. The narrator, whose voice we see instead of hear, hears a strange voice, a voice he eventually imagines as his own.
    so subtle
was the imagined conjugation
    of our tongues

I was able to discern multiple
meanings from single sounds

intuit some universal language

whose boundless homophonous inflections

from the keen surface of reason
and faded into the pale mansion
    of thought,

we abandoned our intention
and lost ourselves to language…
Thus, Rose's narrator begins a strange voyage into language as pure sound and as pure visual image. Yet, unlike the turn-of-the-century sound poets and concrete poets, Rose constantly intercepts the purity of sound and image with meaning. Using narrative devices and witty jokes, Rose forces the viewer to consistently struggle with meaning at the same time as the visual image and sound become more and more chaotic in a final great ironic entropy.
Rose's work and the work of artists such as Theresa Cha (Dictée), Mary Kelly (Post-partum Document), David Antin, Carolee Schneemann, Eleanor Antin, Armand Schwerner, Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, Rachel Rosenthal (to name a few) suggest that visual artists and poets share a common task: to examine the mystery of language with passion and distance. Metaphors of translation, imaginary characters, and abortive attempts at storytelling often characterize this work. For we cannot take language at face value. "If words are to be uttered," writes Theresa Cha, "they would be from behind a partition." That irony that Susan Sontag recommends is everywhere in evidence; after all, language is one of the best vehicles by which we can say exactly what we mean to oppose and at the same time make clear our position.
The tradition of verbal performance is as old as Homer and there are many cultures even today in which to be a man or a woman of words is to be wise and powerful, to hold the history and destiny of a people on your tongue. We have only to listen to voices from the Black American community to hear a highly innovative verbal, performative culture, a place of poetry and storytelling. (And incidentally the only such culture speaking English). There is much to be learned from the poets of rap, scratch, the blues, the pulpit, and the street.
Since all codes are equally suspicious, perhaps by their very nature, we must be responsible for our acts, visions, and words. Language is a medium, capable of complex and intense expressive power. Only if we respect it and grapple with its inherent dangers can we speak and act as adults in a world where children are to be seen and not heard.