Yaniya Lee speaks with two friends about language and power, Blackness and signification, and strategising ways of being.
Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.
Yaniya Lee (YL) [“Love Signal 528 Hz” begins playing]: Worlds open up when Katherine McKittrick talks with her friend Sylvia Wynter—“Friendship is hard freedom,” she says. “Maybe friendships effectuate consciousness and liberation and possibility.”* This edited together jumble of exchanges with my friends Aisha Sasha John and Fan Wu is my attempt to answer the question: What are the stakes involved in the act of naming? Like Katherine, I believe it is through these relationships that knowledge is made and shared.
Fan is a poet and scholar whose superpower is an ability to find the quickest way to get at the truth of a matter. Or the truth of a person.
Aisha is a poet and a dancer of quicksilver vibrancy. Like Fan, she relentlessly pushes for truth.
These two separate conversations, which I’ve shaped into a single, coherent piece of audio, are from my research on the relationship between language and power, originally commissioned by Christina Battle at BlackFlash, and here expanded for Paul C. Fermin at Asia Art Archive. As they were not originally intended to be public, you will hear the background sounds of our studios, and the scratching of my pencil as I take notes.
In any situation, in every context, I seek to understand how power operates. Fan and Aisha push, test, and experiment with words and naming to conjure different possibilities. This prompt, and my friends, have helped me consider language in new ways. I see that naming is a creative act. It creates worlds. It’s only harmful when some have the power to name, and others don’t.
* * *
Aisha Sasha John (ASJ): I mean, there’s so much, there’s so many ways that language is a weapon, and a tool. It’s what we choose to acknowledge and what we choose to not acknowledge. I think the ways that that has been harmful can also be… we can use some of those things… like, the idea which I’ve talked to other artist friends about, around naming their race or ethnicity or naming their queerness—and my argument has been that to name yourself in that way actually affirms that the normal person is white and straight. So when you’re naming these things, this is in conversation with what doesn’t go named, you know?
* * *
Fan Wu (FW): The state wants language to be definitional. Because when it can pin down identities, then it knows what to do with them. If it can pin down identities through surveys, through polls, through getting people to self-identify… it has so many methods of doing that. And then once you’re in that census, then it can treat you like a group of people who are the same. You are, you have, identitarian existence, right?
FW: But what about the flow of experience which is non-identitarian? It’s all these forces that come in and out of you, that you can’t even capture with language. There is a way that there’s this quietude. Like, language can have these wonderful constructions. But it doesn’t get at the truth of experience at the same time. So how do we carve that space away from language? And definition?
* * *
ASJ: To think about being Black is to think about oneself as a signifier… is to think about signification. We can’t think about Blackness without thinking about the sign. Blackness is a sign that is also real. Or, like, and the sign is real, and how we’re constituted by the sign. I think that with this awareness, that the impression that I’m experiencing as a Black person, as a woman—as a person, period—that most of it is being enacted on the level of language, actually, I think. It is complicated. And I think it’s also powerful to… and this is where it gets into, like, when we’re talking about thinking and strategising ways of being—but what do we actually want? And how can we… speak… it… into existence. Like, how can we create with language?
ASJ: That to me feels like the question that I’m left with. Given everything that is, how can language be a creative force, of acts of real change? Including psychic change…
* * *
FW: Yeah, there’s several different poetic techniques that I follow, one of which is sound poetry, so kind of returning poetry to the non-linguistic. To grunts and groans and yowls. And I do this with the experimental translation collective that I’m a part of. And getting at the way that our voices can register affect, instead of meaning. Right? Getting away from the symbolic layer that, you know, you and I are participating in right now, during this interview.
FW: And getting to the scream and the whisper. It’s no longer to communicate one thing from one person to another.
FW: But it’s about creating an effect that people then translate into their own bodies. It’s not a direct channel of communication.
* * *
ASJ: Often when people talk about language, they’re talking about words. But language is more than words. And I guess I’m thinking about… well, we don’t only have language to think through, we can think through other modalities, which is why art does what it does, in different forms… but I guess I think of words as being like houses. And the house is both sensual and historical, so—
* * *
FW: —yeah totally, and the work of defamiliarisation is never complete. I think it’s really important; it’s a continual process. Because as norms, and dominant forces of linguistic power shift and adapt… well, poetics has to adapt alongside it. And continue to challenge it.
[“Love Signal 528 Hz” continues playing and eventually fades]
Yaniya Lee is a writer based in Berlin. She taught Art Criticism at the University of Toronto from 2018–21, and she was a member of the editorial team at Canadian Art magazine from 2017–21. Lee started editing for Archive Books in 2021. Lee has written about art for museums and galleries across Canada, as well as for Vogue, Flash, FADER, Art in America, Vulture, VICE Motherboard, Chatelaine, Canadian Art, and C Magazine.
*The quote by Katherine McKittrick is from a text called “Something that Exceeds All Efforts to Definitively Pin It Down” from her book Dear Science and Other Stories.
Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee.
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023