Issue 2/2019 - Illiberal!

There Are No More Ports For Flying Dutchmen

On the Populism of the IAE Critique

Boris Buden

Let us recall again the weird case of IAE—“International Art English”. The essay under this title that appeared in Triple Canopy in 2012 has now become the most popular text ever published in this American art journal.1 It has triggered a huge reaction: polemics, public debates, reviews in the global press. This rather surprising impact hints, however, at the stakes that by far exceed the essay’s original intention, which was written as a critique of a particular form of English language developed in the press releases that are regularly issued by the online art journal e-flux. It is even about more than the language of contemporary art, of which, according to the authors of the essay, the cited press releases are a paradigmatic example. What is it that stirred things up and sparked so much public response?

Are you serious?

Basically, the thesis of the authors, Alix Rule and David Levine, is very simple: in certain media and institutions of contemporary art a new linguistic praxis has emerged that significantly differs from the established standard of English language. So far so good—but then comes the normative judgement: this “unique language that has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English” is, “oddly pornographic”. Thus, a certain variation in the way we use language in our ever-changing social and cultural praxis is stigmatized as a deviation that borders on obscenity. It is this moral outrage over a particular linguistic transformation understood as representative—or more precisely, as a symptom of the decadence—of today’s contemporary art that has attracted so much public attention and prompted such passionate critical responses, antagonizing the audience over issues that go far beyond the sphere of art. Rule and Levine’s pamphlet addresses, albeit more implicitly than explicitly, a much larger scene where the relations of political inequality and social injustice are caught in a global drama in which art, and the lament over its perverted speech, appears in a rather minor role.
But first, what do they accuse this International Art English of? Ultimately, of deviating from the (British) English standard. How did the authors determine this deviation? By measuring precisely—empirically, “objectively”—the distance of this “unique language” from the standard represented in the guise of the so-called BNC, the British National Corpus (BNC), a collection of some 100 million words composed from a wide range of sources supposed to be a representative sample of spoken and written British English of the late 20th century.2 Using an advanced software Rule and Levine compared the frequency of certain words in the two corpora, BNC and IAE, meaning the corpus of words used in the e-flux press releases. So, for instance, the word “reality” occurs four times more frequently in the IAE than in the BNC; “the real” “appears 2,148 times per million units in the e-flux corpus compared to a mere 12 times per million in the BNC, that is, 179 times more often, etc.” (16)
This “exactly” measured lexical difference is at the very core of the authors’ claim that International Art English is a language on its own.3 It also clearly reveals what the essay is actually about, i.e., what has been the core intention of its authors. It is an act of demarcation: firstly, the drawing of a linguistic boundary, one between two languages, and secondly, providing this newly enclosed linguistic entity with some social substratum and a normative meaning, with an ideological legitimation.
At this point one has to make it perfectly clear: borders that allegedly separate languages or differentiate a language from its dialects are drawn arbitrarily. They are a matter of convention, which means that they don’t originate in any sort of intrinsic, linguistic, or any other necessity. In other words, linguistic borders cannot be empirically determined and, in this sense, scientifically verified.4
This is good to know when one reads the authors’ closing remark at the end of the Introduction calling on the readers not to take their argument as an “overelaborate joke”. There is, as they want us to believe, “nothing funny” about the language they have just invented5: “We are quite serious.”(9)

Alienation as deviation

Indeed, we also shall take “International Art English” seriously, but not, however, as a given linguistic fact based on the empirically, or, in this case statistically, proven data. Rather it is the emptiness of this arbitrarily enclosed linguistic entity which makes it a perfect projection screen for a number of normative and political claims. IAE might be an imagined language, nevertheless its invention has real effects we should seriously deal with.
One of them results from the authors’ providing the IAE with social substance, its own linguistic community, which they, in a no less arbitrary way, construct in two steps. First, on a descriptive level, they define the community of IAE, plain and simple, as the art world: “the network of people who collaborate professionally to make the objects and nonobjects that go public as contemporary art.” (10). It comprises not only artists and curators but a wide range of those who in some way participate in the production of contemporary art, from gallery owners and directors or collectors, to writers, magazine editors, interns, art-history professors etc. What brings all these people together is their will to address an international audience and the availability of a technological prerequisite to do so, the internet. (11)
But now comes the normative level. In fact it has already been announced in the very motto of the essay, taken from British anthropologist Edmund R. Leach6, who points at a particular form of linguistic praxis, “English upper-middle class speech”, or simply the “elite speech”, that is used by an elite not only to identify its members and confirm their social status but also “to mark itself off from the common herd”, which tries to imitate it. (8) Rule and Levine obviously want us to think of IAE in a similar way, i.e. to understand it as a means of class differentiation that linguistically codifies and constantly reaffirms the social and cultural distance between an elite and a “common people”. In fact, they endow this language with a socially formative function—the ability to performatively create its own (elitist) community. They even explicitly use Althusser’s notion of “interpellation” (10) hinting at IAE’s ideological character : it interpellates its speakers as members of a common, “fantastically mobile and glamorous” (art ) world.
In the view of its inventors, Rule and Levine, IAE is not only the language of an elite, a code in which the elite of the art world recognizes and reproduces itself, it is by the same token an elite language (27), a language that is elitist in its very structure, i.e. in the way it formats our relation to others and the world.
Speaking to the Guardian, one of the authors, Alix Rule, claims that IAE “has enforced a hermeticism of contemporary art,” and “has made art harder for non-professionals”.7 In the essay itself, they speculate that art might use its special language to escape “the scrutiny of broader audiences and local ones.” (34) Analyzing how the notion of dialectics is used in a press release, they accuse its author, someone in a “leading German art magazine”, of laying “claim to a better understanding of dialectics than the common reader.” (28) Thus, IAE alienates “common readers”, “non-professionals”, “broader and local audiences”. In other words, it appears to them as a foreign language. Yet at the same time, it alienates the contemporary art from them. As far as it speaks IAE, contemporary art speaks a language foreign to the common people, a language they don’t understand. But be careful: it is not the old problem of contemporary art, or modern art in general, being incomprehensible to ordinary people that we are confronted with here. Rule and Levine want us to think something else: if contemporary art would speak proper English, it would be (more) understandable to the common or ordinary people.8 This implies that the alienating character of IAE, which expresses itself in a mutual alienation of contemporary art and the common people, is a form of collateral damage resulting from a much bigger incident, in short, a secondary effect of the alienation of a language from its origin, i.e., from its authentic form. This is precisely how Rule and Levine understand alienation, namely, as “deviations from the norm”. (33) In our concrete case this means that IAE is an alienated form of standard English, which, in the process of its alienation has gone so far that it has become another, different language, a language foreign to its origin. So, the correct question to ask now is, how did it happen, what has caused this language to become alien to itself?

Empty things!?
The answer is rather simple—it was translation, or in the words of the authors themselves: “How did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?” (20) They trace the origin of the self-alienation of the English language to form IAE, its estrangement to the point of creating a new, foreign language, back to the influence of the journal October, founded in 1976. What is at stake, more precisely, is the impact the translations of French (post-)structuralist theory, strongly promoted in the journal, have had on the language of American art criticism. So, for instance, art historian Rosalind Krauss, who translated Barthes, Baudrillard, and Deleuze for October also “wrote in a style that seemed forged in those translations.” (22) To retrace these French imports in IAE—particular lexical tics, like “the suffixes -ion, -ity, -ality, and -ization, so frequently employed over homier alternatives like -ness”; or, for instance, the translation of the French le vide as “The Void”, instead of, as they suggest, “empty things” (!?), etc.—Rule and Levine once again used the Sketch Engine software to compare the frequency of particular words among three corpuses, the French Web Corpus, the BNC and the e-flux corpus, to determine … what?—a deviation from an established linguistic norm: in the e-flux corpus a word coined in the English translation from French, like the void, occurs “significantly” more times than in the BNC9. So what?—one might ask. The authors’ answer is more than resolute: “Based on so many idiosyncrasies of translation, the language that art writing developed during the October era was alienating …”; “It alienated the English reader as such …”; “Those comfortable with the more esoteric contortions likely had prolonged contact with French in translation or, at least, theory that could pass for having been translated.”(25) In short, it was the influence of the translations from foreign languages that have brought about the fatal self-alienation of the English language and gave birth to its illegitimate, degenerated offspring called IAE.
If this is the central argument of Rule and Levine’s critical endeavor, then one cannot help but wonder why the authors haven’t given any thought to the concept of translation. They could have learned, for instance, from the classical German theory of translation (Humboldt, Schleiermacher and other Romantics) that an “alienation” of one’s own language is the very purpose of translations from foreign languages. By importing foreign elements from other languages translation only benefits the language. It helps it and its community and culture grow, develop and widen the horizon of experience and knowledge.10 Far from being an auxiliary to the “proper” form of linguistic praxis we occasionally apply to bridge the difference between two languages and so restore broken communication, translation is the very form in which this “proper” linguistic praxis is produced. It is its hybridizing force that addresses and performatively recreates what is common in it beyond an abstract plurality of different languages. Translation does not arrive at the scene only after the languages in their totality have already been formed. Rather, it has always been there, even then when, for instance, the British National Corpus with its 100 million words was still in the making, alienating its content from the very beginning. In fact, the BNC consists predominantly of the traces of countless encounters with linguistic and cultural differences, including those French and German ones.

A populist address

Unfortunately, this all appears to be beyond comprehension for the inventors of IAE. For Rule and Levine the experience of alienation, which is intrinsic to and omnipresent in our linguistic praxis, is merely the experience of a “deviation from the norm”. However, they imagine this norm in terms of a monolingual paradise of total transparency and unhindered communication. It is a vision of language and its constitutive social relations that vegetate in their absolute solitude and serene self-sufficiency, well protected from any foreign influence that could jeopardize the linguistic intimacy—or, shall we rather say: idiocy—of the native speakers in which alone words and things, or different social classes, can come together in harmony. If this happens nevertheless, and a foreign element enters the body, it will isolate and excrete the intruder. This is precisely what Rule and Levine did with IAE. They could not think of linguistic praxis and its corresponding social relations from the perspective of their constant historical transformation. So, unable to see the specific features of what they call IAE as a particular moment in the continuity of one and the same ever-changing linguistic praxis, they simply cut it off as an anomaly. A further example: having detected that the word reality is more often used in the corpus of IAE than BNC they conclude that the former is a decadent form of the latter that should consequently be scrapped. But why actually? Obviously, because for them reality speaks Standard English.
There is, however, another perspective from which that which Rule and Levine call International Art English11 can be seen as a moment—temporal, contingent and socially formative—of the process of a progressive re-vernacularization of the English language. While other, “smaller” standardized languages, caught in globalization, generally experience it as an oppressive dominance of English as the lingua franca that excludes them from all the important discourses or even bring them to the edge of extinction, the English language itself is re-, or better neo-vernacularized by detaching itself from the existing authorities of its institutional codifications, in short, from its standardized form. The more powerful it becomes globally, the more ghostly it appears to its “original”, “native” speakers who now panic over losing their exclusive property rights on it. Alienation, by the way, also means transfer of ownership to another person or group.
This is, to conclude, what the whole drama is about—the neo-vernacularization of the English language that, like a ghost ship, has now broken adrift in the vast spaces of the globalized world, doomed never to set anchor again—the Flying Dutchman of the new vernaculars. IAE, International Art English, is but an episode of this drama, featuring contemporary art on board this ghost ship—among many, many others. Yet, in their essay, although fully aware of this drama12, Rule and Levine don’t address it explicitly. So, what, or whom, do they actually address instead?
It seems that they speak in the name of an ordinary art audience, the common people, the native speakers of English (or other standardized “mother tongues”) whom International Art English has alienated from both their “original” language and, with it, an authentic experience of contemporary art. And it seems that they speak against the perpetrators, the IAE speaking global elite of contemporary art. Isn’t this a perfect example of a full-fledged populist address? Well, not yet. But it becomes one when the true addressee behind the “crime scene” appears on the stage. At the end of the essay the authors assume that IAE will probably implode and predict that the elite of the art world “will opt for something like conventional highbrow English and the reliable distinctions it imposes.” (35) This could mean only one thing—that the elite of the art world must be first purified from all the non-native English speakers, or those who couldn’t afford an elite education that would teach them “conventional highbrow English”; that this elite of the art world must be purged of all those art students from Skopje who litter the “true English language” with their IAE-linguistic dirt , so as to become a true elite again, the incontestable ruler of the art world and the world itself. This is the addressee in whose name and in whose interests the critique of IAE is written. But this is nothing new. We have heard it already: MEGA!—Make English Great Again!



[1] All quotes from the essay are taken from: “International Art English by Alix Rule and David Levine, with Mariam Ghani and Alexander Provan”, Published by Triple Canopy, November 2018.
[2] See Wikipedia, Accessed: 27.02.2019.
[3] “(…) what ultimately makes it a language—is the pointed distance from English that it has always cultivated.” (8). This distance is measured in the essay not only on the lexical but also, albeit not that “exactly”, on the level of syntax and genealogy, i.e., a history of “foreign” influences on English language.
[4] Even structuralist linguistics was fully aware of this. See Ferdinand de Saussure: “De même que les dialectes ne sont que des subdivisions arbitraires de la surface de la langue, de même la limite qui est censée séparer deux langues ne peut être que conventionnelle.”, in Cours de linguistique générale, Paris: Payot, 1997 [1916], 279.
[5] Yes, I am quite serious too: invented, not discovered.
[6] From his book Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure (Harvard University Press, 1954)
[7] Accessed: 10.02.2019
[8] Or, to put it more precisely: if the contemporary art would generally speak the local languages, meaning the standardized “mother tongues” of particular nations, i.e. the languages that have not yet been spoiled—“alienated” from their original, authentic core—by globalization, contemporary art worldwide would be (more) accessible to ordinary people.
[9] In a similar way they analyzed another “bad influence” on English language coming from October’s translations of Germany’s Frankfurt School texts. Here, again, lexical imports like production, negation, totality or dialectics have polluted the purity of Standard English.
[10] See Antoine Berman, The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany, trans. S. Heyvaert (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
[11] Regardless of whether its particular features allow it to be recognized as a particular linguistic entity or not.
[12] They speak of re-vernacularization without being able to name it: “IAE has never had a codified grammar; instead, it has evolved by continually incorporating new sources and tactics of sounding foreign, pushing the margins of intelligibility from the standpoint of the English speaker.” (33)