This came out from conversation with Alex Arteaga from the Collegium for the Advanced Study of Picture Act and Embodiment at the Humboldt University, Berlin, although he is currently visiting Swarthmore College, PA, where I am. (You can find out more about him at http://www.hzt-berlin.de/?z=3&p=22&lan=en)
Alex has been thinking a lot about embodiment and language and has come up with two useful ideas of ‘container’ and ‘contigency’ to understand it. We think his ideas can go a long way to help us think about sign language poetry. I won’t go into the details here, because they are his ideas and I would almost certainly get them wrong anyway. To know more, you can follow his work. But the key point as I understand him is that the body doesn’t contain language, but rather it is a recursively creative part of it, so that body and language work together to contain the meaning they produce. We can see the body as an action and/or an actor (which is linked to Josey Foo’s ideas – see my piece on her poetry collection The Lily Lilies).
Although language is not contained in the body, the body’s actions create one part of the sense that interacts with the bodily perception and understanding of the world. The whole process is recursive: our understanding of the world is constructed by our perception and it constructs our perception. We can say, then, that this process is working when a poet performs BSL poetry, and it is constantly mediated by the signer’s audience who understand what the poet is signing.
We used Richard Carter’s Cochlear Implant to explore Alex’s way of thinking about embodied language (available at the BSL poetry anthology website www.bristol.ac.uk/bslpoetryanthology).
The body is not a container for the language, but words can be seen as the containers for meaning. Containers are enclosed, so a word - or sign - is a container of fixed meaning. In BSL that container is an established vocabulary sign. Sure, established signs aren’t entirely enclosed and you couldn’t possibly say they have a firmly fixed meaning but it is a pretty good approximation. The sign COCHLEAR-IMPLANT is a good container. Like any good container it has meaningful lines that create a closure and give it form. In this case the meaningful lines are the four parameters of the sign – the handshape, the location, orientation and movement – and these construct the form that holds the meaning.When Richard signs COCHLEAR-IMPLANT he uses the clawed 3 handshape moving to contact at the fingertips above the ear.
This is followed by a small whole-entity classifier for the location of the cochlear implant in the box. It has the same handshape, maintaining the link with the object, but also is a legitimate handshape for representing a small object. The lines around the container are fading, though, because the location and even the orientation of the sign COCHLEAR-IMPLANT have gone. Although the hand refers to the cohclear implant in the box, the head, face and body are those of the character looking down at it.
Then he shifts role and ‘becomes’ the cochlear implant by taking on its character, so that his hands, body and eyes become those of the cochlear implant. At this stage, the hands still have the same clawed 3 handshape, maintaining a shred of that original container.
The last shred of the container fades away as the fingers wiggle and beckon enticingly, but the face and body that we have recently come to associate with the handshape remain.
The human hand reaches down to pick up the cochlear implant and Richard as the poet-performer places his hand over his whole face to grab it. Now the hand is the deaf human’s hand in the story and the head and face have become the entire cochlear implant. We know this because of the thread of the story and because of the position of the face and body that was set up when the cochlear implant was first personified.
All this meaning comes as a result of contingency, not container. These signs have no container. They are not bounded by meaningful lines as they merge and blend with each other. Each subsequent sign is a choice that happens based on parts of what has come before, and has the potential to generate the meaning we give it because something has occurred previously. What we see as the cochlear implant’s face and hands was set up by the containered sign COCHLEAR-IMPLANT. Thus, when we come to understand sign language poetry we cannot establish a clear causality between the contingent elements (we can’t say that a sign means what it does because of the previous sign) but we can see a clear connection between the elements and their meanings.
Sense is generated in the flow of the poem, and if we stop this flow of non-containered signing in the poem we stop the sense of the poem. All this can explain nicely why it is impossible to segment sign language poetry satisfactorily. We know it is impossible to write it in English or gloss its individual signs and hope to maintain any of the meaning.
All of which leads us to quantum mechanics. Obviously it is not exactly like quantum mechanics and what I know about quantum mechanics could be written on the back of a very small postcard, but we can draw analogies with some aspects of it. For example it proposes that there is variation in the probability that something like a sub-atomic particle (or an element in a meaningful signed utterance) has a given state (or, for us, a given meaning) at a given time (or, for us, in a given poetic context).
When we mention quantum mechanics, most people (or at least those who watch QI and think they know a bit about these things) think about the Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger’s Cat – the half-dead and half-alive cat in the box that arises from the idea that measurement of a particle will determine what it is and how it behaves. Is it a wave or a particle? In the poetic context we can say that we only see the meaning in a particular sign once we have determined the meaning in a previous sign. And allowing the idea that something can be a wave or a particle until we observe it allows for all the multiple latent meanings in a poem. If I knew anything about physics beyond ‘O’ level (look up ‘O’ levels, young people; they were, of course, much, much harder than GCSEs are today) I would know how it could be remotely theoretically possible that a single sub-atomic particle could be in more than one place at the same time. But I do know that in signs in poems can carry with them ambiguities that only need to be resolved at the moment we see them in their poetic context.
When that hand reaches down to pick up the cochlear implant, the hand is potentially the signer’s and the character’s at the same time; the face is the signer’s face and it is also the cochlear implant’s face and it is also the whole cochlear implant. It makes being a wave and a particle simultaneously child’s play in comparison.
(As an aside, we think Nina has revealed the reality of Schrodinger’s Cat Food, in which we observe that you only know if the cat will eat the cat food at the moment you open the packet – until that moment she might or she might not. That's her on the right. We do suspect she's related to Derek Zoolander.)
Quantum mechanics works in the ‘quantum realm’, when things get really small - at the atomic and sub-atomic scale – with the delicious paradox that the larger properties of systems can only be explained by quantum mechanics. (Let’s face it, we all love a delicious paradox. It’s what gets some of us up in the mornings.) Michiko Kaneko has been exploring how we have to get right into the make-up of the sign to see how the particles there operate to create poetic meaning as part of signs. So, the overall meaning of the poem can be determined as we decide how to interpret those sub-sign elements (especially handshape but other elements too) but we can only appreciate how those particles generate the meaning once we know what the meaning is. How's that for recursive?
The ‘quantum’ bit of quantum mechanics comes from the idea that some physical quantities come in discrete amounts, (a quantum is a discrete portion of something we can measure, like in James Bond’s Quantum of Solace) and this contrasts with the idea that they might vary by some arbitrary amount. I can’t think of a way to measure a ‘discrete packet’ of poetic meaning but the whole idea allows us to have signs made up of apparently non-discrete linguistic items that deliver little pieces of meaning as we look at them (you couldn’t say that the non-container, non-established signs that occur after COCHLEAR-IMPLANT have discrete phonemes).
The other delight of quantum mechanics is that although it tries to explain why matter and energy seem to behave in seriously weird ways once we start thinking at the subatomic level there is still a lot that it can’t explain. That lets us say that we can think about sign language poetry using this method for as long as it tells us something new and interesting, but we don’t need it to explain the whole thing once and for all. And nor would we want to.