THE SEARCH FOR A POST-BABEL PERFECT LANGUAGE IN ‘WORK-IN-MOVEMENT’
Perfect language, work-in-movement, generative art, perspectivism
This paper begins by investigating the origins of the quest for a perfect language that can express an absolute truth and its impossibility in a post-Babel world. According to the religious story, a post-Babel world would be a world of many languages. In the context of this paper, the post-Babel world represents the postmodern world of many realities, meanings and truths, thus many perspectives. The question that is been investigated is if there is no absolute truth, then how can there be a perfect language that can express it?
The Search for a Post-Babel Perfect Language in ‘Work-in-Movement’ offers a redefinition of a perfect language and proposes an omniperspectival representer of reality. This perfect language might offer as many versions of the truth as possible and that is how it could get closer to an ideal (and impossible) truth. In this paper, generative artworks ‘in-movement’ are offered as fluid platforms that can represent various realities through their changing forms. Works-in-movement from literature, music, theatre, and visual arts are discussed in terms of their ability to generate various perspectives under the constrains of their specific medium.
THE SEARCH FOR A POST-BABEL PERFECT LANGUAGE IN ‘WORK-IN-MOVEMENT’
“God spoke before all things, and said, ‘Let there be light.’ In this way, he created both heaven and earth; for with the utterance of the divine word, ‘there was light’ (Genesis 1:3-4). Thus Creation itself arose through an act of speech; it is only by giving things their names that he created them and gave them ontological status” (7).
Umberto Eco begins The Search for the Perfect Language with an allusion from the Book of Genesis. God spoke the world into existence; therefore everything that existed was expressible through this “perfect language”. The founder of prophetic Kabbalah, Abulafia, suggests that there were two types of languages during the creation of the world: the divine language and the natural language. Divine language is the language god created the world through and spoke to Adam. Natural language is derived from the divine language and Adam taught it to Eve and their children. It is the language every human on earth spoke before the “confusion of tongues” at the tower of Babel (Eco, 16). After Babel, the imperfect “natural language” was fragmented into various languages.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativism suggests that the structure of one language affects the thoughts of its speakers thus the way they conceptualize their world (Boroditsky). The famous example is the study on the language of an Aboriginal community in northern Australia. In the language of this community, relative directions (left, right etc) do not exist. They employ cardinal directions (North, South, West and East) even in their everyday conversations. As a result, the people of this community have an amazing sense of orientation. Even a five year old can tell the cardinal directions as accurate as a compass. On the other hand, she/he does not have an idea of egocentric directions. If the language is so powerful to shape the way we look at the world, then everything we take for granted could be reliant on the language we speak in. The meanings we produce and reproduce through language are not absolute but relative to the microcosm we live in. Moving from psychology to philosophy, in Poststructuralism, Catherine Belsey refers to German Ideology by Marx and Engels:
…in an example that perfectly anticipates semiology, Marx and Engels point out that under feudalism we hear a great deal about ‘honour’ and ‘royalty’, but when capitalism takes over, ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ (of opportunity, presumably) rapidly take their place (32).
Similar to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, poststructuralists propose that “ideas are the effect of the meanings we learn and reproduce” (Belsey, 7). If meanings are produced by the symbolizing systems we learn, then every language, as a major symbolizing system, creates its own realm built upon its particular meanings therefore limitations.
The arguments of linguistic relativism and poststructuralist approach to language make the quest for a perfect language (which claim to speak the absolute meaning) meaningless, since they both deny the existence of one absolute truth. According to Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’, all ideas are created from particular perspectives. Therefore the truth can be determined in endless number of frameworks, which makes it impossible to take anything as definitely true: “I shall reiterate a hundred times that ‘immediate certainty’, like ‘absolute knowledge’ and ‘thing in itself,’ contains a contradictio in adjecto [contradiction in terms]: we really ought to get free from the seduction of words!” (Nietzsche, 23). However, if there is no “nonperspectival seeing”, it does not mean that there is no “omniperspectival seeing” says Maudmarie Clark in Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (145). Her interpretation of Nietzsche’s perspectivism proposes that “…what we know is only partially true, that it would be completely true only if we supplemented it by the way things appear from other perspectives” (Clark, 146). Under the light of this line of reasoning, we can say that only when the number of perspectives goes to infinity, we get closer to “the” truth, and this means that the truth itself is an unachievable ideal. Therefore, rather than trying to determine what the truth is, we might attempt to express what the truth might be through various perspectives and versions of reality. Unlike any other system of thought, art offers a representation or expression of an idea, a reality, or a truth, rather than making absolute statements about them. Therefore art might be the appropriate medium for investigating the possibility of truth through many perspectives.
Eastern miniatures do not employ a single perspective because they aim to illustrate an all-knowing, all-seeing God’s point-of-view. This point of view shows many perspectives in one plane, which is an impossible view to the naked eye. Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red takes place in 16th century Ottoman Empire, in the world of the court painters. The reader witnesses the painters’ dilemma of choosing between the traditional miniature painting which is a way of worshiping to Allah and his ‘shadow on earth’, the sultan, and the western painting which is individualistic because it depicts the artist’s own point of view. Unlike western painters, Ottoman painters do not study nature so much in detail but they try to see God’s perspective in their mind’s eye. In Pamuk’s novel, we learn that it is very common for very devoted painters to blind themselves so that they do not see the deceitful physical world from their individual perspective, but they dedicate themselves completely to their mind’s view. This way they attempt to get closer to God’s omnivision.
Miniature painting is an important example of art being the medium for the depiction of many realities or maybe a transcendental reality. The attempt of getting closer to the reality by seeing all possible perspectives translates into Ottoman painters’ effort to illustrate god’s point of view. In the remaining part of this essay, I will discuss various works of art from literature, music, theatre, and visual arts, which utilize a perspectivist language to achieve such effect.
In 1960, Frencois Le Lionnais founded Oulipo (Ouvroir de Literature Potentielle- Workshop of Potential Literature), with Raymond Queneau. It started as a research group for writers and mathematicians who wanted to experiment with constrained writing techniques. One of the most well known Oulipian works is Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The piece consists of ten sonnets and each line of the sonnets is printed on a separate strip of paper. Any line from any sonnet can be combined with any other, which makes one hundred thousand billion unique combinations possible. By not offering one version of the piece, Queneau experiments with “producing custom poems in ways that give the reader an enhanced role in the process of literary creation” (Wardrip, Noah and Montfort, Nick, 146). Two years after Queneau’s piece, in 1963, Argentinean writer Julio Cortazar published his ‘counter-novel’ Hopscotch. In the beginning of the novel, the reader is given a table of instructions, which proposes two ways of reading the piece. An unambitious reader can enjoy the novel linearly from the beginning until the fifty-sixth chapter. The author suggests that the last ninety-nine chapters are expendable. A more motivated reader is recommended to hopscotch through different chapters designated by the table of instructions:
The multiple reading of the book is also supported by the content itself. Morelli, a writer who appears in the novel briefly, mentions his idea of “reader-accomplice”:
…the usual novel misses its mark because it limits the reader to its own ambit; the better defined it is, the better the novelist is thought to be… A text that could not clutch the reader but which would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions (556).
Similar to Morelli/Cortazar’s idea of blending the reader and the writer into one body, post-Webern music allows the performer to “impose his judgment on the form of the piece, as when he decides how long to hold a note or in what order to group the sounds: all this amounts to an act of improvised creation” (Eco, Open Work, 1). The composer sets some constrains for the performer while also leaving room for interpretation. In The Open Work, Umberto Eco defines such systems as work of art, which can be refashioned by each individual addressee. There is no absolute version of the piece, as “in poststructuralist terms, [the work] preserves the secret of its final signified” (Belsey, 15). However open work can be interpreted as any artwork since Roland Barthes declared the death of the author in 1967. At this point, Eco goes deeper in the definition of an open work and suggests a sub-category: work in movement. A work in movement is an artistic product with “a kaleidoscopic capacity to suggest themselves in constantly renewed aspects to the consumer” (Eco, Open Work, 13). Rather than being subject to interpretations only, work in movement can change its form in relation to the audience or performer.
The British site-specific theatre company Punchdrunk performs an immersive theatre experience, which allows the spectator to choose his/her own path in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In Sleep No More, the visitors are asked to wear a mask and wonder around a four-floor building where the well-known tragedy unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each spectator is free to poke around the rooms or follow a character as she/he dances, performs or interacts with other characters while also leading the audience towards a bigger room where a major scene will take place. Every participant-viewer experiences a totally unique show, you may spend hours reading medical reports in a psychiatric hospital, eating candy in a spooky candy shop, or shadowing a character. The best part of the experience may be to meet with friends after three hours of legitimate voyeurism and compare each other’s perspectives. Sleep No More definitely possess the kaleidoscopic asset of a generative work of art.
Moving from theatre to visual arts, Eve Sussman’s video piece White on White proposes an intriguing illustration of a generative “work in movement.” White on White is a film noir that takes place in the close future, in a city called A-City. The main character works for a company but he does not know what his work is used for. As a good detective story protagonist, he decides to find out the big mystery. Meanwhile, we look at the beautiful scenes from the Kazakh city Aktau/A-City, feeling the isolation and solitude of the main character. At first glance, White on White is a gorgeously shot conventional film noir with its flawed anti-hero on a transforming journey. What is not conventional about the film is how it is edited and reedited continuously. Each cut we see is a unique one generated by an algorithm, as well as the sound, which accompanies it. Audience will see a one-of-a-kind representation of the story according to his/her timing. After learning about this aspect of the piece, the name White on White becomes more meaningful. The founder of Suprematism movement, Kasimir Malevich painted a white cube on a white canvas in 1918 and he also called it White on White.
Suprematists focused on painting geometric forms, which possessed no reference to anything, which was “dry and monotonous, without art and without individuality” (Liukkonen). In White on White, Malevich went one step further and got rid of colors too. In her homage to Malevich, Sussman designs a meaning generator rather than the meaning itself. Like Malevich, she also attempts to strip the piece off of the crucial feature of its medium, its meaning maker: the cut. Under the constrains of a time-based narrative, she tries to stay away from making a single statement but welcomes the audience in the making of the narrative, generating various versions.
“In fact, the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood” says Umberto Eco in Poetics of Open Work (3). Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Cortazar’s Hopscotch, examples in post-Webern music, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and Sussman’s White on White all follow a formal artistic decision in order to let the audience get immersed and be a part/perspective of the piece. All these “works in movement” have specific constrains as the borders of the playground. Queneau’s limited number of sonnets, Cortazar’s table of instructions, Punchdrunk’s story of Macbeth, and Sussman’s film noir form set the borders of audience’s autonomy. However, within those limits, each viewer/reader/spectator, consciously or unconsciously, determines how he/she will experience the piece. Finally, “work in movement” generates various versions of the artwork, which gives birth to a perspectivist “perfect” language in art. This language attempts to be as fluid and non-tangible as possible, letting the audience mold it any way he/she desires. As the number of spectators/perspectives increase, the work of art gets closer to a better expression of a post-Babel truth.
Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes Thought.” Scientific American Feb. 2011: 63-65. Print.
Clark, Maudemarie. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.
Cortazar, Julio. Hopscotch. New York: Random House, Inc., 1966. Print.
Eco, Umberto. Search for the Perfect Language. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1997. Print.
Eco, Umberto. Open Work. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.
Liukkonen, Petri. Kazimir Malevich. 2008. http://kirjasto.sci.fi/malevich.htm
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Random House, Inc., 1966. Print.
Pamuk, Orhan. My Name is Red. New York: Random House Inc, 2002. Print.
Sleep No More. By Punchdrunk. Dir. Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. The McKittrick Hotel, New York. 2011. Performance.
Wardrip, Noah and Montfort, Nick, eds. The New Media Reader. London: MIT Press, 2003. Print.
White on White: Algorithmic Noir. Dir. Eve Sussman. Perf. Jeff Wood. Rufus Corporation. 2011. Video.