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In defense of words

Dan's picture
       In my sort of rambly closing comments in our most recent Silence class, I was trying to articulate why post structuralist art has value. Why can’t the vision/purpose of the piece be expressed in the most simple/accessible vocabulary available? -- So as to reach the most people, to be inclusive. First, I think I’ll speak to the Beckett play and experimental art. 
      The very nonnormative, nonlinear, anti-plot which bothered most people in the class and left many people feeling excluded and frustrated, was a subversion of accepted tropes. Stories and art have a culturally sanctioned form which we  internalize as individuals practically at birth (or as soon as we become cultural subjects) -- the arts have a symbolic structure all their own. "Postmodern" is a term we give to art created in this fragmented, revolutionary culture-- which deconstructs race, class, and other structures of power.
   We are flooded with linear narratives, fairy tales, stories with plot development, climax, resolution. It’s even how we understand what we call “our life” -- as a series of chronological events which have led us to where we are now. But postmodern art abandons that pattern -- that mold which we accept as the only way to tell stories -- and instead produces art through experimental, nontraditional writing, film, theater, etc. My favorite authors, Donald Barthelme and David Foster Wallace, completely disregard and avoid the linear narrative structure of storytelling and instead juxtapose images, experience, sensations, philosophical musings, etc. to evoke a multidimensional understanding -- to create the works essence. It negates that the work itself has meaning -- and instead allows us to find meaning in it. I consider this method of communication more powerful -- less contained and formulaic, so therefore, more difficult to talk about -- but that isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it feels more full.
     The language of postmodernism -- the language of theory, although lofty, although tied to privilege because it requires education and commitment which not everyone is reared to pursue/has access to, also has tremendous value. I know the question is, “why can’t their ideas/articles be expressed more simply?” My answer to that is that is that part of the philosophy of postmodernism exists in the understanding that the symbolic order of our world is largely (perhaps completely) determined by language. Structures of power are maintained and enforced linguistically, and in order to challenge those structures -- in order to be revolutionary, language is our tool/weapon. Language allows us to understand and escape these structures of power, but that requires that we apply ourselves to understanding language’s power. And theorists, those who are devoted to exposing the structural order and oppressive nature of language and society, have developed a vocabulary for that specific purpose.
        But all specialized fields develop their own lexicon -- words which belong to them and them alone. Not just academics. Bird watchers, construction workers, dentists, etc. It makes communication more fluid, more transparent, and more efficient (but only if your audience are those in your field). Perhaps the articles we’ve read have been inaccessible in some ways, but I don’t fault the authors for that. They probably expect that those reading their works are also in the academic field. So yes, there is an element of exclusion -- but not for the sake of exclusion, for the sake of writing succinctly, for conveying as much, as specifically as possible. And we can’t be a specialist in every field, but if we are interested enough, perhaps we could try investigate that vocabulary. Vocabulary is so linked to our conceptual framework -- so it would be an exploration of the subject matter too.

    Also, relating to our class -- and I see that people have started discussing this in other threads -- but I felt frustration during our discussion of Footfalls and Christine Kim’s work. I think it’s valuable to hear that people felt excluded, that the art was classed and confusing. But -- those of us who were moved/inspired by the work didn’t get the opportunity at any point in the class to actually discuss what the piece meant to us. I felt so inspired and full of questions and ideas about the Beckett play and -- I didn’t get the opportunity to express or hear the opinions of those who also felt something. There was no talking space and the environment was too hostile. 
      So I’m left with another question --- Where do we go/what do we do when not everyone understood a text? Do those who delved deeply into that text have to silence themselves? And if so -- how will they learn?




Sarah's picture

looking at class in retrospect

When we were actually in class I didn't realize parts of the conversation were missing, I was just annoyed with feeling shut out and thought that was worth talking about.  However, after class when we were walking out you said something like while we were talking about not understanding it, no one who did understand it was given the space to express that and I agree completely.  I think in my frustration, I forgot that was originally what I wanted: to grasp some understanding of the play.  I wish we had heard other perspectives and class and I am not frustrated I spent so much time speaking.

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

I do hear you Dan, really.

I do hear you Dan, really. But I also do want to echo what one of our peers said about those who didn't get it and were frustrated wanted to, and unless I am mistaken, I did not read that in your post. I see both frustrations (not understading and understanding) as linked. Sorry if you felt like the space was too hostile to speak about your interest but if you had, I know your sharing, and that of others, would have been valuable. I interpreted the level of frustration as a "cry" for "help me understand!" by sharing how Kim and Footfalls made you feel; so, I want to push back and say that I wish you had.

Dan's picture

I appreciate this -- but

I appreciate this -- but there truly wasn't the space. And the class obviously needed to time to express the frustration of not understanding and wanting to -- so it was valuable, and I see that now. But there wasn't the space for individual interpretations/ideas resulting from the texts. I don't feel comfortable fighting for air-time. Especially if it doesn't feel like it's what the class wants. So they may be conversations I save for outside of class.

HSBurke's picture

I don't want to be the broken

I don't want to be the broken record here, but I think what you've said still points back a larger issue that ishin started out with. In my opinion, you shouldn't have to feel like you're fighting for air time. I felt the same way even though what I wanted to say was aligned with the frustration conversation. I hope you don't feel as though there "wasn't the space" because you thought we wouldn't be tolerant/willing to listen to your ideas. Or did you? Was it more just not having the time? The fact that you were unable to express your thoughts, whatever they may be, still reiterates the need for pauses. (Please respond back if I completely misunderstood you!)

sdane's picture

Yes to what

Yes to what both of you are saying.

It took me FOREVER to find this, but a blog I read had quoted a bell hooks piece problematizing and defending postmodernism a few years ago, and I was determined to track it down.

I definitely recommend reading it - although she focuses more on postmodern academic discourse, rather than literature, I think her points are really important/relevant.

Anne Dalke's picture

"postmodern blackness"

thank you, sdane, for taking the time to find this. i've put a copy in our protected reading file, because it feels to me that what hooks is saying is so important. she's recognizing that " shutting down" can happen in both directions: we can feel shut out by a text that has words we don't understand/draws on cultural capital we don't share; and/but if we insist that others/authors always speak in our terms/ ways we understand, we can also limit/shut down the range of their expression. as hooks puts it,

"…the desire to promote the creation of products that will attract the widest audience limits in a crippling and stifling way the kind of work many black folks feel we can do ….the creative writing I do.…is abstract, fragmented, non-linear narrative...does not conform….ruptures, surfaces, contextuality, and a host of other happenings create gaps that make space for oppositional practices…no longer...confined by narrow separate spheres…"

Dan's picture

Thanks for the article!

Thanks for the article! (also, the one following it on Simulacrum looks awesome)

Chandrea's picture

Re: In defense of words

Sarah and I went to see Gloria Steinem speak this past Friday and I had posted a statement that Steinem had made about inaccesibilty and academic writing. I was interested in hearing her speak but I was very worried that she would speak in a way that would make me feel excluded, but she completely proved me wrong. She was incredible and inspiring as a speaker and Sarah and I agreed that Steinem seemed down-to-earth, approachable, and relatable and I think that had a lot to do with the way that she spoke. I'd been thinking about our last class conversation and sensing that some people were frustrated about how one-sided the conversation was. Although I didn't understand and enjoy "Footfalls", I did appreciate Christine's work and I agree with you, Dan, that it was dissappointing that we didn't get to speak more about the experience and taking the time to express the effect her work had on each of us personally.

I like how you framed a possible explanation as to why some people's work may be inaccessible: "Perhaps the articles we’ve read have been inaccessible in some ways, but I don’t fault the authors for that. They probably expect that those reading their works are also in the academic field. So yes, there is an element of exclusion -- but not for the sake of exclusion, for the sake of writing succinctly, for conveying as much, as specifically as possible. And we can’t be a specialist in every field, but if we are interested enough, perhaps we could try investigate that vocabulary." I will admit that I do get frustrated every now and then when I read something that's overtly academic, but if I care enough to explore why it's so hard for me to understand what the author is saying, I will take the time to really try to understand it. I think we, as students, also make our work inaccessible to others as well, without even realizing it. I know that when I am writing papers for classes, I need to clarify with classmates and the professors about how the paper should be written. Is it a "feelings paper" or an "academic paper"? I need to figure out how and when to switch it up and what vocabulary I should and shouldn't be using.

I really wish you had the space and time to express in class what you're expressing now. Now that I've had more time to think it over, I regret not speaking more about the effect the works had on me as well. It felt like people were just annoyed and frustrated with the work, and sometimes it's hard to counter that annoyance in an environment like that.