The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

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DEC 14-JAN 15 Issue
Books In Conversation

CHRISTINE WERTHEIM with Alexandra Chasin

Christine Wertheim
(Counterpath, 2013)

Christine Wertheim’s mUtter–bAbel provides a look into the guts of language from womb to tomb, via an instigation-cum-investigation of the transfer of language from mother to child. Simultaneously, interrogating, bemoaning, and celebrating the ways in which this transfer makes language possible, necessary, and insufficient, as well as excessive, the book takes language as a bodied carrier for the elaboration of self: the self in relation to the presumed first Other—the mUtter, the ur-utterer, the mere everything—the self in relation to its own self-articulation, and the self in relation to all those many diverse Others who differ along axes of identity, culture, geopolitical space, and of course language. Wertheim’s previous work on textual form and poetics, her fluency with generativity, her poetics of play, and her expressly less textual and more explicitly textile work pervade the book to produce a text that jumps—or squiggles—off the page, literally. Meanwhile, on the page language calls forth creatures whose constitution, by language, is quite beyond them until they metabolize the words for themselves and begin to utter a non-sense that perhaps only makes sense of/to themselves. Situating graphic intervention in the vowels, Wertheim’s insistently invents new conventions that take the words right out of your eyes and put them in your mouth. I’m saying she has found a way to allow sound to issue from the page. All of these excesses—Wertheim’s ways of exceeding the page—paradoxically produce a minimally mediated encounter with the primitive drive to speak and be spoken to. Which is to say, this work of Wertheim’s calls for/th an interview.


Alexandra Chasin (Rail): Among other ways, I read the text as a transliteration, a textual representation of the sound of an Other’s language, or plurally, as more than one Other’s languages. I learned to pronounce Once upon a time in various different ways. I read exchanges between mother and child, a transfer of language exercised through a mix of physicality, abstraction, and meaning.

The text was repeating on me, but with differences: orthographic and typographic difference, difference of voice and character, difference of time. There was no way around repetition.

Christine Wertheim: I’m glad you wanted to repeat when you read. Repetition is for me a great writing and thinking technique. A piece starts with a feeling of something coming, something wanting to make itself felt. Then I repeat whatever fragment is there until it starts unfolding itself. This happens at many levels— sense/meaning, sound/voice, and writing/image. Here differences really matter: one leads in one direction, another, only very slightly different, would tend down a different track. Sometimes there are so many possibilities it’s hard to see which direction the work should take. But choices have to be made, so only some of the possible trajectories are manifest in the final work. Although the choice of which fragments to focus on is mine, I don’t create them, they just appear. Then once I’ve chosen which to follow, I just watch and transcribe how these unfold. It’s like a process of revelation and sense-making, but an infinitely branching one that allows for many paths.

Rail: Can you give an example of such an unfolding?

Wertheim: Take the sequence:
spacing –> space –> ‘s pace –> rhythm –> meter –> time –> +|’me

For me, as we move from one word to another the former literally becomes the latter. Thus:

spacing becomes space becomes ‘s pace becomes rhythm becomes meter becomes time becomes “and, I me,” which becomes­ the movement between “I and me.”

In other words, the focus is less on individual words-concepts-phenomena, than on the way apparently discrete experiences and ideas can easily morph into others. I use the graphical possibilities of symbols in the same way we often use the sonic possibilities of language in puns, to highlight the potential for these morphings. Also, I take them literally. I don’t think they are just accidents, or merely the stuff of humor, but rather indicate something very real about experience.

Rail: Why do you use the slash “|” instead of an “I”?

Wertheim: The reason I do this is that, to me, the position of the “I,” the first person singular, is less about an ego, than about what in some discourses is called a “subject.” A subject, as opposed to an ego, is a being with a hole, rather than a being who is (a) Whole. A subject is (a) someone, who is always either more or less than One—someone who is always partial and relative, rather than total, and objective. And I think the character “|” is better suited to convey this notion than the character “I.” (I am interested in the iconic and indexical qualities of letters, not just their symbolic qualities; and I try to highlight these as much as possible.)

Rail: Okay, so what about +|me’S-pace, the title of your first book, which seems to have it all?

Wertheim: +|me’S-pace is a (per)version of the word Space-time, the basic stuff of the physical universe. I just reverse it to time-space, and see it as the stuff of the psychological-linguistic universe—what I call a multi-verse—because it always involves many speakers, not just one. Having reversed the term, I then treat it like a chemical molecule, or a musical phrase and break it down into its component elements, or notes. This is what that book does; it interprets words by treating them as linguistic or musical compounds, composed of atomic parts (letters, characters, notes). The process of “interpretation,” which is the work of the book, thus becomes similar to playing a musical composition; how do you, as an individual player/interpreter understand and perform a particular string of elements. For me, the string “+|me’S-pace” means “and, I, me = pace/rhythm,” or “I and me = rhythm.” In my mind this means that the rhythm through which one shivers between the position of I (agent) and the position of Me (patient), is the rhythm of (psycholinguistic) time-space. In other words, this shivering or vibration between positions, is itself what constitutes a psychic life-in-language; at least for those infested with an English tongue. A psycho-linguistic life in any other language/tongue, would of course be different. I call this kind of linguistic exploration Litteral Poetics (which I discuss in the introduction to +|me’S-pace), andmy dream is that others infested with different tongues will take up this kind of research in their own languages.

Rail: Maybe that’s why the forms and shapes of the text seem like a kind of associative Rorschach test, a way of triggering multiple ways of making sense of them.

Wertheim: Yes, the multi-plicity of the multi-verse is the heart of my project.

Rail: Each page holds legible text, strings of letters that emphasize the sounds of language, and text manipulated into quasi-biomorphic squiggles that somehow evade the pictorial-abstract binary. On top of which, there’s an ambiguity between typeface and handwriting, because I can tell that what looks like handwriting may have issued from a coded instruction rather than a hand. How do these graphic features relate to the sound of the book? 

Wertheim: I don’t see pictures and writing as two fundamentally different media. Writing is very graphical, or at least it can be, and images can contain very precise meanings. In mUtter-bAbel, the graphic features are meant to convey many things, including qualities of sounds, and the feelings attached to these. They act like the affective qualities in a spoken performance, giving different inflections at different moments. However, the work was all made in an ongoing process that moved back and forth between the handmade and computer generated aspects fluidly, so I don’t see them as separate, more like places in a continuum. But, I did want different chapters to have different feelings. I’d say that the less there are clearly formed letter-figures, i.e., the more scribbling there is, the more violent and mixed-up the experience portrayed, and hence the more distressed the associated sound is. I am trying to find ways to get more out of written language.

The graffiti artist and hip-hop icon Ramelzee has a theory that history is not the story of conflicts between groups of humans, but of conflicts between different sign systems. In his work, he’s trying to help usher in a new kind of sign system that is more flexible and more expansive than the alphabet as we know it. I’d place my work in a similar vein; I also take the politics of notations seriously.

Rail: I also see in mUtter–bAbel, paramecia or otherwise biomorphic entities (if not single-celled, then just slightly more complex) or even bio-graphics: creatures composed of language, beings given form only in or by or like language, doing a dance on the page of a kind of mind-body replication factor necessary to biological as well as linguistic and cultural survival. Your strings, or chains, of letters remind me of popular representations of DNA amino acids or polypeptides. One could argue about what meanings there are in embodiment but above all there is transcription.

Wertheim: I’d not thought of the figures as creatures, but I like it. For me, (human) being and language are always intertwined. Indeed, for me, language and being are not just inseparable, they are different aspects of a more complex phenomena. A tongue is literally one of our organs. A letter is a character in a drama with other letters, whose collective arrangements compose aspects of our being. I am interested in exploring these arrangements, seeing what affects they have, rather than explicating their meanings, though I do like to do that too. And, yes, as you say, my main mode of exploration is through transcription. I write, or It writes (through) me. I have also finally started to record performances of my work, which is very interesting, through scary, and it is a very different activity. Transcription, observing and listening to English itself, rather than using it to express something about myself, is the mode of working I am most comfortable with.

Rail: Then, in turn, the text wanted me to suspend sense-making while I pronounced sounds—and not to suspend it at the same time. I might have been reading another language, and yet I was aware of pronouncing the beginning of one of the most familiar origins of stories in Western culture, Once upon a time, at the very time of entering into multiple origin stories embedded in the story of the mother and child.

Wertheim: Yes, my work, so far, always loops around and around back to a beginning—a beginning of language, a beginning of meaning, a beginning of a sense of difference between self and others. But this means that in another sense, there is no beginning at all, just repetition—and that is a problem, for me personally—but it is a benefit for the work, which is generated out of my problem with this lack of a clear origin.

What I mean by this is that, if you can say a “beginning” occurs when something (anything) differentiates itself from the background of an undifferentiated state, then what happens when no such stable distinction actually appears? Because every phenomenon that can momentarily appear as discrete and different quickly morphs into something else, which then morphs into something else: Voids –> woids –> words –> sounds –> S-w-ounds –> holes –>mouths –> mothers –> the-m-others–> and so on.

So there is a proliferation of difference, even an excess of it. But no principal difference, no One Difference, because at no point do any of the very various manifest differences become so stable that they can stand in as the principle of Difference per se. This means that there is also no sense of an original undifferentiated state. There are only perpetually morphing differencings without initiation. This is not just a personal problem, though it is my personal problem. It is an important philosophical problem as well. (To me my work is a poetics—a theory of that complex hybrid of language and being.)

This issue is important because Western culture is structured around the idea of a single Principle of Originary D|fference. This can be figured in many ways—as The Word, the Phallus, Difference, The Mark, or Trace that gets meaning going. As Lacan and Derrida constantly reminded us, this mark of d|stinction has no power other than that of referring to itself as a mark-of-difference. Nevertheless whole power structures have managed to be erected on it. More importantly, whatever is figure used, it is always singular, and it is always opposed to its opposite, that which stands as the un-differentiated—the non-verbal, Woman, vagina, an unmarked space or surface, etc. This is binarism, of which monotheism is simply one religious form. In my view, this is the number one problem of Western culture, and we need to find ways of overcoming it.

Of course many people are doing this already, particularly in queer and race theory and even in feminist theory. One strategy is to point to actually existent bodies or figures clearly outside binaristic paradigms. Another more general, but no less important method, is to try to show the problems with the binaristic paradigm itself. Not just the material fact that it doesn’t work in some cases, but the conceptual “fact” it leads to problems in every case. Let’s acknowledge that there is no principal One (of) Difference/Distinction, and hence no originary state of pure undiffentiation. There are only and always perpetually morphing differencings. Psycho-socially-this would mean that there are not two structurally necessary positions in any arena, including gender.

Naturally we pay a price for letting go of the |  —namely a great increase in ambiguity, motility and flux—in words, in concepts, and consequently in our very experience of the world, everyone’s experience. But that might be the price we all have to pay if we don’t want some-bodies to bear the entire weight of the undifferentiated. Of course, just because there is no universally necessary starting point of stability and structure, this doesn't mean that we can’t provide one socially, as long as we are clear that this is what we are doing. Thus, we could let everyone experience the flux long enough to never forget it—say until puberty—and then initiate everyone by giving them a socially-constructed point of origin, which they all know is a construction, even if they can’t, from then on, live without it. I believe that this is the way many tribal cultures work. Then you can have (many) different origins, many different initiations for different groups in the same society. In the terms of psychoanalytic theory as elaborated by Lacan, this would mean having different symbolic orders. Though Lacan, being a true monotheist, didn’t believe this was possible, at least for most of his life, I do, and I think it is a goal worth pursuing.
Rail: The book’s chapters introduce themselves as “stories”—of language and its origins, of a body, of a child—and though there is much real delight in the collection that accrues, the accrual also amounts to a kind of horror story.

Wertheim: To me it is one story, though you could say that each part is played by multiple characters. And yes there is horror, the primal horror of too much and not enough at the same time, of being penetrated and evacuated simultaneously.

Rail: mUutter entertains a cluster of problems similar to the cluster engaged in your book +|me’S-pace: self and other; repetition and difference; the simultaneity of sound, sense, and nonsense; the constitution of self through language (which always exceeds itself); materiality and abstraction unto idealization; strings and things; and maybe above or behind it all, play—or as I want to put it, p-p-p-p-p-play. Both books are about process; they enact process and becoming. What’s the difference between the two books?

Wertheim: Both books are part of my lifetime project about the relations between bodies, language, gender, generation, s/w/ounds, graphicality, and what I call the vowlents in human relations. So they are related, even overlapping, but have different emphases.

+|me’S-pace focuses specifically on Categories, in the Aristotelean sense. I do not believe in innate and trans-historical, universal categories, but I do think most cultures rest on a fairly small set of what are to them are foundational categories. These are of course figures (of speech and thought) but they don’t have to be reduced to a single One.

In +|me’S-pace I was interested in looking at what these might be for those of us possessed of a modern English tongue, or possibly an English of the near-future. It concludes that the basic categories in English are familial, and that they particularly blur gender and generation to produce the two principal figures I call the-|’Sone and theMothers, which I argue are the dominant figures in English-speaking culture today, where the Father figure has become very weakened and the daughter figure is only seen as a triviality until she is acknowledged as a mother-in-waiting. If you were to take a Greek myth as the model for English-infested culture, it would be the Oresteia, not Oedipus.

mUtter–bAbel is more primal and visceral. It is less about concepts and more about affects, and the senses of matter in its aural, sonic, graphic, and carnal dimensions. For the better part of the book, the two figures are the child and its mother.

Rail: The emphasis on the mother’s w/hole, her role, the mirror of her—all this suggests that your work is in conversation not only with Lacan but also with feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva.

Wertheim: I’d not read much of Kristeva before I made this book; my psychoanalytic formation was more Lacanian. Then after the book came out I was invited to a Kristeva Circle, and now I do think there are many Kristevan elements in it: the inability to properly separate from the mother, a simultaneous desire and fear of her, theMother as a space of holding but also of smothering. As usual, in Oxxidental writing, it is all from the baby’s perspective. (My work doesn’t address how the mother herself feels, which Kristeva very admirably does.) Clearly my work also focuses on what Kristeva calls the semiotic aspect of language. However, I don’t think what Kristeva calls the semiotic and the symbolic dimensions of language are as separate as she seems to think. I’m not even sure if you can separate them at all, even for analytic purposes. One point of mUtter-bAbel is to show just how much (symbolic) meaning there is in baby-talk and thinking.

However, my main point is that these two figures are not just positions in family and kinship networks. They are also the figures of a new global class/caste system where we in the so-called First World get to be the-|’Sones, and those in the Third World get treated as if they were just theMothers to us—there to service us. Thus, my work is not a portrait of a universal, trans-historical condition. It is a picture of a world-order dominated by contemporary or near-future English-speaking concepts and ways of ordering experience. It is a portrait of a kind of conceptual and cultural colonialism that is backed up by economic and military colonialism.

Rail: So you read Juarez as a kind of “case” of where the figural dynamics in play in the family drama can be mapped onto the macrocosm of the English(-concept)-dominated world-order?

Wertheim: What I am trying to show in the Juarez chapter is what happens when men in dominated countries are treated as if they were theMothers. At least some will try to overcome this ‘feminization’ by asserting their difference from the women in their own communities, who then become theMothers to them, that is, theMothers of theMothers. If this need is really extreme, that is, if the sense of emasculation is very bad, the-|’Sones will effect their separation literally, by cutting theMothers’ bodies away from themselves. Complicating this whole process is that fact that as the-|’Sones in their own community, these men also obtain many pleasures from theseMothers’ body, so there is also massive ambivalence in the relationship.

Juarez could have been other places, but I live in the US, and Mexico is near and very affected by US, and Juarez is/was very present in the news because of the so-called “femicide.” I don’t like that term because it dissociates the sexual and gender dimensions of the phenomenon from the class, race, economic, political and conceptual aspects. But the sex/gender dimension is/was very clear there.

Rail: In a way, there is a simple point that gender dynamics are pervasive, but not simply. Which brings us neatly to the last chapter about Uganda and Joseph Kony. How did you choose this from the exceedingly long if not infinite list of adult manifestations?

Wertheim: Kony acknowledges and even enjoys openly wanting to both fuse with theMothers and to separate himself simultaneously. In the story I relate in that chapter, which is based on a true event, Kony ordered a group of girls and young women to bite another to death. It as if they became his mouth, both suckling from and attacking soM(e)others’ body all at once, while they, as his mouth, are themselves that other body, because they are not literally his, even though they are treated as if they were parts of himself, by him. Here the (in)distinctions of bodies are very complex.

My point here is not to condone Kony’s actions, but to try to understand him in a historical and global context. Kony seems to me the clearest exemplar of his kind. There may now be others, and there were certainly many precursors, mainly white colonialists, but he seems to me to be exemplary, and he is the one most covered in the news.

He might well be mad. But he is also a symptom of a world-wide, centuries-old set of links that has transformed human relationships across the globe in ways I don’t think we really understand yet. If you look at global, as opposed to local or national relationships, which are currently dominated by an English-infested mentality, there is now a very queer mixing and blurring of class, race, gender, generation and sexuality/desire producing something quite different from the hierarchies of the 19th or even 20th centuries. We need new terms to describe these new configurations, new terms in which neither class, race, gender, generation or sexuality/desire dominate, but all are entwined. At least, that is how I see the world today, at the global scale. Maybe when China or India or some other region comes to dominate the world, we’ll see a shift. But unless the binaristic elements so successfully seeded by the English-speaking mentality are displaced, I doubt it will be a less predatory or conflictory world.

Rail: Is it too much of a leap for me to wonder if your text then supports Frantz Fanon’s suggestion that psychoanalysis can work toward healing post-colonial trauma? 

Wertheim: As far as psychoanalysis and healing social trauma: I think psychoanalysis is a very powerful social tool if you have sane analysts, by which I mean non-narcissistic ones. But there are too few of these to make a difference at more than the personal level, and I don’t see any sign that this is likely to change, especially in a society where all services have to be paid for. However, I do think that some of psychoanalytic insights need to be incorporated in any practical solutions to current world problems, including post-colonial trauma. Above all, I believe that the world will not fundamentally change until the raising of children is put right at the heart of society. We all start out as babies, and we are all formed within the framework of our early caring-situations. The nuclear family doesn’t seem to have been a very good caring-framework, at least not in conjunction with capitalism. So we need to develop other nurturing frames, along with other basic conceptual systems that don’t ground experience in binaries.

Rail: And does it matter whether Ugandan and Mexican babies are conscripted into language the same way Kristevan babies are? 

Wertheim: We need to think about these issues in a global, historical context. It is not so much that the peoples of other cultures speak different languages and have completely different perspectives, but that our English-speaking mentality and conceptual system now dominates the world, subjecting others materially and psychologically to our modes of thinking, no matter what they think about it. English, or what I like to call |nglish, now dominates the world at the psycho-linguistical level, perhaps not completely, but it has its affects everywhere. It is this system, a system I too an inculcated in, that my work engages.

Rail: So what drove you to want to do this work in the first place?

Wertheim: My ex-dissertation supervisor, Bernard Burgoyne, once said that the psychological state my work expresses is a state before idealization. If idealization means taking specifically differentiated figures as the basis of all conceptualizations, then this is true. In the experiences I present in mUtter-bAbel, one figure has not come to dominate or stand in for all forms of difference—in fact, there isn’t even a group of stable figures. There are only very volatile and shaky half-figures that always threaten to morph into any number of other figures at every instant, and actually do so, all the time.

One of the main reasons I do this work is that I really want to convey the sense that this pre-idealized state is not necessarily pre-verbal or pre-symbolic, as many theorists have argued. To put it another way: in my experience, symbolization, in the Lacanian sense of communicable (socialized) meaning, is NOT dependent upon idealizations, and certainly not on the cementing of a single simple figure as the One Principle (of) Difference. To be sure, the lack of such idealizations means that experience can seem very wobbly, even unhinged. But it is not intrinsically unsayable. It might be hard to get others to understand what one is saying from such a position, but it can be communicated, and communicating this is what drives me. I want people to remember what it is really like to be a very small child trying to connect with adult beings who don’t think they have the capacity for real communication because their words are not yet fixed.

For myself, insofar as there is an autobiographical component in my work (and there is), my first memories consist of complex experiences involving spatial aspects—like distance and closeness, and being-too-close—as well as self-(m)other (in)-distinctions, and also a very clear sense that both space-ing and bodies were equally necessary to my sense of order and comfort. So while I don’t know what I first said—and my mother has never implied that she remembers, though she does for one of my other siblings—I do remember some very early thoughts. The medium of these is visual (and to some degree, bodily) perception, but the images are inseparable for me (now) from words, or word-clusters in which one word/thing keeps morphing into another: spacing –> space –> ‘s pace –> rhythm –> meter –> time, and inevitably: she –> me, and  | –> her –> here. I seem to have a very strong (albeit unconscious) sense of the state before words, concepts and phenomena became fixed and stable. I guess that is the condition for writing the book.

Rail: What are you working on now?

Wertheim: Right now I’m doing a lot of crocheting and producing a book with my sister about the Crocheted Coral Reef, a global/community science/craft project we have been working on for nine years. The great science studies scholar Donna Haraway has written a fabulous forward for the book. Apparently the project is really loved by some in her field. I’m also working on making recordings of performances of pieces from mUtter–bAbel, which is exciting. I’m still shy about performance, but I enjoy it. When these two projects are finished, I want to write a piece about Johanna Went, an amazing and mostly forgotten punk performance artist who was practicing in the ’80s and ’90s. She was super-influential on a whole generation of art stars like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, but you never hear about her—same old story! Next Spring I’m planning to begin the third book in my poetic series, to be called m| s|ster and |. It’s the nearest I will likely come to an autobiography.


Alexandra Chasin


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