As the originator of the term sound etiquette, Christine Sun Kim is keenly aware of society’s conventions around sound. The Berlin-based American artist was born Deaf, and critiques the social expectation that Deaf people should navigate a hearing world quietly and discreetly. Her works in new media, drawing, and performance demonstrate that sound can be apprehended through visual, tactile, and experiential means.
Kim’s four-channel video Close Readings shows clips of popular films with their original English subtitles, in addition to closed-captioning produced by her Deaf peers. Her four collaborators (Jeffrey Mansfield, Ariel Baker-Gibbs, Alison O’Daniel, and Lauren Ridloff) pick up on the visual indicators in film which suggest inaudible sounds or unspoken thoughts. Their captions vary from sarcastic to poetic, expressing “what’s really going on” through humour, anecdote and metaphor. Close Readings does more than simply reveal the hidden subtext behind a particular line of dialogue. Kim’s collaborators don’t simply lift the veil behind the official subtitles to reveal what the original captioner forgot to mention, they generate an entire new context through which to view the film. Similarly, ideas expressed in American Sign Language (ASL) or langue des signes québécois (LSQ) or Japanese Sign Language (JSL) do not simply act as spoken words translated into action, they operates outside of the sonic norms of language. Meaning, in these languages, is generated in the space between thought and action.
In Lyric Philosophy, Canadian Philosopher Dr. Jan Zwicky draws upon musical theory to describe how lyric and poetry mean in a way that is distinct from how analysis means.
She describes analysis as unidimensional.¹ Like narrative, analysis says, “And then … And then, and then, and then.”² Good analysis may seem cumulative, like a snowball gathering source material and building into a three-dimensional object. But looking back, that looping motion left a straight line of grass and followed a linear trajectory rather than an undulating wandering path. Analysis is not cumulative, it is “explicitly disintegrative,” reducing a concept into its component parts.³ In Zwicky’s words, it is a river that “may have many branches … but all water always flows in the same direction: down.”⁴ And then, and then, and then.
If analysis operates on a “single axis of connectedness,” lyric presents “a spray of possible axes of connectedness.”⁵ Lyric is polydimensional, and cannot be easily translated or interpreted, because it does not mean in a way that is legible (at least not to systems that prioritize legibility).
The way Christine Sun Kim describes it, ASL (one of over 180 distinct sign languages) embodies Zwicky’s polydimensionality. Details such as “facial expression, body movement, speed, hand shape,” all come together in harmony.⁶ Whereas vocal inflection reveals the subtext behind a spoken thought, gestural inflection in ASL is integral to the thought itself. The parallels between Kim and Zwicky are uncanny: “Analytic style invites us to concentrate on the thought ‘behind the words’ — the ghost trapped in the machine. Lyric forces the question in the opposite direction: is the thought achieved? Are its soul and its body indistinguishable?”⁷ The harmony that Zwicky ascribes to lyric is reflected in the polyphonic nature of sign language in a way that demonstrates that music is not just a sonic thing.
¹ Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 4.
² Zwicky, “Lyric, Narrative, Memory,” A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2006), 96.
³ Lyric Philosophy, 6.
⁴ Ibid. 2.
⁵ Ibid. 8.
⁶ Christine Sun Kim, “The Enchanting Music of Sign Language,” TED Talks (2015), 8:10-9:16.
⁷ Lyric Philosophy, 346.