We live in a word-centric world. It’s often assumed that contemporary culture is dominated by the visual image, but it’s not that simple: the meaning of the ambiguous image is created, mediated and contested through written and spoken language. No matter how debased and crude that language is – in the repetitive sloganeering of election campaigns, for example, or the ear-bashing ads of Harvey Norman – it directs the reception and interpretation of the image. In more complex public conversations, thought is still assumed to be the province of the word.
“The body says what words cannot.” – Martha Graham
“In the beginning,” runs the Christian dogma, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In this cosmos, the word is the beginning of consciousness: through spoken and written language, human beings became able to conceive themselves as double beings, those who said and those who heard, those who made meaning and those who received it. And meaning itself was abstracted from the body: when it was written down, it existed outside and beside those who said and those who heard. It was at once God and with God, it was meaning itself and also separate from those who made meanings.
Thinking and the making of meaning is commonly considered inconceivable without the word. Throughout western history, the ability to be articulate has been equated with consciousness itself, as the defining marker of humanity. Animals can be treated as insentient objects because they have no speech: their suffering is unconsidered, because it is unspoken. This is extended to a hierarchy of humanity, in which only those who use the right words in the right way are considered to be fully human. It’s a major mechanism used to exclude women, or the poor, or children, or disabled people, or even those who don’t speak the right language or are the wrong skin colour. Their very experiences, even when articulated in the “proper” language, are dismissed as invalid. You can see this at work in US journalist H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, when he claims that the “lower orders” are incapable of thought:
“The lower orders of men, though they seem superficially to use articulate speech and thus to deal in ideas, are actually but little more accomplished in that way than so many trained animals. Words, save the most elemental, convey nothing to them. Their minds cannot grasp even the simplest abstractions; all their thinking is done on the level of a few primitive appetites and emotions. It is thus a sheer impossibility to educate them, as much so as it would be if they were devoid of the five senses. The school-marm who has at them wastes her time shouting up a rain-spout. They are imitative, as many of the lower animals are imitative, and so they sometimes deceive her into believing that her expositions and exhortations have gone home, but a scientific examination quickly reveals that they have taken in almost nothing. Thus ideas leave them unscathed; they are responsive only to emotions, and their emotions are all elemental – the emotions, indeed, of tabby-cats rather than of men.”
Most women will recognise that argument: the act of dismissing a woman’s capacity for language is in fact a dismissal of her experience. It recalls Samuel Johnson’s famous aphorism: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Even when “lower” humans attain the requisite skill of using the proper words, they are still considered no better than performing animals aping the “real” people.
These hierarchies are the result of the capacity to discriminate, to perceive phenomena as like or unlike others. From Aristotle on, our traditions of science and philosophy and art are built on this capacity: it is a crucial component of learning how to think at all. But as is clear, it can also mean concomitant losses in our cultural ability to perceive the world in which we live.
Now, I am a writer, a person who thinks first in words, and so I am hardly one to deny the importance of spoken and written language in the creation and communication of meaning. Ever since I first learned to read, which was well before I went to school, words were the means through which I shaped and imagined and understood experience. But it has always been clear to me that there are many ways of thinking and communicating. Any pet owner knows that, even beyond the projections of anthropomorphism, a dog can express joy or sadness. Human beings are ingenious creatures, and we make language in many ways: through image, through gesture, through abstract sound. Mathematics is a language that shapes our reality, although it has no words. A visual artist makes meaning through shape and colour and texture. A dancer makes meaning using his body, through the syntax of her gestures, her movement through space and time.
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect on the world… The world, our world, is impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” -Susan Sontag
As there are hierarchies of human beings, so we have created hierarchies of language. Even among the spoken tongues, some are more equal than others: ask any Indigenous person fighting to have their language taught in schools. And among those that are not spoken, the language of the body is most marginalised, because it is the least translatable into speech: its articulations are often not recognised as thought on their own terms. Yet – most clearly in contemporary dance – these articulations are a language: they are complex and precise responses to the inner and outer worlds in which we live. This is why, when Isadora Duncan was asked the meaning of a dance, she said: “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”
I recognise Duncan’s response with the impatience of a poet who often had to answer questions in school about “what the poet was trying to say”. The poet wasn’t trying to say anything: the poet was saying it. In that question is a blanket denial of certain properties of language: meaning does not exist until the poem is paraphrased into a recognisable narrative. The formal shape of the poem or the dance, its sensuous properties, its resonance within the body, its capacity to be, rather to record, lived experience, is simply not registered. And entire dimensions of our existence are thus invisibly but inexorably ignored, and the materiality of our lives rendered as an increasing poverty.
This demand for paraphrase, for expression to be pruned back to the already known, is true about the reception of all art. And yet, at least in part, art emerges from a desire for expression that realises our multiplicities, as individuals and communities: the passionate intellect, the lived imagination, the word made flesh, the many in the one. These are not contradictions, although our culture often makes them so: they are necessary conditions of each other.
Einstein says, in speaking of his visualisations:“The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. …. This combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.”
No one would deny that Einstein was thinking, even though he doesn’t employ words; but dance is often not given this courtesy. And yet dance is a language that anyone can understand: all that is required is to watch and to listen, to follow the thought in action as it unfolds before you.
As one who thinks in words, I can’t escape the knowledge that words are late-comers to thought, mere approximations of intricate interior processes. Bodies are complex apparatuses, and our conscious lives are moved by an infinite number of influences: not just the word written down, but the word as spoken; not just the word as spoken, but the communications of subconsciously registered gesture; not just the exterior stimuli, but the feedback mechanisms of nervous and endocrinal systems, the movement of blood through veins, the vibrations of sounds, the molecular chemistry of smell. Our animal bodies are inescapable. And yet much of our tradition of thought is about denying or ignoring the presence of our animal bodies.
There are many languages I don’t understand. But to deny their role in the creation of human meaning would not only be blind and prejudiced: it would impoverish my own languages. Some things cannot be said in words. Indeed, as a poet, I discovered that what I wanted to translate into speech were precisely those experiences that language can’t encompass. Perhaps this is why I found myself so fascinated by contemporary dance, when I first began to watch it seriously a few years ago. It’s no accident that it so often makes me think of poetry: like a poem, dance is an articulation of thought that comes before (and also, because culture is the medium we swim in, after) the word. The Word is not the Beginning. Dance is a language that poetry reaches for, without ever quite inhabiting it.
Dance is a language that poetry reaches for, without ever quite inhabiting it.
Poetry is a medium that attempts to make the body resonate in its meanings. Dance is the body resonant with meaning. Writing is always past tense: the best writing creates the illusion that it is occurring in the present. Dance doesn’t have to create that illusion: it is the present tense. You are in the present moment. The present moment is difficult, exhausting, joyous, painful, complex, mundane, delicious, exhilarating, hilarious, tragic.
The present moment is mathematical, meta-physical, metaphorical. The present is thinking. NOW NOW NOW.