Ya-ping managed to spark a great discussion today by ushering us through the needle’s eye of language and onto wider fields of travel by bodily, traditional and interpretative movements. To appreciate this journey I can’t help but associate the notion of language with a couple of remarks by Ludwig Wittgenstein (at the risk of cross-referencing my own blog postings in Beijing).
Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language who basically thought, at least in his later career, that language is a very deceptive means of acquiring knowledge. Trying to understand the world through grammatical systems is to reduce the pursuit of knowledge to a game with a set of rules that one can establish and change on quite arbitrary conditions – especially if you happens to be a philosopher who writes about trivialities like the meaning of life (to quote Samuel Beckett) instead of important matters like dating or gossiping. This doesn’t mean that language is a superficial thing, it just means that we have gotten used to cheating when we play the game of meaning and understanding by imposing overriding linguistic and semantic rules to it. Instead we ought to view language as various forms of social practice within certain cultural realms, according to Wittgenstein.
The first remark from Wittgenstein I came to think of was his simple proposition that “to understand a word in a language is to understand a whole culture”. Of course we share many words and so to understand a shared word across national or cultural boundaries we need to translate it in one way or another and thus identify common grounds for such a translation. Those common grounds are not necessarily linguistic but might very well be musical, pop-cultural or physical. Think of the word surfing. In parts of California, for instance where Ted lives, surfing is a lifestyle, while it is merely a leisurely activity in Europe (in Sweden the Baltic sea hardly offers any waves at all, so we use the word surfing for a computer activity). So Europeans and Californians both use the word “surfing” and refers to similar water and surface related activities, but that doesn’t mean that they mean the same thing when they use the word. The reason for that is that the cultural conditions for using a word far out-weighs the meaning of a word as a linguistic unit in a grammatical system.
This leads me to the second Wittgensteinian remark, namely that the problem to understand people in a culture that we find really strange is not necessarily due to the problem of understanding their language, but it is more likely due to the fact that we cannot “find our feet with them”. The latter phrase is of course an idiom and does not mean that we understand a certain culture if we learn how to walk or dance like people in it – you can acquire the technique of imitating such an action, just like you can learn a language in an isolated place far from its cultural life. Understanding people’s “form of life”, as Wittgenstein calls it, is rather a matter of understanding why people engage in certain social practices by doing them in a way that makes sense to yourself. To take a literal example of this from my own life, it was not until I spent time in East Africa that I understood what a tropical rain shower meant. In Swahili ‘rain season’ is called ‘kipindi cha mvua’ and I could easily have learnt how to spell that back home, I have seen tropical rain showers on TV and I could even have calculated how much rain that actually hits you in a burst of rain by mathematical means. But it wasn’t until I was there that I understood that there is no sense in running through the rain to take shelter, which I was used to doing in Europe where it doesn’t rain quite as heavily. By hanging out with people in East Africa I stopped running in the rain but simply walked to the nearest house or mango tree to take shelter.
I’m also thinking about Kate finding her feet with the other performers (such as Teng Yue in the picture above) and the choreographer Guo in the mask dance. She did an amazing job yesterday when I visited the rehearsal (I would have posted my video of it had the blog permitted that volume of info) and it was quite interesting to see the verbal although mainly non-verbal communication she engaged in with Guo and her fellow performers. The question of meaning regarding the cultural practice of the dance hangs in the air for me, perhaps even for Kate and the other dancers, and perhaps even for Guo. So here I feel a need to stop writing since I have reached the end of what I’m capable of understanding. But it doesn’t feel like the end of a road, but rather as a significant crossroad in the ArtsCross experiment – thanks to Ya-ping’s invitation to travel with her from far away cultures all the way to the internal displacements of dance and discussion.