Mimicry and Division: Colonization and Language in East Asia
The story of the “shibboleth” can be found in The Book of Judges. After the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites in battle, they waited at the corner of the Jordan River to catch fleeing Ephraimites (who were indistinguishable in their appearance) by having them pronounce the word “shibboleth” in Hebrew. As a result, 42,000 Ephraimites, whose pronunciation of the “shi” sound differed—and perhaps also those who simply pronounced the word differently—were slaughtered. The example of the shibboleth, which is a “test word” used to make distinctions regarding nationality, class, ideology, and so on, is commonly found in places of plunder and war, especially in East Asia, with its complex colonial history. Examples include Japanese words (i.e., the pronunciation of “10 yen 50 jun”) that were used to distinguish Joseon people in the aftermath of the Kwandong Earthquake and English words (under the assumption that Chinese people pronounce the “R” closer to an “L”) that were used to distinguish Japanese disguised as Chinese in the Pacific war. In this manner, in places where different cultures come into contact, language becomes a norm that operates as a principle of harsh exclusion.
With r:ead#4, we seek to address the exclusivity of language that emerges with contact between cultures. That said, not every contact between cultures results in characteristics of exclusiveness. In times of antiquity, Chinese characters were used in East Asia as written language, and while this aided communication in different spoken languages, it did not give rise to specific exclusivity or resistance. According to Karatani Kojin, language’s exclusiveness emerges when a nation in the modern context is formed and the concept of a single “language” or “standard language” emerges. Modern nations pushed out the “non-normal,” as which they regarded different spoken languages, and imposed unity by recognizing a specific language that could “be harmonized with written language.” And many nations began to emphasize the “exterior” as a means to maintain and reinforce inner unity; thus, imperialist colonization and plunder played a decisive role in creating the exterior image. The difference between the image of western language and the image of a minority’s language is not unrelated to the history of colonization. That is, the reason for referencing colonization in order to examine language’s exclusiveness can be found here.
However, we are not talking about colonization solely as a historical occurrence. The languages of a typical nation encompass the logic of exclusiveness and hierarchy irrespective of any direct colonial experience. According to Kojin, abstract concepts and ideas in most languages tend to be marked by written languages rather than spoken languages, and by loanwords rather than by vernacular. On the other hand, spoken languages used in everyday life tend to be rather vivid and specific, and tend to express subtle sentiment and nuance. Agglutinative languages such as Korean and Japanese added the endings of native words to Sino-Korean words and loanwords so as to “assist” the meanings of the words. Through this process, naturally, written languages gained priority over spoken languages, and Sino-Korean words and loanwords gained priority over native words, such that the gap between the language of the general public and the language of intellectuals gradually grew wider and wider. The hierarchy formed in this manner becomes the basis for an exclusion that is similar to the phenomenon that emerges from colonization. Thus, a person who uses a certain language becomes an object of admiration, and a person who uses another language becomes an object of contempt. People who are expelled because of language attempt to mimic the “inside” language so as to assimilate, but the language unceasingly differentiates. In this way, languages have become the languages of modern nations by eliminating and denigrating specific and vivid things, and they have embraced the logic of colonization. Above all, the reason that language resembles colonization is that it gradually becomes internalized and persistently resides in our thoughts.
This is the reason that we chose language and colonization as the theme of r:ead#4. While this topic is more likely to be the subject of research in the linguistic and historical contexts, we seek to examine this theme in the context of the art field because it is the result of a deep and lengthy internalization that cannot be explained through the lenses of causal relationships or influential relationships. We should ask why an old ideology that intervened in the process of the formation of a nation with a single language has persistently taken hold and continues to dominate our thoughts and actions. This phenomenon is in the domain of art because it is so relentless that it requires repetitive performance that proceeds like a gradual afterglow, rather than explanations that are delivered in a flash. I believe that this is an ideal inquiry for the Residency East Asia Dialogue. If we are interested in the “language connoting the inertia of colonization” rather than the “language used in the colonial period,” then this will be revealed in the process of intermixing different languages ourselves rather than in the process of studying distinct languages. In fact, when I participated in the program of r:ead#3 in 2014, I could sense various traces of colonization in the process by which the participants spoke in their mother tongues and the translators translated this into another language. This took form at times in vivid anecdotes involving their grandparents, at times in equivocal pronunciations, and at times in outdated vocabularies.
In r:ead#4, each artist’s language will become the subject of dialogue and the object of observation. Through the process in which East Asian artists, curators, and translators meet and speak in their mother tongues, we intend to draw forth our longstanding customs while raising the histories, ideologies, and sentiments that are suspended within those customs. We hope that our words become test words that are the opposite of a shibboleth. They will become a standard that tests the traces that could not remain as unified symbols, the words that could not become norms, and the stories of history that the words raise up and the vivid senses within them. Through these words, we will embrace something that has been excluded, give life to something that has been dissembled, and regain the original power of communication once possessed by language.