Madyha J. Leghari | Reimagining language
The Index, Found images of 99 blank pages, inkjet archival prints,
140” by 100” (installation photo), Madyha Leghari, 2018
this text was commissioned
by SEA Foundation
as part of the research
fold #06 on Reimagining
Madyha J. Leghari
Madyha J. Leghari (b. 1991) is a visual artist, writer and educator based in Lahore. She pursued a BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore (2013) and an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (2018) on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her practice often revolves around ‘silences created by the failures of language’. Leghari has been the recipient of the Vasl Writing Mentorship; Mansion Artist Residency; Delta Research Placement at the Flat Time House; Siena Art Institute Artist Residency and the Murree Museum residency. She has shown her works internationally and has written on art for a number of publications. She has teaching experience at the National College of Arts, Lahore, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston and the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.
We invited Leghari to contribute to the fold VI. on Reimagining with the text in relation to her research.
Language is a remarkably efficient but slippery tool. It contains both awe-inspiring latent possibility and promises of its own failure. And like all tools, sometimes it has a mind of its own. I have often found myself both dissatisfied and charmed by it. The charms are fairly obvious: ones of connection, discovery, expression, specificity, and meaning. But I remain more interested in the failures because therein lie the clues as to why and how language may be re-imagined.
The most obvious failure is one of ineffability: that words falter. There are experiences, sensations, ideas, emotions and millions of other facets of the world that simply cannot be put into words. Language is often inadequate, stretched thin to accommodate the variability, richness or even abjection of reality. Moreover, given the abstract nature of language, it is doomed to fall short of full description, of mapping completely onto reality in full scale, with precision and accuracy. This is the fundamental problem of representation: it is always at a remove from the represented. “The map is not the territory.” (Korzybski, 1933) Even when language may succeed at representation, the political potentials of representation are not self-evident and automatically realized. Do the conditions of the world change as a result of linguistic inclusion and equity? Is having the vocabulary to name oppression the same as overcoming it? Unfortunately, the map is still not the territory.
Additionally, with the use of networked technologies today, language is commodified as data. It is the medium through which human experience is mined and extracted for profit. Every word one reads online, each Google search, every casual comment, and other behavior around language is a form of surveillance.
Language is also irretrievably enmeshed with “communicative capitalism” – as Jodi Dean conceptualizes the current political-economic formation. She describes how the heady promises of early Internet, ones of participation, horizontality, and democracy, are ultimately profoundly depolitical. In this context, she speaks of three myths: abundance, activity and wholeness. I want to emphasize how each of these myths make language similarly impotent in networked technologies.
Abundance: Through abundance, its illusion of wealth, its accompanying speed and volume, the message is no longer relevant. Rather, it is its continued circulation and repetition that takes precedence. The exchange value of a message overtakes its use value. Its content, sender, recipient, and response becomes irrelevant, and thus language becomes less meaningful and more commodified.
“The circulation of logos, branded media identities, rumors, catchphrases, even positions and arguments exemplifies this point. The popularity, the penetration and duration of a contribution marks its acceptance or success.” (Dean, 2009)
Activity: Early Internet and computing often presented itself as a new and wholly democratized commons. People are more likely to be vulnerable and open from behind the distance and security of a screen, and to feel that this participation registers somehow, that it matters. However, this feeling of gratification may be illusionary firstly because participation in any form is ultimately profitable for telecommunications, social networks, mobile tablets and others. Secondly, this form of participation sometimes functions as penance. It alleviates the discomfort of feeling helpless and instead displaces action. Thus, linguistic assertions and formulations may act in place, and not in aid of material justice.
Wholeness: ‘The Internet’ assumes a singular and unified commons, at a global scale, where all its nodes and pathways are equally connected and equally participant.
It provides an imaginary site of action and belonging. (Dean, 2009).
The reality of its architecture, geography and access is far from it. It remains siloed, polarized and heavily bordered. All language is not intelligible to all. It is also always imbued with the threat and loss of (mis)translation. It is less a unified chorus and more a crumbling tower of Babel and “to be, anything outside the experience or comprehension of these communities either does not exist or is an inhuman, otherworldly alien threat that must be annihilated.”(Dean, 2009)
Given these dissatisfactions, how might language be re-imagined, and what might be the tools of this re-imagination? In my artistic practice, I seek to offer some speculations of what this overhaul may look like. I begin with the admission that is neither possible nor desirable to defeat language and regress to a pre-lingual state. But it is possible to use language against itself, so that it becomes the very material of its existential challenge. I use language to speculate on its demise and re-birth. The following text describes a few of these proposals:
The problem of ineffability may be overcome through poetics, chance operations of language, speculation and invention. However, most importantly, ineffability is not only a problem of language but one of the speaker/author. Words falter when they cannot ‘measure up’ to an embodied experience. Instead of assuming an antagonism between language and the body, it is possible to consider language itself as a sensory instrument, tuned to affect as much as rationality.
The problem of representation may be reconciled by considering what good would a map be if it contained all the details and variables of the territory anyway? Language functions precisely because it does not have total comprehension and fixed tethers to reality. It is its incomplete nature that allows a framing of intelligible thought. Representation may be a false goal. In my practice, I have experimented with the diagrammatic form as one way in which to evade the burden of representation without collapsing into nonsense. The diagram is a fitting vehicle positioned between image and text. It is neither wholly autonomous of what it represents, nor is trying to close the gap.
The position of language in communicative capitalism is fraught. I propose that language may use its innate ability to camouflage its intent. It is possible to evade detection and resisted extraction from within endless cycles of circulation and repetition. Similarly, it is possible to wield attention through roundabout ways that do not abide by the logic of the flow of capital. Some of these strategies include encryption, double entendre and coupling word with action.
Lastly, I propose that we examine language from a post-human and ecocentric perspective. Language is often cited as a uniquely human ability, thus a way to demarcate the territory of the human as separate from other agencies in the world. It is a mark of human ‘exceptionalism’ but I wish to examine a reversal of this: instead of language erecting the border, one may allow it to roam free thus, blur the edges of distinction between the human and non-human. What would text and speech look like if not molded through a human tongue, mind and hand? What might it say? My interest stems from a sense of eco-anxiety around a seemingly impenetrable barrier even as the definition and experience of being ‘human’ is constantly modified by matter, machine, network, environment and politics.
Similarly, challenging the limitations of language as an anthropocentric construct helps me understand that ‘Nature’ itself is a semantic construct. Its supposed separation from the human and its banishment into myths of purity, romance, transcendentalism and primordialism are ultimately regressive and eco-parochial. Examining the category of ‘Nature’ as a manmade border allows me to unravel a binary understanding of ‘Human’ vs ‘Other’ and posit that we are not apart from the world we inhabit.
Dean, J. (2009) Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies – Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Duke University Press.
Korzybski, Alfred. (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company.
Website Madyha J. Leghari