Readers
Language
8 essays
Compiled by Kris Dittel

As we witness a different future unfold at a rapid speed, impacting lives all over the globe, it is hard to find words in the present. The primary function of language is communication: it can provide access, yet at the same time it can also conceal and exclude. Essays in this reader consider the world-holding capacity of language, translation, and untranslatability, the regulating politics of language, as well as linguistic opacity. Ultimately this selection of texts ponders what language can do, and what it may be beyond words, etymology, and syntax.

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Barbara Cassin
More Than One Language
Originally published in March 2017

I don’t know what “one’s own” means and I’d like to begin with a different question: What is a maternal language? I will then try to understand what happens when you speak more than one language, when you speak several different languages, and how these different languages ultimately draw out different worlds; not incompatible worlds, not radically different worlds, but worlds in resonance with one another and without ever being able to match up completely. This is why we will have to ask how we go from one language to another and think about what we call translation.

Emily Apter
Armed Response: Translation as Judicial Hearing
Originally published in September 2017

To hear “rightly” is to register acoustical rightness or trueness not only by means of forensic acoustics, or by moral criteria of right and wrong, but according to measures of rhythmic beauty (euruthmoi) and mellifluous accompaniment. “To accompany” (akoloutheî means to follow or to flow from) lies at the heart of what Plato, in the Republic, identified with the poetic. For Plato, just as matter must follow soul, so musical harmony and rhythm must follow poesis. Good rhythm in this sense accompanies, agrees with, or “goes along with” fine speaking. For Plato, making a “right” republic necessitates allowing the superior register to lead, and ensuring that its accompaniment be a good match.6 We could say that Plato gives us the “good match” theory of just translation.

Yazan Khalili
Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Noise
Originally published in February 2019

Is freedom of speech universal? In what follows, I try to reflect on freedom of speech as a political structure, working through it in light of a key question: Who has the right to speech? The reflections, anecdotes, thoughts, and real-life experiences here show the power structure within which freedom of speech operates, and the paradox that confronts politically engaged artists who speak to power, or about it. Freedom of speech reveals itself as the structure that defines what is and isn’t speech.

Anna T.
The Opacity of Queer Languages
Originally published in December 2014

Since at least the sixteenth century, individuals who could in today’s terminology be referred to as LGBTQ+ or queer have been creating their own linguistic registers. The “closet,” for one, is a linguistic formation that only dates back to the mid-twentieth century, as we may be aware. What is perhaps less known is how these languages were produced in the context of the secrecy that the proverbial closet provides, and what parallels within that space can be drawn with Édouard Glissant’s concept of opacity and the right not to be understood. Furthermore, Jonathan D. Katz’s study on John Cage’s tactic of silence and passivity as a political stance continues into an analysis of the role of camp performativity in the success or failure of getting the (coded) message across.

Luis Camnitzer
ALPHABETIZATION, Part II: Hegemonic Language and Arbitrary Order
Originally published in November 2009

Today, of course, she would have gone to university, found an outlet for her intelligence, disciplined her seething imagination and probably ended rich and successful.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi
Emancipation of the Sign: Poetry and Finance During the Twentieth Century
Originally published in November 2012

Money and language have something in common: they are nothing and yet they move everything. They are nothing but symbols, conventions, flatus vocis, but they have the power to persuade human beings to act, to work, and to transform physical things:

Raqs Media Collective
Stammer, Mumble, Sweat, Scrawl, and Tic
Originally published in November 2008

To be legible is to be readable. To be legible is to be an entry in a ledger—one with a name, place, origin, time, entry, exit, purpose, and perhaps a number. To be legible is to be coded and contained. Often, when asked an uncomfortable question, or faced with an unsettling reality, the rattled respondent ducks and dives with a stammer, a mumble, a sweat, a scrawl, or a nervous tic. The respondent may not be lying, but neither may he be interested in offering a captive legible truth either to the interrogator or to his circumstances.

Wayne Koestenbaum
Lounge Act at Thek Lounge
Originally published in December 2017

Some scenes you never return from the morbid imagining of, like the love song of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, even if you know that neither the task of universal good nor the project of demolishing evil (including current evil) will be moved ahead a millimeter by morbid fantasies. I need to figure out what to do with my treasured, honed perversity and the tradition (from the Marquis de Sade through Genet, Hervé Guibert, and Foucault) that celebrates perversity and finds revolutionary seeds in it. What will you do with those seeds right now? Are they stale in the hand? Will perversity help us now?

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