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Friday, August 13, 2010


                                                  TO SPEAK THE UNSPEAKABLE

… spoken by Wolfgang B. Sperlich, 1999

Jacques Derrida, an influential post-modernist and deconstructionist communicator of our time, in a recent lecture in Auckland explored the meaning of the word and concept of ‘to forgive’. He came to the conclusion that ‘to forgive the forgivable’ does not capture the intent of the word ‘to forgive’, rather it must be that ‘to truly forgive’ means ‘to forgive the unforgivable’ (see also Derrida 1997 for his latest book translated into English).

In a similar way I wish to explore the notion that to communicate/to speak the speakable (the conventional, the sanctioned, yesterday’s news, the obvious, the shallow, the acceptable, the thinkable …) does not capture the true intent of the word ‘to communicate’. When we communicate what is already known to us, we merely repeat and reinforce an old message. What is really worth communicating must be new, the unheard of, the yet unknown, the unthinkable, the newly discovered, the unwritten, the taboo.

Marshal McLuhan (1967) who gave us ‘the medium is the message’ which might be changed to ‘the medium is the old message’ when it comes to the overlords of modern communication: the media. Mass communication, as Noam Chomsky (1988) has shown, serves ‘to manufacture consent’ by repeating again and again the commandments of a self-serving economic elite. US President Ronald Reagan, winner of the cold war, was bestowed the title ‘the Great Communicator’ by the mass media: we cannot think of a better example to illustrate the absurdity that those who are masters in saying nothing (new) – such as B-grade Hollywood actors barely being able to repeat the lines of a written script – are appointed great communicators. As many of us have come to suspect, politicians in particular, are the mere mouth pieces of gray operators in the background. Like chiefly orators of the Polynesian tradition speaking for the chief who is always silent in public, they tell us the good old news and the bad old news. The idea is that we better get used to this ‘new order’ which is so rotten and old that it can be easily called neo-feudalism. Welcome to a repeat performance starting 1000 AD. Remember that under feudalism, new or old, everybody is miserable, from bottom to top. In the past the top dog was most worried about his (sometimes her) mortality and spent all his energies (and all the people’s wealth) on monuments to his eternal body. Nowadays the top dogs and increasingly top bitches worry about their hold on global economic empires and how best to spend their vast wealth on inconspicuous mansions in the sky. The unemployed and other mentally ill outcasts of society rely on charities organised by the good ladies and increasingly good men of Remuera and other such holy denominations (Leonard Cohen, a communicator of gloomy lyrics sings in one of his songs aptly titled ‘The future … brother, it is murder’ about the homicidal bitch that comes into the kitchen to determine who will eat and who will starve). Karl Marx was nearly right when he pronounced that religion is the opium of the people: just substitute ‘food’ for opium (cf. the ‘dollar a day’ advertising drives of the charitable Christian children funding organisations … a dollar a day will buy them clean water and food … and those who believe in me will eat and those who do not, will not).

As a sign of resistance I wish to explore in greater detail what it might encompass to communicate the unspeakable. At one level one might begin with a discussion of the alleged problems inherent in ‘cross-cultural communication’ about which a great deal has been written not only in New Zealand/Aotearoa. The now classic Talking Past Each Other by Joan Metge and Patricia Kinloch demonstrates the ‘unspeakable’ due to cultural barriers. Of course the is a myriad of contexts where people ‘talk past each other’ – if they talk to each other at all – and we all know the self-help books on how to improve the situation and get into tune with each other, connect at the same wavelength, celebrate our differences and live in harmony. Sold as a universal panacea, often with religious overtones, up-grading one’s communication skills make us better equipped to figure out what the other guy is on to. It makes us more employable. Especially the young, the unemployed, the criminals, the social outcasts and failures lack in communication skills and they must attend remedial night classes and learn NLP (as an example take Bolstad and Hamblett, 1997, Transforming Communication, Longman). Those who are very successful in public and private enterprise are said to have excellent communication skills.

Quite clearly then, such communication skills are defined within the dominant paradigm and serve the covert aim to maintain cultural, economic and social barriers. The best one can say about such endeavours is that in the upper classes they weed out a certain amount of racism, sexism and other issues affecting the lower classes negatively (the motivation being that such attitudes make no economic sense when you earn five to five thousand times the average wage … hence the celebrity magazines can tell us glibly that the rich suffer fewer social ills than the down and out). Communication barriers remain, and are indeed reinforced at the levels of – and within – culture, race, socio-economic status, class. The well-to-do corporate Maori lawyer does not communicate with the Maori peasant just as the well-to-do corporate Pakeha lawyer does not communicate with the Pakeha peasant (it might be worse among Pakeaha than it is among Maori). Culture, ethnicity, gender, religion and other intra-class differences merely widen the already huge chasm in terms of disposable income and wealth.

To say the unspeakable, on the contrary, is, for example, designed to bridge the gap both within and across endo- and exogamic classes (e.g. translating American Natchez Indian tradition into contemporary practice: every rich man/woman must marry a poor woman/man so as to effect some sort of wealth distribution, cf. Harris, 1983). The unspeakable truth is that what is granted to the few is denied to the many. The unspeakable truth might also be the recognition that a common humanity transcends all mankind and that those who seek to divide it, rule themselves out of the game. We remove the murderer from society. We chastise the thief. We follow the rules of civilized society. Those who break them are penalized. We do not generally question the rules in case they themselves are to blame for the break-down in civilized society. We all now understand the rules of Nazi Germany and how they led to barbarism of the worst sort. What set of rules have led to more recent genocide? East-Timor? What set of rules have led to Maori and Pacific Islanders providing 45% of the prison population in Aotearoa? What set of rules makes poor South Auckland children die unnecessarily from diseases long thought of banished? Who makes the rules? What is the unspeakable truth? The rulers who make these rules must be removed from society! It must be a crime against humanity. Poverty brutalizes people and those who promote poverty by virtue of their wealth are criminal accomplices of those who commit crimes on the street level (of course wealth also brutalizes people in ways that they are prepared to acquire and then defend their wealth by any means). It works in degrees: colossal wealth equals colossal crime.

As educators we have not only the opportunity but also the duty to communicate the unpalatable, to speak the obscene language of poverty, misery, slavery, oppression, injustice. Furthermore as the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the dysfunctional, the mentally ill lack a voice (and not because they lack communication skills), it falls to us who have a voice and should have a social conscience to speak up and come to the rescue of those who cannot defend themselves.  How easy it is to decry poverty and then wine and dine at the revolving restaurant up in the sky. How easy it is to look down to survey the scenery, to feel sorry, to say it’s not my fault. And yet how many come up here to avoid the scum in the slum?

Even as we all agree that words are cheap (actions speak louder, but see Habermas 1981 who defines action as an important type of communication) we have succumbed to the rule that even talk that is cheap must not speak the truth. Not even the cheap truth. We must only allow ourselves to communicate what we know to be expensive lies, we must engage in small talk that shows how witty we can be, how elegant, how sophisticated, how daring we can be with innuendo. We must not use delicately designed brutish language unless we can afford it (NZ’s literary icon and communicator amongst good keen men, Barry Crump, reputedly asked middle-class ladies of Remuera at parties if they’d care for a fuck, and many of them blushed and accepted the invitation, for what else is there to do in Remuera). We must not talk about sex. We must not even look at it (except when it is sanitized in the movies with Nicole and Tom). We most certainly do it (… and the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor … sings Leonard Cohen yet again). The Listener (October 23-29, 1999) says 10 year olds are doing it. It is a real worry. The Listener bravely communicates the symptoms, lays bare the wounds, shows us the underbelly, the naked truth (well, not really, even the Listener has to keep up certain standards of ‘acceptable’ journalism). Sex is a dirty business and the less we talk about it the better. Talking about it merely arouses the interest. Shame! And shame on the Listener (ibid.) for quoting a woman from a Maori health organisation as saying that ‘there are some really strong stereotypes that we were close to the jungle, to nature, and that we have bred and had sex like apes almost, and I think a lot of people have unconsciously bought into those stereotypes …’. The voice of an oppressed woman repeating the worst possible racist nonsense imaginable (the oppressed take on the language of the oppressor … yet another feature of neo-feudalism … just as the ‘untouchables’ of Hindu classism chastise themselves for being lowly born). And considering that the Listener is supposed to be a liberal magazine, food for thought even, how much lower can we get?

Can we get right down to it, really, really low down and communicate? I suppose we can if we realize what communication really is. An important part of that realization is that ‘asking critical questions’ is at the heart of it.  Such a concept has been advocated by Habermas 1981 (who together with Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Benjamin and Fromm of the Frankfurt School of thought developed ‘critical theory’) in his seminal work Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns:

Things that are outside the boundary of ‘doubt’ appear to be without any problems; such un-problematic things are nevertheless the downfall in our life. Only under the situational pressure of an oncoming problem do relevant items of our background knowledge emerge from the comfort zone of the ‘unquestionable’. Only an earthquake will make us aware that the ground we stand on is not a solid foundation. (Vol.2, p.589 my transl. from German)

In other words, those who do not question the status quo, those who do not ‘actively’ communicate will regress to become puppets on a string. Or to use Karl Marx’s famous words ‘those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it’.

To this Julia Kristeva (1981), the noted French post-modernist thinker, added the important idea that ‘critical’ communication also shapes the identity of the communicators:

Questioning is the supreme judicial act, for I who asks the questions, through the very act of asking these questions (apart from the meaning of the request) postulates the existence of the other (p.153).

A newborn child is said to ‘communicate’ its needs by various means, but as these needs are largely instinctive, such communication with those who also largely instinctively provide for those needs is not exactly a deliberate act of communication. Neither are commands, instructions and similar speech acts when we turn to language as communication. Language does however come to be a supremely communicative tool when we realize that we can access crucial knowledge outside ourselves, namely by critically questioning the other. This is in itself a complex procedure inasmuch a child will soon learn that the answers – if at all forthcoming – are subject to considerable interpretation. To naively take an answer at face value may lead to unexpected consequences. The answer may be a lie or the truth or something in between. By clever use of logic we can figure out which direction to take at the Cretan cross roads when we know that all Cretans are liars (hence how easy it is to figure out where our so-called nation is going as we know that all politicians are liars).

The idea that communication is essentially the act of accessing the knowledge of the other leads to the realisation, at least in some, that there is a collective knowledge, and that knowledge shared – via critical questioning - is communication per se. The commodification of knowledge, on the other hand, and the ownership thereof (intellectual property) is designed to undermine communication and restrict it to the realm of the privileged few. The current promotion of a ‘knowledge industry’ is in itself a sign of neo-feudal trends, just as in the Dark Ages the Catholic Church controlled all knowledge by claiming total ownership thereof. Critical questioning, even if glaringly logical à la Galileo, was met by rigorous suppression. Nowadays censorship is effected through commercial publishing and broadcasting, simply by announcing that the ‘unwanted’ is not commercially feasible (notice for example the circular argument that we cannot develop educational resources for small  minority languages because it is not economical to do so, and where the real agenda is to hasten the demise of these languages and cultures). The threats can be extreme: take the Telstra ad on TV which clearly says that if you cannot adapt to present market conditions you will die.

The idea that communication and the media are so closely related is not surprising, as the historical development of language as ‘writing’ became an important extension of communicating with the other on a super-personal level (i.e. the other is not physically present) Perhaps more importantly, through ‘publication’ the ‘writer’ can reach many ‘others’ who will never reply and such mass communication is indeed devoid of any ‘communication’ as it is one-directional. This is not to say that all such one-directional communication lacks any merit. If the written word (published or broadcast, and in a moment we will enter cyberspace) asks critical questions it is still of value, but only second best to ‘direct’ questioning.  Of course this consigns large sections of the written word – and the media – to the scrap heap of a manufactured, violent, pathetic and worthless history.

An extension of the other, explored by postmodern thinkers, is that both individual and collective identity may be based in communication. In the first place we can only establish an identity if we recognize the other: we see ourselves in the other (to only see oneself in oneself is the fate of Narcissus, a fate favoured in today’s star struck society, and the idea that God created man in his own image is the ultimate narcissistic act; the idea of cloning the German race … now a real possibility visited upon NZ sheep … is of course recognized as the ultimate in fascist narcissism). In the beginning the significant other was always ‘real’, in the flesh. As such the idea to communicate with the ‘dead’ and other supernatural beings is also highly narcissistic as all ‘replies’ are supplied by or through ‘self’. When it comes to communicating with ‘virtual’ others we seem to loose out on that earlier function of communication to establish our own identity. However, postmodern thought is making a virtue out of this rather than a problem. Some of our postmodern artists, especially in the area of performance art (Carter 1979, Olalquiaga 1992, Sperlich, 1999), relish the possibility to acquire multiple identities, both in relation to real and virtual others. When communicating with ‘virtual’ others it is no problem to assume any identity one wishes to take on. For example ‘gender-bending’ in Internet chat rooms is now commonplace (for an excellent website for communication studies go to http://www.aber.ac.uk/~dgc/medmenu.html. and for IT and gender issues go to http://www.aber.ac.uk/~dgc/it02.html ). Multi-culturalism can be one source of assuming multiple identities. Today I’m a Maori/woman, tomorrow a Chinese/man, the day after a Pakeha/gay. After all, ethnicity, gender, sexual inclinations are things of the mind – one’s preferred cultural associations – and there is a myriad of evolving possibilities that go beyond and transcend traditional aspects of culture, ethnicity, class, gender, language, locality, sex, art. Part of this new found transcendence is based on critical, postmodern communication which recognizes no absolute truths, no firm yardsticks, no points of absolute reference, where meaning has to be constantly de-constructed and re-constructed. Such fluid relativism sounds like fun , especially in art (and more seriously is backed up by modern scientific theories such as Einstein’s relativity of motion or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum physics, see also chaos theory in mathematics). The multiplicity of language itself (the forked tongue, the mother tongues) is celebrated as it affords ever changing perspectives, and as the major tool of communication, allows us to endlessly re-phrase and paraphrase those critical questions whether or not they yield answers, and if they do, will in turn become the material for more questions. The old adage of ‘the more you find out the less you know’ will be turned into a gay quest (or as Nietzsche said ‘fröhliche Wissenschaft/gay science’) of ‘the more you know the more there is to find out’ and one might look with some confidence to our young artistic intellectuals who will turn this world up-side down, part of it in cyberspace, part of it in the native forests of Aotearoa, part of it in the urban jungle where Pasifika music subverts the capitalist system, where Maori and Pacific Island languages save us from the English plague (as the one and only International Language), where plurality, even in religion, takes over from a dreaded singularity (the one and only God), where what, where nothing, this sentence has gone on long enough (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett in First Love). Or as performance artist Laurie Anderson (cited in Howell 1992) puts it:

            I feel this desperate need to get out of myself.

Or perhaps to quote an icon of the 60s, Janis Joplin, desperate for intense communication … ‘Oh Lord, I’m feeling so useless down here, I can’t find someone to love …’)

Such euphoria, however, can induce a state of uncritical thinking. Let us return to earth and communicate. For there is a little bit of bad in everything good (and a bit of good in everything bad). There are warnings from cyberspace: Kali Tal (1996), an American woman of color and cultural activist http://www.kalital.com/ writes:

I have long suspected that the vaunted "freedom" to shed the markers of race and gender on the Internet is illusory, and that it masks a more disturbing phenomenon - the whitenizing of cyberspace. Ironically, African-American critical theory provides very sophisticated tools for the analysis of cyberculture, since African-American critics have been discussing the problem of multiple identities, fragmented personae, and liminality for more than 100 years. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.10/screen.html.

Perhaps one can read something positive into this: something almost biblical: the meek shall inherit the postmodern world, where the formerly oppressed peoples of all shades, genders and color, thanks to their experiences of crises of fractured identity are now well placed to adapt to a potential modernity of different proportions (i.e. where communication takes place and multiple identities reside in each of us … and where talking to oneself, especially in the form of self-criticism, becomes a real possibility rather than a narcissistic one). The descent into a new dark age of glib and glossy neo-feudalism is an alternative scenario too horrible to contemplate, even though the signs are everywhere.

In free fall from the edge I’d like to conclude with a subversion of the ultimate bible of one-directional communication: the Bible: which begins, quite appropriately with ‘in the beginning was the word’. Unfortunately the second line is very illogical (‘and the word was God’), because if in the beginning was the word, then the word must have been ‘word’. In the beginning was the word, and the word was word. Do not be deceived by English syntax and tell me that as the sentence starts with ‘in the beginning …’ the first word must have been ‘in’. After all, this sentence was first written in Greek. Perhaps a better translation (and I’m only making this up), more literal, is: ‘word was the first word’. The final critical question I put to you, the significant others, is, was ‘was’ the second word?


Beckett, S., (S. Gontarski – editor). 1997. Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. Grove Press

Bolstad, R. and M. Hamblett. 1997. Transforming Communication. Longman

Carter, A. 1979. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. The Bowering Press, London

Chomsky, N. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, with Edward
             Herman, Pantheon Books)

Derrida, J. 1997. Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins, London: Verso Books

Habermas, J. 1981. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main

Harris, M. 1983. Cultural Anthropology. Harper & Row, New York

Howell, J. 1992. Laurie Anderson. Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York

Kristeva, J. 1981. Desire in Language: a Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Basil Blackwell

McLuhan, M. 1967. Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects  Random House/1989 Simon and

Metge, J. and P. Kinloch. 1978. Talking Past Each Other. Victoria University Press, Wellington

Nietzsche, F. 1882 (1967). Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. In Werke in zwei Bänden. Carl Hanser Verlag,

Olalquiaga, C. 1992. Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities. University of Minnesota Press,

Sperlich, S. 1999. Identity and Performance. Dissertation Essay, Manukau Institute of Technology

Tal, K. 1996. Life Behind the Screen. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.10/screen.html

The Listener. October 23-29, 1999. Age of Consent. p.16

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