from Meddle English (2011)
At the end of the 14th century, the spelling and fixing of Middle English was very much up for grabs. Chaucer’s decision to write in a spoken Southern English idiom helped to confirm the richness and versatility of a linguistic region that was starting to strongly de-frenchify its cultural language, de-latinate its vocabulary’s antecedents, and revalue its Anglo-Saxon glossary, while Scandinavian roots were still especially clear and exposed in the syntax and glossary of the North. He made his choices from within the language’s active maelstrom of influences and confluences. Everything about Middle English was a mashup on the rise.
The dispersed, intensely regional transformations of English active in the Middle English of Chaucer’s days are again to be found in the inventive and adaptive, dispersed, diversely anglo-mixed, anglophonic, anglo-foamic languages practiced around the world today, as they follow or emerge from the grooves of military, commercial, cultural transport and trafficking. This transport flows across both diachronic and synchronic routes, sheds as much as it drags historical account along with itself. The wide reach and deep infiltration of Latin had eventually given way to the emergence of distinct latinate languages. English will eventually break and evolve into separate languages. The geopolitical and complex trans-English realities of many post-colonial nations are already exerting lasting pressure. Languages travel as seeded forms of themselves.
Spelling is ideal as a visual marker of such slow changes. It can shift a letter or word from being a semiotic sign to a semiological icon. It can confront the transformed territorialities of English itself. Radical forms of English spelling have dynamized, signed and performed the activist messages of many spoken/written acted up identitarian and revolutionary arts. Explicitly and efficiently spelling can act as a shorthand for cultural outmodedness and revolutionary revival. The K in Amerika continues to hit a raw institutionalized nerve. It is as iconic a sign as the red, green and black British flag created by artist Chris Ofili in response to Paul Gilroy’s “There’s no black in the Union Jack.” Incidentally, its increased usage in preference to the /c/, also recalls the letter /k/’s preponderance in the Old English of pre- Norman times.
Today, a language’s physical manifestation often extends towards electricity and surges. Mediated states, telematic socialization. Spelling daily actively tampered with and coded by shorthand wireless, enhanced by bicultural usage, consumer speed, and digitized mixed writing systems. A text takes on forms that extend language into electronics, data systems, aural proximities, means of generation and dissemination that effect the material and temporal traffic of a nodal series of “pages”. The reader’s body and skills have been diversifying accordingly: thumbs grow more flexible, ears are longer and prosthetic, eyes readily need the stimulus of a moveable text to read.
Writing of course precedes print culture and will continue after it. Being in formation, new media and communication technologies can help to identify the complex hold-ups to the renewal of the role of writing in culture. For instance, they signal that the forms of exchange and learning most widely sought today place transformative and connective value on locationality, transport and audio-visuality. So what will a contemporary writing environment require and for what purpose? And what is its role? How does it record and store itself? What are its essential elements and tools? How does it perform and how does it read? What does reading mean? How will memory function, what will transcription entail?
Increasingly, writing draws from literary as much as cross-media activities. It is signed through by literal as well as lettered bodies. Poetic art becomes an occupancy of language made manifest through various platforms, a range of instrumental tools and skills and relativized forms of inscription. From audio performance to complex events, it functions in a logic of relays and of distributive networks, incidentally already inherent in the permutational logic of the alphabetic and indexical systems. This is allowing a reinvestment of literary productions away from often stultifying distribution markets towards dynamic networks, systems of exchange and more open archival structures. If this seems on a par with the displacement of literature as a dominant artform, and publishing’s hold on that, the diversification of writing culture goes also way beyond strategic survival or a timely fascination with media flexibility.
Indeed, beyond literary culture, all these questions and issues affect the cultural syntax itself. They are a reminder of the needs awaiting future literacy issues, both linguistic literacy (what we now call communication, multimodular training as well as speech production) and, not one without the other, cultural literacy.
The middle is slang. Processing of new literacy tools. Networks and distributive modes of knowledge. Writing in culture.
Spoken, transmitted, inscribed languages are at the root of the imagination of writing. They highlight the social machines that underpin the work: the voices, the languages, the pleasures, the complex nexus of cultural and literary motivations with their access markers, their specific narratives, existential tropes, their polemical procedures and formal devices. It is the writer’s role to test out, provoke the naturalized edges and bounds of language use and rules. She mines language for what is always moving, always escaping. To travel at the heels of writing activates reclaiming zones, fictitious collective memory.
So much holds our bodies, our lives, to separate identitarian account. How does one shift the representational stick-up from the face of the speaker?
I repeat what many have said, that poetic or art language must not implicitly be held to account of identities and national language, the seductions of literary history, or the frequently fetishistic methodologies of art movements, but rather seek, far and close, the indicators and practices of language in flux, of thought in making: pleasured language, pressured language, language in heated use, harangued language, forms of language revolutionized by action, polemical language structures that propose an intense deliberate reappraisal of the given world and its given forms.
More often than not, we each use a voice that speaks for us before we get to speak. Quite apart from the ideological implications and beyond palliative arts methodologies, this is why so many of us spend so much of our lives and imagination working at the undoing of a voice or identity we do not wish to be tagged as and questioning the methods of environments we might not wish to represent. It is through this confusing, seemingly self-defeating process of dissociation, of “disloyalty”, that other forms of allegiances are made manifest and other conductor channels can be generated.
To meddle with English is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity. It is a process of social and mental excavation explored to a point of extremity. One that reaches for the irritated, excitable uncertainties of our embodied spoken lives by working with, taking apart, seeing through the imposed complicities of linguistic networks and cultural scaffolds. One which is not only prompted to recognizes what it wishes to fight against: what sedates, what isolates, what immobilizes, what deadens, what perpetuates. But works at it tactically, opportunistically, utilising at will and with relish the many methods, tools, abilities and experiential attitudes it needs. Making a workshop of the surrounding world. Oiling creativity and artistry with critical spirit, since there can be no revolt nor renewal without creative impulse, without anarchic pleasure, without a leap in the dark.