Jade Barget
Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

22 January 2021—22 January 2022

Commissioned essay, Endnotes, 2021, Published by XING.

Bite the tongue draws us in and out of language.

Broken mother, father and ancestral dialects convalesce. Opening gates beyond telling Bite the tongue loosens text and tongue, allowing language to exceed its own bind. The written word comes to face its limits: scaping the boundaries of the printed page, connections are carried by the breath. It arrives, marinated in a bodily expression that supersedes aurality. Leaving no traces behind, spoken words allow for obscurity and secrecy: a murky place where things can be left unsaid; where knowledge can be shared amongst kin.

Mouth to Mouth

Mouth to Mouth (1975) by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Video credit: Ubu Web

A mouth opens and closes, articulating in silence. In the shape of an O, lips voice the rain falling, birds chirpings, wind and white crackling noise. Speech is absent. The natural elements and the animal realm supplant the word. The mouth and tongue, the muscles and lips are interstices; a passage for a language which is eerily absent.

The loss of language, the pain to speak and not to speak is central to Cha’s thinking. It is also deeply embedded in Cha’s family history. Growing up in Korea under the Japanese occupation, Cha’s family had to renounce their inherited language. Dictée, the publication by Hak Kyung Cha lends itself to the programme’s title Bite the tongue, attests to the ease at which the subjugated—immigrants, refugees, exiled—can lose the right of speech, the freedom to express themselves through language. Reflecting on the power of erasure and silencing of the other, she writes: ‘Dead words. Dead tongue. From disuse. Buried in Time’s memory.’ Yet, Cha resists by speaking through pain. She utters:

‘It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak. It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void.’[1]  (2001: 3)

This pain offers refuge:

‘The tongue that is forbidden is your own mother tongue. You speak in the dark. In the secret. The one that is yours. Your own. You speak very softly, you speak in a whisper. In the dark, in secret. Mother tongue is your refuge. It is being home.’[2]  (2001: 46)

Our title and phrase Bite the tongue, in the context of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s writing, is a meditation and lamentation on the pain of speech. The phrase alludes to a severance of mother language, diasporic alienation and swallowing of verbal trauma. When we bite the tongue, are we able to sidestep the limitations of speech? Could we, bypass definition and absolution, laying bare space ready for transmission without destination?

Dry word, wet speech

In The Language of Secret Proof, Nina Valeria Kolowratnik notes on two states of language: dry and wet. The process of speech involves a bodily wetness that is coaxed by salivary glands and then smeared over the tongue, lubricating the mouth in preparation for the next utterance. Salivated. Spat. Swallowed.

In the face of the written word—think runny ink seeping into tree bark—speech activates bodily performance. Moist is the spoken word, coated by saliva, coaxed by aural whisperings. Set against the dryness of paper, speech disintegrates to become a wandering ghost in space, portaless, without a mouth for a home. As seen through the violent texts that erase oralities, wet speech liquidates written prescriptivism. Kolowratnik draws from ethnographer Elizabeth Brandt:

‘Writing is violence against the spirit; it is death. [...] To record or write down the moist, alive creative expression of an animate being is to create a fossil, a non-living artifact, a form that mocks its proper origin, and a parody of the proper relation between knowledge, thought, language and speech. [...] it remains with no proper speaker, purpose or audience; a disembodied text to drift through time.’ [3]  (1981: 186)

To disanatomise bodily sound leaves it to the likeness of wandering ghosts, skirting across topographies of generations and homes. If we could move towards mediating linguistic violence, could the animate, sensuous realm hold space for remedy?


Breathing for chaos

To bite the tongue is to absorb the exasperations of speech, whilst to transmit oralities is to transfigure ink into diction, deliquising it from its earthliness to effervescence. Relinquishing in the space of air, the breath can be approached as a recuperative device. By tapping into expressive exchange, poetry becomes the excess of language. Oral tradition is often reduced to hearsay in the face of Western epistemology, denying bodies from legitimising themselves. In indigenous cosmologies, one’s being finds not only anchorage, but emancipation by the breath. When institutions reify intellectual resonances in parchment, cultures that are built on embodied, gestural interactions dissipate. To allow bodies to legitimise themselves, could we approach breathing as a mode of disobedience? As suggested by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, breathing becomes a form of chaos when carried out collectively. To mediate chaos, Berardi, via Deleuze and Guattari, suggests that:

‘we have to tune in to the rhythm of the cosmos; if we want to breathe (to conspire) within the chaotic rhythmic acceleration, we should consider chaos not only as foe, but also, and primarily, as an ally.’[4]  (2018: 127) 

In the flurry of verbal exchanges, breathing confronts what it is to be an ever-evolving subject. It is not only speech, but a complex system that unfolds as a performance, a choreograph of disobedient gestures.

Towards an expressive potency

In the communicative ecosystem, poetic productivity is a gateway for the gamut of exchanges that surpass the verbal. Over time, language has been made property to the human domain, diminishing our capacity to a radical otherness. The advent of the alphabet technology upended the human’s once animistic and participatory relationship, apart from its flickering amongst existing indigenous oral cultures.

Divorcing us from the realm of the sensuous, the alphabet is governed by an exclusive human sound. Once construed as a tool for world building and expression, language has, ironically, closed in on itself. Deanimated and deeroticised, language has come to be crystallised, reified and codified. Cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram expresses:

‘Language is not a fixed or ideal form, but an evolving medium we collectively inhabit, a vast topological matrix in which the speaking bodies are generative sites, vortices where the matrix itself is continually being spun out of the silence of sensorial experience.’[5]  (2017: 84)

In spite of human intervention and construction, Abram considers writing to be magic, just as how the alphabet is seen as a ‘potent form of magic technology’. [6]  (Abram, 2020) But if the magic of the word fails to be acknowledged and reconciled, we risk a forgetfulness of the primal forces of creation, to be estranged from any possibility of falling under the spells of sensuousness.


Daniel Tiffany in Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, accounts for the incomprehensibility of poetry and slang. Taking examples in avant garde poetry, pop songs, thieves carols, drinking songs and beggar chants, the writer delves into the subversive power of obscurity in words. With Tiffany, we observe lyric obscurity—language’s resistance to communication—and its relationship with privacy and secrecy: ‘Though secrecy may require practicing “the art of silence”, language—especially poetry—remains the principal medium of secrecy.’ (2009: 4) [7]

And in secrecy, we form alliances:

Every social relation possesses a “quantum of secrecy” and one may therefore assess the “ratio of secrecy” in any relational structure. Thus, every relation is secretive to some degree, yet every secret forms a relation — a dialectic evident in the formation of secret societies and social underworlds.[8]  (2009: 4-5)

Obscurity cultivates the untranslatable, in experiences or in words. Bite the tongue revels in this shade, sheltering from the blinding light of universalism and absolute translation. In this place of not knowing, where meaning is always negotiated, the potency of language manifests: in darkness, we sense and imagine, rather than name and crystalise. As Sarat Maharaj proposes in Perfidious Fidelity: The Untranslatability of the Other, untranslatability should be acknowledged in order to resist uniforming, assimilationist translations that erase difference. Bite the tongue lingers in this space where meaning is suspended and follows Maharaj in asking:

[...] can the untranslatable be voiced at all? How to articulate the leftover inexpressible of translation? Is it perhaps to be glimpsed in a back-to-front crazy word, an image’s shimmer, the flight of a gesture, the intimacies of voice, in listening to its silences — an attentiveness that opens onto an erotics and ethics of the other beyond its untranslatability? [9]  (1994: 28-35)

Bite the tongue is therefore not a prescriptive index of the manifestations of speech. It is, instead, an observation of the mutable entities of language in motion. Lingering in indeterminacy, we bite the tongue at moments of discord. This happens only for a breath, in which the unclenching of jaws follow. After biting the tongue, language is freed, revelling in infinite open-endedness and mystery.

1. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001), p. 3

2. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001), p. 46

3. Elizabeth A. Brandt (1981), ‘Native American Attitudes toward Literacy and Recording in the Southwest’, Journal of the Linguistic Association of the Southwest, 4(2).  (1981, p.186)

4. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Breathing: Chaos and Poetry (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018), p.127

5. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage Books, 2017), p.84
6. Emergence Magazine (2020), The Ecology of Perception [Podcast]. 28 July. Available at https://podcasts.apple.com/fi/podcast/the-ecology-of-perception-david-abram/id1368790239?i=1000486370142 (Accessed 16 May 2021).

7. Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), p. 4

8. Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), p.4-5

9. Sarat Maharaj, ‘Perfidious Fidelity, The Untranslatability of the Other’ in Global visions: towards a new internationalism in the visual arts, ed. Jean Fisher, (London: Kala Press, 1994), p. 28-35

Jade Barget & Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee
Paris & London

Jade Barget is a curator and cultural worker based between London and Paris with an interest in moving image and performance cultures. Her research centres on the force and limit of images, embodied spectatorship and affect. In 2020, Jade curated programmes for XING and Nottingham Contemporary and worked on commissioning new works by Adam Christensen, Eva Gold, Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi and Aaron Ratajczyk. Jade has written for a number of publications including AQNB, diaCRITICS Los Angeles Review of Books, THE SEEN and Untitled-Folder. She graduated from the Curating Contemporary Art department at the Royal College of Art, London with distinctions and was laureate of the 2020 Young Curator bursary from the Bureau des Arts Plastiques of the Institut Français and the French Ministry of Culture.


Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee is an artist and cultural researcher. Her practice is guided by the iterations of slow violence and the dynamic between the ‘near’ and ‘elsewhere’. In attempting to disarm instruments of knowledge production, her practice shies away from reduction and completion. Steering away from essentialisms, she is interested in once-forgotten micro and muted narratives. By revisioning fractured traditions, she engages with visual and textual interventions to navigate the nuances of perception and retention. She is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Fine Art & Photography, University for the Creative Arts in Rochester (UK) and University of the Arts London. She has been the recipient of grants from the National Arts Council (Singapore).