Poethical De-Scriptings

‘Poethical De-scriptings’ is a term I use to describe a practice of live and improvised verbal narrations for radio broadcast.

In her essay, ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poethics’ (2014), Denise Ferriera da Silva proposes ‘poethics’ as a means of emancipating the ‘Category of Blackness’ from the scientific and historical ways of knowing that produced it, with ‘the ethical mandate of opening up other ways of knowing’ (p. 81). Releasing Blackness from objectification, commodification and the forms of domination that produced slavery, a Black Feminist Poethics elicits a range of possibilities that decolonization demands; not for the betterment of this world, but rather toward ‘the end of the world as we know it’.

‘Scriptings’ is a word coined by the artist Achim Lengerer who is concerned with the political questions of speech and language. It is a conflation of the words ‘script’ and ‘writings’, and is also the name of Lengerer’s publishing and production house in Berlin. ‘Scriptings’ also refers to ‘social scripts’, a term borrowed from behavioural psychology to describe knowledge of how to perform adequately in a given situation. One example is how one gets the attention of a waiter in a restaurant. In some circumstances this can be achieved by establishing eye contact, in others it might be acceptable to call, gesticulate and even whistle. While whistling might be inappropriate in the first scenario, attempting to make eye contact might be insufficient in the latter. So knowing the correct social script is crucial to achieving the desired result, as is performing roles correctly to enable social functioning.

My practice of poethical de-scriptings adopts poethics as an approach to being in the world that enables one to delink from the social scripts that one performs by default. It draws from the ‘alt text’ descriptions that often accompany images online to assist those who are visually impaired. Efforts to address issues of accessibility are inherently political. In this example from screen-based media, written and audio descriptions expose the epistemological violence of (hegemonic) visual cultures.

The term ‘access intimacy’ was conceived by writer and disability justice activist Mia Mingus to name the ‘hard to describe feeling’ and ‘eerie comfort’ that arises when someone ‘gets’ her access needs. Access intimacy is not exclusive to disabled people and Mingus (2011) confides:

There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy. And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow.

Mingus urges her readers to adopt ‘Access as a framework’ to address a spectrum of needs of those who are (differently) disadvantaged in an ableist world. Furthermore, she distinguishes access intimacy to ‘obligatory access’ that is ‘stoic’ or perfunctory. She writes:

Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible. Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world. Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.

My practice of poethical de-scriptings shifts from literal descriptions of my visible surroundings into self-reflection and speculation. While it might sometimes involve close looking and articulation of details, I work in the haze of representation; my poethical de-scriptings may not be visually accurate, but neither are they fiction. Rather, I seek to be personal and precise about what I am see-feeling-thinking.

I approach radio as a medium that is networked and as an event that can be collectively produced and distributed. Rather than the mass media notion of broadcasting to the world, I pursue radio as a social practice that connects peers, friends and enthusiasts. Rather than shouting out to an unknown audience, my technique is more akin to whispering into a lover’s ear.

Attempting audio descriptions made me acutely aware of the power dynamics inherent in language and that are reinforced in everyday speech acts. I discovered that my efforts to communicate clearly and sensitively were determined, and arguably undermined, by social scripts which inform reflexive speech. Foregrounding these codes emphasised that what is ‘normal’ is designed and that these designs condition, noticeably in the built environment and ‘public sphere’. Indeed, it reveals the prejudices of normativity and how one is positioned relative to authority.

As such, poethical de-scriptings attempts to deconstruct and dismantle these power dynamics through an improvised verbal practice. It makes one acutely aware of how ‘words shape worlds’; how ‘worlding’ is material-discursive and how language is privileged as knowledge. My interest in voicing has led me towards non-verbal oral communication such as humming, expressive sounds and extended vocal techniques. These may at times seem trivial or abject but I am struck by a comment dropped by filmmaker Roxana Sadvo after documenting ‘Under a Fooled Moon’, a voicing event I had organised with the artist and musician Suva Das. Sadvo observed that singing is somewhat taboo in many western cultures and that it has somehow been ‘civilised out of us.’ Poethical de-scriptings thus seeks to jailbreak language from the authority it is deployed to uphold and shift ways of being-in-relation in the world.