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  • Teaching Without Masters
  • Maya Nitis (bio)

Words empty out with age. Die and rise again, accordingly invested with new meanings, and always equipped with a second-hand memory. In trying to tell something, a woman is told, shredding herself into opaque words while her voice dissolves on the walls of silence. Writing: a commitment to language.

—Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other

Nonviolence and the Non-Belonging of Words

Goals begin this journey in language as desires. Over and over from radically different quarters words are accused of ossifying in time—losing meaning and power—and is language subject to such critique as well? The complaint traverses academic and other spheres. The objection to language decay can be discerned in charges against the "linguistic turn," as well as in aspects of what is understood to be the referent of the charge.1 Many activist circles greet words with suspicion. (References to activist circles throughout this text indicate primarily those in Berlin, Germany and, crisscrossing an ocean, in parts of the United States.) Assuming that the lack of trust in words has to do with the "use" to which they are put, the following pages elaborate upon the proposition that language belongs to those who need it and, while neither inherently violent nor innocent, it is characterized by sharing. Toni Morrison’s bird of a language is offered by children to a blind woman, asking her to guess whether it is dead or alive. The woman, this writer, refuses the choice, perceiving the trick the question contained.2 Turning to language as this bird in Excitable Speech, Judith Butler echoes the proposal that we, too, refuse the unlivability and cruelty of this choice and others of its ilk.3 We could then read (this) language as not only characteristically mutable but also moving in many senses of this multivalent verb.

This essay attempts to bring together several different strands that span discourse and nonviolence, a broad enough territory, but not a field (or vice versa?). An overlapping and non-collapsible opening gapes as one approaches the space and time of discourse—itself a doing yet not coextensive with "action"—and nonviolence, neither passive nor violent direct action. We enter this zone of complexity through a transdisciplinary approach. The argument that hopefully unfolds amid these border zones is one in which complexity breaks with elitism, where nonviolence moves not only beyond limits (for instance the phantasmatic ones among language and action, or the obfuscated ones among discourse and direct action) but gives rise to subversive traditions whose stakes exceed given revolutionary, reformist, and reactionary tracks.

I rush along the way as if I feared the wind. I do not. I look forward to time. Yet the violence of history paralyzes me. "Tell it another way," they say. "They," in this case, are my love, speaking encouragement in a language I’ve yet to breathe: it is unmasterable. "You are getting out of hand," they say; this time, it is the "they" of shadow institution/s. Wait a moment. What if before a historical revolution unlike those that have come so far, [End Page 83] a relation of language and nonviolence must be approached from within? (Forgive me all the opacity lingering amid our fragility!)

My motivating question is whether a productive tension is discernible between Audre Lorde’s assertion that "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House," and Butler’s elaboration of performative processes of transformation. Delving into this question, I offer a reading of Lorde’s essay in its historical context. To situate this reading, a contemporary social practice of separation and exclusion on the political left is addressed in its complexity and historicity, before the essay turns to performativity. Moving away from dominant concerns, transformative practices of appropriation and subversion are examined to see how they might open a different path of transformation. In this way, they can be read as responding to the implicit question discernible in/since "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House": what tools do we have to use if not the master’s own?

Summing up the attempts to rethink the problematic...