Hello Anna. I will answer your questions, but I want to mention something else first, before I forget it (and perhaps before it goes away).
I am suffering from vertigo at the moment. The medical diagnosis is Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo: I think this means that there is nothing to be seriously worried about, that it has a sudden onset, and that it’s related to my movements or head positions. This sounds like a very long diagnosis for something I could have deduced myself! I also found out from the doctor that it can be triggered by a virus, and I do also wonder whether it has something to do with me trying out too many tumble turns in the swimming pool.
As anyone who has experienced vertigo will know, it can be quite debilitating to suddenly feel like you have lost your connection to gravity. Suddenly the world has shifted on its axis to an indeterminate point. It also feels like something is deeply wrong: I guess most of us are so fixed to our sense of up, down, left and right in the world, to the solidity of the ground under our feet, that any unexpected alterations to this sense of reality really do feel world-changing.
After being recommended various exercises and head movements, I did a little more research (and am very grateful to you for your recommendations as a fellow vertigo sufferer!). From some of the videos online that I was watching, I understand that BPPV is caused by one of the particles in your inner ear becoming dislodged. As it moves around in the fluid of the inner ear, which usually tells you where your head and your body is in relation to the rest of the world (I have visions of an inner spirit-level), it starts sending strange signals to the brain about which way is up. Most of the exercises seem targeted at getting the crystalline particle – called an Otolith – to go back in its correct place, so it stops sending strange signals.
I tried to find out more about Otoliths, not least because this makes me think of the Otolith Group, a collective of moving image artists Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who also collaborate regularly with a range of other artists, including the Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah and Eyal Sivan. I didn’t know that an otolith is actually an evolutionary remnant of our connections to fish. ‘Fish bones’ are much larger than the otoliths that humans have, but both are made of crystalline structures of calcium and protein. In fish, birds and mammals, these tiny crystals are part of the structures that help us to balance, to ‘see straight’ and to figure out where we are in relation to the rest of the world. They are also incredibly beautiful, as you can see in the image to the right. Human otoliths, or otoconia, are microscopic – only 3 to 30 microns across.
So here I am, literally struggling to know which way is up. But while I’m waiting for my vertigo to gradually subside (and apparently it will, with time), it has made me think about the connections between a dislodged crystal in my ear, and processes of listening, of interpreting and understanding the world, that we are asking of our participants.
Vertigo makes the world feel askew. It is not askew for people without vertigo, and it’s not even the case that everyone experiences vertigo in the same way. But what interests me about this is that a bodily sensation (or an impeded sense in this case) completely changes the ways I can experience the world. It is quite destabilizing, and the effect is that I am often distracted by the fact that the room is spinning when I’m trying to listen carefully to what someone else is saying.
So: what Sara Maitland says about the brain being part of the body is absolutely true. The microscopic crystal currently floating around in my ear canals is speaking gibberish to my brain. My brain can’t understand it, and as a result my entire perception of the world is radically, but hopefully also temporarily, altered.
But when my brain is interpreting my body differently, it also affects the ways I speak, the ways I listen, and what I feel capable of doing with my body and my brain. Typing is actually quite difficult because my eyes have to dart rapidly around the screen. Lying down is also quite difficult because this seems to make the room spin even more. I understand that language is abstract – certainly the language we use here in English. It’s true that it doesn’t directly represent an emotion through the series of alphabetical symbols that make up a word. But speech – speech is embodied, fundamentally so. And speech is also language. And the spoken word is, so very often, a richer way of communicating the poems that we have asked our writers to produce as interpretations of Air
I have been utterly bewitched by the recording of Owen Lowery speaking about his experiences and understanding of interpretation as he wrote his poem for our project. I wrote this to Anna once I’d heard it on Thursday evening:
“The way that Owen parses his words is INCREDIBLE. Can you hear the sub-vocal sounds of his breath? Is his breathing regulated by a machine of some sort? I’m asking not to subtract from the meaningfulness of his words but to add to them. He is expressing his thoughts about interpretation and the Air film embodied through his form of breath. And that breath is rhythmically tied to what sounds like the mechanical regulation of his body. I think it’s incredible. I want to be able to hear *under* his words as well as to hear the words themselves. The sound recording of his voice is very meaningful to me in the ways it connects in unspoken ways to embodiment. The words say something and the breath adds something to it.”
Anna explained to me that Owen is tetraplegic, and consequently his speech is performed between breaths on his ventilator. I think this gives astounding presence to the concept of embodied interpretation, not just through the content of Owen’s words, but through the ways his voice embodies them.
I’m not in any way suggesting that my recent experiences with vertigo, and Owen’s embodied recording of interpretation, have any similarities. It’s actually the difference I am much more interested in. The ways that our bodies do speak through language. And maybe writing, as an intermediary in that process, is fundamentally connected to embodiment, whether we want it to or not?