Activity Group 2: Language Shapes our Ways of Perceiving the World, Ourselves and Each Other
Language is a system that relates our thoughts and perceptions to signs (written or spoken words, images, music, bodily gestures, etc) that carry shared meanings. All languages have vocabulary and rules of grammar that establish a structure within which we make and communicate. Like all systems of rules, these are neither natural nor neutral. Languages acquire meaning through repetition; and these meanings gain authority within particular narratives of history.
But because a language’s significance is developed through its use in a particular context, its rules are also continually stretched, broken, and remade as we employ and adapt them to express our experiences, introducing new narratives and alternate histories.
Focusing on Ligon's painting, we find three strategies that enable him to stretch and shift prescribed meanings:
These tools allow Ligon to expand and transform the context in which meaning is made. In so doing, he makes possible new interpretations of our past, present, and future.
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Citation as Interpretation
Citation is the action of excerpting and re-using others’ words, images, and objects in a new context.
In scholarly or other texts, this is often signalled by quotes and reference to the primary text. Citation works similarly in works of art, with the key difference that a source is not always explicitly cited. Artists and writers often cite an artwork or text that is more well-known or holds an important role in defining a particular kind of artistic form. This strategy displaces an image or text from its prior context, enabling people to ask new questions, see it differently, and engage it in different conversation.
Citation thus becomes an act of dialog: it helps us understand how when one writes or creates, one does so in dialog with others.
In this activity, we invite learners to engage these ideas about language by practicing citation.
- Ask learners to choose one quote from from below and mark up or annotate it.
“Does language simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects, people and events (reflective)? Does language express only what the speaker or writer or painter wants to say, his or her personally intended meaning (intentional)? Or is meaning constructed in and through language (constructionist)?”
— Stuart Hall, “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, 1997.
“Words have users, but as well, users have words. And it is the users that establish the world’s realities.”
— Amiri Baraka, “Expressive Language“ in Home: Social Essays, 1963.
“A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.”
— James Baldwin, "If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" The New York Times, 1979.
Possible ways of working with the three quotes include:
– Provide all three to each learner and ask them to choose one with which to work.
– Ask learners to work in pairs and give each pair a quote to work with
– After learners have time to annotate and respond in writing to each quote, this work could then lead into a group discussion.
- Look up important or unknown words in the dictionary (an Oxford English Dictionary is preferable) and write down the definitions directly on your page.
- Pose either clarifying questions (one right answer) or interpretive questions (debatable questions centered in a particular observation of the author’s language).
After spending some time unpacking and engaging with the language, work on paraphrasing it. What is the author saying?
- Next move to agreeing or disagreeing with the statement justifying your viewpoint with “why” you take this particular stance.
- Finally, make connections to the ideas you find in the quote. These could be personal connections, connections to another writer, text, or visual image, or connections to something in the world at large.
Ligon's painting takes a keymoment from Hurston’s text, How it Feels to Be Colored Me, and changes its context: from the context of a work of literature to a painting, and from the context of Hurston's life to his own.
Learners can choose one of the following quotes from Hurston's text (available in full here) to engage in their own citation work:
“Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain my myself.”
“My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue.”
“The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.”
“He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.”
“But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall.”
- Engage Hurston's quote by keeping Hurston’s language the same but changing its context. Learners can use the chosen quote in a short story or poem, in a painting or artwork, or another form.
As you create a new context for her words, consider who is now speaking? What is happening in your new text/visual image? What new setting or context have you given the Hurston sentence?
Simply put, repetition is the act of doing or saying something again. This definition gains depth when we consider the nuances of its prefix’s meanings: re- suggests recurrence, return, undoing, and renewal.
Repetition is often derided as redundant and banal, as an act that lacks innovation; but we also copy others out of a desire to imitate, understand, document, and parody. It is also the basic operation of learning: we literally learn to write by reading and copying the words of others.
Some believe, however, that each act of repetition is inherently different, that something changes between an original and a copy. Noticing and understanding these differences is key to thinking about repetition not only as a routine act, but as a creative one.
— Repetition: From Prose to Poem
- Take 4-5 consecutive sentences from Hurston’s text (available here). Turn her words into a poem by adding line breaks.
- Keep Hurston's words the same without changing or adding anything to them. However, similar to Ligon’s work with her sentence in his painting, learners will transform her words by stressing particular words with line breaks. By doing so, learners will change her language’s rhythm while also transforming the way we see her words on the page.
— Reflective Writing Prompt
After working with this exercise, spend a few moments reflecting on your process in writing:
How does reading the words as a poem alter or transform their meaning? How does the formal aspect of your poem call attention to particular words or phrases? Consider how your work with repetition has enhanced or changed Hurston’s text’s meaning.
Close Reading as Translation
Translation is the process by which something communicated in one language is conveyed in another. Translators transport concepts and cultural forms between speakers and receivers, across linguistic contexts, and over time.
We could consider translators as the care-takers of a work: they carry it across different contexts to ensure the work’s continuity and renewed influence. At the same time, each work presents a multiplicity of possible translations and each translation is the product of a translator’s singular interpretations. Translation cannot help but displace, disrupt, and reinvent a text in the process of transmitting it. In doing so, they not only change the original text's meanings, but also expand the meanings available in the language into which they are translating.
We could consider the use of metaphor as a model for translation: as translators rewrite a work in a different language, they use their interpretation to substitute one symbol for another and transform the ways in which both a work and that symbol communicate.
— Close Reading as Translation
After working with a dialogic journal on a moment from a text (Hurston’s) or with a visual image (Ligon’s painting), this exercise asks a reader to translate their close reading of this moment from one form to another.
The process of creative translation will help a reader get closer to the language of the initial text/visual image and notice things that s/he previously did not. By switching the register, from text to film or English to Spanish, learners must engage even more closely with the original text in order to figure out how it works. They can then begin to creatively and imaginatively move the original into a new form.
Using the Close Reading exercise in Activity Group 1 as a springboard, you can begin to brainstorm possible ways of translating a particular moment into another form or language, be it from text to visual, musical, computer programming, or from Spanish into Arabic, from English into Hindi, etc.
Reading Resources: Glenn Ligon was produced by Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in collaboration with Wendy Tronrud (A.R.T. Education Consultant) in summer 2016.
Contributors to Ways of Reading:
Web programming by Jeff Khonsary, with typography by Benedikt Reichenbach.
Copyedited by Sara Jane Stoner.
A.R.T. Staff: Alejandro Cesarco, Kylie Gilchrist, Jo Stewart.
A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:
LUHRING AUGUSTINE (specially Lauren Wittles and Lisa Vargehese)
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY’S ART + EDUCATION DEPARTMENT, Jessica Hamlin
A.R.T. Board of Directors
and most specially, Glenn Ligon.
We also acknowledge the assistance and support of institutions who have granted permission for image use:
ANDREA ROSEN GALLERY / FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES FOUNDATION
JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY
MITCHELL-INNES & NASH
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2016.
All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.
A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.