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The investigation of aphasia is always already its production.”1 A proposition from Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900, Friedrich Kittler’s seminal analysis of media and communications systems, and the central thread of our present inquiry, places linguistic expression within the operation of its own research. From this premise, it follows that to articulate an exhibition of work symptomatic of aphasia, a cognitive disorder causing an inability to understand or produce speech, is always already the production of pathologic language activity, the articulation of a disrupted linguistic apparatus. As such, Kittler contends that, in any pathology or dysfunctionality, “the noise that precedes every discourse becomes at once theme and method.”2 Proceeding through the cypher of aphasia and embracing thematic and methodological noise inherent in the assembly of seemingly aphasic work, Itself Not So, gathers a variety of artworks and performances that, together, form a polyphonic response to the disorder’s fundamental rupture between thought and expression. Seeking an expanded consideration of this schism, the exhibition conceived of aphasia as a paradigmatic representation of speech disruption in visual art, poetry, sound, video, and performance. This essay is a non-exhaustive reflection on a few of the works in the exhibition, highlighting specific concerns that arose retrospectively, but have their seeds in the show’s research and development.

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James Hoff, Concept Virus #1, 2013
Enamel on aluminum, 32” x 24”

In the Realm of Sense

Imagine a man endlessly reading aloud to himself nonsensical, meaningless syllables arranged in some indecipherable pattern or scheme: to unlearn and forget, to test the brain’s capacity for memory divorced from affective or associative content, to prove that memory is a machine with unbound retentive capacity for the senseless. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist active in the second half of the 19th century, presupposed the significance and capacity of forgetfulness as being other than that of memory. Ebbinghaus’ experiments strung together meaningless acoustic enunciations that would test his ability to repeat the phrase without the aid of prior knowledge or mnemonic association. His work addressed forgetfulness not simply as a form of unlearning by wiping the memory slate clean, but as an exploration of the positive capacity of not remembering. Not remembering how to remember, or to recall the senses from familiar channels of connectivity or association. His proposition, that corruption of normative pedagogical structures for the assimilation of language bases and hermeneutic models could reveal a rich structural apparatus of information, attests to the positive faculty of forgetting.

Of interest […] is the transposition of language into raw (meaningless) information, a process set in motion by the breakdown of associative fields. We might call this mechanism a technology of forgetting…

As Giorgio Agamben has argued, the faculty of memory inherently signals the presence of its absence,3 that is, the capacity of the unmemorable, the space that is liberated through mnemonic gaps and losses, and perhaps most importantly, the elimination of a pre-determined (or over-determined) hermeneutic through forgetting. The language of forgetting is liberated speech, or what Kittler referred to as “the pure flight of ideas” – language undisturbed by the weight of memories or associations that tether the phrase to its primed mnemonic context: language in its raw state. The proposition may seem utopian, or appear to hark back to certain experiments of the historical avant-garde, namely Dada’s resounding embrace of nonsense, John Cage’s mesostic disassembling of syntax, to name only a few. Of interest here, however, is the transposition of language into raw (meaningless) information, a process set in motion by the breakdown of associative fields. We might call this mechanism a technology of forgetting4 and explore its manifestation in a performance that took place as part of the exhibition.

Ben Vida - Slipping Control (LC Edition)
composition for voice and fixed electronics

In Ben Vida’s Slipping Control (LC Edition), sense never enters the composition. Rather, its eruption would form a disturbance to the tightly orchestrated score for a string of sonic emissions and vocalizations made with the synthesizer. The transfer of text to voice and gated, fixed electronics necessarily forces a modal shift. Hovering on the edge of sense through evocative, rhythmic patterning,5 yet never fully approaching a meaningful cohesion of phonemes, morphemes, or individual language units into a signifying phrase, Vida’s performance points precisely to what is at stake for the subject in Ebbinghaus’ experiments. In psychophysics and metapsychology, the coherence and significance of language signals is a prerequisite for psychic unity and subject formation. However, speech that is composed of text divested of cognitive association exists as language untethered from the temporal circuit. Thus, it points to an enfolding of language upon itself, locking into the present rhythms of the enunciated phrase, even as it free falls out of the voice. Vida’s is a performance of pure emission defying exteriorization by collapsing in on itself as the voice becomes coupled with its electronic double. As Ebbinghaus’ experiments approached code (and in many ways foreshadowed the endless potential of computer-generated patterning) Vida’s self-generated vocalizations and syncopations articulate the information of a withheld voice in the machine age.

Langue Pendue

In Leos Carax’s 1986 film, Mauvais Sang, the insolent and ravaging Alex, affectionately nicknamed “Langue Pendue,” is a sullen, mysterious character, whose dexterous hands make him the ideal collaborator for a last-ditch heist to save the lives and livelihoods of two former accomplices. Alex, played by the inimitable Denis Lavant, is a trickster: in his hands objects disappear and reappear as something else. His nickname too, is deceptive: Langue Pendue translates to “Chatterbox” in the original subtitling, and the phrase, “avoir la langue bien pendue,” (an approximate transliteration would be “to have your tongue well hung”) means to speak with ease. Ironically, Alex was rumored a frighteningly silent child, speaking so infrequently his parents feared him mute. In the film, Lavant plays Alex’s character not as overly silent, but rather expressive when he needs to be. A ventriloquist, language rises out from inside of him without revealing a glimpse of his speaking tongue. His nickname is an embodied synecdoche, anchoring the whole of his being and language-production to the activity of his tongue. Languishing droopily over the corner of a three-legged chair (the fourth leg lays diagonally on the floor nearby), Michael Dean’s oversized concrete tongue is a severed organ postulating words it cannot produce, alluding to sounds it cannot emit. Surrounded by a plain, undecorated MDF environment resembling the desk-and-chair office setup of other works from his Analogue Series, the tongue never quite rises to the task of pronunciation, just like the broken chair it rests on never quite fulfills its supporting potential.

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Michael Dean, Analogue Series (tongue). On the pronunciation of the Letter L, 2014.
Concrete, MDF, and glue, 48” x 96” x 96”

An analogue, like a nickname, is a selfsame other. Dean’s sculpture and Carax’s character, both hanging tongues of sorts, come together to form a paradoxical rebus, an image/object and word used interchangeably. In Discourse Networks Kittler identifies the rebus as an instrument of symbolic transposition, a form of manipulation which “must leave gaps from one embodiment to another.”6 Further, he argues that transposition is accomplished “at discrete points,”7 yet, as it attempts to universally exhaust the mutual, internal relations from one media to the next, gaps emerge from structural inadequacies or incompatibilities. At the threshold of its new form, what information remains unexhausted by the transposition is left behind. The nature of transposition is revealed through these deficits, through what is lost and what spaces are opened up. Kittler quickly concludes that the result of these gaps is never a surplus of meaning.

The nature of transposition is revealed through these deficits, through what is lost and what spaces are opened up.

In the severed tongue, everything remains condensed, words feel cast inside, meaning escapes but without ever signifying beyond the object’s form. Gesturing towards an internal rupture in language marked at once by speech and muteness, expression and silent introversion, the tongue in both instances speaks to the ways in which Daniel Heller-Roazen defines aphasia. In an acute inversion of existing discourse, he argues that, “contrary to the common conception, [aphasia] constitutes not a type of forgetfulness but exactly the reverse: an aggravated form of recollection, in which individuals, unwilling or unable to ’re-arrange’ or ’re-transcribe’ the ‘signs’ of their perceptions, remember, so to speak, too much, condemned to the perpetual recurrence of one utterance at the expense of all others.”8 Dean’s tongue endlessly repeats the silent L we so dream of hearing echo from the chambers of the body from which it is divorced. “L” is like “Langue,” which is both language and tongue in French. Caught at an impasse between the activity of the tongue and the activity of language, the impotent organ swells from its silence and failure to enunciate the enormity of all language stuck at its tip.

Dispossession

I am reminded of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ emphatic espousal of the Yamato poiesis, a poetics derived from the Japanese renga form, which yields texts through a chain of collaborative writing. In The Third Mind, Gysin and Burroughs describe this paradox as “to possess one’s own language within the sphere of language that possesses us so that we may finally be dispossessed of it.”9 Accordingly, the activity of language – which allows for subject-formation and being – is, in this modified form, to move in the direction of nonbeing, the positive loss of subjectivity within the plurality of the group’s enunciation. To possess one’s own language in order to be dispossessed of it. The proposition, which implies collaboration to produce said “sphere of language,” is peculiarly suggestive for the aphasic. The ability to operate within language’s representational, meaning-making system is thus correlated with the capacity to willfully disrupt or abandon the linguistic complex. The imperative, to possess one’s own language, is undercut by the pathological inability to do this very thing, and thereby redoubled in its urgency. Stripped by the disorder, one is called upon to reclaim and hone one’s own language: in the first stage, to rebuild the linguistic-semiotic complex as a subjective activity of being; to re-enter the sphere of language from which the aphasic has been expelled. Ultimately this is movement toward the objective nonbeing of language achieved in its collective form.

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Fia Backström, An-alpha/pet:isms…, 2014.
Inkjet print on vinyl film, steel, and industrial screws. In 5 parts: 60” x 36”; 54” x 36”; 48” x 36”

In Fia Backström’s An-alpha/pet:isms…, a sculptural installation in five parts, macro photographs of individual keys from the artist’s computer keyboard have been inverted and printed onto transparent film that hangs from steel supports. Through their repetitive use, the letters have been rendered partially or totally unreadable. “Uniqueness […] is always a result of the decomposition of anonymous, mass-produced products:”10 to use means to wear down. The result is a devolution of morphological units into a state of illegibility, causing the operations of language selection (both formation and apprehension) to deteriorate. Mixing forms of aphasia with alexia,11 the work demonstrates what Kittler identifies with each condition, respectively, as “the nameless and the formless.12 The performance of labor that rests on or enables language production is thus proportional to a form of dispossession where language leaves itself, the shape of letters dissolving progressively into undifferentiated form. Backström’s work expands the interpretive capacity of embodied, motoric activity and memory beyond the parameters of the legible. She generates new linguistic chains that incorporate the abstract, the formless, and the erased to suggest different ways of encountering language. The keyboard as the site of contemporary cognitive, intellectual, pedagogical, administrative, and social production is a territory that the body’s memory has assimilated: it need no longer signify in itself to produce. Liberated then, both from necessity of presence and bodily attachment, letters in varying realized forms produce alternate, often immaterial, semiotic articulations.

What Is the Word?

“folly for to need to seem to glimpse
–what – what is the word –and where –”13

Overcoming mild (non-diagnosed, clearly hypochondriac/hyperbolic) agraphia14 to find the words to write this (and finish it), I thought of Jimmy Buffet’s song, If Your Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me: “I’ve lost all the old ways / I’m searchin’ for new plays / Puttin’ it all on the line.” This is also the title of Research Service (Avi Alpert, Mashinka Firunts, and Danny Snelson)’s ongoing installation and lecture-performance, which, after three weeks of telephonic surveys with gallery visitors conducted by a robotic voice questionnaire, culminated in a performance taking the form of three panel presentations. Each talk-performance was ceaselessly interrupted by the speech-coaching of a fourth performer, Lanny Jordan Jackson, and the introduction of excerpts from the recorded phone surveys. Circling back to Kittler’s suggestive statement that “investigation of aphasia is always already its production,” Research Service’s performance serves as a precise demonstration, with the panelists painstakingly reciting from their papers while Jackson’s instructions and commentary repeatedly and dispassionately disrupt each monologue.

Research Service - If Your Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me. Lecture/performance prepared with material from questionnaire responses, phone Skype interviews.

Jackson’s interruptions, which range from imperatives to enunciate all letters,to praise for the quality of allophonic vocalizations, also make incisive commentary, causing longer pauses in the presenters’ cadence during the performance. In one instance he remarks: “The trick is not in the quality of the voice, over which you have no control, but only in its management.” In another: “Where the voice fails, eloquence ceases to have living existence, and may be found only in the dead letter.”15 The spectrum, from complete control and ability, to complete failure to perform in speech, reveals mechanisms of memory management, language formation and vocalization, which, at any level, allow the emergence of disruptions and disturbances within the field of linguistic potential. In Samuel Beckett’s poem “What is the Word” the same phrases or series of phrases are repeated, with difficulty, and accumulate until the final phrase nearly encompasses every word introduced: “folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what.” Of the five questions “what” “where” “who” “how” “why,” only two pervade the poem, while three are conspicuously missing. I will table “why” for now. “Who” – the subject – and “how” – to find the word, are absent. What is the word, if the subject cannot learn how to speak it?




  1. Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900. Trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 216

  2. Kittler, p. 218

  3. See Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Trans. and ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.

  4. I’m indebted to Trond Lundermo’s terminology here, in “Technologies of Forgetting: Cinema and Recollection in Le Mystère des roches de Kador.” Film and Its Multiples: IX International Film Studies Conference. Ed. Anna Antonini. Udine: Forum, 2003: 283-90.

  5. When enunciation becomes organized into recognizable patterns we begin to imagine things making sense.

  6. Kittler, p. 267

  7. Kittler, p. 265

  8. Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language. New York: Zone, 2005, p 145.

  9. Burroughs, William S. and Brion Gysin. The Third Mind. New York: The Viking Press, 1978, p. 11.

  10. Kittler, p 281

  11. The inability to read signifiers, which one is able to produce.

  12. Kittler, p. 218

  13. Samuel Beckett. “What is the Word.” Grand Street. Vol 9 No 2, Winter 1990, pp 11-19

  14. Agraphia is the inability to communicate through writing. This is a motor dysfunction, which I do not suffer from.

  15. Both from the unpublished transcript of the performance.

Works Referenced

Susan Howe, Frolic Architecture, 2010
letterpress print, 11 x 17 inches; Framed: 13.25 x 19.25 inches
courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, NY
photo: Cary Whittier (cropped and altered for use here)

James Hoff, Concept Virus #1, 2013
enamel on aluminum, 32 x 24 inches
courtesy of the artist, Lisa Cooley, NY and Callicoon Fine Arts, NY

Ben Vida, Slipping Control (LC Edition)
Composition for voice and fixed electronics
Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, NY

Michael Dean, Analogue Series (tongue). On the pronunciation of the letter L, 2014.
concrete, MDF, and glue. 48” x 96” x 96”
courtesy of the artist, Lisa Cooley, NY, and Herald Street, London
photo: Cary Whittier

Fia Backström, An-alpha/pet:isms…, 2014
inkjet print on vinyl film, steel, and industrial screws. in five parts: 60 x 36 inches; 54” x 36”; 48” x 36”
courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, NY
photo: Cary Whittier

Research Service, If Your Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me, 2014
performance, August 29, 2014
courtesy of the artists and Lisa Cooley, NY
video: David Formentin

Rick Myers, Study with BEFORE following AFTER, 2010 [shown below]
alcohol sealed sooted paper with etched soundwaves of the words AFTER, BEFORE, AFTER, having been spoken aloud and transcribed using a phonautograph, 11.7” x 8.25”; Framed: 23.75” x 4.75”
courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, NY
photo: Cary Whittier (cropped for use here)

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Rick Myers, Study with BEFORE following AFTER, 2010
alcohol sealed sooted paper with etched soundwaves of the words AFTER, BEFORE, AFTER, having been spoken aloud and transcribed using a phonautograph, 11.7” x 8.25”; framed: 23.75” x 4.75”