It is precisely because the unsaid always remains in the background of what is said, and the not understood always remains in the background of what is understood, that the yearning peculiar to linguisticality will always be unfulfilled.
– Donatella Di Cesare, Utopia of Understanding [i]
Consciousness is – or might be – a thing in formation. Or, at least, not a solid. The Greeks considered thought to be gaseous, something like a cloud. During the Enlightenment, it was a thin, heatless flame that shot along ventricles throughout our bodies. All the while, the Buddhist conception of consciousness was as an unceasing stream, a restless current, sometimes muddied and crowded, with its own tributaries and eddies.
Westerners seem to have stumbled across this stream at some point in the late 19th century, with psychologist William James typically claiming it as his own, calling it the ‘stream of consciousness’; a few writers seem to have drunk from the stream around the same time, so it became a popular locale for introverts and self-obsessives to hang out. It became so well known that any time anyone would have a long chat, or just say whatever came to mind, it was simply referred to as ‘stream of consciousness’.
So what happens when people open their mouths to the stream of consciousness? Does sense pour directly from the brainpan, over the tongue and onto the foreheads of those around you? Are we hearing the inside of your head?
The monologues of Aki Sasamoto draw deeply from the stream; but perhaps it’s one of the more winding side streams. We might liken her to a wayward sociologist turned conspiracy theorist, or a talkative taxi driver, who on the short journey with a captive audience can propound their idiosyncratic cosmology. Or, more appropriately, a chatty ferryperson: storytelling as we cross over the stream, drawing us into a constellation of observational comedy and existential surrealism. The world she sets out is recognisable, even mundane: she might start by talking about trying to figure out what the ‘permanent press’ option on the washing machine actually means, or musing on the art of pickpocketing.
But as she continues, things start to feel slightly askance. Things start to be sorted into camps: are you charismatic or strategic? Lost or bored? Where is this going? We’re confronted with crises of categorization, like the way she describes an old man who used to wander her village as a child: ‘we didn’t know where to place him in the world.’ Where are we supposed to fit into all this?
Unusual pairings and leaps of logic start to seep in: the language is the same, but there’s been a temporary suspension of the usual assumptions of what those words might mean along the way. Things start to get slippery, elusive, and she starts to circle back on phrases: ‘It’s not you. It’s also not you. It’s never you.’ Has there been a shortcut somewhere? Somehow you end up in another sort of space, being faced with impossible choices: ‘What kind of life do you want to have? Do you want to have a bird perspective? Or to touch things, experience things?’ Everyday life seems to have been lost sight of somewhere; is this our reality, or her reality, or somewhere in between? This is when we might find ourselves having been carried down along the stream of consciousness, and drifted into the river of dreams.
The adjective ‘dream-like’ is often an excuse, a lazy descriptor for when something feels like a non sequitur, or just a bit uneasy. There is, though, a precision to dreams, but perhaps it isn’t located in specifics. The visuals might blur and fudge, but the atmosphere sticks to the bed like a settled fog. You know, for example, what language the deer in your sleep was speaking, even if its mouth never opened. You know you were really at home the whole time, even though it looked outwardly like Paris. What takes on the feeling of dream-sense in Sasamoto’s work is the pervasion of metaphorism: where everything becomes symbolic, analogical for something else, a translation between physical and mental states, mediated through language.
The Structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson, in a quick aside in his study of child language and aphasia, mentions an ‘“introspectively graspable non-motor speech” which is only dreamed’.[ii] Framing this is the assumption, still widely shared, that we dream in literal language, that we have specific words in a specific language in mind when we sleep. But more interesting is this unspoken internal speech that inherently carries all of that along with it, without lifting a tooth or tongue. We have access to the inner lives of words, seemingly beyond language: we can tell when something is a ‘bad’ translation, or just a clunky direct algorithmic transposition of meanings; we can feel some shape of the impulse between frustrated half sentences. Perhaps we don’t dream in language at all, but more accurate to say that we dream of language.
So when Sasamoto asks, ‘How elastic are you?’, as she bounces up and down inside of a dumpster; or ‘How can we be inside, and outside at the same time?’, as she squeezes into a large cardboard tube and starts walking around like a giant beanpole; or asks us nonchalantly, ‘How do we balance between being either suicidal, or embarrassing?’, we might get the sense that she isn’t asking an either/or question, or even looking for resolution. What she seeks instead is the impossible combination of altertness and imagination, of consciousness and dream. Each of her tales lead towards a pointed equivocation, a hovering existence of incessant potential that sits uneasily between states.
It’s here, awake, balancing on the particular elusion of the language of dreams, that Sasamoto runs amok; pulling us into centre of a swirling vortex of puns, metaphors and inner sense that infects the objects and audience around it. And it’s just at that threshold that she rows away, leaving us in the middle of the stream to sink or swim.
Originally published in Aki Sasamoto: Clothes Line, to coincide with Sasamoto’s exhibition of the same name at White Rainbow, July – August 2018
[i] Donatella Di Cesare, Utopia of Understanding, trans. Niall Keane, State University of New York Press, 2012, e-book p. 81.
[ii] Roman Jakobson, Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals, The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1968, page 63.