Intimate Distances: On David Khang’s Phalogocentrix
On March 17 2007 David Khang performed with a beef tongue in his mouth, perhaps for the last time.(1) The performance, titled Phalogocentrix, was an experimental and experiential panoply of bodies, identities, histories and narratives – without voice – meant to evoke Relation. All the bodies belonged to Khang. I capitalize Relation following Édouard Glissant, the French-Caribbean writer and philosopher whose Poetics of Relation seeks to demonstrate human relation as always constituting both subject and object in an effort to forge a history of the subaltern that might produce a transformed reality of the past and the future. A past and a future that might impact new global orders of human life, transforming them even, in ways that we have not yet thought or imagined. Khang’s performance bears many connections to Glissant’s insistences on the means and the needs for transformative languages of our future, embedded in our past but not trapped by the past.
Phalogocentrix makes use of the body as a linguistic device and thus offers a language of unspoken histories, new vocabularies, and a re-verbing of the word and world to bring into conversation cross-cultural and cross-racial poetics. The performance attempts to manifest a kind of a creole language, more accurate of human contact than we sometimes are capable of acknowledging. While Khang dramatically re-languages the tongue by making a beef tongue into a prosthetic extension of his own, he also highlights the human as animal and re-centers the body in a cross-cultural language of cross-species survival. Through his use of a beef tongue, which lacks the capacity of (human) speech, Khang articulates the ways in which conduct and fashioning of the body constitute language. In this sense, Khang calls to attention the ways in which language and linguistics are not just cultural differences, but mechanisms of both distance and intimacy. The ability to learn the language of another, to perform it through speech, is in fact the learning of another’s cultural secrets – ethnicity then as a human invention is something that produces Relation in its distance and its intimacy. In Khang’s performance the body speaks a cross-cultural and cross-species language, which produces an intimate distance. This intimate distance is the lens through which cross-cultural and cross-racial identifications occur; and it conveys the power of a “strategic universalism” (Gilroy) to open a different kind of conversation about histories, genders, sexes, races, and so on – what we might call the categories of the human.
The bodily linguistics and language of Khang’s performance draw on what Glissant calls “ambiguous archives” (65) to produce moments of cross-cultural resonances meant to open a non-verbal conversation about our human connected-ness. Martial arts, break-dancing and yoga movements do not unfold as fully formed cultural entities, mystifying and closed as the sole property of various sanctioned ethnic groups. Instead such moves unfold and collide in partial performance providing a glimpse into our connected-ness and thus revealing and commenting on our investments in ethnic and cultural secrets meant to ordain our difference from one to another. Khang seeks to give us a bodily language of identification that can engage the difficult histories and knowledges of our present human terms of contact and conduct. Contrary to what might be assumed, that his performance is the failure of language, I would suggest that it is the exact opposite. The accomplishment of Khang’s bodily-language-linguistics is its ability to move us towards a confrontation with the modes of bodily conduct that prohibit us from verbalizing our Relation, one to another, on terms outside a history of inequality and injustice. Khang allows us to see and thus speak our Relation.
Khang’s performance is not a humanist performance under the terms of a European Enlightenment and modernity, which operationalized various categories of the human according to races and cultures and thus instated a practice of ethnicity as a vault of identity practice – as separation and thus a failed language of humanity which must be over-come for identification to happen. Khang’s performance refuses the discourse of mastery and domination, opting instead for what Houston Baker writing of the Blues calls the “deformation of mastery” (Baker). This different take on humanity or rather the species is only possible through an active and robust engagement with mastering form so that it might be deformed in ways that point to different points of view which are often neither heard nor seen. Phalogocentrix brings sight to the workings of writing and language that render cross-racial, cross-cultural and cross-species identifications difficult. The performance highlights the ways in which struggles to define a different conception of the human and thus the species require a fuller encounter with a wider range of peoples, bodies, histories. Khang’s performances thus signal a moment for the contemplation of a different conception of what it might mean to be human.
In Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin, Jacques Derrida attends to the complications of language across a range of “performative contradiction[s]” (3). These performative contradictions, which can be most pronounced in the colonial setting, point to how speech acts are freighted with a history of violence that imposes categories of difference that label the colonized as sub-human. Incidentally, Derrida dedicates Monolingualism to Glissant. Taken with Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, the two texts offer a way of understanding Khang’s attempts at a non-verbal language scripted through music and body as sites for both escaping and referencing history, re-tooling a dreadful and violent past into terms that might be transformative of human potentiality to live differently. Khang, influenced by Derrida (while studying under Derrida at UC Irvine), eschews the mother tongue for a beef tongue, rejoining the animal-human link and its unspeakability. At the same time, he forces his viewers to identify with his efforts at the basest element of what it means to be human – which is what it means to be animal. In this way Khang is able to insert difficult histories for contemplation without immediately producing disagreement. The poetics of unspeakability, of the illegible scribblings and the kinetic moves of the body, produce a language that draws viewers in as it sets us up for a critique concerning, race, gender and sex.
The mother tongue is the problem that Derrida confronts in Monolingualism of the Other. In the colonial setting the language of the mother (or father) tongue carries the history of its imposition and its attempt to render the self unintelligible to the self and to others. And, yet the mother tongue becomes exactly that – a mother tongue. Such a tongue is always in tension with one’s sense of self, both aiding in the production of subjecthood and always producing the self as object. Thus the mother tongue becomes something that must be deformed, reformed and transformed. It becomes a language that one can only be in proximity to. It is in fact the notion of proximity that Khang makes excellent use of in his performance. Thus Derrida, writing of proximity in a slightly different implication states: “This gives rise to strange ceremonies, secret and shameful celebrations. Therefore to encrypted operations, to some words under seal circulating in everyone’s language” (33). I would argue that Khang achieves Derrida’s insights through his bodily language-linguistic performative speech acts.
Watching Khang perform Phalogocentrix in its kinetic expressions is to see and enter a dialogue concerned with how subalterns might speak to and with each other. But most significantly, to desire such a conversation is not to leave others behind. The brilliance of Khang’s performance is its interpellative call on the grounds of gender and sex to render those terms, and indeed their practices, strangely (un)familiar and in need of a serious engagement from a different place through another language. The unmaking of masculinity in Khang’s performance is one that draws on the ambiguous archives of race, sex and gender. In Khang’s re-working, masculinity is unmade, race is complicated in its history present and future, and sex is problematicised as a desire usually restrained, disciplined and normalized as other to genuine human intentions. The undisciplined disciplinarity of Khang’s performance points to the ways in which the human body performs conduct and is conducted based upon scripts invented and practiced even before our birth.
How does Khang do all this?
The importance of Khang’s performance lies not in its overall narrative, but rather in the points of access and various pushbacks that open spaces or crevices for thought to occur among viewers. These crevices constitute the spaces of cross-cultural and cross-racial non-verbal speech acts. In those speech acts, histories, bodies, races, sexes, sexualities among others are revealed as the sites and sources of possible and impossible conversations. The soundtrack made by Jason de Couto for the performance does a great bit of this work articulating histories of “black, white, yellow” and others, nation-bound and simultaneously pushing beyond such boundaries. The performance opens up viewers for individual and collective dialogues about our own situatedness in the dynamics of a conversation without words, as Khang’s body directs us to engage the accompanying collage soundscape/music. The gaps between performing body and soundscape invite contemplation of self and other constituted in histories but with an opening to a different kind of present and even future. It is in this light that I suggest that Khang’s performance is about the unfolding of a humanism not bounded to the Enlightenment project, but one that deforms such a project, recognizing its sometimes dreadful imposition on many others, in aid of pushing us toward better (yes better!) inventions of what the species might be.
Given that Khang’s Asian masculinity is always a suspect, lesser-than masculinity in Western conceptions of such categories, his invitation to dialogue about human categories is one of the ways in which he explicitly brings histories to his performance. The story of colonialism and continuing practices of coloniality loom large in the performance. To identify or disindentify with Asian masculinity is to engage in the process of what I have been calling intimate distances. The work of engagement or refusal is an acknowledgement of our Relation. In this instance the language of the body produces a linguistics of identity, which requires active engagement with the archive of masculinities, gendered understanding and performances that we draw on to make sense of and to perform and to recognize various masculinities. Khang’s body-language-linguistics brings history into the equation. In this particular instance the Asian-Canadian body speaks a history of racism – head tax, internment, labor exploitation. The body requires us to communicate with it through sight and sound, drawing us in and repelling us even when we must disidentify but still remain in Relation.
In one of the most systematic readings of kung fu and its circulation as an art form, especially in relation to cinema of the 1970s, May Joseph points to the frugality of the form. The body is the central element of kung fu’s practice of the self. Significantly, kung fu became popular as a global cultural style in the 1970s, especially in the former colonial world (for example Africa and the Caribbean) and among subaltern populations in the West like African Americans and First Nations/Aboriginals. Kung fu’s resonances can still be seen in the moves of break-dancers and in the names of many rap groups (Wu Tan Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Dream Warriors, one could go on). This cross-cultural sharing and borrowing points to the ways in which cultural difference always references an Other, is indebted to an Other and is thus always constitutive of Self and Other. The inheritances of coloniality allows us to both recognize such sharing and borrowing, as well as bury or ignore it in service of a cultural vault mentality. Khang’s performance unlocks the vault forcing us to grapple with the inheritances concealed but simultaneously poking out, but often not adequately dealt with as an element of the Self. Such an acknowledgement would be to articulate our Relation. I am suggesting that Khang’s performance takes us there – to our Relation.
The merging of kung fu, break-dancing and yoga movements points to languages of bodily practice that evoke Relation. These moves in Khang’s performance open the possibility of practicing the life of the species differently. Recognition of one’s self as continually engaged in a practice and performance of citation – one that might not always be legible – shifts how conversations might occur. For example, the calligraphic references in Khang’s performance to Shigeko Kubota points to both gender and history. Khang’s performance from 2005, (vag)Anal Painting, addresses a “language” of femininity and masculinity not to make them unquestioned but to open up the conversation about the ways in which our practice and conduct of gender shapes our histories of community-making. What is significantly highlighted by Khang’s performance and citation of Kubota is that community only comes into being through citation and reference, whether amicable or antagonistic. Khang’s performance draws on a history of feminized Asian masculinity in a manner that does not acquiesce nor refuse such a designation but rather “re-languages” gender and the body by displaying or performing “the economy of stereotype” (Morrison) in a move to spectacularise it and thus invert, if not overturn its implications. This difficult task produces a kind of gendered-non-gender – Khang stops being a category for a while.
To stop being a category might be the most utopic goal of a post-modern sensibility that seeks to unwrite the highly regulated system of human classifications across race, gender and sex. The transcendentalism that is implicit in moving beyond a category seems to suggest a certain kind of privilege to leave history behind. Khang’s performance is deeply indebted to histories of the specific and histories of the universal. The priestly atmosphere of Phalogocentrix (staged and performed in a church) might suggest transcendence of the religious kind. But I would suggest that Khang’s performance is entirely outside of the realm of religious transcendentalism. The reading of scripture (in Hebrew, Korean, and English), the Eastern religious references, the pagan references all point to other languages, other forms of conduct, other ways of practicing the body – or embodiment. Khang’s donning of the Religious in the performance acts as a kind of moment of not just communion, but rather communality from which collective contemplation might be possible. Thus religion is a kind of alibi for a better conversation to occur. The baptism enacted in the performance is thus the opening of the conversation rather than an end in itself. This inversion of religious practice and Khang’s syncretization of it across cultures again signals Relation.
Ultimately, David Khang’s Phalogocentrix performs the re-languaging of human selves or the species in an effort for us to offer ourselves a better account of the world we presently inhabit. The role that scribal figures, mostly men have played in creating and propagating languages, especially written as sacred texts of human expression and thus the rules and the law of human life is re-ordained in Khang’s performance. This re-ordination by Khang is meant to complicate and render less harmful the categories to which we currently confine human life and the species. Khang’s beef-tongue prosthetic wants to tell us a story of ourselves that we cannot yet speak but need to hear. This story is one of our Relation.
The Beginning and The End(2)
Dearly Beloved, We are gathered here tonight to bear witness…to share in the performative trace and impression of cross-cultural and thus human and universal re-making. We are here to share in intimate distances. We are called to bear witness to a performative otherness that requires we rethink our encounter with such otherness differently every time. In this encounter the performing body transforms both us and itself to reveal or rather to provoke in us the scripting and sculpting of the body, its legibility, its intelligibility, it many languages. This body will perform for us tonight both its re-writing and its writing, its interpellation, its refusal and its re-statement. This body will offer up as sacrifice, sacrament and history of scaring the scripting of and thus the unwriting of modes of reading that disturb and disrupt but do not close down nor inhibit conversation. Rather conversational kinetic proliferations will be provoked. This body will… (the conversation cannot be predicted in advance of the encounter)
The kinetics of the Brazilian martial art and dance form capoeira has resonances with many Asian martial arts. The cross-resonances of caperaria and Asian marital arts might at first glance act as an appetizer into a full menu of Black and Asian cross-cultural resonances and historical sharing. But it would be too easy to pinpoint the marital art dances of both cultures as the ground of common and thus shared cultural understandings, histories and even meanings. The seduction of similarity, even familiarity makes cultural sharing a canard of cross-cultural identification. Instead we might look for something else. What that something else might be is a legibility, a scripting of cross-cultural resonances which collapse, indeed morph into and secrete bodily effusions which in turn script and write narratives of togetherness and desire. Bodily excretions, which bind and unite. “Blood is thicker than water” but blood and water remain sources of immense cultural identification and disidentification. Blood and water are but tropes towards the rituals of life – everyday and fantastic, religious and profane.
David Khang offers us the body as a script, his body as a script. A script that writes and unwrites the self in and on his writing body, his excreting body. His body is the canvas and the ink that calls to attention the writing and unwriting that makes intelligible the deep resonances of things that work to create intimate distances. These intimate distances are not the markers and signs of otherness but rather the mirrored reflections of self merging into self. For the viewer the looking becomes a deformed mirror, cracked and piece together as yet another and different language. The fluid and liquid traces and impressions of blood, water, ink – marks left begging for language, for resaying and rewriting. These fluids do not offer the promise and the prospect of mimetic representation, but instead those fluids bind us in difference, yet uttering desires for coming together. The blood of this body…
Bodies, other bodies can spectacularize histories in their performance. The spectacularized black phallus makes sense in light of the missing Asian penis. While phallus and penis are not always the same for othered racialized bodies the non-relation of their relation provokes conversation. It is in fact the space in-between, the space between the move and its pause, the break but not the separation that in which the trace and the impression, the cross-cultural resonances, the production of language(s) and the communion of Afro-Asian dialogue begins. It begins not as antagonisms, as a looking over the shoulder but as a mutual desire to live beyond the too easy intelligibilities and legibilities of narrative being written, unwritten – languages spoken and muted – bodies marked and unmarked and the too easy assertions of recognizable similarity and familiarity.
David Khang remakes and rewrites, Khang opens up the space of his body to allow for the utterance of common feeling, scripted or written as a the intimate distances of human and cross-cultural resonances made unfamiliarly strangely familiar.
(1) Beef tongue was used for the first time by Khang in 2003-04, in the pair of performances Zen for Mouth (Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles / Kezai University, Tokyo), in which he executed LaMonte Young’s Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris by “drawing a straight line and following it” with the beef tongue as a prosthetic paint brush. Since then, the tongue has been a recurring motif in several of Khang’s works, including: Linea Lingua (2004), Glossographia (2006), and Artifice of Sacrifice (2006).
(2) This section of the essay was written as a kind of liturgy by Walcott for the performance in Toronto to add to the performative sacredness of the setting, a church. It was an improvised response, maybe a collaboration with Khang’s ideas prior to the performance. The text was passed out to those attending the performance as they entered the church. It is added here as both a post-script and a signal of the beginning of my engagement with Khang’s art.
Baker, H (1984). Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J (1998). Monolingualism of the Other Or The Prosthesis of Origin. P. Mensah (trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gilroy, Paul (2000). Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Glissant, É (1997). Poetics of Relation. B. Wing (trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Joseph, M (1999). Nomadic Subjects: The Performance of Citizenship. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Morrison, T (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rinaldo Walcott is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair of Social Justice and Cultural Studies at OISE of the University of Toronto. He does research on the social relations of cultural production.
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