“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.”
–Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’
“It seems to me that every time we humans announce that here is the thing that makes us unique–our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language–some other species comes along to snatch it away. If modesty were a human trait, we’d have learned to be more cautious over the years.”
― Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
“Hush”, the tenth episode in its fourth season, singlehandedly revived the supernatural television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the doldrums of formulaic stagnation. Shot almost without dialogue, the showrunner (Joss Whedon) attempts a critical appraisal of human speech as a deficient and limiting –but ultimately–essential linguistic function. The absence of speech is a felix culpa insofar as it redirects philosophical insights toward alternative forms of communication. For the sake of reading comprehensibility, the first part of this essay will be a quick contextual foregrounding of the plot, followed by a delineation of the episode’s linguistic inventiveness with regards to silence, non-vocal verbal (written) and kinesic communication. A major preoccupation of this paper will be exploring the limiting deficiencies of language as seen in “Hush” –Articulations without communication (signs with absent or insubstantial referents); and conversely, cognition which defies articulation (referents with absent signs). The final section will attempt to surmise the auteur’s stance on logocentrism/phonocentrism.
As its monster of the week, “Hush”, presents a group of fairy tale ghouls called ‘The Gentlemen’ whose modus operandi entails stealing the town residents’ voices, thus enabling the bogeymen to carve out the hearts of their speech-bereft victims while they flail helplessly and voicelessly. This narrative thread is preceded by a segment which follows the Scoobies as they grapple with the inadequacies of the spoken word –
(1) To his girlfriend’s frustrations, Xander is inexpressive, and too embarrassed to articulate his romantic feelings for Anya. (2) Our eponymous protagonist, Buffy Summers uses white noise to fend off and defer acting on the mutual attraction between Riley and her. Riley mirrors this because both of them have secret alter-egos, and fear intimacy. Buffy complains that all she does is “babble” when she is with Riley (perhaps an intentional reference to the etiological Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel). It is the kind of equivocating, excessive speech that impedes genuine communication and intimacy. (3) Willow Rosenberg’s expectations are frustrated when the witch joins a campus Wicca group but discovers that all they discuss are inanities (“sisters to the moon”, “we walk with the darkness, the wolf at our side…to the waterfall of power”, “woman-power shrine.”) She equates their feel-good, self-aggrandizing and hollow rhetoric to nonsensical gibberish –”Talk, all talk. Blah blah Gaia. Blah blah moon, menstrual lifeforce power thingy. You know after a couple sessions I was hoping we would get into something real, but…” Willow’s suggestion to perform a real spell is met with censorious political correctness. Another member, Tara, wants to speak up in her defense, but is extremely shy and unassertive when it comes to vocalizing her opinion. Tara’s speech is elliptical and unsure.
Confounded by these miscommunications, the gang ascribes agential power to language, and repeatedly makes claims to linguistic vulnerability. But with the arrival of The Gentlemen, Sunnydale awakens to find its voices gone. Chaos ensues. The town is not only literally quarantined by the government (citing ‘an epidemic of laryngitis’), but there is also a palpable sense of confounding isolation. To lose speech is to question your own ontology. The Gentlemen rely on and function within this chaotic tyranny and isolating effect of silence – making them apt metaphors for evil thriving whenever human speech, and by extension, dissent is suppressed.
* * *
For a show that suspends its characters’ faculty of speech for thirty minutes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been a linguistically-conscious series throughout the course of its run. Decidedly postmodernist in its hyper self-awareness, metacognition, and genre-bending/blending propensities, this plot-point is a refreshing change for Buffyverse which relies so heavily on language to do its bidding. While dialogue in televisual media primarily serves an expository function, shows within the Whedonverse invariably use language in more sophisticated and refreshing ways. Buffy’s linguistic creativity ranges from – word-formation processes like characters ‘verbing’ existing words into a different lexical category; inventing neologisms and slangs (e.g. ‘slayage’, ‘kissage’, ‘the wacky’) ; to using proper names and cultural references as verbs ( “…Clark Kent our way through the dating scene”) ; to standard witticisms like word-play – puns, double entendres, and quibbles. These unique verbal tendencies, coupled with rapid-fire verbal sparring and witty repartee, constitute the ethnography of their discourse community. The gang relies on these linguistic fluencies to function as a group –to index familiarity, shared identity and goals; to signal affinity, inclusion, intimacy (or conversely, exclusionary distance). Language is not only a social contract, but also a socio-cultural currency. Hence, disrupting these linguistic fluencies is also disrupting the fluidities of the group-dynamics. The arrival of the bogeymen affects a breach in their linguistic jouissance, which in turn allows Tara, a not as linguistically self-assured outsider, to enter the gang.
Interestingly, much of the Scoobies’ verbal language is ironic. Speech, which is more than just text, depends on paralinguistic accompaniments of language such as inflection, intonation, and other prosodic/acoustic features such as pitch, rhythm, etc. It is this dynamic patterning of speech which invests lexical information with metadata cues indicating the speaker’s mental state. By extension, these nonverbal voice qualities make verbal irony transmittable and identifiable. With the loss of speech, it is not only language that is lost; it is this vocal-nonverbal repertoire, and its parenthetical implications that are also inaccessible now. With their voices siphoned the gang initially falters trying to communicate with each other. However, while non-vocal communication cannot wholly transcend the orality of speech, this loss has positive ramifications for interpersonal relationships within the show. The consequent loss of verbal irony sees the gang shift from a discourse of ironic cynicism to that of sincerity – one which is non-vocal but more immediately verifiable and substantial. Impasses reached by speech-deficiencies are quickly resolved inside this lacuna of silence –
(1) Xander and Anya are happily reconciled when Xander thrashes Spike, mistakenly believing that he bit Anya. Xander’s actions are indisputably protective and clear. While words may have failed him when trying to assure Anya about his affection for her, his ‘actions speak louder than words’ is the cliché that comes to mind.
(2) Buffy and Riley finally kiss spontaneously after communicating through kinesic behaviours and facial expressions. The loss of speech also provides moments of clarity as experience and emotions are filtered through this lacuna.
(3) Willow and Tara are thrown together. In wanting to cast spells, Willow betrays a preference for the perlocutionary instead of the insubstantial locutionary or descriptive. In How to Do Things with Words, J.L. Austin instantiates the perlocutionary speech-act hence, “When I say ‘I do’, I am not reporting on a marriage. I am indulging in it.” Similarly, incantations are double speech-acts –performative utterances that are simultaneously illocutionary as well as perlocutionary. Moreover, spells presuppose the innate power of words to effect a change in reality so that a spell is not a description of a change, but the change itself. Conjurings and transmutations are physically transformative acts which materially alter their subject(s). Thus, it is a language that not only expresses meaning, but also creates it. According to Saussurean linguistics, words are ‘signifiers’ (‘acoustic image[s]’) arbitrarily assigned to ‘the signified’, which again is the idea of the thing, not the physical reality of the thing itself (‘referent’) meant to be denoted. Since spells are self-fulfilling performative words, the distance between the signifier and the signified is minimal, if not completely absent. The sign and its referent are as close as they can reasonably get. Earlier in the episode when Willow articulates her desire to cast spells with the Wicca group, what she actually desires is a sorority based on commonalities and shared experiences. For her, this inclusivity is only possible by the perlocutionary act of ritual chanting which would genuinely accomplish “something real”. However, such companionship seems improbable in the presence of speech, but is only actualized when Tara and Willow tacitly turn allies, and collaborate over barricading the door via their telekinetic powers. The non-vocal spell they cast is far from the ceremonial recitation Willow usually performs. Further, a conspicuous romantic tension emerges between the two. Willow, hitherto portrayed as being heterosexual, is for the first time placed within a homoerotic narrative. No longer circumscribed within the confines of a heteronormative culture (aided and abetted by the androcentricity of language), the show can now articulate alternative and ‘aberrant’ sexualities. It takes the static of silence to uncover this forbidden iceberg subsumed within linguistic phallocentricity. The charge between the two is quite literally intense and electric –The women’s mute gestural/kinesic act of clasping hands together to perform nonverbal magic enacts a rebellion which is at once empowering and symbolic. Rid of their linguistic anxieties now, their collective alienation provides an untainted source of female power. The auteur seems to be suggesting two mutually-exclusive possibilities for queer love – Either succumb to the lies of a masculinist language, or surrender to silence.
(4) Another point of interest is the prelinguistic nature of Buffy’s prophetic dream which alerts her to the impending doom. The girl in her dream sings ominously-
“Can’t even shout, can’t even cry.
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors.
They need to take seven and they might take yours.
Can’t call to Mom, can’t say a word.
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.”
This poetic riddle can be read in terms of Kristeva’s conception of poetic language as that which “compels language to come nearest to the human enigma.” Here, the subconscious becomes the site where the semiotic and the anarchic presymbolic spill over into each other to evade Whorfianism. The subject is no longer contained by linguistic indeterminacies. This is also in keeping with Buffy’s romantically-charged dream about Riley; Buffy’s repressed desires which cannot find fructification in the external linguistic world are expressed in this dream-world. (A tangential observation could be made that like Willow’s verbal incantations, this poetic riddle is a twice-true metaphor since The Gentlemen are literally a textual fairy-tale come to life.)
Paradoxically, it is silence which fulfills the dream of a common language in which characters don’t misunderstand or are misunderstood. There is an implied suggestion for conversational economy –to eschew extraneous linguistic chaff…to strip the word of its accretions of power by substituting it with concrete actions.
* * *
Much of the horror of the episode stems from a cognitive estrangement achieved by the defamiliarization of language. While the characters clumsily grapple with understanding and being understood, the ghouls communicate via delicate but unambiguous gestures. Their private language is fluid and graceful. This is eerily unsettling because the monster’s anomalous body violates linguistic boundaries, and mixes discrete categories. It disrupts social order by dissolving binary differences – between speech and writing; between the human self, and the posthuman Other. The loss of speech is the loss of a unique quality man has long cited differentiates him from other beings. Its loss effects a bodily transgression that breaches the integrity of the self, and invokes the unheimlich. This disorientation, in turn, produces a reexamination of the taken-for-granted normative order. Is it our ability to speak that demarcates us as a species above all the rest? Are other forms of communication more effective? Interestingly, a vocal lack isn’t a complete removal of choice with regards to communication–Although robbed of phonation, accoutrements of nonvocal-verbal linguistics (writing, printing, highlighting written material) and nonvocal-nonverbal communication (kinesics) are open to them. An enterprising citizen begins selling whiteboards to facilitate communication. Biblical sermons are held in silence with the assistance of textual material. Giles uses an overhead projector with slides to discuss the threat, and to plan the Scoobies’ course of action. Characters begin discovering the communicative value of kinesic and spatial movements like gesticulation, posture and body-language.
Gestures act as nonverbal equivalents or direct translations for speech-acts. Gestural language becomes a pivotal extension of the signification process, but – just like its vocal-verbal analogs – it is not without its ambiguities and indeterminacies. It reveals itself to be equally, if not more, gullible to innuendoes, polysemy and misinterpretations. Almost none of the Scoobies’ gestural acts are understood the first time around. Consider how kinesic movements allow us the flexible power to refer to a constantly-changing referent. That. That? No, not that: THAT. Pointing and gesticulating are not stable linguistic acts because ‘thatness’ as a demonstrative is deictic and contextual. The distance between word and referent is situational, and hence, unstable.In a most telling scene, Buffy mimes driving in a stake to suggest a way of killing The Gentlemen. The gang misinterprets this gesture as one for masturbation. She takes out a stake, and redoes the gesture with it. This time the physical materiality of the referent (the stake) is what produces unambiguous meaning. While fighting the ghouls, Buffy signals Riley to smash the box that contains their voices. He misunderstands, and proudly destroys a jar beside it instead. When Willow points to her heart to signal that The Gentlemen want their victims’ hearts, Xander thinks she means her breasts. On the other hand, when Spike (who is British) gives Xander the ‘two finger salute’, Xander is visibly confused by what he thinks is the inoffensive peace-sign.Spike’s gesticulation is a speech-independent emblematic gesture, i.e. it is a “culture-specific gesture that can be used as a replacement for words… [And] can have very different significance in different cultural contexts” (Morris, Desmond, Collett, Peter, Marsh, Peter, O’Shaughnessy, Marie. Gestures, Their Origins and Distribution). Hence, Xander finds sexual connotations in gestures that are not intended as such by the signer, and none where they purportedly are. After all, a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat.
* * *
The lacuna opened up by absence of verbal speech is mainly filled by writing standing-in for speech. Characters jot down messages in order to communicate. Giles works out the dream riddle on paper –an externalization of his cognitive processes. Classically, Western metaphysical episteme privileges context-specific univocal speech over the written word –which it sees as a derivative, secondary supplement to the primacy of the former. In Of Grammatology, Derrida observes the hierarchy which regards writing as a subordinate extension of the ‘pure’ speech… a necessary evil regarded with suspicion (“a violence done to the natural destiny of the language”). Conventionally, when a letter is read on an audiovisual medium, it usually goes to a voice-over. The receiver’s voice gradually morphs into that of the sender, and this disembodied voice soon manifests in the corporeal with the letter-writer presenting himself or herself in the flesh for the audience’s consideration. This insistence on a phonocentric/logocentric televisual rule is subverted; Suspension of speech allows “Hush” to challenge the immediacy and naturalness traditionally ascribed to speech against the authority of writing.
Although, exploring these linguistic ideas makes for an interesting hour of television, vococentrism in the classical binary opposition of speech and writing must be ultimately restored; we learn that the antagonists are only gullible to a live human scream. Folklore suggests that The Gentlemen do not recognize a disembodied, prerecorded or simulated voice as a vocal entity, therefore necessitating the presence of the speaker. A recorded scream is equivalent to intention/context-bereft writing in terms of Derridean iterability. This need for the live scream reestablishes the momentarily effaced power of presence. To consider the scream itself, Whedon cleverly subverts the trope of the screaming damsel in distress. Screaming generally connotes female vulnerability – a Lovecraftian linguistic dismemberment…a total collapse of all cognitive categories in the face of ineffable and absolute otherness. This staple of the horror genre is, for once, potent and effective here — Buffy’s scream causes The Gentlemen’s heads to explode violently. Whilst the scream is lexically nonsense, it is imbued with power, defiance and an “immense perlocutionary force” (Alice Jenkins and Susan Stuart, ‘Extending Your Mind: Non-Standard Perlocutionary Acts in “Hush”’). The episode plays like an otherworldly nightmare; it is not much different from experiencing ‘sleep paralysis’, where the body between somnolence and wakefulness, must first recover the ability to vocalize in order to break the ‘curse’.
* * *
The narrative repudiates any real closure. While a return to vococentrism is essential for any audiovisual text, this does not necessarily valorize one kind of communication over the other. The return to speech is lampshaded by Buffy and Riley sitting facing each other in lingering silence, still unable to talk as we go to the credits. The question posed here seems to be, “Is this fatality, this hopeless inadequacy of language enough?” One can hazard a guess as to what the answer is – It is all there is. The vain desire for perfect, unproblematic articulation has haunted philosophers down the centuries, as has the maddening question of whether we are agents of language or victims of expression. A character in China Miéville’s Embassytown acutely responds, “Now, granted, words can’t actually be referents, that I grant you, there’s the tragedy of language, but our asymptotic efforts at deploying them aren’t nothing, either.”
Hence, the proverbial answer must be in the attempt.
Whedon, Joss. “Hush”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dir. Joss Whedon. The WB Television Network. 14 Dec. 1999. Television.
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962. Print.
Saussure, Ferdinand De. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Print.
Morris, Desmond, Collett, Peter, Marsh, Peter, O’Shaughnessy, Marie. 1979. Gestures, Their Origins and Distribution. London. Cape
Derrida, Jacques. “…That Dangerous Supplement.” Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976. Print.
“Extending Your Mind: Non-Standard Perlocutionary Acts in ‘Hush.’” Slayage: The Whedon Studies Association Journal 9 (n.date): n.pag. Web. 5 April 2009.
Mieville, China. Embassytown.: Pan Macmillan, 2011. pag.32 Print.