Dissecting the Space and Time of Language: Eric Malzkuhn’s “Jabberwocky”

WITH ITS RAPID MOVEMENTS, expressive facial contortions, and invented signs of a gestural and meaningless quality, Eric Malzkuhn’s virtuoso 1939 translation1 of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” into American Sign Language demonstrated fluidity previously unseen in the barely hundred-year-old language. Prior to Malzkuhn’s rendition, sign language was constructed as a signifier language that relied on objective representation, sometimes utilizing its visual and physical qualities to take an iconic appearance, which otherwise remained no less arbitrary than a phonetically formed lexicon. With its sweeping gestures engaging the entire body and wide-ranging cadence, Malzkuhn’s rendition of the “Jabberwocky” did more than present the canonical work in a new modality; it transcended signification and the conventional space and time of language to heighten language’s spatio-temporal dialectic.

In “Jabberwocky,” Malzkuhn’s decision to eschew a traditional reliance on established signifiers, partially driven by necessity, due to Carroll’s nonsensical words such as “mimsy,” “frumious,” and “vorpal” and partially driven by theatrical license, activated not only the speaker’s body but also brought the body of language, with its spatial and temporal properties, to the forefront. The notion that language is a body traces its lineage back to Saussure, for whom words are arbitrary, phonologically-derived “sound images” that could be injected with meaning by linking with actual objects or concepts, (signifieds). The introduction of nonsensical words in “Jabberwocky” unravels this symbolic marriage… meaning is marshalled out of meaninglessness.

Toward the Sinthome: The Gestural Stain and the Body

Rather than represent or indicate movement, appearance, or action through semantics or something closer to resemblance, Malzkuhn’s hand shapes, movements, and facial expressions “speak to us” and mark that very “instant when his vision,” the mental image formed by his perception, “becomes gesture” materially inhabiting a body that asserts itself “not only for the mind but for themselves, since they pass through us and surround us” (Merleau-Ponty 2002c: 12-13). Sign language, especially poetry, according to Dirksen Bauman, are “not so much “read” or “seen” as they are lived-in from the inside.”

Bauman, discussing another sign language poem, remarks that these forms of gestural expression brings forth what for Merleau-Ponty was “a diagram of the life of the actual” into a kind of “poetic incarnation.” For the verb phrase, “gyre and gimble,” Malzkuhn amplifies a handshape previously assigned to the word “tove” in a series of motions that doesn’t represent but actually reproduces the sensation of this particular movement for the viewer to sense. For the adjective “vorpal,” Malzkuhn mimics the act of drawing the sword but modifies “the manner in which the sword is drawn to indicate that the sword is not straight,” conveying the speaker’s own perception of the action for the viewer to internalize. Watching Velez execute Malzkuhn’s rendition is a material sensation in itself.

These visual stains mark a major divergence from the conventional temporality of language, where speakers and listeners can only express or perceive what someone is trying to say as quickly as streams of words or signs are constructed -- at the speed of language and within the ordered, rigorous space of language. However, densely packing linguistic data within a few encompassing movements, as with visual vernacular, or “pure” sign language, allows the speaker to bypass the very streams of words and signs that comprise the order of language, and betray linguistic space and time.

**From the Sinthome: Conditioning and De-Conditioning the Body **

In fact, from the outset of the Enlightenment, the evolution of sign language and deaf education is predicated on the methodical repression of the overly expressive, meaningless gesture. As deaf education grew in 17th and 18th century Europe, the rational structure of the spoken and written word supplanted gestural expressions, which became increasingly standardized as representational units of language. Emblematic of these developments, the Abbe l’Epee attempted to fix gestures into standardized signs by composing a dictionary of signs, a project he would later abandon. However, Roche-Ambroise Sicard, a former pupil of l’Epee, later set about revising and expanding l’Epee’s dictionary in late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. As Condillac had observed with a pang of disappointment, the unnatural, linear structure of conventional language was increasingly making its way into signed languages. Striking a similar sentiment, Roche-Ambroise Bebian later argued that Sicard had over-regulated signs undermining the symptomatic element naturally occurring in sign language, which escaped standardization. It is also worth noting that such developments were not limited to sign languages, as numerous bourgeois societies developed taboos against excessive gesturing during speech.

In light of these efforts to exercise authority over sign language, Malzkuhn’s rendition countered the current of these social- and language-conditioning programmes and liberated sign language’s repressed sexuality. In many respects, sign language draws comparisons with music as an oft-persecuted, symptomatic mode of expression. As Žižek remarked, “it is amazing to observe how much energy and care the highest ecclesiastic authority (popes) put into the seemingly trifling question of the regulation of music.” The social spaces assigned to music, whether the orchestra, the music hall, the church, the radio, or the iPod, provide frameworks for the exploration and enjoyment of music’s sensual aesthetics. On the other hand, spaces assigned to sign language and the body-that-is-deaf and the strategic production of space using sign language as media is historically far sparser and largely restricted to the schools for the deaf and deaf social clubs, which have benefited from the asylum model, but as long as sign language travels wherever its users go, inevitably spilling out of its designated spaces, escaping total surveillance and, like music playing in unexpected settings, the effect can appear somewhat discomforting and threatening.

The American artist Christine Sun Kim, who is deaf, has carved a space for herself in the mainstream by embracing this very disruption. Taking the disruptive quality of her own deafness a step further, Sun Kim recontextualizes sound, the thing that gives language its currency, wresting it from the grasp of the authorities, and making it her own. In “unlearning sound etiquette” (2013), Sun Kim goes beyond the auditory dimension of sound to explore kinetic, visual, and spatial dimensions that sensitize her audience to her kinesthetic perception of sound by undermining the phonocentric conceptions of sound, so that the audience is forced to question the essence of sound and traditional listening practices. Leaving the audience to redefine their own relationship to sound through the artist’s terms, Sun Kim’s work is subtly subversive and imbued with a rare potency. Further exploiting her position in a dialogue with society, her “Voiceless Lectures”2 challenges the notion of the lecture as a vocal exercise and imposes her personal experience of communicating with pen and paper or a word-processing application onto the audience, embedding a critical territory of her own within the mainstream.

More frequently, the body-that-is-deaf drifts through mainstream space, struggling to assert itself, and often being compelled to return to more accommodating, “deaf-friendly” spaces, whether it is the home, the asylum-school, or other spaces delimited to sign language. An exception is when the interaction between the body-that-is-deaf and phonocentric spatial constructions strikes a critical balance, as in more personal, one-on-one or small-group settings that presuppose a prior willingness to interact. The game also changes when the profusion of sign language into public spaces reaches a certain critical mass, and the use of sign language becomes so prevalent that it imposes its will, with all its presymbolic sensuality, onto the public. The most striking example of this intrusion of sign language and its gestural stain into the public realm occurred in March 1988 during the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University, when some 2,500 students and supporters, with their arms flying in the air, marched to the U.S. Capitol to successfully protest the appointment of a hearing woman with no prior knowledge of sign language to the post of University president -- a decision which was viewed as a blatant exercise of authority. Making its way to the National Mall and onto television sets across America during the movement, sign language asserted its spatio-temporal exuberance in city and country, stirring and threatening to upset social prejudices of language, body, and sensuality.

TEXT - Jeffrey Mansfield

Excerpted from Jeffrey Mansfield, “Space, Time and Gesture: Gestural Expression, Sensual Aesthetics and Crisis in Contemporary Spatial Paradigms,” in TACET #03 – From Sound Space (Paris: Les presses du réel, 2014). Reprinted courtesy of the author. This text is part of Infinite Ear’s reading program, edited by Emma McCormick-Goodhart.

is an artist whose work engages with the notion of the voice and its enunciation through radio broadcast, lecture-performance, and voiceover.

— EVENT: The Manufacturing of Rights
— PRODUCTION: The Manufacturing of Rights: Beirut

1. Unfortunately, no video recording of Malzkuhn’s original performance exists. After a bout with polio left him physically unable to perform, Malzkuhn collaborated with Joe Velez of the National Theatre of the Deaf on an authoritative version, videotaped in 1968. In a segment filmed in 1994 for the Live at SMI! series and another segment in Miriam Lerner’s 2009 documentary, The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox, Malzkuhn performed a toned-down version of his translation. However, for the purposes of this paper, Velez’s performance, shown here,, will be taken as the canonical version of Malzkuhn’s original translation.
2. In 2013, Christine Sun Kim gave a series of Voiceless Lectures as part of a lecture series curated by the artist at Recess entitled “Seeing Voice: The Seven-Tone Color Spectrum.”