Semiotics of Abuse


This project was the culmination of a lot of disparate things, so I will first lay out those disparate things and then present the result of their culmination (though I can't make any promises in explaining how they actually connect to one another :).

The Three-Body Problem

I've been reading the Remembrance of Earth's Past series (known mostly for the first book The Three-Body Problem), which was originally written in Mandarin Chinese. As with previous meditations on translation, this book brought me to think about what it actually means to translate information across time, cultures, and languages. The series has many footnotes, for example, which elucidate figures or historical events (the first book starts off in the middle of the Cultural Revolution) that readers in the US are less likely to be familiar with (it's worth noting that in this Wired interview Ken Liu discusses the imbalance of expectations to this ignorance... "A Chinese reader can decode an American work with far greater facility than an American reader can decode a Chinese work, on average").

From intimacy to public space

Something else I've been reflecting on is a piece I saw at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (which is in Denmark, not Louisiana :) this summer. It was prose written by hand, compact, tiny, and perfectly in line in blocks of different shapes and sizes. The title of the piece was "From intimacy to public space", and while I don't know what the writing was, the idea of displaying something intimate in a way that was public but had a barrier to being read (it was tiny and dense) deeply moved me.

I haven't been able to get it out of my head, so I did some digging and started reading more about the piece's creator. He's a Peruvian artist named José Vera Matos (a bio + links to his portfolio here), and much of his work is hand-transcribed written texts, sometimes in pre-Columbian patterns, other times in simple blocks. This WSJ article beautifully describes Vera Matos' exploration of the exploitation and appropriation of symbols/patterns/objects from "a glorified pre-Columbian past."

The exhibition described in the WSJ article includes the transcription of two books: Baudrillard's The System of Objects and Todorov's The Question of the Other. I was excited to see that Vera Matos had made reference to the former because "From intimacy to public space" immediately brought to mind Barthes' Mythologies. The only Baudrillard I've read is a (very very dense) piece in one of my favorite books, but Barthes was one of his doctoral advisors. Anyway, the chapter Vera Matos transcribes from The System of Objects focuses on the mythology of antiques, which is interesting (and more intuitive than the book makes it seem), but the topic of the work as a whole is the way the consumption of objects removes different aspects of their mythology. In essence, the meaning an object had before it is consumed is inherently impossible to preserve.

The significance of the Todorov book is in its discussion of language as a way to oppress others. I hope I'm not misinterpreting it, because on one level there's an outright discussion of Columbus' world-view on languages: there were two types-- Latin and others. It also further delves into the way that indigenous languages were actually initially learned by colonizers and accepted as official, but after a while colonizers would assert Spanish as the dominant language. I think there's something interesting here in that colonizers learned indigenous languages to manipulate indigenous people, but that there is power to the nuance and interpretation of language that is not inherent to knowing it. In its sterilization (especially given its use as a means of oppression) it loses so much meaning (or mythology!).


Another thing I've been thinking about is a conversation I had with someone recently about memory (and how unreliable it is). He mentioned this Radiolab episode, which discusses the way we fetch memories. Essentially, each time we remember something, we write it back into our memory, so every time we read a memory we modify it slightly before writing it back. This made me think about memories that are written but never (or rarely) read. There are a lot of memories from my childhood that will come at me out of nowhere every so often and the intensity with which I feel them is surprising. I think maybe painful memories that are read and re-written over and over become less painful over time.

Trauma & human experience

All of this stuff came together as I was thinking about abuse and trauma. I've found over time that there are certain tl;dr-type statements I can say without really feeling anything. "I experienced X" or "last year X happened", at some point, become so removed from memories associated with those statements that speaking them aloud doesn't conjure negative emotions. It's almost like these statements become cached, particularly for memories that are buried so deep that they're hard to dig up.

I've also been thinking about the nuance of trauma, and more generally the nuance of our experiences. I can't find the quote, but a character in a beach read-type book I read this summer made some comment like "I don't get why people say you can't imagine what it's like to be someone else; it's pretty easy," and the more I've thought about this the more I disagree with it. I think on many levels we can practice empathy, read about the experiences of others (particularly those who experience forms of marginalization we do not), and have experiences that give us a better sense, but ultimately, I think the individual human experience has meaning that, as with antiques, is never fully translatable.

One time I was talking to a friend about being afraid to walk home alone at night. I was like "oh yeah, I totally get it; people around here will catcall or whatever and it's scary!" and then she expressed that the reason for her fear was completely different from mine, based in part on experiences she has had given her identity that I have never had. I started to wonder how often we think we understand someone else's experiences but completely miss the mark (as a friend's friend calls it "the void between humans"). This feels dangerous, because misunderstanding the depth and nuance of others' trauma is an act of erasure, however to a certain degree empathy relies on a shared understanding of something.

What kind?

A final piece to this is something rather personal. I've become more comfortable in recent years talking openly about mental health and trauma and will often open up about my experiences with abuse. I'm often asked "what kind of abuse," which is not something I'm opposed to discussing, but for some reason this answer hasn't really stuck in the cache I described earlier. Delving further into the abuse beyond just saying "I experienced abuse" pulls up with it a slew of memories I don't like thinking about. I also think much of my relationship to trauma deals with ways I was ignored and silenced growing up given the nature of abuse I experienced, and insecurity in my own lived experiences has permeated. I don't have any interest in ranking the impact of different kinds of abuse, but research has shown that "different types of child abuse have equivalent, broad, and universal effects." And although I trust my friends, there's some part of me deep down that wonders if whoever I'm talking to will perceive my experiences to be less valid. I guess it's worth noting that I understand this urge and have probably asked many people this same question before, but I often wonder how much information is actually conveyed in the answer.


With all of these thoughts ruminating and building on thoughts I had in my second project in woven data visualization (a meditation on translation), I decided to craft an artifact encompassing the process and result of this more personal meditation on translation.

I created a woven data viz of a hashed answer to the question of "what kind of abuse?" that was converted to binary.

The white yarn is 0s and the blue yarn is 1s. This piece is notably messier than my previous woven data visualizations, and part of that is admittedly that I used heavier yarn which doesn't bunch up in exactly the right way when being woven, but I think it's also a product of how much I suppress/avoid thinking about this sort of thing. To meditate on the value of language in general, as I did in the last woven data viz, is as sterile as the binary encoding. I am an observer. To meditate on the value of language in capturing my own traumatic experiences is something quite different.


a woven binary encoding of a poem


A rose by any other name...

Part of what this made me think about was the meaning of words and the things they capture. The words that describe some type of abuse are a completely different thing than actually experiencing it. You could call it anything and it wouldn't change that which is signified, which is never captured by the words that describe it. I think there's a bit of a fallacy to believing that hearing more categorizations of someone else's experience will actually paint for us a better mental (or emotional) palace of what it was/is like to be them.

What is written but never read

The discussion of memory led me to wonder about memories that are written but never (or rarely) read. In computer science, there are examples of data structures that allow you to check for the existence of something without allowing you to list everything the data structure contains. Hashing the answer as I did for the woven data viz provides a (mostly) irreversible translation.

Hash functions (I believe by definition?) are surjective, meaning they can map two different values to the same place. I really like the idea that maybe there's someone else whose answer would be different from mine but whose output would look the same. I think as much as trauma cannot be captured, there are occasions when I'll meet someone who really deeply understands my experiences and vice versa. This is powerful and special and wonderful and I think acts as somewhat of a counterexample to the point I was making above about our inability to understand what it's like to be someone else. Or maybe it's just an understanding at a deeper and more abstract level which still leaves out a lot of detail.

more thoughts later; am hungry...

-cb 👩‍💻