"Cogitations on Surviving Language" by Ladi'Sasha Jones

Added on by Lilly Hern-Fondation.

This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Original Language, curated by Natasha Marie Llorens, on view at CUE Art Foundation from September 7 - October 11, 2018. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.

Ariel Jackson,  All I See Is Blue , 2017. Top layer soil from the Bronx, muslin fabric, blue dye, clothespins, wire polyester thread, 72 x 108 inches.

Ariel Jackson, All I See Is Blue, 2017. Top layer soil from the Bronx, muslin fabric, blue dye, clothespins, wire polyester thread,
72 x 108 inches.

“The first language the keepers of the hold use on the captives is the language of violence. The language of thirst and hunger, and sore and heat. The language of the gun and the gun butt, the foot and the fist.
The knife and the throwing overboard.” - Christina Sharpe [1]

So much of survival resides in living in abstraction. The overconsuming registers of injustice elicit an experimental living [2] and cyclic rituals to undo, loosen, or see through the grips of violence. Survival engenders a critical labor that produces openings towards relief, reprieve, cultural creation, and self-organization. It is a process of mapping and mark making rather than escaping. The potential of unmaking the conditions of injustice is what we are motioning towards.

“The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot, rather than leading to pessimism or despair must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future.” - Saidiya Hartman [3]

Black survival is not an individual project. It is oriented around the collective. It is a practice of outweighing the disbelief in one's own survival against the peculiar dream of the survival of future kin. To build the capacity to develop and sustain a dream outside of the hold of terror, for you and your kin, is an act of radical imagination. This is a meta imagining, where the unknown is never a void in the laboring for the tomorrow of another. Instead, it bears the promise of new creation and renewed tools for those yet to come. This is love. Positioning survival outside of the paradigm of futurist thinking, but within an action-based time. A time frame that acknowledges that so many of us have died and that we live, create, and struggle amongst and with our dead. Time that looms in the space of death’s past and future, tying our ideation of survival to a cyclical and plural present. An active present that shapeshifts Black social life into a politics of refusal and preservation. [4]

The fragmented discourse of survival swells in the underground and interior landscapes of the psyche, the body, and in the production of things, of space. Emerging through thought in practice and creation.

“What is the purpose of revolution? To restore the sense of time? To create a new relationship between necessity and choice? Can we say anymore that man's social being determines his consciousness? … How should people spend their lives? What is the relation between wants and thoughts? Between masses and revolutionists? What kind of vision of themselves and of society could transform rebels into revolutionists?”
- Grace Lee Boggs [5]

Language is a precarious site of cruel punishment and violent matter. It is a site of dispossession, exploitation, neglect, and erasure. The need for reprised speech acts, for more works that are consciously concerned with the enfleshed nature of language, is unwavering. Christina Sharpe asserts that, “We must think about Black flesh, Black optics, and ways of producing enfleshed work…” [6] with writing that is imbued with the urgencies of Black life and survival. Enfleshed writing and speech emboldened with the reaches of truth and a willful subjectivity. Language that extracts both the parallels and the contradictions from our relationships across the familial, the archive, popular culture, and the body. Occupying the word space with a textual unfolding of intimacy.


Marking the structural weatherings that have kept a hold of Black life and death, Sharpe configured the analytic of the wake as a response to the extended terrors of trade, enslavement, and death that the Black world exists within. “Living in the wake,” as Sharpe explicates, “means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence; living the historically and geographically dis/continuous but always present and endlessly reinvigorated brutality in, and on, our bodies while even as that terror is visited on our bodies, the realities of that terror are erased.” [7]

Additionally, it is through wake work that we survive the hold of the wake.

“Wake work as that work that attends to physical, social, and figurative death, but also to the largeness that is Black life. Black life lived still. Black life insistent from death. For to be in the wake is to recognize the ways that we are consisted through and by continued vulnerability to overwhelming force. Though we are not known only to ourselves and to each other by that force. Living still, we perform wake work from the knowledge that there is nothing natural about these disasters.” [8]

“To look at Blackness, in and with Black workers, in and against the world, but also to listen for Blackness everywhere on earth in its radical and generative dispersal is the task that emerges when sociology and poetry converge.”  - Fred Moten [9]

Black speech and its devices of performance, song, lyricism, and poetry are all a part of the experimental living that enables a hope-filled survival within the wake. The very idea of undoing the violences we carry generates new meaning for our cultural production within the constant states of emergency we inhabit.

How might we continue to self-organize our capacity for collective action? Continue our experimentation with an absolute understanding of the failures of neutrality or objectivity in radical speech. A radicality that understands the difference between intended audiences and peripheral publics. An uncompromising speech. Dissident. A language of the undercommons, the underground. One that recognizes the necessity for interiority and opacity - a speech that derives from a place within and to those who stand alongside you within the veil. This veiling is not a closure nor a performative gesture of collectivity, but a movement towards new possibilities in Black thought.

In thinking about feminine strategies within language, the paradox of agency comes up. Agency in relation to the body, gender, and sexuality. The relationships between language and women, language and queers, language and all those we group as socio-politically vulnerable. We are familiar with the implicit gender and heteronormative biases within language performance and constructions. What becomes more nuanced is our strained rhetoric of survivorship. In our common language on survival, survivorship is associated with key concepts like success, wellness, an attainment of elevation, or capital accumulation. From health to the daily impediments on the survival of the vulnerable, a more complex language of survival is necessary. Lana Lin explores the need for a multidimensional queer art to survival that is not constructed around success or failure. For Lin, it needs to be filled with the spaces between and around distress and distrust. “This definition of queer survival acknowledges the protective distrust that Audre Lorde found justified for those who ‘were never meant to survive.’ This queer art of survival embraces the entanglements of distress in their very unaccountability.” [10]

Pleasure is a large part of the feminine pursuit for a survival language. Pleasure as a political material of desire, power, and agency. The modality of pleasure creates a language that is bodied and marked. A collective and shared conscientious language. One that’s fluent in spectrality and desire. A language that labors, foremost, for one’s own survival before the care of others. In rendering the illegibility of care, the traumas it carries, and the autonomy of self-care, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick arrives at the relationship between pleasure and survival in a tentative exchange between a male doctor and woman patient. Sedgwick writes:

"Then, there's something about pleasure that might be important. I don't know how to say it properly: I've gotten hold of an intuition that if things can change for me, it won't be through a very grim process. It won't happen as I always used to imagine in the old days, by delivering myself up for good at the door of the Law. I used to take one deep masochistic breath and determine I was ready to surrender to the disciplinary machine – in enough pain to have to do it – but then of course I didn't know how to, and couldn't sustain my resolve anyway; and nothing about the therapy would work. Now it seems that if anything can bring me through to real change, it may be only some kind of pleasure. Does this make any sense to you?" [11]

The artists represented in Original Language illustrate a counter vernacular of thought production on the consumption and embodiment of violence. Their works trace and retract the lingual and textual constructions of multiple violences by the state, mass media, and one’s cultural subconscious. Working with everyday objects and charged compositions like the newspaper, the lottery ticket, the paper bag, the chalkboard, and the photograph, the works on view attend to the materiality of violence, not theoretically, but of a tactile order. These artworks are not seeded laments over violence and its visual discourses. They are not reinscriptions of trauma seen or absent, nor do they gesture towards resolves or reconciliations. They demonstrate acts of subversion as form, and, in some instances, subversion as aesthetic thought.

Towards complex conversations on language, artists Alison, Bell, Freeman, Jackson, Weinberg-Moskowitz, and Rodriguez offer the tooling of re-imaging and re-reading as modes of disruption. With collage, performance, and photography we encounter the resonating affect of rigorous observation and critical annotation. The practices of assembly and convoking. Redactions as code and exercise. Remaking and making anew as a diagnostic approach to critique. Rethought - to return to - and unthought - positioning absence. Cultivating interpretations on the meanings and experiential journeys of living with and through violation, the works purvey an intimacy with violence through language, while illuminating the countercultures of critique and survival.


[1] Christina Sharpe, “In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe” (lecture, Columbia University, New York, NY, February 2017).

[2] The research of Dr. Sylviane Diouf on the slave trade and maroonage outlines the historical examples of African experimental living in the wake of enslavement.  Her texts “Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies” and “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroon” map the social, economic, and spatial strategies for freedom, survival and resistance. 

[3] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26, Volume 12, Number 2 (June 2008): 1-14.

[4] The poem “The Mask” by Maya Angelou surmises the weary truth behind survival apparatuses. The poem brings together her past piece, “For Old Black Men,” and the work “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar in a new poem to commemorate the life of a domestic worker she encountered on a bus. The last stanza reads: “They laugh to conceal their crying, / They shuffle through their dreams / They stepped ’n fetched a country. And wrote the blues in screams. / I understand their meaning, / It could and did derive / From living on the edge of death / They kept my race alive / By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

[5] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

[6] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016).

[7] Ibid.        

[8] Christina Sharpe, “Wake” (lecture, Princeton University African American Studies Graduate Conference, Princeton, NJ, March 18, 2017).

[9] Fred Moten, “Hesitant Sociology, Blackness, and Poetry” (lecture, University of Chicago Division of the Humanities, Chicago, IL, May 3, 2016).

[10] Lana Lin. “The Queer Art of Survival,” Women's Studies Quarterly 44, No. ½ (SURVIVAL, SPRING/SUMMER 2016): 341-346.

[11] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “A Dialogue on Love,” Critical Inquiry 24, No. 2 (Intimacy, Winter, 1998): 611-631.

This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. 

Ladi’Sasha Jones is a writer and curator based in Florida. She has written for Aperture, IAM magazine, Houston Center for Photography, and Recess amongst others. Currently, Ladi’Sasha is the Sophie Davis Curatorial Fellow for Gender and Racial Parity at the Norton Museum of Art. Prior to this appointment, she held positions at the New Museum’s IdeasCity platform and NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Mentor Sara Reisman is the Artistic Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, whose mission is focused on art and social justice in New York City. Recently curated exhibitions for the foundation include Mobility and Its Discontents, Between History and the Body, and When Artists Speak Truth, all three presented on The 8th Floor. From 2008 until 2014, Reisman was the director of New York City’s Percent for Art program where she managed more than 100 permanent public art commissions for city funded architectural projects, including artworks by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Mattingly, Tattfoo Tan, and Ohad Meromi, among others for civic sites like libraries, public schools, correctional facilities, streetscapes and parks. She was the 2011 critic-in-residence at Art Omi, and a 2013 Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow, awarded by the Foundation for a Civil Society.