Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Doing things with words

Words are peculiar things, and Jill Walker has been on to some good stuff lately.

For example, Jenny Holzer does interesting things with fleeting words and moving concepts:

abstraction is a type of decadence | confusing yourself is a way to stay honest | disgust is the appropriate response to most situations | habitual contempt doesn't reflect a finer sensibility | myth can make reality more intelligible | savor kindness because cruelty is always a possibility later | stasis is a dream state | the idiosyncratic has lost its authority | you are a victim of the rules you live by | you are responsible for constituting the meaning of things | your oldest fears are the worst ones

This reminds me of Barbara Kruger's work - although her explicitly feminist position resonates a bit more with me:

tell us something we don't know | you construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men | you invest in the divinity of the masterpiece | your comfort is my silence | your gaze hits the side of my face | your manias become science | we will undo you | we won't play nature to your culture | who do you think you are?

Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays seem to capture a bit more violence:

DON'T TALK DOWN TO ME. DON'T BE POLITE TO ME. DON'T TRY TO MAKE ME FEEL NICE. DON'T RELAX. I'LL CUT THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE. YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON. YOU THINK I'M AFRAID TO REACT. THE JOKE'S ON YOU. I'M BIDING MY TIME, LOOKING FOR THE SPOT. YOU THINK NO ONE CAN REACH YOU, NO ONE CAN HAVE WHAT YOU HAVE. I'VE BEEN PLANNING WHILE YOU'RE PLAYING. I'VE BEEN SAVING WHILE YOU'RE SPENDING. THE GAME IS ALMOST OVER SO IT'S TIME YOU ACKNOWLEDGE ME. DO YOU WANT TO FALL NOT EVER KNOWING WHO TOOK YOU?

And Shelley Jackson takes a different approach again:

Writer Shelley Jackson invites participants in a new work entitled SKIN: a story to be tattooed on readers' bodies, one word at a time ... The text will be published nowhere else, and ... the full text will be known only to participants, who may, but need not choose to establish communication with one another...

From this time on, participants will be known as "words". They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

Jill writes: "I don't think I'll be getting a tattoo myself but I love the idea of this story, and of words that have become flesh. I even love the fact that I'll never read the story, though perhaps one day I might meet one of the words."

Indeed.

Language is fascinating. After all, words do things and speech acts - albeit in limited ways. But mostly I like thinking about the relationships between words, contexts and who we can - and cannot - be.

A mundane, but personal, example might be the joy I feel when with gay male friends. You see, I feel as though I can say anything I want, and that goes a long way towards making me feel as though I can be who I want to be. If I make a sexually-charged comment, they may or may not laugh (a risk that comes with any joke), but they will never hear my words as "I want to sleep with you." They never tell me I am gorgeous (or whatever) while I am explaining something serious or complicated, and they assume that my beauty grows from my intellect and wit. In short, I get to play with the boys rather than for them. And I like myself best in those moments.

What I'm getting at is that the use of particular words or phrases can expand and limit who we are allowed to be/come. A comment like 'HE CAN BEND ME OVER WHENEVER HE LIKES' can simultaneously be an assertion of feminine sexuality, an affront to masculinity, or just plain vulgar. All of those interpretations look at words as representations - but what we often seem to overlook is what kind of person I (may) become when I say those words, or how I embody those words, and how those words perform who I am-in-the-world.

Those words leaving my lips mobilise - and implicate me/us in - a net of relations: I may become a submissive whore, an insatiable beast, an easily dismissed degenerate. Certain men and women may want me, and some may hate themselves for their desire. Others may be repulsed or pity me - feel superior - and some may be unmoved or actively bored. In any of those moments I cannot be a good girl or an intellectual, for example, and others are similarly limited by their responses.

Can you remember situations where you got to be the words that you love? What words were they and who did you become?

Update: And just when you thought I couldn't get any more verbose ... In conversation with my friend David this morning, he said it must be tiring to have men hear "I want to sleep with you" when that is clearly not what I am saying. Of course it is, but more importantly, this doesn't happen all the time, and it has much more to do, I think, with a man's level of maturity rather than with his sexual orientation. I don't mean to suggest that straight men are single-minded and predictable, and neither do I mean to suggest that I am unresistable. Clearly, both positions are laughable. But enough about me. 08/10/03

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