I write to you this time to ask if you would like to talk to me.
I have been thinking lately on what it means to talk to one another, to utter words, to articulate thoughts in a shared space. On what bodily acts we perform when we participate in dialogue, and how rooms in which we execute them are organized, directed, choreographed.
The writer Sara Ahmed says that bodies acquire orientation by repeating some actions over others. She states that gatherings — whether a family assembling around a dinner table or a group of people congregating in space to engage in a shared political matter — are not neutral, but directive. When gathering, we are required to follow specific lines.
Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created. The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion [...] depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition.
– Sarah Ahmed
As we know, lines can take many forms. Vertical, horizontal, circular, straight, bent. If we follow them; if we line up, we most often know where we are. We find our way when we turn both this way and that, we know what to do in order to get to that place or this. We are oriented; resided in space.
Sara Ahmed teaches me that in landscape architecture unofficial paths are described with the term desire lines. Those are imprints on the ground, where people have deviated from the paths they are supposed to follow. Leaving their marks, hollows in the ground, alternative and unexpected lines appear. “Such lines are indeed traces of desire, where people have taken different routes to get to this point or that point.” Ahmed calls the accumulation of those lines ‘queer landscapes’, shaped by paths we follow when deviating from the straight line.
Then, the question could be; what difference does it make what we are oriented toward? And what has all of this to do with my desire to talk to you?
Once I spoke on a panel on the topic of a ‘feminist language’. The room was small and crammed with people, lined up on rows of chairs facing the front of the room where two other speakers, two moderators and I were placed. We, invited speakers and moderators, talked vividly for fifty-five minutes. I do not recall very much of our conversation, but what I do remember was the last five minutes of that hour. One of the moderators asked if there were any questions amongst the audience. A woman raised her arm. The moderator made a gesture, declaring her right to speak out. The woman was furious. Her point: When we had gathered to talk about something called a ‘feminist language’, we had done nothing but to reinforce a hierarchy in-between those worthy of talking and those only of listening. For fifty-five minutes, five of us had possessed every space of articulation available in that crammed room, in order to provide five poor minutes for the rest of the sixty or so present. Her anger brought an uncomfortable energy to the room. Some grinned, some wriggled, some sighed. The moderator, quick in mouth and talented in argument, smiled to the woman and simply declared: This is a panel. If you would like to participate more interactively, I would recommend you to attend one of the workshops later this afternoon.
This moment stuck with me. It posed a question, still ringing in my head: Why do we so rarely break away from norms and conventions concerning how we talk about breaking norms and conventions?
The body is ‘habitual’ not only in the sense that it performs actions repeatedly, but in the sense that when it performs such actions, it does not command attention... In other words, the body is habitual insofar as it ‘trails behind’ in the performing of action, insofar as it does not pose ‘a problem’ or an obstacle to the action, or is not ‘stressed’ by ‘what’ the action encounters.
– Sara Ahmed
For Ahmed, it is not so much the bodies that acquire the shape of habits, but spaces that acquire the shape of the bodies that ‘inhabit’ them, which makes some people feel in place, or at home, and not others. Hence, orientations affect what bodies can do – they are straightening devices. Phrased differently: spaces are oriented around the normative body, such as the straight body, the white body, the male body, which allows that very body to extend into space. This is the starting point, the point from which the world unfolds.
If we return to the room of the panel, a room of knowledge, such lines, orientations, and habits become most noticeable. When we enter such a room; termed as a ‘panel’ or a ‘seminar’ or a ‘lecture’, we know exactly which and what to ‘trail behind’. The room is organized according to linguistic acts, such as to speak or to listen, and depending on which of these acts you have been assigned — prior to entering the room — you know what lines to move your body along with; what choreography to follow. Where to walk, how to sit, when to speak, how to be silent. When talking, you are expected to be clear and concise, to stick to the subject, to not be too personal or too explicit, to wait on your turn, to be engaged but not to be too emotional. Rules are rigid, choreography strictly hierarchical.
That woman, in the end of our panel on the topic of a ‘feminist language’, performed her body in a way that posed a problem. When questioning the format of our dialogue - the panel - her body did not only deviate from lines familiar in such a room, but also it commanded attention. It did not ‘trail behind’. And when things came out of line, the effect was uncomfortable, awkward, queer. In order for things to line up, the queer moment had to be corrected.
If we began instead with disorientation, with the body that loses its chair, then the descriptions we offer will be quite different.
– Sara Ahmed
For the occasion to which I am inviting you to talk to me, I would like to talk about all and none of this, and especially about how one — we — can talk in other ways, when we talk to one another. Can we, and if we can how can we, take other directions when gathering for artistic and political dialogue? If we intentionally choose not to ‘trail behind’ modes of conversations oriented around the normative body, the ‘here’ from which the world unfolds, then what spaces can we generate?
What happens if the room is organized differently? If points for seating or standing are shaped in deviant formations; if bodies are choreographed not to sit or to stand but to walk or to lie down or to dance; if lines are refused or if lines are emphasized?
How would we move, perform our bodies, in a room choreographed to such skew lines? Would we become disoriented, and if so what directions would we take?
The hope of changing directions is always that we do not know where some paths may take us: risking departure from the straight and narrow, makes new futures possible, which might involve going astray, getting lost, or even becoming queer.
– Sara Ahmed
My purpose of posing all these questions is not to find a path to answers. Rather, I long for the simple act of how to go looking for it; of how to travel according to a map with the desire to get lost; of how to explore possible and impossible modes for artistic and political dialogue. The effects of disturbing the order of things are uneven; things might even get quite uncomfortable. Yet discomfort allows things and bodies to move. When talking we might fail, and when doing so me might also gain.
Ahmed, Sara, 2006. “Orientations – Toward a Queer Phenomenology”, in GLQ 12:4.
Jess Arndt is a fiction writer and co-editor of the prose experiment, New Herring Press. Primary concerns are body language, corporealation, linguistic pokes and prods. Her story collection "Large Animals" is coming out from Catapult Press in 2016.