Norm Sibum is taking a few weeks off from his Ephemeris duties. In his stead, we will be offering a few guest Ephemeris columns. Our second is from author and editor Ingrid Ruthig.
Imagine a world without names for its countless features. Without labels, how easily would we convey the idea of, say, Home, Art, or Freedom? Without Language’s constant evolution and unifying construct, this Earth would be a very different place.
In Study Room H on the public library’s second floor, I consider Kierkegaard’s popular “Once you label me you negate me,” and wrestle words against a mountain of ideas. For the next while, this small space is my version of Woolf’s room of one’s own, away from a house that summer holidays repopulate with family. The room, with its one glass wall, its view of sky and locust trees, is akin to a fish tank, but it provides the solitude necessary for work. In this room, Writer supersedes Mother, Wife, Neighbour, Friend, Homeowner, Procrastinator, and all the other personae. Nevertheless the superseding doesn’t divest Writer of those identities or their corresponding duties. Nor does it negate a life’s other facets, all of which feed Writer’s creative work. It’s because of labels and their implications, though, that someone inevitably asks, How can you be this and also that? Is it so very difficult to view them as all one, or at least as essential to each other? In the case of creative work, they fuel the same drive; the destination is simply reached by different vehicles. So, why this compulsion to clarify? No one suggests Father precludes Man being Artist. Why would Mother, Woman, Writer, or any other combination, be any different? The challenges may or may not be greater in one case than in another. Regardless, it should be possible to accept the range of an individual’s selves, and in this age of broadened horizons, the journey would surely be easier without the labelling or the expectation attached to each label.
But we’re backpedalling. In a recent article in The Guardian, the reporter bemoans the encumbered term “good mother.” The human habit for distinction between This and That has a claustrophobic side effect. While especially useful for marketers, now more than ever words as labels confine us to a narrow perception of what IS, and do not allow what MIGHT BE. Google thinks it’s sorted and segregated each user by age, gender, and location, based on his/her browsing habits. However, fifty people asked to describe a mutual friend will provide fifty different renderings of that same person. The individual is an amalgam of personae, experiences, and nuances, and of various truths, which makes defining a life by labels alone difficult, if not absurd. No single word assigned an individual can possibly tell the whole tale. Still, the compulsion to do so remains, as do its effects.
In March 1950 Canadian poet Anne Wilkinson wrote in her journal, “Women’s position in the world, even in the modern world, is remarkably inelastic. If she acquires an interest, cultivates a talent beyond husband, children and house, she automatically is subject to the qualms of divided loyalties.” Torn between her domestic duties and a desire to become part of the larger world of poetry, she believed “[t]o write a good poem is to achieve a kind of brotherhood with all the poets of all the ages who have written good poems […] with all men and women who are lit with the love of their craft.” Before her early death at the age of 50, she produced two acclaimed collections of poetry, as well as two other books, but not without experiencing “the conflicted relationship between being a woman and being a poet.” The words themselves, Woman and Poet, imply mutual exclusion, that a choice has been or must be made. Even now, each of the terms Woman, Poet, Wife, and Mother categorically limit the possibility of being all at once; each suggests the members of that group are the same, thus negating the individual. Declaring that such linguistic inflexibility should be a relic of the past doesn’t make it so.
Here, in the library in Study Room H, where the only real distraction is a frigid stream of air pouring from a ceiling vent, I am also – if I use a label – Reader surrounded by Language. Its presence comforts, as always, regardless of whether the form it takes is Conversation between Patron and Librarian, rows of Periodicals, stores of Digital and Audio files, or delicious multitudes of Codex.
It is difficult to assimilate the fact that Library – bastion of Language, repository of Knowledge, and whatever else that word indicates to us at this time – is changing, a direct result of how books, as well as the means by which we communicate, have changed. And change stirs the compulsion to challenge, re-categorize, re-label, re-evaluate. The exercise has a way of setting up one thing against another – paper book vs. e-reader, text vs. image, handwriting vs. texting, paragraphs vs. a handful of characters. As Language and its components alter, new labels affix new limitations.
The general why of it all is understandable, though a bit of a chicken-egg scenario. As Human interaction became more complex, Language eased the way of progress by providing necessary words for things and for concepts, which introduced further complexities in Human interaction, etc. Language continues to allow us to differentiate, sort, tally, and discriminate. We are inherently compelled to define and categorize on a daily basis. The specificity of words helps us understand facets of life in the world and make decisions. Words can assist and inspire, but they are also just as likely to pigeonhole and limit what we perceive, aspire to, and achieve: You ARE this, so you can only DO this. It’s a directive that continues to merit challenging.
It is late afternoon, and outside the now-icy Study Room H sun spills through floor-to-ceiling windows onto a pair of comfy chairs. Near frozen, I relocate to one of them, and as I’m thawing, a little Girl trundles past with her Mother and Brother. She taps the day’s make-and-take library craft, a sticker-laden paper-tube rocket, against her mouth, as though entranced by the feel of it. I try to recall what a 5-year-old thinks about, and fail. I wonder instead what she will be when she grows up. Maybe the rocket will give her ideas. Forty-five years ago, the list of career options for girls was incredibly succinct – Teacher, Nurse, Secretary, which were barely updated versions of Mother, Mother, and Helpmeet. Of course, a Girl determined to look beyond the List could become anything, Architect or Writer included. Even so, Mother and Homemaker were the limited vision of many.
In 1983 while on tour with her then-new book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, the Feminist Movement’s frontwoman, Gloria Steinem, spoke at the University of Toronto. The lecture hall was filled with hopeful, inspired young listeners. At that time, I was one of twenty young women in a class of sixty-six students enrolled in the Faculty of Architecture, where it soon became clear our chosen profession wasn’t simply about drawing and model making. Language was an integral part, and we grew to comprehend its power. In design critiques and reviews, and later, in the field, a single word had the potential to harm or hinder as easily as help. I listened to Steinem and felt the strength her words gave to the collective belief that women, perhaps even the species itself, were making headway. The legacy was clear – each of us could live and achieve, as an Individual not limited by labels such as Woman or Man. Each of us understood we were the beneficiaries of change brought about by predecessors who had used words to express outrage, whose voices exercised and in some cases exorcized Language for the benefit of all. At that moment in time, anything seemed possible.
Because I believe in equal rights and equal opportunity, I engaged with the word Feminist, despite the fact that opponents to the Women’s Movement had infused it with nasty connotations. Nowadays the nastiness continues to skew perceptions of a legacy, and young women shy away from the label. My daughters view themselves as Individuals with strong Feminist beliefs. Perhaps that’s a preferable vision. They understand well that labels don’t encourage closed minds to open.
Dean Irvine, editor of Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson (Vehicule Press, 2003), wrote in his introduction that “[w]here, in her time, poetry was measured in relation to the masculinist canon, in our time her poetry is read in light of feminist revisions to that canon and concerns for the literary legacies of women.”
What of legacies? Poetry. Canon. Literary. More classifications implying judgment and separation. CWILA, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, is “an inclusive national literary organization for people who share feminist values and see the importance of strong and active female perspectives within the Canadian literary landscape.” In early July 2012, the group released its most recent “CWILA Count,” which monitors the gender gap in Canadian book reviewing. This year’s numbers, though improved since 2011, fell short of goals. Sixty-three years after Wilkinson’s journal entry, thirty years after Steinem’s address, and only ten years since Irvine’s assertion, the disparities of opportunity and perceptions of worth, most certainly rooted in part in Language and its limitations, are still giving pause. The need to tally numbers and address the issue yet again is both disturbing and disheartening, doubly so for someone who rode the wave of the Women’s Movement in the Seventies. If nothing else, the current outcry restates the power of labels. And sadly, it also perpetuates them. Recruiting advocates for a cause that isn’t new or, by nature, inclusive, one that by rights should have been rendered obsolete long ago, begs the questions: What the hell went wrong, and when? What does it say to us, or about us? That we’ve failed? That Language and hence communication have failed?
The potential of Language to stir hope, joy, anxiety, doubt, to depict the range of our human experience, strikes me once more. Without it we would accomplish little and would certainly not have achieved what we have – regrettably, a double-edged sword. Without it, however, Imagination is stunted and Progress stalls. In the larger scheme of things, it matters little whether Manhole became Maintenance hole, or Writer is Female or Tall. What does matter is that words offer the opportunity for something better, a way to express ideas and move forward. More importantly, to be effective, they must be used well, and heard. And yet.
And yet. Janet Street Porter reported in her March 2011 Daily Mail article, “Tweeting? It’s just a tidal wave of drivel”:
Humans are highly sophisticated beings, the product of years of evolution. We are capable of astonishing acts of intelligence […] In the civilised world, every country has used highly sophisticated language for centuries to celebrate cultural achievement. Language contains a wealth of subtle nuances and textures which have allowed writers from Shakespeare to Proust and Hemingway to produce great literature that has inspired and enriched the generations. […] and yet, in the 21st century, we’ve decided to regress, to embrace a stunted form of communication that banishes grammar, context, considered evaluation, subtle innuendo … and adjectives.
Back in Study Room H, surrounded by library stacks, it is difficult to imagine that Language might let us down. We are drawn to it, because it allows us to believe, for the time we engage with it, that we’re not alone. We covet, collect, and hoard it in all its forms. We tackle, polish, abbreviate, and share it. Language labels us as Human. Without its evolving, unifying construction, our world would no doubt be a very different place, perhaps not even ours at all. At once necessary to social interaction and achievement, words remain ephemeral and insufficient on so many levels. They may enlighten, but by definition and by the hefty meaning we attach to them, they can also limit with absolute finality. When Language restricts, when words sort concepts and segregate them in labelled boxes with lids, the limitations equal a Sisyphean task to overcome. Woman. Mother. Wife. Poet. Each negates the individual admixture. Reality and flexibility are crushed beneath the burden of Legacy.
Amid the chaos of this technological age and its digital advances, amid the uncertain evolution of books and art and information, amid the declining fundamentals of speech and clear communication, where is Hope in language? Where is Possibility? Perhaps it is only we who are failing. Then again, Failure is just another sort of label, isn’t it?