Category Archives: Linguistics

A Woman’s a Woman for A’ That

Nana recently attended her first Burn’s supper. This involved being introduced to the twin customs of The Toast to the Lassies and The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.

At the particular supper to which I was party, the Toast to the Lassies was a cheekily scurrilous account of the behaviours of the fairer sex which, in baffling the speaker, were deemed praiseworthy from a sense of bewilderment if nothing else. The Reply, in turn, was a robust account of how, like many other fine examples of the dominant sex, our esteemed speaker could only succeed in life with the support of a good woman.

An amusing showcase of ‘70s gender politics, then.

Over in Glasgow, meanwhile, The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies was being delivered for the first time by a transgender woman – Jo Clifford . I’d recommend a read.

This curious whisky-fuelled cocktail of discourses fair set my head spinning.

When Germaine Greer rattled everyone’s cage recently with her pronouncement that transgender women were not women, I confess I had some sympathy with her position. She was responding to Caitlyn Jenner’s award of Woman of the Year and I suspect Germaine wasn’t the only person whose feminist sentiments rankled at the implied notion that femininity could best be made successful by bringing on board a new CEO who used to be man. A new spin on the ‘old boys’ network’ to be sure, but one guaranteed to bring out the conspiracy theorist in any card-carrying member of the old guard.

And I have to further confess to initially feeling something of the same response to Jo’s Reply – she draws very heavily on her previous experiences as a man to illustrate the uniqueness of her position. Surely it is this unique view that separates her experiences from those of women raised as females within our society? After all, Jo’s conversion/ full realization of herself as a woman came after years of living as boy and man during which time she was surely not entirely immune to the calque of masculine privilege ossifying her form?

As I pondered this, I began to muse on the various situations of the three people amongst my friends and acquaintances whose experiences in this regard really count.

First among these is Jo herself, to whose acquaintance I can lay scant claim beyond the intimacy of her one-woman show The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven — the most moving and thought-provoking theatrical work on this theme I have encountered. (See it if you can).

The second acquaintance may yet be too young to offer her considered account, since she is a child whose inner female was so strong she began her transition at infant school and her journey continues through her still tender years.

The third is a childhood friend whose strong female identity was a certain cat amongst the pigeons of a late ‘60s – early ‘70s childhood in our working class northern English milieu. He now lives as a (camp) adult homosexual man.

I cannot gainsay whether Germaine Greer has any genuine axe to grind with transgender women. It may be that she simply rejects transgender women as women. Rightly or wrongly, I took her argument to be that by including transgender women in the category ‘women’ we deny the uniqueness of their perspective.

But, I come to realise, this is also precisely where such an argument begins to unravel.

For the two folks I know most intimately, it couldn’t be said they had ‘enjoyed’ a prototypical male socialization experience. But then who could claim that?

And whilst I consider myself very much a female I’m not sure I could claim a prototypical female socialization experience, since I’m not entirely sure what one is. Or at least if I imagine one, it is simply that- a construct of the imagination; a fairytale amalgamated from an idiosyncratic selection of all the various gendered and gendering experiences available.

And I couldn’t even give you a percentaged guesstimate of how much of ‘me’ is gendered. Because don’t we all have a core being that remains a genderless thing?

When I wake in the early hours and am gazing at the sleeping windows of the houses in the town where I live, I am not conscious of doing that as a woman, but as a being. The fact that my being is in human form I concede has a considerable degree of influence on my perspective in this instance, but I’m not sure that my gender always exerts the same force.

So whilst the rigidity of the existing gender options of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are beneficially challenged by the fluidity of the trans experience, Germaine’s move to insert a further category of ‘transgender woman’ (and presumably its counterpart ‘transgender man’ — although as a feminist I find it telling that this category is little vaunted, much like Queen Victoria’s infamous lesbian blindspot) still leaves the gender landscape hopelessly codified. The cranny between ‘transgender woman’ and ‘cis woman’ (a term I find both ugly and difficult to accept) simply offers a fertile space for further prejudice to gestate.

Yet surely language has a key role to play. It is the primordial conceptual brine through which we all emerge. Language shapes our imaginations as well as our cultures.

The youngest of my children is of a generation which seeks to obliterate gender altogether. It’s taken me some time to grasp, but this seems to me a genuinely liberating ideal, and worth pursuing.

The most immediate barrier for English speakers is one of pronouns. It seems petty, but in the petri-dish of identity formation pronouns are protozoic.

Discovering self is wonderfully neutral from a gendered language perspective: I; me.

Beyond self, however, our language offers a binary choice of pronouns available to the description of other individual humans, and the only alternative is so cold that we often gender inanimate objects in order to avoid it.

That linguistic move between self and another is our first operation of ‘othering’, and it brings into focus another important aspect of this whole debate. Perhaps one reason for its resonance in contemporary society (after all gender challenges are nothing new) is that it speaks to the conflict between individualism and collectivity.

Here arguments of biology are shown to be something of a red herring, and the question is whether – in an increasingly atomized society – we can ever claim sufficient commonality with others to form an invulnerable group identity. And, given a choice, would we want to?

What premises underpin the claim that ‘we’ are ‘women’ and ‘you’ are ‘men’ ?

Is the rise of individuation a threat to compassion, empathy and sharing? Or does recognition of each as individual remove the barriers that currently divide us as human beings?

As the French philosopher Michel Serres suggests in Hermès, what we have constructed as a coherent real could just as easily be understood to be ‘fluctuating tatters’ wherein ‘the state of things consists of islands sown in archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly understood disorder of the sea…’

Doesn’t our increasing transhumanism broaden our ability to simultaneously encounter, comprehend, experience such that it may become the gift of our time to leave behind the cold safety of categories, to swim freely in the fast-flowing burn of our digital social connectivity?

Perhaps at next year’s haggis someone will be brave and gifted enough to uphold the Lost Burns manuscript tradition with a gender-free rewrite of For a’ That and a’ That ?

And perhaps we might all find the confidence to raise a dram in toast.



A strange urge

I recently popped into Bristol’s Arnolfini to immerse myself in the brilliant Table of Contents: ‘a durational movement installation co-created by Siobhan Davies, Andrea Buckley, Helka Kaski, Rachel Krische, and Matthias Sperling, each using their own history as a choreographer and performer to question how dance is archived.’

This was a wonderful series of pieces performed interactively with the public; each dancer taking it in turns to lead or direct a work. Amongst these glittering gems a very simple piece caught my imagination.

The dancers each invited a member of the audience to work in partnership with them. Each dancer then laid down on the floor. Their partner simply had to instruct their dancer to stand up, movement by movement. The dancers were very reasonable, but very disciplined in following their instructions precisely.

The difficulty of this simple task quickly became clear, with dancers contorted into all sorts of unsustainable shapes.

The piece succinctly demonstrated the limits of spoken language, of logos.

Yet I couldn’t help musing that if the partners had been able to give instruction through any natural sign language, the task would have been achieved quickly and efficiently.

Australian scholar Dorothea Cogill-Koez has argued that the elements of sign languages known as ‘classifier predicates’ are remarkably similar to ‘typical systems of visual representation’, such that sign languages use ‘two equally important channels for conveying explicit propositional information, the linguistic and the visual’. Although I disagree with some of the further detail of her argument, that sign languages do not always have to rely on the linguistic to communicate information was a premise of my own doctoral study.

Because sign languages can visually represent the physical acts involved in standing up, the communication would have been conveyed much more easily, the dancers spared their agonies.

But more than that sign languages are languages that are inscribed through the body; they are body-conscious languages operating through, around and in relation to the body. Sign language helps me to locate emotions and sensations in my body, to read them in others, and it provides a physically-centred orientation in the world. What was so striking about the struggling speakers at the Arnolfini was how very dis-embodied their speech was.

So why did we ever adopt it as a form of communication? What were the evolutionary advantages to the urge to speak?

Although deaf people are often very noisy signing can be a remarkably quiet form of communication (good for hunting), and is much more efficient across distance. It is very useful in noisy environments, too. The only advantage speech offers, as far as I can see, is that it can be used in the dark (although in one’s humble opinion using sign to communicate on the body of another in intimate situations is far preferable).

So did humans find a sudden need to hunt only at night? When did all the lights go out?

Isn’t it time we switched them back on so we could all see each other more clearly?

My prize-winning failure in #translation

If you follow this blog (thank you) you may recall that the last blog ended with us playing with understanding acts of translation….

Here are some more thoughts on this that should eventually bring us back to art and a/r/tography (or another exciting descriptor for what I do- scholartistry)….

We’re all familiar with the notion that there’s always something lost in translation (yes, thank you Scarlett). Indeed, to believe that a perfect translation is possible we would have to believe that exact correspondences could always be found between two different languages (which operate to encode different cultures, which in turn are different ways of being -in-the-world). In short that two human beings were capable of experiencing exactly the same thing. Direct correspondence is pretty unlikely then (even between two speakers of the same language). The best translation can hope for is not to be perfect, true, direct or accurate but to be successful. But what would make an act of translation successful?

Lately I’ve been pondering the notion that in order to be successful a translation must attempt to re-produce what Barthes called the zero degree (the after-feeling/ resonance) of the source text in the target text, so that the new text can occupy a similar place in the social relations of users of language Y as it did to users of language X. I’m not making a claim here that any translation can achieve this, merely that this is the holy grail of translation, the translator’s Mission Impossible.

It’s important to claim that this can only be an attempt, because despite any translation being similarly intended to the original it must inevitably be differently received.

This gap between intention and reception is a tricky expanse to bridge between any language combination but, I contend, it is particularly difficult when working between a sign(ed) and a written language. (If you want to dangerously stretch the metaphor, what you’re going to end up with is less the Clifton Suspension Bridge and more a rickety and rotten rope bridge).

Words on paper ≠ Signs in space. This may be because a large part of the semiotics of any sign language is not contained within the word (Sign). Since sign languages are visual, gestural and spatial (i.e. operate in 3 dimensions ) they do not need to restrict themselves in this way and can make use of all these semiotic dimensions – and in my book, this accounts for the failure of structuralist linguistic approaches to adequately describe sign languages, but perhaps more on this in a later blog.

Sign language poetry, for example, occupies 3-dimensional space and because of the real-world presence of the poet and viewer, they already and inescapably begin to map their spatial and social relations in the act of telling and receiving. This is not the same set of relations commonly found between printed-word poets and their readers.

This extremity of difference between the materialities (Kress) of the written word poem and the Sign poem [even when the Sign poem is recorded on video]  means that the act of translation can no longer be purely linguistic (and here I’m necessarily adopting a post-structuralist stance- in opposition to Saussurian thought- subsuming linguistics into semiotics). To reduce Sign poetry to a written translation is to attribute a false ‘presence’ (Derrida’s false aura of certainty) to the written, which brings us face-to-face with logocentrism and issues of différance.

To capture the movement of the poem, for example, or its directionality in space, a successful translation must surely co-opt broader semiological practices of interpretation to avoid being overly reductive.

e. e. cummings was a pioneer in this regard; stretching the (re)presentational potential of the written form with his painterly eye (he practiced as a visual artist all his adult life).Taking my cue from him, I thought I’d try pushing the potential of the written word to translate Joanna Mesch’s (sign language) poem ‘Ocean’.

You can view Joanna’s poem here:

To see the InsideArts-Faber prize-winning result of my endeavours, click on this link:Finalised translation

Although this translation may have won the prize (=1st alongside William Reed, who was working between written German and written English), it can only fail to adequately re-present the original for the reasons outlined above. This translation can (I think) only work in conjunction with the original, providing a (partial) key to the source text (i.e. when you read the translation, then watch the original you may begin to access what is going on there). But the translation does not stand alone in the way the original does, and therefore cannot hope to re-produce the zero degree of the original, nor its social relations. We still find ourselves fettered by logocentrism.

As Wittgenstein might argue, we need a different meta-language here. This is where a/r/tography comes back in.

e.e.cummings was on the right lines. His visual sensibilities ensured his poems explored what we might now term the concrete-visual continuum. We just need to be able to take this further (to the furthest reaches of visual poetry?).

If we consider that sign language poetry itself acts as a kind of meta-epistemic to the boundaries of both poetry and visual art, then its translation requires some other, non-logocentric, intermedia-ry (intermedia in the Fluxus sense, combined with the function of intermediary or go-between).

Perhaps the bridging material that is required to successfully translate sign language poetry is visual art after all…..

#Frieze,#KatySiegel, materiality, representation, translation

Listening to Katy Siegel’s talk on ‘The Luxury of Incommensurability’ at Frieze ’11 caused me to ponder a little further on acts of translation (the ‘t’ element of a/r/tography to followers of this blog).

The mainspring of Katy’s fascinating and informed lecture was the relationship between material and representation. Katy argued for an analysis of art history that embraced the influence of politics and social cultures; such that defenders of a dichotomy between material and representation were themselves products of the dichotomous Cold War era (think good/bad, black/white, them/us, material/representation). She argued that the ‘Luxury of Incommensurability’ was the (post?) postmodern ability to hold “two thoughts in mind at the same time” (i.e. to listen to the materiality of paint, canvas et cetera, whilst at the same time comprehending the represented). She argued that contemporary greats such as Richter, Freud and Twombly were masters of this luxury, and that this demonstrated a separation between art and the political and social spheres.

I found myself disagreeing on a few points. To take the latter first, I think it rather more likely that contemporary artists are still reflecting political and social influences in their works (how could they not?). It’s just that the politics of our day is diverse, post-structural, multi-perspectival, eclectic and a tad more unmasked. This is what is reflected in Richter’s appropriation of the photographic and its disruption, and in Freud’s and Twombly’s communication of the qualities of the represented through materiality.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that there ever really was a dichotomy between material and representation in the eyes of anyone other than a few art critics and theorists. Confronted with a Michelangelo, despite his uncanny mimetic abilities, has anyone ever been duped into forgetting the material of what is represented? And there are many examples of more ‘unfinished’ or deliberately imperfect pre-Modernist artworks which would seem to be intended to draw the viewer’s attention to the ‘incommensurability’ of both material and representation, and deny the restriction of art to mimesis.

David in all his materiality

David in all his materiality

Surely the popularity of contemporary art is premised on an enjoyment of the suspension of disbelief (which the artist must persuade is worth the effort), and/or the marvel of the mechanics of the artist’s technical achievement, and/or play on contrary positions, as in Found Art. It is this latter move that demonstrates the more sophisticated, multi-perspectival position that is reflective of our socio-economic times.

'Rug',MadeIn Company, 2011, at Frieze 2011

'Rug',MadeIn Company, 2011, at Frieze 2011

Darren Lago 'Mickey de Balzac' (grand) 2009-11. Self-coloured cast glass, reinforced plastic, Frieze 2011

Darren Lago 'Mickey de Balzac' (grand) 2009-11. Self-coloured cast glass, reinforced plastic, Frieze 2011

Siegel is right to refer to this as a luxury, since I’m not sure this postmodern turn has been so wholeheartedly understood by other audiences. Take the case of languages/linguistics. Since the 1950’s linguists such as J.L. Austin, Searle and their followers have argued for an understanding of the gaps between material and representation (the signified and the signifier if you’re a fan of Saussure). These gaps are vital to an appreciation of what may be lost and gained in communication, and more so in translation. Yet not a decade ago I prompted a storm of protest by referencing these gaps in a paper presented to a conference of legal translators and interpreters at the United Nations. One woman screamed at me that there were of course direct equivalents between languages; that water was l’eau was agua et cetera, and that consequently the act of translation was as pure as a mountain stream. (And these are the professionals!)

Of course, at one level, water is eau, but at many others it is not. When I think of water, it is British water. It comes from a tap, is a certain chilly temperature, it is derived from the limestone hills around where I lived as a child and has a slightly chlorinated taste. This is my prototypical water. When I encounter the word, this is what I taste. My prototypical eau is salty, comes from a bottle that has been purchased and is quaffed in the dusty, yellow-infused heat of France. I’m sure both your water and your eau differ from mine.

Language, and therefore translation, simultaneously represent and can never account for all these personal understandings and nuances. Yet I think the vast majority of people expect them to, and naively believe that they do. They are unaware of the materiality of the representation. Even in our multi-lingual, multi-cultural (post) postmodern society. But an understanding and acknowledgement of the lacks, gaps and unintended gains inherent in communication and in processes of translation are necessary in order to move towards the luxurious position of embracing and understanding the incommensurability of language.

This is why I recently entered the InsideArts poetry translation competition, with a translation of a sign language poem into written English. My interest is in the huge discrepancy between material and re-presentation in this case. The materialities of source and target texts are so different that the gaps, cracks and additions inherent in the act of translation cannot be smoothed over (even by a UN translator), and we are forced to address incommensurability head on.

What emerges? More in the next blog……

# A/r/tography? What’s that when it’s at home?

Lately I have had the strangest looks (to misquote Stevie W) whenever I’m asked what I do. This is not altogether surprising, since the answer is that I’m currently practising a/r/tography.

Well, quite.

So let’s swing from the songsheet to chapter and verse.

It’s widely accepted that there are different kinds of learning, and chances are at some stage in your life you’ve probably been in some dodgy business training seminar that has analysed ‘your style of learning’ and assigned you to a category (a bit like a multiple choice pop psychoanalysis in a women’s magazine).  A/r/tography emerged not from Cosmopolitan, but from the (slightly less entertaining) field of Education Studies, where people began to expand on the idea of different types of learning by investigating different ways of teaching, ultimately linking this back to different types of knowing. It’s written that way because the ‘/’ are meant to indicate folds or pleats where the disciplines of art, research and teaching overlap, and the ‘graphy’ the writing of same. See what they did there?

Of course, Nana wouldn’t be Nana if she toed the line, so I’ve adapted this handy little nomenclature to reflect my own mingling of disciplines; art/ research/translation.

So what is it that I actually do? My version of a/r/tography is a means of investigation, a research perspective, a tool if you like. It emerges from a (phenomenological) school of thought that suggests the way we approach things partly defines our understanding of them. If you try to write a poem about a sunny day, let’s say, the activity of writing will begin to shape your thoughts, feelings and memories of whatever sunny day(s) you have in mind. What you eventually capture on paper is as much about the properties of words and paper and mark-making as it is about the properties of your notional sunny day.

In the same way, if you were to take a photograph of a cat, you would be re-presenting some of the qualities of the cat and a lot of the qualities of photography and photographs.

So for me a/r/tography is using art and translation to understand things differently, particularly things that are normally investigated and represented using ‘traditional’ academic techniques (you know, the old qualitative data collection>analysis>representation of findings type of thing). I’m still looking at ‘data’, but because I’m doing it through art and translation what emerges should be a different spin on the same ball; a different, but no less valid (and no less particular) way of looking at and understanding, a way of uncovering overlooked aspects of ‘known’ things.

Not one to paddle when I could be jumping off a cliff blindfold without knowing the depth of the water, I thought I’d experiment with a/r/tographic methods in a PhD- applying them to the study of British Sign Language poetry.

But I dream of a future as an a/r/tographer for hire, shedding new light on ever more challenging topics. I did think it would be fun to market myself as some sort of a/r/tographic private detective, until I realised that would make me a ‘dick’……..

This image no content

Nana has been busy exploring, of late, a course run through the University of Edinburgh by Esther Cohen of Pitclay Creative (see Blogroll).  ‘Introduction to Visual Language: A Practical Approach’ was founded on the premise that there is a visual language through which we commonly construct our aesthetic, and that this language can be studied and analysed in its own right and for its own sake. Understanding the elements of this language, its ‘tokens’ in linguistic terms, and studying its syntax will help us to ‘read’ and ‘write’ more effectively in the visual medium.

To this end, we were introduced week by week to sets of ‘visual elements’, ‘structural components’ and ‘processes and methods for practice’ and encouraged to play with them, slowly building our fluency.

This playtime was admirably controlled so that we were limited to the elements under examination at any one time. Initially working only with paper in two contrasting tones and a limited number of geometric shapes, we were encouraged to discard any ‘themes’ that emerged; flights of fancy and imagination that might begin to dictate form or content. This was purely ‘grammatical’, and we were gently guided back to the strictures of the exercise whenever we became distracted.

As a means to producing polished or meaningful art work this was, therefore, hopeless. That was not the goal. Rather the fun was in the constraint, the stripping back to basics to see what emerged or remained. As a test of the original hypothesis, however, this was hugely successful. We were able to work with these elements, components and processes in the way one might work with vocabulary, syntax and form in a poetry workshop, composing the equivalents of ‘This sentence no verb’ and Chomsky’s famous ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’.

Practices like working in series echoed the notebook practices of creative writing, always working from the last fragment to help construct the next.

A study in both discipline and disciplines, this course was well worth attending and yours truly’s visual products are reproduced here. But the real treasure is in the reflection. 

If we are simply dealing with different tools for inscribing human thought and emotion, different ‘languages’ of humankind, the very fact that they share the feature of being grammatically governed at once reflects the constraints of humanity, and allows for acts of translation. But are visual art and writing really such diverse practices? After all, they are both acts of ‘orthography’ in a broad sense; of inscribing, recording.

Or does the practice of recording bring nothing to bear?

What happens when we compare and contrast forms of language that eschew inscription, like sign languages? They too have grammar and syntax, constructions that are socially determined as more or less successful. They too have aesthetic.

Nana wonders whether there are comparisons are to be found in the ideation as well as the practice and the product……

sheila sea

like thalassic velvet

Sage Brice

Socially and environmentally engaged art - developing collaborative approaches for a changeable world.


Just another site


short story writer

DoubleU = W


Elan Mudrow



A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.

Keep trying

Just another weblog

Globe Drifting

Global issues, travel, photography & fashion. Drifting across the globe; the world is my oyster, my oyster through a lens.

Investigate | Create

involve, surprise, enthuse


visual & sound treasures