My relationship with language and misunderstanding became compounded this week with my enrollment in a Spanish language immersion course. 3 hours, 3 times a week for 4 weeks, all in preparation for my upcoming move to Madrid, Spain. While, my scotopic sensitivity syndrome is useful for the type of slippage I am invested in within my art practice, but it is not so useful in conjugating verbs.
Arturo, my teacher at the Mesoamerica Institute in Berkeley, has been incredibly patient. Still my progress is slow. Perhaps, because I inevitably get derailed with such seemingly tangential matters as the assigning of genders to nouns. For any one who has studied one of the romantic languages this is not a new concept (and perhaps its just PRIDE week on my mind) but the binary constriction of masculine and feminine made concrete in language is a little more than my somewhat queer sensibility can take. How then, can we conjure multiple ways of being if the words we are using demand only two? What happens to what my six-year-old son calls, “The men, the women and all of the above, the in-betweeners, and everyone else”?
After stumbling with my progressive forms this morning, clumsily constructing sentences about the textbook character ‘Rogelio’ and his upcoming weekend activities, Arturo schooled us in how to know if a noun was feminine (ends in ‘a’) or masculine (ends in ‘o’). Of course there are exceptions to the rule, my favorite being the ‘e’ ending. If the noun ending in ‘e’ refers to something material like, ‘el maquillaje’ (makeup) its gender is masculine, if a noun ending in ‘e’ as in ‘la mente’ (mind) refers to something conceptual then its gender is feminine. I am sure the linguist’s and students of Spanish among you will have a more nuanced and informed understanding of this subject matter but I am really enjoying swimming in the murky waters at the margins of understanding which this new syntax is affording me.
On hearing about these ‘e’ nouns I was reminded once again of Luce Irigaray, and how she plays purposely with language. I began to wonder about one of her key thesis; that the formation of female subjectivity is forever tied to the masculine in language. She asserts that this is the direct result of what Jacques Derrida has called ‘phallogocentrism’, the privileging of the masculine in the construction of meaning. Irigary contends that when women write in the ‘vertical ‘ex-positional style of the academy they can only ever express themselves thinking… as a man would. I am well aware of the essentializing aspects of this argument, which was written in 1974 before queer theory emerged, but I am suddenly curious as to what part writing in French, a language that ascribes a gender binary to the words she used, effected the formation of this argument.
Whats interesting for me about these , ‘irregular’ feminine ‘e’ nouns that refer to concepts, is that they feel to me like an embedded clue to employing Irigaray’s ideas today. They remind me that, like much of our identity, gender is a conceptual performance enacted with the body but not limited to its materiality. I read Irigaray as encouraging us to explore this by,“overthrow(ing) syntax by suspending its eternal teleological order, by snipping the wires, cutting the current, breaking the circuits, switching the connections, by modifying continuity, alternation, frequency, (and) intensity.”
As I was leaving class today , Arturo was careful to remind me that Spanish is not a practical language, “it is conservative and does not accept grammar changes easily.” I wonder how this affects the dyslexic in Spain. It seems so unforgiving. I want to believe that those more familiar with this language possess a whole vocabulary of transgressive nouns. Such strict rules just seem to beg to be broken. After my first week of Spanish 101 I was struck by the seemingly poetic form of my irregular verb list. (see below) In light of Irigaray’s call to ‘switch connections’ I offer this as my signing off point.
Poder volver dormir
To be able to return to sleep
to fly, to find,