Language, Identity and Community

Language is loaded with history. 

Words pass from mouth to ear, from hand to page, from fingertip to screen, moved by a living, primogenial symbolism. The naming of things allows us to share that which is simultaneously invisible and necessary - the wild, unpredictable beast, communication. The exchange of words is as natural as it is miraculous, as objective as it is changeable. 

Recently, Shuffle member and author Jane Sherwin posed a question to the Literary Arts community that hinted at this complexity in language. “What is a genre, anyway?” she asked. While aimed specifically at discussing the place of Literary Fiction in the landscape of genre, this inquiry flirted with a bigger question. It tempted open a door and behind it, a question waited to be asked:

How does categorization serve and betray us?

Of course, categorization is critical to the function of language itself, making its benefits both varied and innumerable. Not only can it deliver us to those euphoric moments of intimate, shared understanding with others, but it assists us in identifying and finding deeper knowledge with and of ourselves. With the alchemy of mind and word, we play at displaying our internal cosmos. We connect, finding that we are not so alone or unreachable in that internal scenery.

Even in the most literal sense, language aligns us with meaning. Words allow for an intimate excavation and articulation of Self, bringing clearer definition to the ever-evolving, prismatic spectrum of nuance that we call identity. Equivalently, language actuates communities, bringing individuals together around shared ethics, convictions and passions. With language, communities thrive, explore, falter and redefine, mirroring that same process of personal individuation on a collective, even global, scale.

The impetus to be understood is an eternally catalytic force. Language is the ever-evolving result of that need. As such, words have the remarkable potential to facilitate a powerful, liberating subtlety in how we relate to ourselves and others. With language as our tool, we may define the physics of our world, teach morality and safety, we may point to the boundaries between skin and fire, just as we may name love and name fear. It empowers our practicality as much as it does our creativity and emotion. 

But there are dangers too.

Another Shuffle member and literary artist, Andrea Blythe, dove into the initial question of genre, saying “Part of any genre category is based around marketing, and trying to figure out who would be interested in reading “this” specific story.”

This is a departure from the esotericism of language, but the correlation that Andrea draws between categorization and marketability points to a dissonance living at the intersection of art, consumerism, and language. To assign “marketability” to a particular category, in of itself, robs it of its objectivity. The focus is no longer on the category’s style or tonality. Instead, the focus shifts on to how, why and if a category is perceived as valuable.

While connecting content and audience is a necessary and commendable practice, for an artistic category to carry intrinsic value is illusory at best and manipulative at worst. Take the terms Fine Art and Literary Fiction as examples. These are two terms that have both been criticized for the air of superiority that is essential to their basic definition.

The criticism is well-grounded, highlighting the dissonance at play - for the classification of a subject or style as inherently meritorious is impossible without the initial presence of a subjective judge or juror. Being knighted and crowned as better than the rest does not happen without an authority deeming it so. It does not happen without bias. 

Although there are other defining characteristics in each of these categories that remain valid and serve artistic purpose, it is vital to check in and ask, who are these jurors that determine the worth, marketability, and esteem of these expressive forms?

Classical European painting, which has long held a towering posture in the realm of Fine Art, is an apt example of how this issue has wended its way to prominence. It is a quick step back through time that traces the preeminence of this artform to religious iconography and aristocratic portraiture: here we find the jurors. This is where and how the standard conception of Fine Art began. As a result, its public face, the outward history of this form, has been overshadowed and steered by a narrow slice of life on our planet. Despite the tenuous, ongoing work to diversify historical and contemporary curatorial practices, the implicitly racist influence of the white elite on this field is still clearly visible in the collections of major museums throughout the world today.

The former are not isolated examples. Etymology and culture coevolve. Like everything on our planet, they necessarily hold hands in their progression through time. The dominant ideologies and patterned social arrangements of the past inform the tongues of today. Follow the threads and you will find that to have been named and categorized at all is to have been marked, in some way, by the influence of systemic powers. 

This paints a picture of how humanity exists in a feedback loop of linguistic relativity - an ebb and flow cadence of culture determining language and language, in turn, determining culture. It is a necessary, joyful, and increasingly prevalent undertaking of this generation to ensure a heightened sense of accountability in this semantic echo-chamber. To accountably reexamine the origin story of our words, enables us to act as pioneers for a more inclusive world. With this cognizance, we are not powerless in the construction of our language.  Sitting with the historical birthplace and signification of our words allows us to correlate past and present. And then to let go of that which keeps us in a state of cultural stasis.

Personal and cultural stasis prevails only when societal presets dictate our value systems. So, we come around full circle, to categorization and value. When used with an informed, curious, exploratory and inclusive blend of gravity and levity, neither category nor value will trap us in the uncomfortable constraints of definition. With an open and democratized disposition, they may exalt us in the truly subtle, unfixed and evolving nature of identity and civilization. 

Written by Emme Mandara Interdisciplinary artist, writer & musician