Let Sleeping Dogs Lie at your Peril (Language & Voice as the Primary Site of Resistance Part I)


I’m writing this piece quickly in order to try and rekindle an old habit of knocking out 1,500-2,000- word posts for the dear, legendary ICMUS Hub. During the Hub’s heyday (2007-2011) I was still commuting from York to Newcastle. Back then, I frequently wrote a whole piece of that kind of length during the hour-long train journey home, my brain fizzing with whatever vital discussions around music and the philosophies it embodies I’d been privileged to engage in that day, before tidying it up before bed and posting around midnight which would be the time most the participating students would be logging on. I’m not one for nostalgia, but those were fucking great times (I should probably devote a post, here, to a reminiscence, at least to indulge myself and the likes of Sonic Fidelity, Eli Jenkins, TheArtist & Co.) Since starting this blog, with the intention of using it to tinker with the engine of my writing as well as to simply try out ‘ideas’ in a semi-formal context, I’ve tended to self-consciously work pieces up to a more formal completion, or ‘properness,’ than I ought to (several of which are forthcoming). Yet through my experience in making (for me very successfully) the kind of art I’ve always made, I know how crucial it is to get things wrong, to make mistakes, to be reckless in pursuit of an essence, to perform the text, actually. For me, writing comes from seeing, hearing, feeling something, or a intersection of things, in a way that throws up an insight forged from the various parallel interests, occupations and histories that forge individual consciousness and perspective. Their recognition is momentary and fleeting; in my experience they must be seized and articulated quickly otherwise the trivia of obligatory routines will let them slip away beyond grasp. This piece is an attempt to do just that, without allowing the thing to swell and bleed into grander narrative discussions, a tendency to which I’m currently way too prone. The kind of performative articulation I used to revel in, performing text, is best illustrated in the fourth paragraph, where, for better or for worse, I allow the materials I’m channeling to take over, come what may. So, on with the piece itself…

The idea that words themselves are fixed is a fallacy, one which is fundamental to perpetuating systems of coercion, oppression, enslavement and exploitation. Yet words are possessed of autonomous energies. This is what (partly) defines poetry: those energies capriciously re-tethered to new, unlikely partners so as to seem to spill traces of such hidden energies here and there, most commonly in a carefully controlled way; yet it’s not the energies words possess as such that we are habitually taught not to see (hear) but that they are concealed and that they do possess them, and that they can, and ought to be accessed beyond the ritual institution of poetics; or, indeed, ultimately, that words and voice are fallaciously, and detrimentally, distinguished and separated from each other. [1]

In becoming a disciple of the composer, performer, bandleader and philosopher Sun Ra, one develops the habit of unfixing words and freeing up language. One tendency that Sun Ra had with regard to words was to never overlook the apparent coincidence in a single word (or identical words) having distinctly different meanings, or seemingly unconnected interpretations. I would suggest, by the by, that for Sun Ra this came from what was probably initially an intuitive resistance to separating language from voice, but that through such an intuition he developed a capacity to see, hear and feel the dynamic movement that words and language possess independently of the imperative they may appear to serve according to what element (the writer, the orator, the narrator, the dictator) is using them. Sun Ra would frequently riff on words and meanings that would draw this out:

Take the word convict. Convicts get convicted. And this also moves over into conviction. Now when you get to that word, it moves somewhere else. Because a person will have a conviction about something; and they’ll have an idea about it. You see? So now, therefore when you have words that move two ways on you, then you have to be careful. Because here you have this word convict, convicted, conviction… Now this word conviction moves over, if you have an idea about something, you’ve got an impression of something; you have knowledge concerning something. Then an impression moves over into the image, or reflection, well… reflection? A person can reflect on something, they’re thinking about it. A reflection moves over into the image. All these things affect people, it doesn’t matter if you know about them or not. [2]

He goes on to elaborate on idea as thought and suggests that the word thought comes directly from Thoth the Egyptian name for their God of Knowledge and Writing. From Thoth, he extracts ‘oath,’ then, through oath he arrives at ‘vow’ which he extends to vowel and avowal; he goes on to posit vowels as inherently divine in so far as they represent the fluid movement between consonants and within words themselves – physically enunciated as pure breath without an impedance or interference by the mouth. He freely indulges in a logic of association that affords itself an independence of mind that takes its cue from extensive, eclectic reading – it’s partly this independence exercised in riffing on words and meanings that is the point: inhabiting language and speaking from within its movement, fluidity and dynamics is a discipline of self-determination, freedom and emancipation. Sun Ra talks early on in the lecture about the importance of The Egyptian Grammar, Alan Gardiner’s 1927 textbook on Ancient Egyptian language as traced through hieroglyphic texts, a groundbreaking study that remains important for contemporary scholars, which draws together image, text and sound (phonology and its phonetics). It gets really wild once Sun Ra starts riffing on the use of the letter ‘h’ in Gardiner’s Roman alphabet transcriptions of words sourced from hieroglyphics – the lecture itself, for which Sun Ra was engaged to speak on music, despite barely mentioning ‘music’ itself, is a demonstration of the meaning of improvisation. What’s crucial, for my purposes here, is the tendency he adopts (one which any follower of Sun Ra consequently also absorbs) to never overlook a word’s aural similarity to another (or indeed identical words having very different uses), even if their divergent meanings seem opposite according to common usage or general understanding.

The conditions of my life, my work, my employment thus far in life have meant that I can claim to be only a scant disciple of Sun Ra; but my dabbling has provided enough of an unfixing in order to feel one’s consciousness levitating above the surface hum of equivalences, to which our acquiescence is a vital motor for exploiting, repressive powers. For the moment, for this short piece with which I hope, for my own purposes primarily, to work out how to use this Sun Ra-bequeathed insight, I want to try and illustrate that words, in their being possessed of not only these autonomous energies but also an overlooked sovereignty, are not necessarily slaves to be subjugated into a representation of facts, truths or deceptions (such as they overwhelmingly are, usually for mundanely practical reasons), but that they are as if places, zonal emanations, moment-objects, and yes, in some ways machines (thinking of how Deleuze & Guattari tried to break it down); except, in English at least, machine suggests an engineering, the work-of-men – I would resist it whenever possible because men have forever sought to reduce the wild freedoms of the Earth to something they thought up in order to enslave it (equivalence and exchange); while there’s an inevitability to that, given Man’s material inseparability from Earth’s manifest continuum, words and language as utterances of the breath are the unseizable (thus unpossessable) essence of humanity’s fleeting ‘existence,’ its moment, its time to play among the elements. I use the gender distinction deliberately here, by the way, because patriarchy must be seen as predominantly responsible for the state we find ourselves in at this stage in human history, purely by dint of the fact that since at least the establishment of our current civilization (going back at least to the Roman Empire) it has been men making all the key decisions. Wrongness is phallussy.

My pathway to Sun Ra was through Hip Hop. As I’ve increasingly come to realize, the Hip Hop epiphany I experienced in a Paris cinema during a matinee screening of Do the Right Thing in 1989 had profoundly course-altering consequences. In needing to understand how and why such a dramatic intervention on my cultural consciousness happened, my enquiry eventually happened upon Sun Ra. But this has never been a linear pursuit, rather one that continually expands and enriches while gradually dismantling the cluttering junk our brains are (my brain was) perniciously used to dump by dominant institutions.[3] Eventually arriving at Sun Ra via a substantial accumulation of Hip Hop suddenly provides deeper understandings of what you’ve been absorbing for years in the run-up. To the extent that it no long becomes arbitrarily coincidental that the word ‘sword’ is identical to the word ‘word’ with the elementary addition of the letter ‘s’ which, in English, is how we make plurals, accepting the universal logic that denoting the change from singular to plural is achieved by putting the ‘s’ at the end. But that’s just English, which it shares via its shared heritage with some French; and the fact that it is English and that the place of English/British in the wider scheme of things, historically and politically, ought never be overlooked… So, suddenly, a verse like:

Ruler-Zig-Zag-Zig-Allah jam is fatal,
Quick to stick my Wu Tang sword right through ya navel,
Suspenseful, plus bein’ bought through my utensil
The pencil.[4]

… explodes into a multiplicity of hitherto unheard interwoven meanings. The whole idea of the Wu Tang Clan appropriating the legend of Shaolin monks from 1970s Hong Kong Kung-Fu flicks is applied to the art of MCing and battle-rhyming; the sword here, is expressly meant as a metaphor for RZA’s, the MC’s, skillfully incisive, critically dismantling, use of words. And that’s just the obvious bit, it barely scratches the surface. RZA’s words, as those of all real (great) MCing, are full of movement; ‘Zig-Zag-Zig’ is a phonetic impression of the movements required to inscribe the letter ‘Z’ which, in the Supreme Alphabet of the Five-Percent Nation, also has a three-stage, progressive meaning in ‘knowledge-to-wisdom-to-understanding’[5]; that movement then courses back into the raw materials of the MC’s craft, ‘suspending’ metaphor in order to channel the sword-words through the pencil, to tool used to compose the verses which communicate the idea and its power.

This comes just moments after we’ve heard Inspectah Deck rap

I leave the mic in bodybags
My rap style has the force to leave you lost like the tribe of Shabazz’
Murderous material made by a madman
It’s the mic-wrecker, inspector, bad man.[6]

While also recalling other memorable examples of Rap’s ability to turn words, rhythm, semantics, melody and materiality inside out, such as Rakim’s

I start to think and then I sink
Into the paper, like I was ink.
When I’m writin’ I’m trapped in between the line,
I escape when I finish the rhyme.[7]

The word I want to single out for this post is ‘lie.’ In doing so, I would allude to the fact that different languages nurture subtly different kinds of understanding which, when one considers how language (and its voicing, or muting) is the primary site of our enslavement as civilians and national subjects, thus it follows that it ought to be the primary site of resistance. A good example is the English word power. It occurred to me a few years ago (and I have no idea whether anyone has written on this, though I’d be amazed if someone hasn’t) that in English (as well as in Spanish, the second language of imperialism, thus the second language of imperial repression) our word for power is relatively impenetrable and irreducible, relatively short on evident connotation (I originally wrote ‘lumpen,’ notwithstanding its use in Marxian vocabulary, in so far as it is an indigestible, thus hard-to-break-down, lump in our parlance). The only other thing that power means apart from the idea of someone having power over something or someone else (and the way that is manifest in administration and government) is the stuff that comes out of our electricity sockets into electrical appliances, i.e. a similarly ethereal, unseizable element in our society and its day-to-day functionality. Yet in German and French, languages of cultures from which some of the most penetratingly insightful and incisive critiques of post-Enlightenment society and politics have emerged, and which both carried out successful revolutions to overthrow monarchies (none of which, I feel, is necessarily coincidental), their words for power are the same as their verbs ‘to make’ or ‘to be able’ (French pouvoir and German machen; OK, so ‘power’ in German is Macht, but that’s the third-person singular machen, essentially the same thing). My suggestion is that in a (probably) very subtle way, the manner in which those cultures’ subjects are inducted into the constricting machinery of language leaves just that little bit extra space for movement around the ways in which the idea of power can be manifest; by making it equivalent to a universal entitlement, those languages instill a sense (albeit subtle and slight) of one’s being able to access the mechanisms of power as of right, rather than being trained to think of it as beyond one’s grasp.

The impetus for writing this piece came from starting to re-read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I say ‘re-read,’ but I’m really reading it (as if) for the first time. I last tried it some thirty years ago at a time when my faculties would have struggled with it (I know I didn’t get very far) and, besides, this was a time when I would read without writing – reading without writing is, by and large, one of those imprisoning dynamics which keep us trapped by language, and is the preserve of bourgeois leisure, a successful device in maintaining unchallenged exploitation. Towards the end of epigram 6, I managed to interrupt my own internalized flow in reading the following passage resulting in an instance of the Sun Ra language condition suggested itself (as it is so often, now, prone to):

In the case of scholars, to be sure, in the case of really scientific men, things may be different – ‘better’, if you will – there may really exist something like a drive to knowledge there, some little independent clockwork which, when wound up, works bravely on without any of the scholar’s other drives playing an essential part. The scholar’s real ‘interests’ therefore generally lie in quite another direction, perhaps in his family or in making money or in politics; it is, indeed, almost a matter of indifference whether his little machine is set up in this region of science or that, whether the ‘promising’ young worker makes himself into a good philologist or a specialist in fungus or a chemist – he is not characterized by becoming this or that.[8]

Now, the whole quote embodies a version of the narrative dynamic I’m tracing here, one that pits a propensity to fixedness versus a commitment to movement and flow; the careerist scholar is the scourge of any ‘drive to knowledge’ (‘… wisdom-understanding,’ Zig-Zag-Zig), one that is rife today since the academic infrastructure is set up to encourage them to seek short-term rewards in preference to investing their work with any hint of genuine meaning. But the bit that I got snagged on was when I stalled momentarily when reading ‘[t]he scholar’s real “interests” therefore generally lie -’ very briefly understanding ‘lie’ as the verb pertaining to mendaciousness. According to the dismantling tendency of a Sun Ra-affected mind, I’d not yet considered the divergent meanings of the word ‘lie.’ One habit that develops when allowing the material of language to move more fluidly is to start assuming that if a word has several meanings, those meanings, no matter how different they seem, must in some distant point in their evolution have shared a semantic origin – they must somehow actually mean the same thing, or their sameness must somehow be telling is that they could be seen to cooperate. So, here, the mind immediately starts considering that the primary reason for lying to someone about something is to make that someone let a sleeping dog, that is its truth, lie; by the same token, one lies in order to make an adversary or rival lie down rather to continue to compete; to lie is to nullify the threat to one’s own position. Now, I’m aware that this all might sound a bit silly, but then that has so often been the scholarly response to the kinds of thing Sun Ra says, which in turn has allowed our cultural establishments to consign him to the category of the eccentric outsider, a figure of fun whose extraordinary work thus fails to challenge narratives of the ruling order, even though that’s actually what it does. What I’m suggesting then is that the word ‘lie,’ here, shows itself to be a contestable (contest-ed, contest-ing) space, a zonal emanation, a moment-object, even, yes, a territory (thinking of Deleuze & Guattari again). Recognizing it as such (any word, in theory) turns it into a force field whose energies can be unlocked, reuniting the word with its origin as an utterance of voice, tongue and breath.

Ultimately, it feels weird (in so far as it might’ve been pointless?) to have devoted over 3,000 words of articulation to making that observation along with any attendant points that emerge along with it. But the exercise, for me, was vital in trying to regain a fluency of thought-to-text I’ve allowed to diminish since a) the demise of the ICMUS Hub; and b) no longer commuting for two hours a day. The use of commuting as an opportunity to nurture creative agency is in itself an act of resistance to mechanisms of demeaning routines otherwise beholden to some institutional agenda; but it’s also an instance of grasping the interstitial glimpses that daily life continuously offers, but which a regular capitulation to normativity and equivalence generally trains one’s consciousness not to seize upon. It’s also why I wanted to leap through the seemingly irrelevant gap that very briefly opened when I misconstrued ‘lie’ as ‘fib’ – the multiple streams of thought that flow through the mind all day long suddenly cross to produce a momentary axis that ties into some underlying formation of insights that otherwise occupy a subconscious level of masticating preoccupations – illuminating cud. Those gaps close again very suddenly, and the rush of insights you caught when you briefly looked through it must always be noted immediately, if not actually fully articulated (which I made myself do here), because before you know it their fleeting nature has whisked them away.

When writing the previous paragraph, I actually ‘accidentally’ wrote urgency for ‘agency,’ momentarily distracted by something out the window. My guess would be that there’s no official, scientific etymology that suggests a common root to those two words, yet their assonance offers precisely the kind of suggestion I’m putting forward here: that their similarity in terms of utterance, the oral mechanics, the breath and the ‘divine’ vowels it takes to say them can point towards an interwoven, simultaneous meaning, the importance of which in this instance would be in reinforcing the urgency of agency – our Europeanist-institutionally dulled minds train us to think of ‘creativity’ as something which requires regulating through rituals of structuring, rudimentary technique and professional formality, orders within which urgency is severely abated. And yet it’s with that very urgency with which we must seize on moments that interrupt the cyclic bullying we mostly submit to day-to-day.

[1] The theme of artificial divisions that separate (and distinguish) creativity from the functional implementation of order and organization is one that I want to play out in other posts on Claws & Tongues; in fact that’s one of the things the title Claws & Tongues alludes to.

[2] My transcription from a recording of a class given by Sun Ra at UC Berkley in 1971. My copy is on the second CD of a 2-CD release called The Creator of the Universe (Transparency; 2007). However, it’s possible to find it on youtube, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cfy2BpbkGe8 (accessed 7 May, 2016).

[3] By ‘dominant institutions’ I mean primarily ‘education’ and ‘culture,’ the latter to include press, TV, cinema, music, art etc.

[4] Wu Tang Clan, ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber,’ Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers (Loud/RCA, 1993). ‘Zig-Zag-Zig’ is the verbalization of ‘Z’ in the Supreme Alphabet which is part of the doctrine of the Nation of Gods & Earths (the ‘Five-Percent Nation’) of which the Wu were probably Hip Hop’s most comprehensive exponents; the RZA breaks his name down, in accordance with the Supreme Alphabet, as ‘[R]-Ruler/[Z]-Zig-Zag-Zig/[A]-Allah.’ Allah in NGE doctrine is the self-as-God, not the omnipotent celestial deity of Judo-Christian/Islamic monotheisms.

[5] Lest we forget that the Supreme Alphabet is itself a hugely elaborate act of Signifyin(g) on the alphabet of those civilzations that became the dominant imperial powers of the Renaissance, Enlightnemnet, Industrial/Post-Industrial and high-capitalist age(s) and were responsible for the atrocity of the brutally forced African Diaspora.

[6] Wu Tang Clan, ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber.’

[7] Eric B & Rakim, ‘I Know You Got Soul,’ Paid In Full (4th & Broadway, 1987). Rakim was the first avowedly, explicitly, Five Percenter MC to break into the mainstream consciousness.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin Classics; 2003) pp. 37-38

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie at your Peril (Language & Voice as the Primary Site of Resistance Part I)