Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 33, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Language of disappearances

Sarah Irwin

[image in original] Image: Anselm Kiefer

"Speaking; only in a whisper, moving only at night, keeping the child quiet, clamping my hand over the child's mouth, in the belly of a fly, in between two pieces of paper, slipped into a drinking straw, suspended in a denervated larynx, crouched inside a violin, camouflaged in blood, in light, in tissue, in water, this is how I have survived."
Karen Bermann, from Theater of Operations


"What kinds of questions were left whispering in this windless landscape?

Wounds raise questions about permeability and vulnerability, about the ability to be opened and what it will take too heal. This vulnerability signals the ability to be affected, to be changed, to learn from harsh experience. To live with borders that can't be crossed is not a position of strength." 1

[image in original]

To be making this crossing. I am travelling in a rift somewhere between memory and history. Between something I have known and something I can not possibly know. There's as kind of silence in relation to this landscape but within this silence there are also many voices waiting to speak.

It is a space between yet somehow you cannot run a line between origin and destination. This progression is not linear. In this traverse there can be no fixed point of beginning, no final point of end. This between is where "I" bleeds and where "I" seeks recovery. It is a between of movement. "I" journeys to no end.

The image of the desert is one image. There are images, there are always images. These images are a beginning that won't go away. They are signs of some disturbance. There is a sense of a grainy and broken down city I feel I am moving towards. I keep moving. I know it exists.


"W ounds represent dead subjective experience, dead experience which most people would prefer to suppress or forget. Wounds are the physical repositories for the memory of experience that most people prefer to suppress or forget. The experience of receiving a wound is a shock and the connection between shock and amnesia is pretty well known. There's simply a massive individual and cultural resistance to recognising the significance of wounds. The theatre of wounds is a memory theatre which most people prefer to forget." 2

Wounds - the physical repositories of history. Sites of rupture where the openness has been re-sealed, covered over, yet beneath the seaming continuities the wound often remains uninhabited, unhealed. "The motionless retreat of what has not been treated."3 It is this process of inhabiting the disappearances, the separations, the silences, the memory gaps which I would like to take as a basis for a discussion around reading and writing practices.

The story of the wound is often a story of silences. Its presence is often marked by its very silence, yet wounds hidden from view, easily stitched up and forgotten, are also a call to survival. Through their resistance to amnesia wounds have the potential to re-write our stories. In Western tradition disturbances, wounds have been gagged in whiteness, the discontinuities seemed up in an official discourse. How then to write into this tradition of whiteness, of silencing? How then to begin to inscribe the surfaces with a history of blurs, stains, streaks?


"She had already started to write across the paper instead of on the lines. This was the beginning." 4

To desire to re-chart the territories and defines of discourses that have held in place claims of objectivity and authority, is to attempt to create a site where relations of difference can be acted out. To see that the surface we begin to inscribe is a surface of histories, is to open up a sense of writing which is in flux, shifting over time. Barthes talks about writing,, or in particular, the text, as "a tissue of signs"5 and sees that the surface onto which we write is "already rough,, discontinuous, set in motion by some accident: there is the texture of the paper, then the stains, the hatchings, the tracery of strokes ..."6

This sense in which every surface we inscribe is to some degree pre-written, returns me to the earlier image (page 3) and to the sense of the beginning of writing for me - the sense of being in a pre-walked desert. I am also reminded of the kind of stains that Alice Munro creates in the story "Meneseteung".

"The basin of grape juice has overflowed and is running over her kitchen floor, staining the boards of the floor, and the stains will never come out." 7

Barthes in his essay on Cy Twombly explores these faint buzzings that linger within certain surfaces and speaks of the sense of the lingering aliveness that he finds emanating from Twombly's works. Barthes writes "On certain surfaces of TW's there is nothing written and yet these surfaces seem to be the repository of all writing."8 It would seem there are connections here with the workings of haiku - a writing which barely exists yet explodes, a writing which never modifies.

In the same essay, Barthes looks at the interconnections between the processes of writing and the processes of disintegration. He makes the following excruciating offering:

"Chinese writing was born, we are told, from the tiny cracks of an overheated tortoise shell." 9


"...writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing." 10

To begin this exploration into borders and border crossings, I would like to take Duras' work as a point of departure.

fifteen and a half. Crossing the river. Going back to Saigon. I feel I'm going on a journey..." 11

Duras' writing eludes any attempts to be located in a fixed area. In fact her work seems to exist in the rifts of identity, geography, history. Through the continual shiftings and crossings that recur Duras throws our sense of borders into question.

"...borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins." 12

To read Duras' work is to undergo continual displacement, to be shifting between familiarity and estrangement, to continually have to re-write amidst the instability. In a sense it seems her writing can never be read, only continually written, inscribed by the reader. Such texts challenge our very notions of writing, of reading.

Through writing in "a tense which is perpetually uncertain",13 texts such as Duras' resist being locked into a singular frame, resist a finality. Such texts problematize the fixity of positions that lock us into certain relations and maintain us within certain economies. As Barthes writes: "the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced: writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it."14Ê What we move towards then is a notion of reading as an act of inscription rather than simply consumption, and towards a breaking down of the distances between reading and writing.

Both reading and writing can be seen as processes of writing into the disappearances. The boundaries we have known begin to dissolve, we inhabit aÊspace where the rifts speak.


"The way the wound appears on the surface is rarely an accurate identification of the full dimensions of the wound. There are a lot of problems of interpretation that one confronts in deciphering this peculiar kind of handwriting. Stopping the bleeding has really nothing to do with treating the wound. Treating the wound is an interpretative process. I don't feel that the wound has really been treated until it has been given a voice, until it has been empowered to speak." 15

Geoffrey Whitehead's project is concerned with understanding the complexities of the language of contemporary wounds, and in exploring the ways in which these wounds interact with and interrupt the social body. Through acknowledging these rifts between the historical and personal past, we begin to challenge the stable boundaries that have been constructed. Notions of the interior and exterior begin to fall away, utterance begin to emerge.

"Shrapnel has been known to migrate from a head wound, to surface through the palm twenty years later. In this way long-forgotten, lost, or swallowed weapon fragments, may emerge from their internment to break the dermal threshold. (If I could stand in the doorway of that house, I should then believe that all this took place.) Sentient tissue in the path of the exodus may be destroyed or altered as a result." 16


"Wounds cannot speak for themselves. And yet wounds are evidence of stories of profound importance. If they are neglected, ignored, simply stitched up and forgotten, then we will get to the point where we can't look at ourselves. The wounds become deeper, less apparent, more structural,Êif you will, even genetic. Wounds that become apparent only in the second or third generations." 17

What becomes evident in listening to Whitehead's "Display Wounds" is the kind of dialectic existing between the stories that wounds have to tell and the silencing, the suturing of medical discourse. The voice re-enters several times:

"We'll close it all up and no-one will ever tell the difference." 18

In the face of the institution, authority, power, it is perhaps not surprising, that "vacancy" is often a response to a dominant that won't listen.Ê That an unrelenting seaming together of surfaces, a continual seaming up creates an extraordinary fatigue. That to vacate or e-vacuate is a kind of escape and refusal to partake in the order. It may then be an important site to write into the disappearance of bodies, to explore notions of vaporized bodies and to acknowledge that surfaces are only the beginning of the matter. While the notion of evacuated bodies raises vital questions, I wonder whether it is only a strategy of retreat and survival, which functions to maintain the dominant in their position. I cannot help but ask: Is vacancy all that is left? Will those who continue to fuck evacuated bodies for their own gratifications ever come to realize it, or will they continue to participate in an economy of domination? We need to construct voices.

This notion of vacancies, of quiet escapes, of sites abandoned, indicates that the surface is only the beginning of the matter. There seems an extraordinary power in coming to recognize that within a known order, within this certain framing and understanding, there are also unknown other orders hidden from view. It is to come to realize that within any order there are also potentialities for dis-orders, or orders of another nature. That an order contains within itself the transformative.

Through recognizing the calls of wounds and the immense power within them, it becomes clear that it is not enough to lurch in the same way from one thing to another, that such a lurching is a partaking in a kind of death. That if we refuse to acknowledge the calls of wounds: "we are likely to give birth to a society of monsters...a society of refusal to engage with the frayed edges of experience that call into question all previous conceptions of social justice and healing."19

Wounds are surfaces which are seemingly unwritten, yet they are actually the repository of profound meaning. That in fact "the text only advances by leaving behind lacunae, gaps, tears and other interruptions."20 These silences² these blanks are pressing, for when the breaking of the "dermal threshold" of a society occurs, it is a movement "forcing that society to bleed and heal - to remember: differently. Such encounters transform..."21.


1 Thyrza Nichols Goodeve in "No Wound Ever Speaks For Itself" in Art forum, January 1992, p.70.

2 G. Whitehead, Display Wounds (experimental soundscape, 1986). Aired on ABC VM's programme 'The Listening Room'.

3 M. Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1986 (excerpts).

4 From Ross Gibson's film Camera Natura.

5 R. Barthes, "The Death of the Author" in Image Music Text London: Fontana, 1977, pp.208-213.

6 R. Barthes, "Cy Twombly: Works on Paper" in The Responsibility of Forms New York: Hill and Wang, 1985, pp.157-76.

7 A. Monroe, "Meneseteung" in Friend of My Youth London: Vintage, 1991, pp.50-73.

8 Barthes, (1985), p.161.

9 Barthes, p.162.

10 Barthes, (1977) p.208.

11 Duras, The Lover, p.13.

12 Barthes (1977) p.211.

13 Barthes (1985) p.169.

14 Barthes (1977) p.212.

15 Extract from Gregory Whitehead's sound piece "Display Wounds".

16 Bermann cited in Goodeve "No Wound Ever Speaks for Itself" in Artforum, January, p.73.

17 Extract from Gregory Whitehead's sound piece "Display Wounds".

18 Extract from Gregory Whitehead's sound piece "Display Wounds".

19 Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (1992) p.73.

20 Blanchot (1986) p.100.

21 Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (1992) p.74.

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