The Uglification of the Absurd

"Factory workers, immigrant laborers, African Americans, the working poor" - this is how historian Howard Zinn describes the disenfranchised in America's cities. Justin Bua paints and draws them while Zinn gives them a voice. In his book, "A People's History of the United States", Zinn retells our country's history as experienced by the disenfranchised. Acknowledging the legitimacy of all artists, he has written, "It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare say things that no one else will say".

Three students at John Jay High School in Lewisboro, New York, would probably agree. The three were suspended because they spoke the word "vagina" in a reading of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues". Their principal said they had "disobeyed orders" by voicing the word. What is it about words that so moves or incenses us? There were no proverbial sticks and stones here. Refusing to name a female body part is akin to designating it as somehow shameful, unworthy of discourse, a hidden embarrassment. The principal apparently wants vaginas in the closet under a burkha.

William Burroughs fortunately took an enlightened view of language. He was an early proponent of randomness, using a process he called "cut up theory". Burroughs divided a page of text into four parts, rearranged the parts, and read the results as a single page. Carrying this idea further, an application called DadaDodo searches the Web for word probabilities and uses the results to form sentences. Often the sentences are delicious gibberish, but at other times they seem strangely profound.

Another path has been taken by an application called Dissociated Press. Where DadaDodo uses the mathematics of probability to see how many times word A follows word B, Dissociated Press shuffles words for its results. One correspondent has even suggested using random syllables to generate haiku. Web Collage, on the other hand, creates a collage out of random Web images. New images are added every minute, generated by feeding random words into a number of search engines and then grabbing images from those pages.

What happens when our words become lost or unreadable? An early part of our digital history is no longer available to us due to changes in operating systems and programs. It would provide a rich tapestry if we could still read the early emails from the start of the Internet. Will we some day need a digital Rosetta Stone to translate ourselves to ourselves?

Perhaps the randomness approach to human language is not far off the mark. Deep in the jungles of the Amazon, the Piraha, a small group of hunter/gatherers, speak a language containing just eight consonants and three vowels. They use pitch, tones, and stresses, along with whistles, hums and singing, to convey a complex set of meanings, and call any other language "crooked head". Incredible to us, they have no color terms, no numbers, no history of making art, and no words of quantification like "any", "some", "each" or "most". (See the April 16 issue of The New Yorker magazine for John Colapinto's excellent article on the Piraha). The antithesis of the Piraha may be a Malagaysay tribe that uses flamboyantly long words: one of their eighteenth century kings was named Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka. And then of course there is Walpiri, the Australian Aboriginal language in which words could be used in any order.

The language of the Piraha has thrown chaos into many cherished theories about human language formation. Their speech patterns, however, exist without our academic rules and restrictions. I suspect the vaginas at John Jay High School will do so as well. Maybe the school principal needs to immerse himself in the words of the Mock Turtle, who named the branches of mathematics "ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision". In this scenario, the John Jay principal is allowing his ambition to distract him from the uglification of his gender bias, resulting in derision for his unfortunate absurdity.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2007