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Electronic Linguistics

[Written by George Quasha, in part in dialogue with Gary Hill, and with a view to further dialogue with Chrissie Iles, as preliminary statement in contribution to Thomas Bartscherer’s project of a collection of art-centered essays on information technology. The views expressed herein are George Quasha’s, reflecting many years of collaboration with Gary Hill, who expresses agreement with these views, as well as Charles Stein.]

The notion of “language” is subject to radical reframing in any unprecedented context, and indeed, albeit subtly, in any actual unexampled use. “Information technology,” due in part to its continuous demand on new descriptive terminology as well as its appeal to artists, may be regarded as a continuous opportunity for reframing further the possible understandings of what language is. This seems particularly true in the artistic uses of new technologies

As an instance of such an artist’s response to new technological use, Gary Hill from early in his work developed a parallel interest in new uses of technology and in innovative uses of language. He discovered, for example, a language function that kicks in when working with specific electronically generated processes of image formation (initially with a Rutt-Etra Video Synthesizer). Visual abstractions through synthesized video, of which there are a potentially infinite number, take on a self-limiting and self-organizing quality of “identity” manifestation; that is, they come to seem somehow entitative, even though the boundaries of a given emergent entity are relatively fluid. There comes a point where the emergent entity assumes a sort of responsive intelligence with which one feels oneself in dialogue, even to the degree that it appears to embody a condition of request, as if it wants to be a certain way. It is at this point that one feels oneself to be in a state of language. Understanding this state may make use of innovative notions, such as the one Gary Hill proposed: “electronic linguistics,” languaging that arises uniquely within an electronically generated process.

If one’s response to this state of language were to turn to existing vocabularies pertaining to a given domain of, say, information technology or formal philosophy, then the state of language might withdraw from one or refuse further access. That is, if one interferes with the dialogic state of responsive listening by supplying an already existing languaging, the very creative matrix closes down. This leads to a question as to whether a “natural” or self-generating language state requires radical openness and is therefore in opposition to formal language systems aimed at precise one-to-one referentiality.

Accordingly there are art strategies that aim at keeping formal expressions unresolved. This may imply an understanding of language that is radically different from more common understandings, such as those that see language as generated in specific environments in a context of communication and consensus.

Specific issues appear within the experience of language to arise from a particular process and state of composition. Preliminarily we can name some of these:

Configuration: Instead of viewing language function as either the conventional one of definite figuration (referential) or its contrary, abstraction (non-referential), it is viewed as configurative. That is, language is the medium of connection between self and world/other that configures reality. Here language is itself a reality generator. Therefore one’s engagement in a specific process moves toward generating reality through language that fits the process. Language of course may also reflect the process and indeed reflect on the experience of the process, even to the point of generating taxonomies and analysis, but such language behavior is not the primary language function but one of many configurations. The implicit view is that language as instrument of mind and body is inherently configurative. Thus the artist’s engagement with technology can be a magnified instance of the raw configurative force of language, called out by sheer unlimited formativity.

Speed: One of the characteristics of electronic processing is the speed with which forms are generated. The artist attuning consciousness to such processing enters into a unique state of language, one that may have a direct relationship with neurological processing, on one hand, and, on another hand, a trans-neurological state that represents mind and body as a field of language composition and hyperlocality. Language no longer is drawn to represent things as located in a certain place because things are not experienced that way; rather, things are hyperlocal, generated without regard to place-limitation and experienced as potentially located in more than one place at a time. Indeed, the experience of speed may have the effect of seeming to abolish time as a constraint, so that one operates within a field of attractions that seems to offer a potential micromoment, a still point, a point of possible atemporality. Language itself may attempt to embody such possibility. (Early exploration of the implications of speed in language composition has occurred in various ways in experimental poetics, for instance, in Charles Olson’s Projective Verse [1950].)

Body: Electronics seems to take one into more mental space and leave the body behind, which may be a factor in the general non-resistance to jargon-like terminologies dominating the language of technology. However, paradoxically, the artistic engagement with technology can have the opposite effect, perhaps due to the effect of feedback on neurological and trans-neurological (field) processing. Perhaps also such engagement at the electronic level triggers an implicit awareness of the energetics of languaging. Such awareness can see the connection between, for instance, electronic wave phenomena and physical waves (in the ocean, registered in the body [e.g., Gary Hill’s experience as surfer entering the electronic art domain]), suggesting a subtle connection between electronic process-thinking/languaging and body-thinking/languaging.

Liminality: We think of language in terms of large oppositions – referential/non-referential; figurative/non-figurative; subjective/objective; natural/constructive; etc. However, processual thinking/languaging offers an opportunity to see how these oppositions are merely perspectival and functional most usefully in defining the dynamics of a field. Electronic processing offers an opportunity to see a liminalist stance as optimal in harnessing the energy of field oppositions; that is; instead of orienting thinking/languaging toward resolving the tensions of a field of oppositions, one orients toward sustaining the field and keeping it open. Language itself becomes the threshold where the tension of opposition is retained. Language does not expend energy so much as attract it and carry it toward a further expression. This view suggests that the art/excitatory aim of language is not so much communication as communion – a meeting place of energies.

Living language: In objectivizing language we may move far from the view, held by many artists (especially language artists), that language itself is in some sense “living.” We say “living language” to mean what sounds the way people actually speak, but in many cases we also mean that the language itself is “more alive.” For the artist engaged in creative languaging there may come a point wherein language seems to have a will and an intention of its own. “Electronic linguistics” suggests a possible tracking of this phenomenon as an attribute of composition within an artist’s electronic processing. It raises questions about what we actually mean by animate language and indeed animation (in a root sense, “ensouling”), where a formal entity takes on a “life of its own.” Inevitably we have to wonder in what sense we are language or at least inseparable from it in the sense that we project it livingly.

The Hermes Factor: This is a way of naming (after the trickster god or daemon) the unpredictable contrary force that feeds back from “language reality” to disrupt artificial or constructed language (as opposed to “natural language”) whenever it is “applied” to actual life situations. It stands as a placeholder for the unaccountable appearance that language is alive and has a mind of its own, or that there is a chaotic factor in language behavior that could as well be called the “trickster function.” A little “language devil” (Charles Stein) enters language behavior as poetic function to disrupt deadening tendencies in writing and speaking. Electronic language processing can also have this function. And indeed the open view of language itself can become a Hermes Factor in situations of academic discourse.

This view takes into account the way authority-driven language views – whether “conservative” (traditional standards of grammar, style, etc.) or “liberal” (political correctness, etc.) – risk impinging on the very source of creative/chaotic language regeneration, which may be the real hope for social and planetary transformation. Creative tension is at every point subject to dualistic pressure. The question is: what is the integrative focusing (notably in electronic processing) that retains the energy of originary force in such a way that further language is sustained?

© 2006 Geroge Quasha

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