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Speaking in tongues (Or why the correct answer is no longer enough to solve our problems)

“It’s really easy”, the diminutive pastor’s wife said to me, her hands folded into a prayerful clump of subdued exasperation.

We were both kneeling by my bed, and she was teaching me how to speak in tongues. My mother circled the hallway, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of my fiery rebirth. “All you need to do”, Pastor K. said, her huge wig almost just as earnest as she was, “is to say anything that comes to your head!” She assured me that all true Christians had access to this ‘gift’, and that it was necessary for those who sought to have power over the world. To demonstrate how easy it was, she turned away, shut her eyes, and unleashed a torrent of nonsense syllables – some of them alliterative modifications of the previous, the others obvious repetitions spaced out in feverish staccatos. I listened with fascination, watching her turn her head this way and that, her bangs flirting with the air, her face melting into a blur of feverish, sweaty piety.

“Try it, bo! bo! bo!” she said, momentarily surfacing from her deep dive. “Say anything that comes to your head!” I dug my face into the soft sides of my bed and, in soft whimpering obedience, imitated her drunkenness. I was only twelve. Or eleven. But as much as I wanted to have the ‘experience’, I wasn’t entirely convinced; a sneering censoring board in my head assured me nothing I ‘said’ was believable. And yet, I wanted to believe. I needed to believe these half-words and hyphenated grunts, broken on arrival, signifying nothing except a yearning to feel the sacred, were worth speaking out.

A few months ago, I was wrapping up yet another online session on my writing course, pointing out how language is losing its powerful grip on how we see the world – opening us up to the unspeakable, to the lithic resonance of stones, the plaintive humming of migrating clouds, to the abject ‘other’ once subsumed under the anthropic regime of metaphor and verse. A moment of silence followed, and then – quite unexpectedly – one of the participants literally exploded into a stream of preposterous non-words. She sang it, a lyrical un-story without plot or point or promise. And we all listened, already wounded by the shrapnel of this impassioned invocation of the impossible. It was like leaning at the edge of all rationality, the experience of it. When she was done, quite amused by her own openness, she made some effort to make sense of what had happened. I didn’t care for that much. For me, it was a homecoming of sorts. I had just witnessed a potent figuration for the seismic shifts I felt were beleaguering the world. Speaking nonsense. Speaking in tongues.

I think, on a civilizational scale, we are ‘coming home’. This homecoming is not an arrival in the sense we would like to understand it. It is a coming to the precipice of our own skins – where rational sense ceases its reign as the monologue that weaves the world together; it is a realization that we are not the centre of the universe or in control of it. The ‘old’ modern assumption that the world is a protracted sentence, to which we must keep adding new phrases of progress, is being interrupted. We ‘now’ live in a lisp. At the tip of the tongue. And as our faith in the normal – in our ability to harness technology to create a ‘better’ world, in the integrity of our political institutions, in the trajectory of piety – implodes, we find ourselves on a continent we have never traversed before. We are lost. The correct answer is no longer enough.

Yet, this tragic decentering of the ‘human’, of language, of story, is ‘our’ greatest hope. This stuttering nonsense is the syllable of radical difference.

One of the more fundamental modern assumptions about what it means to be human is that we are uniquely distant from the howling, humping, clawing, mangled mess we sometimes call ‘nature’. What sets us apart is our ability to make meaning of things, to speak, to be intentional, to be rational – inherent attributes we suppose are missing in a mute world. This faith in the geometric distance between ‘us’ and ‘it’ has been so influential in western thought that in the early 20th century it led to an interdisciplinary focus on language and its structure.

At the risk of perpetuating an oversimplification, it can be said that the tangible world was seemingly effaced, and we began to pay more attention to culture, to narrative, to identity. The symbol became an advocate for the real, in the same way activists (in spite of good intentions) come to displace ‘social actors’ they ‘represent’ in the phallic public space.

It all had something to do with the old positivist premise that though the real world was external to us, it was only apprehensible if a series of protocols was followed through. The ‘linguistic turn’ became disaffected with that idea – totally banishing the ‘real’ world, and coming to trust only in representation as the way to access the world across an incurable ontological gap.

In a sense, the world was overlaid with a reflexive layer, effectively split into two: ‘representations and entities to be represented’. Words and things. Appearances and things-in-themselves. ‘Experience’ became shorthand for reality, perhaps in the same way money evolved from gold into a piece of paper ‘representing’ collective trust that the gold is still there.

We even told ourselves the world is made of words and stories. Language became like the holy spirit of Christian lore – hovering over the face of the deep waters, contemplating the trope of nature, but irreparably removed from it. A fundamental essence to itself.

With this ‘interpretative/linguistic’ turn, and facing a world that no longer feels in alignment with our deepest yearnings, the ethical imperative of our time is to ‘tell a new story’: all we need to do, it seems, is to get the right concept, restructure culture, and the world would follow suit – reconditioning its material premises in accordance with the irresistibility of our plot.

And so – animated by the idea that nature is separate from culture, that the discursive trounces the material, and that consciousness is more important than the physical (and, by implication, separate from it) – we have become complicit in maintaining a politics that centralizes humans, our notions of justice, our endpoints, as the central issues of concern. Our politics ‘mirrors’ that division between things: the private sphere is populated by citizens to be represented, while the public sphere (parliament, Facebook, conferences…) is where things get real.  

Representationalism presumes that language and meaning are divorced from the material world, and are only brought into it by anthropocentric practices. Here’s where its greatest weakness is: it is blind to the material conditions that make language possible in the first place. Perhaps, an easier way to articulate this ‘intra-activity’ between language/concepts/meaning/symbols and the material world is to say that the writing is not on the wall, the writing and the wall are a phenomenon, an ongoing relationship.

Where did we ever get the strange idea that nature—as opposed to culture—is ahistorical and timeless? We are far too impressed by our own cleverness and self-consciousness…We need to stop telling ourselves the same old anthropocentric bedtime stories.
– Steve Shaviro

All of this is perhaps a longwinded way of acknowledging the agency of the nonhuman world – and how the ‘things’ that supposedly make us unique and separate from the world are actually the world in its differential intelligibility. We are not located in the world; we are the world in its unfolding. Even ‘reason’ – that eminent Enlightenment sceptre that was supposed to divide the seas for us to walk through – is just as much a part of the waters: fluid, irrational, relational, and non-essential.

Language, justice, choice, meaning and knowledge are not disembodied concepts that come from a world of ideas, descending into an oblivious heap of matter. Neither is matter a ‘thing’, determinate or particulate, that can be mobilized in service of humanist or any other ends. The binary that suggests that thinking is ‘human’ activity fails to notice the very ‘nonhuman’ conditions that make it possible.

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Even our actions are not ours. They spill from shadowy places, between the cracks. They are the reverberating echoes of nightly howls, the rhizomatic quests of fungal communities, the ejaculated deposits of undigested bacteria, the creased moaning of an awakening oak tree, the bulbous flatulence of otherwise silent bullfrogs, the pollination songs of yellow fields, the knowing glance of snow-capped mountains, the mournful empathy of the harlequin moon, adrift, as she listens to those nightly howls. Again. We are stained, cross-marked, threaded through, shaken up, and completely infected by the world – so that to try to act unilaterally to ‘save it’, or to insist that our notions of justice are secure and final, is to be blind to the umbilical cord, still wet, that connects us to her. There is no acting that is not an acting-together. The slightest ‘human’ gesture is a re-reading of history, a re/turning of lunar tides. An opening of submerged eyelids.

Matter, like meaning, is not an individually articulated or static entity. Matter is not little bits of nature, or a blank slate, surface, or site passively awaiting signification; nor is it an uncontested ground for scientific, feminist, or Marxist theories. Matter is not a support, location, referent, orsource of sustainability for discourse. Matter is not immutable or passive. It does not require the mark of an external force like culture or history to complete it. Matter is always already an ongoing historicity.
– Karen Barad

The questions to ask now are: how do we make do in a world that can only be partially known? How do we reconcile our politics with the repressed vivacity and haunting spontaneity of the world? What does it mean to be just and responsible in times of exclusions and exterminations?

In ways that are too imperceptible for cognition, we are coming home to this understanding. To these questions. We are seeing that the material world, wild and promiscuous, is always an ethical interruption of our often neurotic quests for supremacy. And it has been haunting us in ways we often do not notice: our bodies will fall ‘ill’; our politics will ‘fail’; our quests for understanding and coherence will always ‘come short’; and then, we will ‘die’ – and all of this, no matter how much we try to escape it.

Maybe this is what it could mean to come down to earth: to acknowledge that we are limited, that our discursive tactic of taking refuge in high-minded concepts and ideas is just as much a material ‘doing’ of the world as the opening of a flower at dawn. And that what we call ‘falling sick’, or ‘being confused’, or ‘falling apart’ is how the world tames us, draws us away from the stifling linearity of our stories and happily-ever-after tales, and teaches us that disappearing is always a re-appearing – a dis/appearing, if you will.

The world is intelligent; the ‘body’ knows what the ‘mind’ does not. And the correct response is not enough.  

So, with due reference to Pastor K. and everyone who has ever tried to teach me techniques for mastering divine glossolalia, I am reclaiming ‘speaking in tongues’ – from its religious instrumentality and humanist tethering – as a way of assuming a posture of curiosity, of leaning into the unfamiliar, of seeking the face and participation of the ‘other’. Of staying with indeterminacy as our deepest hope.

This March, I will be hosting a series of radical sessions of speaking in tongues, this sympoietic ‘staying with the trouble’ – in a writing course called ‘We will dance with mountains: Writing as an ally of emergence’ ( What the name of this 4-month expedition doesn’t reveal is that this is not about writing, about making you a better writer, or about using writing to make the world a better place. In the same way that speaking in tongues compels us to ‘hang out’ with the emergent, this post-humanist course is about sharing agency with writing, disturbing the grammatical, and deepening the way we respond to with a world that is just as response-able as we think ‘we’ are.  

There will be no gurus. No revelatory drops of wisdom from the heavens. We do not write to save the world. We write because we are no longer the centre of the universe – and writing calls us to dance with it. It will be a slow, painful and hopefully enriching boundary-making project of relearning humility, of meeting monsters, and of being slain by a world that is always surprising.

Always experimenting.

Always sensuous.

Like speaking in tongues.