Kristof van Baarle
When I was an art student in São Paulo, I came across a book that has altered the course of my life. The name of the book was Language and Reality (1964), written by Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser. The book postulates that language creates, shapes and disseminates reality and that we do not exist outside of language.
His utopian vision of language has always resonated within my work: his definition of speech as an act and language as an expanding human presence in the cosmos; his ideas of linguistic performance as the most dignifying human characteristic; and ultimately the direct identification of reality with language – the audacious statement that the universe, knowledge, truth, and reality are all linguistic aspects. The audacity of his thought is precisely the idea that we ‘become human’ within language. Does that mean we do not experience anything outside of language? My interpretation of it is quite intuitive. I believe that once we enter the realm of language it becomes impossible for us not to ascribe meaning to whatever we experience, so semantics – which we learn through language – becomes a constitutional part of our experiences (even if they involve hugging a tree).
From mumbling to prayer
Flusser developed an incredible diagram that outlines the different stages of language an individual goes through during a lifetime, which could also be seen as modes of communicative interaction. The diagram takes us from one pole of nothing, to another pole of nothing, going through six different ‘language zones’.
We depart from an inauthentic silence, the moment we are born ‘languageless’.
Then we move on to our first language stage which is mumbling (1), our first attempt to produce language, through the imitation of sounds.
When we become a toddler, we enter what Flusser calls a salad of words (2), which is basically repeating words we learn in our mother tongue, making mistakes of syntax and not fully understanding semantics.
As a grown child, we’re all able to make small talk (3) – the exciting moment when syntax and semantics come together and the individual is able to make sentences that produce logical meaning.
And here we encounter the equator of reality – a crucial line that drastically separates the types of ‘life’ that can be created by language.
Moving up past the equator of reality, we have conversation (4) – the decisive moment when the individual is able to produce thought, express meaningful opinion, and has developed the capacity for listening and entering dialogue.
The next language stage is poetry (5) – the elevated form of language construction that relies on the individual’s capacity to make abstractions. For Flusser, poetry represents broadly the aesthetic experience.
Very similar to the effect of poetry, prayer (6) is also a space of invocation. It borrows from the spiritual world the strength to accept our rather limited existence. It allows us to participate in divine semantics, to ascribe meaning to the unknown.
After prayer, we have an authentic silence – the silence of the enlightened. It’s a moment not only of acceptance but also of the absence of the need to speak. It’s being silent and one with the universe.
What strikes me as the crucial ethical value of this diagram is precisely the horizontal line crossing the globe: the equator of reality. This line shows us how small talk can be mistaken for conversation. How a salad of words does not suddenly turn into poetry, or how mumbling can sound like a mantra but not allow for the spiritual experience of prayer. This line determines not only the type of speech we’re producing but (once reached) gives us the responsibility of determining how we will transit through all these levels.
According to Flusser, most individuals do not cross this line. In other words, they don’t become real, in the sense that they do not exercise all the potential that is offered by language as the creator of life. In my opinion, by emphasizing that most individuals do not cross that crucial horizon, this vision also distinguishes a ‘real human being’ from an ‘unfinished project of nature’ (my words).
And this is a tricky thought, I’m aware. Almost fascist even, if misinterpreted.
This distinction does not mean only intellectuals are real people. That would be outrageous.
We all know that long before the printing press or the newspaper existed, storytellers were disseminating wisdom, through legendary tales. Oral poets traveled from town to town, informing people of certain political realities through quite informal language. Medicine women were, for centuries, summoning the miraculous with their spiritual chantings, healing people with their knowledge. The point I insist in taking from the radicalism of Flusser’s thought, is the ethical one.
“Who will re-edit the philanthropic language to show that money laundering is not an act of social heroism?”
The fact that most individuals do not cross the crucial line of reality is part of a violent linguistic and narrative project that is intrinsically linked with the hampering of educational projects on a global scale. Even the very idea that academic thinking (or the intellectual product) is superior to informal forms of knowledge is part of the same violent narrative project.
What is behind this violent narrative project is that many individuals who do cross that same equator of reality, because they are trained in rhetoric, in aesthetics, in science or belong to a religious institution and are able to produce knowledge, can also use their skills to disseminate violence. Be it by simplifying complex messages to the level of small talk. Be it by mumbling ideological propaganda in an eternal loop. Be it by using the format of the prayer to seduce faithful followers, blinded by devotion, to follow a dangerous dogma.
Violence travels through all language zones
During the research for my new performance piece, Killjoy Quiz – a reader’s quiz addressing our deep-seated biases – my goal was to understand how violence happens via written and spoken processes. How violence is rooted in language, and how violence becomes possible because of the use of specific types of language (in Portuguese, linguagem, which is a more specific term concerning not only an idiom, but also style, vocabulary, sentence order, idiomatic expressions, etc.) I have been mapping how violence is contained in speeches, declarations, documents, chat boxes, public pronunciations, open letters, product packagings or written law.
Violence is written in the lyrics of pop songs, cultivating a rape culture.
Violence is written in the form of successful bestsellers on success, urging everyone to become better than themselves, to compete with everyone else.
Violence is disguised as ‘happiness’ pronounced in the form of marriage vows – till death (in life) do us part.
Violence is written in an infinitude of children’s books reinforcing racist and patriarchal models – where the white boy is always the main character, the black boy is always his side kick and the black girl or the trans boy are simply non-existent.
Violence is written in declarations of LGBTQ+ ideology-free zones. Praising heterosexual family values, Christian heritage and ‘protection of children’ just before elections, right after pedophilia scandals involving members of the church.
Violence is spoken in contemporary evangelic sermons, screamed at a crowd of the poorest of people, teaching them to save on basic needs and give more money to their church. Violence is in the legalization of churches as non-profit organizations.
Violence is disguised as ‘progress’ written in shady contracts between corrupted governments and real-estate giants. It’s written all over the billboards hanging above gentrified ruins, promising ‘city-center-revitalization’ when they mean exodus of the ‘wrong population’.
Violence is in the press-conference speeches of congressmen and economists, understating ruthless austerity measures as the only possible response for financial crisis, backing their words with dodgy statistics, sanctifying rationality which evaporates under closer scrutiny.
Violence is in the words of educated white men, justifying privilege through the argument of meritocracy.
Violence is in the naming of who got to be ‘civilians’, who became ‘consumers’ and who are now the ‘tax payers’ – reinforcing economic disparity, forging honesty amongst the richest, the high net worth tax evaders.
“Why are we held accountable to higher ethical standards than our very representatives?”
Violence is well pronounced during interviews with conservative members of parliament – justifying budget cuts in the arts – affirming tax-payers want to see beauty. Ingloriously defining beauty as that made by the national male geniuses, whether or not sexual predators. Who will question how much tax evasion subvents high art institutions? Who will re-edit the philanthropic language to show that money laundering is not an act of social heroism.
Violence is written in big letters in the form of death threats to fathers who refuse to force their teenage daughters into child marriage or to investigative journalists who leak the truth behind rotten schemes.
Violence is written in tiny little letters in mining permits in risky areas – causing ecological catastrophes. Violence is calling the Extinction Rebellion movement ‘extremists’ over and over again and then cutting the car industry slack when they start greenwashing their campaign, appropriating words like ‘mobility’.
Violence is at the tips of the tongues of incorrigible white folks, who dare speak about inverse racism, refusing to understand the simplest aspects of power relations. Violence is spit in the form of harassment by our neighbors or so-called ‘friends’, who insist on protecting racist traditions, black-facing ideology disguised as a child’s festivity.
Violence is calling every Muslim a terrorist, while refusing to recognize white suprematists’ killings as acts of terrorism, labeling them ‘hate crimes’. Tolerating their violent vehement ‘verborragia’1 and calling it ‘free speech’.
Violence is scripted in algorithms developed by BIG TECH, selling our facial recognition data to governments without people’s knowledge nor consent, violating the right to privacy while making the white-male the basic face of the algorithmic bias.
Violence is written in invisible letters, in non-binding legislations or unwritten regulations preventing political campaigns being sponsored by fossil fuel, mining and pharmaceutical giants, and preventing such politicians (members of congress, or presidents!) from influencing laws protecting such companies.
Why are we held accountable to higher ethical standards than our very representatives?
Violence is institutionalized in the language written and spoken in immigration concentration camps – because yes, that’s what they are, thanks Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, killjoy American congresswoman who called it by its name. Thanks also to holocaust experts for clarifying the practice: yes, it’s the legal mass detention of civilians without right to trial.
Violence is in the mouths of ignorant European, American, Australian privileged civilians who numbly repeat the mantra it’s not my problem: the gay people are not my problem, the blacks are not my problem, the Muslims are not my problem, and women (in general) are also not my problem, but especially the feminists, definitely not my problem!
Violence is euphemistically calling the anti-abortion institution ‘pro-life’.
Language decides who gets to live, who gets to die
Language decides who gets to live, who gets to die
Language decides who gets to live, who gets to die
The list is endless. I made it long on purpose because it’s not even a fraction. So, I end this section with violent tendencies I experience in everyday harassment:
Violence is in the words of the lady who sells French fries, the pharmacist, the supermarket cashier or the old man in the swimming pool asking me where you’re from? everyday. Getting defensive when I refuse to answer, mistaking their colonial curiosity for an act of genuine interest. Violence is in their second question after they hear Brazil: so you speak Spanish? To which I respond, in Spanish: No hablo español, pero está claro que la geopolítica no es uno de sus puntos fuertes.
Violence is in the questions of my extended Belgian family members asking if I stay home with the kids. To which I answer: No. My kids are fine, they actually go to school and I happen to have a career. Violence is in jolly remarks, of how ‘ahhhh… one of your kids is darker than the other!’ To which I say: Stop! You’re affecting the purity of their sisterhood and infiltrating your racist projection into the kingdom of their little hearts.
The making of Killjoy Quiz
Two years ago, I was in Rome and while driving from the airport into the city I saw an abandoned amusement park. Destroyed merry-go-round, rusty roller-coaster ending at a dusty pile of dirt; the ultimate death-ride taken by the scary clown, who now missed an eye and a piece of his crown. Hanging from the huge sign, written in broken circus lights was the word: KILLJOY. It was after this monochrome ghost town, with its dead fun and scent of dystopia, that I decided to name my next project.
In her Killjoy Manifesto, Sara Ahmed establishes practices of resistance based on the killjoy figure to demonstrate how our Western obsession with acquiring and maintaining happiness can be problematic for those whose experiences interrupt the happiness narrative. Sarah Ahmed presents us with a tool, an attitude: to be killjoy is to ‘spoil the fun of others’ if that implies exposing any violent order of ideas and doing the work of changing those ‘happy’ narratives.
“We all have to start calling things out! That’s being killjoy. The times we live now call for no other attitude.”
‘To kill joy,’ she writes, ‘is to open a life, to make room for life…’
She teaches us how to become radical in the midst of the implicit violence all around us and warns us that resistance can too sometimes be a violent act, that it can be painful, that it can be lonely and that’s why true commitment is necessary.
The language of resistance is written in many different formats
Resistance is written in signs carried by thousands who take to the streets, to demand equal rights; who no matter the depths of the struggle, share the strength of disruption. On the women’s march our signs read: MY BODY, MY CHOICE. On the anti-racist parade: RACISM IS NOT AN OPINION, IT’S A CRIME. On the students march for the climate: WE’RE SKIPPING A LESSON TO TEACH YOU ONE. On the students march for democracy: NOT MY GOVERNMENT; WE WANT DEBATE; BOOKS TO THE PEOPLE. On the Extinction Rebellion protests: BUSINESS AS USUAL IS EXTREMIST. On the Pride Parades all over the world: QUEER AND UNAPOLOGETIC, and LOVE, LOVE, all across the globe, KINDNESS AND COURAGE, KINDNESS AND COURAGE…
Resistance is spoken from door to door during campaigns of grassroots candidates, to elect representatives of the non-white, non-male, non-rich, to protect women’s rights, trans’ rights, children’s lives.
Resistance is spoken in meetings during territorial occupation, claiming the land, claiming public space, claiming the right to a safe home.
Resistance is written in 18th century’s utopia Society of Love by Charles Fourier who, despite all his contradictions, stated that we came from Barbarity, we’re stuck in Civilization but can move on to Harmony.
Resistance is in the names of the walk categories of ballrooms of the drag-queen culture, who from Paris is Burning to For all Queens, dare to refuse marginality, inventing the most creative types of kinship and family. Resistance is in the solidarity practices of the Belgian artistic collective Astrid, who (without even knowing) borrow strategies from the drag-culture and go under one family name, inspiring others to experiment with male-intimacy, trying to genuinely invent the ‘new heterosexual man’.
Resistance is in the texts of daring thinkers who help us to decolonize our language, like Saidiya Hartman re-writing the never-written history of young black girls at the turn of the century, appropriating negative terms such as wayward (the one difficult to control or to predict) and weaving it into the exhilarating novel Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.
Resistance is written in painful declarations of every woman who dared to expose their story of abuse in the #MeToo movement, changing forever the language landscape of how we deal with misogyny, sexual harassment and rape. We’re still not safe.
Resistance is in the meaning of the words Sumac Kawsay (buen vivir, the good living), underlying the Ecuadorian Constitution, the first one to codify the Rights of Nature. Resistance is written in proposals for legislation calling for radical changes in the US Constitution (a Green New Deal) which offers solutions as radical as the size of the crisis we’re faced with.
Resistance is in the silence of powerful white men, who by educating themselves, can move away from guilt, take on responsibility and give away protagonism.
Resistance is spread in deep conversations at the table and loud shouting in front of the palace of justice. It’s built through dialogue in the classroom – if teachers accept they are also learning – installing the understanding that capitalism is intrinsically linked with racism and sexism, confronting terminology of denial. Understanding that it is not enough to be ‘not-a-racist’, ‘not-a-misogynist’, ‘not-homophobic’. We all have to become anti-racists, feminists, anti-homophobic and start calling things out! That’s being killjoy. The times we live now call for no other attitude.
“Dare decolonize your library. Dare speak louder when needed. Dare talk in group (even if you don’t know anyone).”
To bring change to a world that celebrates mediocrity and that abuses ignorance to propagate violence, we need to enhance our language and be at the equator of reality. Dare decolonize your library. Dare speak louder when needed. Dare talk in group (even if you don’t know anyone). Dare confront family members, disrupt family parties or national holidays. Dare confront work colleagues, and yes, please dare talk to your children about all this, it’s your responsibility to prepare them. Resistance at all costs. Confrontation whenever needed. It’s not about you. It’s about changing paradigms that are coded in our souls. So, let us please agree to stop quoting Shakespeare and Einstein for everything. Let us be in the thick present and stay with the trouble.2 Let us be killjoy and anxious about the future of those we care for and whose persistence matters.3 Let us dare be more than nothing.4 Let us please yearn to end the lovelessness that is so perversive in our society.5
Killjoy Quiz is teaching me this: to stay loyal to my readers in proposing radical prose experiments, to invite my audiences to the process of producing meaning together as a political and aesthetic gesture, to change the way black bodies can and will occupy the stage and inhabit the spotlight.
This text is a reworked version of the opening speech Luanda Casella gave at the Jahreskonferenz der Dramaturgischen Gesellschaft in NTGent (February 2020).