This is the fifth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.
Some months ago I checked my email and was excited to find that one had been sent by A** W*****z and was an invitation to me to participate in this conference. I mean, A*y W*l*n*! For reals. Like I say, I was really happy to get the invitation. And of course I was going to accept.
But the title of the conference immediately gave me problems. “Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.” By the way, did anyone have trouble reading the poster for this conference?
I mean, did you notice how the font sizes of the lines aren’t the same and aren’t the same size? The words “What Cannot Be Said” are in the middle of the poster in one font and the lettering for that is the largest. If you read the poster one way, focusing on the largest font, it looks like “What Cannot Be Said” is the title. Read the poster another way, from top to bottom, and it comes out as “Freedom of Expression: What Cannot Be Said in a Changing world.”
Actually, I understood the first three words of the actual title just fine: “Freedom of Expression.” I got that part. I was a little uncertain about what “in a changing world” meant since the world is always changing. It is, right? But it was the subtitle, “What Cannot Be Said,” that darn subtitle, that really gave me pause. What Cannot Be Said. Now what does that mean, I wondered.
I was quickly beginning to panic because I was already thinking that when you hear those words, the words “what cannot be said,” when you hear them, you hear them as a command to speak, as in “you must speak,” and you find to your increasing dismay that said imperative has already intensified in speed and you have actually been hearing it all the time as an imperative to “talk louder,” or to “speak up,” as if you had been talking the whole time and someone had said to you “what cannot be said,” and your pulse rate went up — like, a lot — because you couldn’t tell if the person intended to say the declarative sentence it seems to be, or rather pose a question disguised as a declarative sentence—like “what cannot be said?.”
And you’d be like, “What do you mean, I have to speak up?”
And they’d be like “That’s right. You must speak. You have to. It’s your duty. I’m calling on you.” By speaking up, in other words, you have to show them what is meant when they say “What Cannot Be Said.”
So they’d be like: “You have to tell us what cannot be said. You have to speak.”
And you’d be like: “No. (Pause for dramatic effect.) I don’t. I have the right to remain silent.”
And then they’d say, after taking about five minutes to think it over, “Yeah. You’re right.” Although they’d be thinking, like, we did invite you to a conference.
And you’d be all cocky, like, “That’s right. I cannot say whatever I want. No. Scratch that. I cannot say whatever the fuck I want. Fuck, yeah. Goddam cop.” (Last words said under your breath.)
And then there would be nothing left to say. Right?
So would we then be in the true realm of the “what-cannot-be- said?” I mean, what is there to say? Is “what cannot be said” a realm? Or would it be better to call it an “area?”
Is it even a space? People talk about pushing boundaries, as if there were a clear, wide line separating what can be said from what cannot. And people do seem to spatialize and temporalize speech, like when they say that a classroom should be a “safe space” free from certain kinds of speaking. And when they say there should be trigger warnings before there can be certain kinds of speaking. The notion of trigger warnings implies implies that safety too has a temporality, as if you could stop talking, and as if everything you had said up to that point you would know for a fact had been said with good social hygiene, as if you could stop before you said anything unsafe and put a kind of giant condom over your head before engaging in daily intercourse with other people in the classroom. Then everyone would be protected from a possible danger: an insemination, a conception, a creation.
Now let’s go back to that troubling subtitle, “What Cannot Be Said,” and this time, let’s hear it as a sentence spoken like a question, like what was originally called Valley Girl talk in the 1980s before it became universal, you know, like when every declarative sentence is spoken as if it were a question to which there was no answer as in “What Cannot be Said?” (say it with a shrug of the shoulders and a facial expression like a word balloon reading “Is that a question?) I don’t know. I don’t think I can say.
I am saying that What Cannot Be Said in fact cannot be said, that is: we can never know in advance what cannot be said, and we don’t want to know it.
Do we? And besides which: What cannot be said — now that you’ve thought of it — may always be said if you really want to. Saying it just carries certain risks like getting your head blown off while sitting in your office; or being killed for not loving god in the right way or for not loving the right god, or the right kind of person; saying what cannot be said entails risks like being shot in your building’s elevator or stuck indefinitely in some detention center, or in a black site, or in a gulag at hard labor for decades, or being audited by the IRS every other year, or worst of all being tuned out, shut down, even if you can’t be turned off, always still transmitting whatever you would have said, or would not have said, or could have said if only you’d had the time. Is there anything one will not have said, in the end? Are you saying what cannot be said, but saying it only to yourselves? And if you’re saying what cannot be said, then what cannot be said can be said — as I said. Right?
Is there anyone listening? Is there…
[Transcript mysteriously trails off.]
Richard Burt is the co-author, with Julian Yates, of What’s the Worst Thing You Can Do to Shakespeare? (2013) and the author of Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (2008); Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (St. Martin’s); and Licensed by Authority: Ben Jonson and the Discourses of Censorship ( 1993). Burt has published more than forty articles and book chapters on topics including Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, literary theory, film adaptation, the Middle Ages in film and media, the erotics of pedagogy, stupidity, cinematic paratexts, biopolitics, posthumography, and censorship. He will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.