Research, Sights

On the Fungibility of Language: Forensic Linguistics, plus Performance Art

As an artist who works with text, I’m always fascinated with the fungibility of language.

Jack Hitt parses the gap between spoken word and constructed meaning in his article about forensic linguistics (“Words on Trial,” New Yorker Magazine, July 23, 2012):

Most people assume that meaning is embedded in the words they speak. But, according to forensic linguists, meaning is far more vaporous, teased into existence through vocalized puffs of air, hand gestures, body tilts, dancing eyebrows, and nuanced nostril flares. The transmission of meaning still involves primate mechanics worked out during the Pliocene era. And context is crucial; when we try to record a conversation, we are capturing only part of the gestalt of that moment….

According to (retired F.B.I. forensic linguist James) Leonard, words serve as catalysts, setting off sparks of potential meaning that the listener organizes into more specific meaning by observing facial expressions, body language, and other redundant cues. We then employ another powerful tool: prior experience and the storehouse of narratives that each of us carries—what linguists call “schema.” To every exchange we bring unconscious scripts; as any given sentence unspools, we readjust the schema to make better sense of what we are hearing….

Meaning, Leonard noted, is constantly bend by expectation, and can be grossly distorted.

Likewise, I was excited to hear about this performance along the same theme…

August 9, 10 & 11 @ 8:30 pm.
Emily Mast: B!RDBRA!N
REDCAT, Los Angeles

Originally conceived of for Pacific Standard Time, B!RDBRA!N is a series of vignettes that form a live collage based on the juxtaposition of an accumulation of highly stylized details that all relate to channels of communication in which language is problematic, challenging and/or inappropriate. I have been working with a stuntman, a stutterer, a sign-language interpreter, an actor, an auctioneer, a comedian and a child to investigate and interrogate language as a prop onto which we project meaning, language that hides or deflects meaning and all-out rebellion against words.