Tuesday, 4 November 2008

on language and owning ones voice...

i am not a writer. i'm an antiquarian, an archaeologist with a classical background and a trowel in my back pocket who seems to have moved inadvertently into the realm of the contemporary and find myself trying to make sense of the civilisation of today with the tools of my archaic trade - the theories and methodologies of archaeological theory and practice. archaeologists work with the physical, material remains of human culture and where better to find this than in the modern landscape - the built environment and surroundings of my everyday life. the advantage of this present day archaeological enquiry is that the clues, the traces are in the main still extant and the protagonists, the producers and consumers, are all around us, are in fact us. its just a matter of deciphering this wealth of materiality, this profusion of stuff.

archaeologists deal with material and visual media as their primary source rather than the written word, usually the preserve of the historian, though obviously there are many instances of overlap. my instinct therefore has been to make straight for the source of the material culture i am so familiar with when excavating the past, to help answer tricky questions about the present. and so increasingly i find myself in the company of those crazy, free thinking mavericks and rebels (or so they and we who stand in galleries puzzling at their output like to pretend) the contemporary art practitioner. it is unknown territory and i often feel out of my depth and unqualified to be in their company, slightly apart from their caste and alien to their specialised metalanguage.

i am not an artist either then, rather an undercover agent or some sort of cultural voyeur, an intruder if you like. i'm operating on the peripheries of several disciplines and modus operandi, trying to find my own little path, create a dialogue with others who might want to respond to or collaborate in this undertaking, this uncovering or delving into the 'now', this labyrinth of the present. archaeologists and historians try to make sense of things in the material or written record by examining all the sources at their disposal and presenting their findings in reports, articles, exhibitions or weighty tomes destined for the library or an obscure shelf in waterstones. but for this new territory, a junction between the destinations of art, archaeology, even perhaps anthropology or cultural geography, i find myself with something of a dilemma....how to communicate with others in this emerging field or praxis in an accessible, immediate and relevant manner?

writing this diary then is an experiment, a tentative way of resolving this challenge in a new medium; a cusp, a gulf between recognised forms.

with it comes inevitable risks and miscalculations - not least that of ridicule, misunderstandings or rejection by any potential audience. after all, i am not a writer, artist or creator but am presuming to create a voice or methodology somewhere on the edge of these established discourses. just what is the purpose or aim of this journal, this diary of inanities and who on earth is it for? i ask myself this and similar questions on a daily basis...

my recent forays into the public eye, both at the manchester blog awards recently, an interloper in the company of real writers, and again in the liverpool biennial writing for an artwork in the form of a newspaper, an imposter in the real artworld, only heightened this uncertainty.

then along came stephen fry. by now something of a national treasure, he is a modernist in a cosy wrapping of anachronism. his addiction to technology is well known and this veritable encyclopaedia of arcane knowledge and voracious reader of wodehouse, waugh and wilde, almost subversive in his wilful unfashionableness, loves nothing more than to play with the latest gadgets and communicate to the world on his very own blog, the new adventures of mr stephen fry

todays posting provided solace just at the most opportune time, a guardian angel to the beleaguered wordsmith. of course i am in no way using the erudite mr fry to endorse my clumsy journey into the tangle of language, but his words were soothing and offered temporary respite. its a long article but worth a look if you have an interest in language and the debate about the evolution of english and how we find our own way with words, our own style or brand of communication. that we are inevitably in our 'parole', our particular brand or utterance of the vernacular, the sum total of our lives, our past, our journeys and interests. we are an archaeology, a stratigraphy of our lingual influences...

this excerpt resonated particularly for me and i offer it to you here to enjoy. perhaps consider me more kindly when happening across this little journal of a bluestocking;

I can attempt to disguise my language, I can dress it up into even more elaborate and grandiose orotundity, prolixity and self-consciousness, Will Self-consciousness you might say, or I could dress it down into something stripped. Stark. Bare. Simple. It would be hard to dress it down into something raggedly demotic without it being a patronising pastiche of a street argot to which I quite evidently have no access and in whose mazy slang avenues I would soon get lost, innit? In a sense I am typecast linguistically and although I can for fun try on all kinds of brogues and dialect clothes, my voice, my style, my language is as distinctive as my fingerprints.

My language (as the sum of my discourses, as linguistic strata that betray my history, as geology or archaeology betrays history) is my language and it is a piece of who I am, perhaps even the defining piece. In my case it is in part a classical ruin, inherited boulders of Tacitus and Cicero bleaching in the sun along with grass-overrun elements of Thucydides and Aeschylus … not because I was a classical scholar, but because I was taught by classical scholars and grew up on poets, dramatists and novelists who knew the classics as intimately as most people of my generation know the Beatles and the Stones. Without knowing it therefore, heroic Ciceronian clausulae and elaborate Tacitan litotes can always be found in the English of people like me. In part classical ruin, then, my language in particular has also mixed in it elements of my three Ws, my particular world wide web, my w.w.w, Wodehouse, Waugh and Wilde, three writers who greatly excited my imagination and stimulated my language glands like no other.


Katherine said...

This makes for very interesting reading. I like your description of yourself as an archaeologist with a trowel in your back pocket - though actually, I think that there's a lot of 'common ground' between archaeologists and writers...

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one asking myself questions about the purpose and meaning of writing a blog. I suppose I have come to the conclusion that it is inevitably an experimental process - though one where the 'results', whatever they might be, sometimes seem hard to access or measure. It's an interesting experiment though.

Coco LaVerne said...

My Dearest Darlings, I have to say I am secretly enjoying all the cafuffle the Blog Awards have caused. Everyone seems to be running around desperately defining themselves and their blogging activity, apparently for all to see! What a hoot! I seldom doubt my own genius, though if I did it would simply gorgeous to have you near.
Much Love Ms Coco LaVerne x