Language is an ancient technology. All human advancement, from the ability to hunt as organized units to the invention of Our Great Democracy, has come about through our manipulation of (and potential to be manipulated by) language. Molecular biologists speak of DNA as a biological language comprised of four letters; it is the combinations of those letters into words, as well as the syntax and semantics of the resulting compounds that are responsible for the diversity of life on earth. This is an oversimplification of course—we’re a journal of literature and fine arts, not DNA Monthly—but this simplification is useful in that it allows us to recognize that the technology of language may have existed before (and certainly exists beyond) the confines of human speech. This point is not lost on Noam Dorr, whose contest-winning piece "Love Drones" beautifully complicates the relationship between machines, humans, and the space that separates and connects us all. If this issue has a theme, it is that language is the space between us, that operates as breath, as intention, as sound. Look around you, and you will find yourself suspended in a kind of word soup.
Then again, perhaps this is all backwards; perhaps we've become so entangled by our own ability to create that we can’t help but to describe the machinations of living (and nonliving) things through the metaphor of language. Regardless, our consciousness cannot be disentangled from language: it binds us together and in the same breath it moves us to perceive ourselves as separate from one another, and from the world around us. “Language is a skin,” as Barthes so eloquently puts it. To talk about language, we’re faced with the problem of the prisoner describing the walls of her prison: she knows them better than any other living being—she defines her existence by them—and yet she cannot know how they appear, in the present, from outside.
The writers, artists, and art-critics in this issue take the intersecting frontiers of language, empathy, and otherness as their medium and subject. As you read through the issue you’ll find it punctuated with digitally composed asemic writings, in the tradition of Henri Michaux’s Narration, by the poet David Jalajel. Of his own work, Jalajel writes that it “explores the form-content relationship through visual equivalents of elements like verse structure, meter, rhythm, and consonance and seeks through these elements to create mood, tone, and meaning.” Beautiful, evocative, and penetrable once we loosen our expectations of language, Jalajel's work reminds us, in the words of our featured artist collaborative Antena, that "the so-called language barrier is permeable."
We want our readers, particularly those of us whose first language is English, to be confronted with texts that are unknowable, unfamiliar, unfavored. We hope you will take time with them, and with all foreign texts, not simply for the sake of empathy, but for the sake of discovery and delight. Tracing Natalia Toledo's poem from Zapotec, to Spanish, to Clare Sullivan's English translation, the reader is invited into the conspicious pleasure of reading a poem through multiuple iterations and languages.
We're so pleased and grateful to have inherited the content of this issue, and to have had a chance to work with and learn from our predecessors, Zachary Martin and Karyna McGlynn, who've passed the editorial torch to us with grace and intelligence. Looking back through the issue, it is clear that every piece here is primarily concerned with language, in that it is concerned with humanity. Our great loves and loss of love, our wars waged on front porches and across oceans, our ability and disability to experience empathy: all of these things point back to our relationship to language, our mother tongues, our fricatives, our sibilance, our breath.