The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues
MAR 2020 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

Portage Trails and Language, Walking and Communication

Portrait of Jessamine Batario, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Jessamine Batario, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

Nowhere am I more conscious of the limitations of my body than in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.1 Portage trails of varying distance and difficulty connect the waterways, and I carry nearly half my weight on my back as I trudge along from lake to lake. On extended canoe-camping trips, portaging involves carrying all your supplies and belongings—including your canoe—along the trails. With each labored step, I am attuned to the pulse of my heartbeat, to the rhythm of my breathing, to the sweat on my skin, to my depleting energy. I remind myself that this is a vacation.

Intellectuals love to walk in the woods. They reach a clearing and their minds clear, becoming receptive to the ideas that sprout on trees. The clearing I wait for signals the proximity of the next lake. Tall trees in my peripheral vision give way to an expanse of the most transparent lake water I’ve ever seen. The portage ends, I cast off my pack, I sit again. I love being consumed by this activity. Perhaps I value the physical exhaustion because I spend the remainder of the year researching and writing. Testing my physical stamina fortifies my intellectual endurance.

Or maybe I enjoy suffering through these portage trails because they feed into my obsession with the concept of communication.

**

The ghost of Jacques Derrida haunts me. Not as an apparition in my hallway, but as a regular visitor in my imagined thought processes. Surely you have this type of ghost too. A writer, an artist, a critical thinker, encountered during a formative time, stuck with you for years. Mine is Derrida. He wears a trench coat and balances a cigar between his fingers. Floating, he leaves no trace, no footprints, no index. After all, “writing. . . perhaps communicates, but does not exist, surely.”2 A thing only a ghost would say.

This time, and most other times, Derrida’s ghost wants to talk about conceptual communication and material communication. Channels for the transport of meaning, and channels for the transport of bodies and other physical things. Language and portage trails. I get drawn into playing the poststructuralist game for ten years. I fall in love with polysemes, words that have multiple, related meanings. Such words are capacious, fluid. Transgression is a polyseme.3 To take steps from here to there, to mobilize from one place to another, is to transgress. And to transgress also means to break rules, to do wrong. Whose rules, by whose authority? How does material transgression become conceptual transgression?

Portage trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, northern Minnesota, 2016. Photo by the author.
Portage trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, northern Minnesota, 2016. Photo by the author.

This years-long meandering of thought led me to walking, or maybe walking led me to these thoughts. Walking facilitates thinking and is one of the slowest forms of communication. In a world of tiresome “hot takes,” I welcome the slow, cold haunting. Are you ever alone in your own thoughts? While thinking, you communicate with yourself. If sender and receiver are the same, does the channel take the form of a circle? Around it you commune with the ghosts who inhabit your mind.

Sometimes others join me and Derrida. Heinrich von Kleist approaches, raises an index finger, and clears his throat. “Ideas come as we are, ahh… speaking.”4 Like walking, speaking facilitates thinking. Kleist’s “gradual fabrication of thoughts while speaking” is liberating on two fronts: it can get you out of a jam, and it’s a way to use language without the tyranny of a predetermined destination. So we stop walking in a circle, and start walking aimlessly for a while. Later, Julia Kristeva (technically not a ghost) joins the stroll. She walks in step with Kleist, agreeing with him for valuing the speaking subject. She adds that a speaker’s agency can resist the authority of language.5 All the anti-authoritarians in the group nod.

We transgress, and we transgress.

**

To escape my crowded solipsism, I asked other people to write about walking, especially as it relates to communication. The linear presentation of the essays belies the network of connections between each of them. A map with trails might be more suitable, though even that format has its constraints. Here I present my reflections on the ideas shared across the collection:

Walking can be a form of mark-making, similar to drawing or written language. Yet we would do well not just to examine the traces left behind, but also to consider the spaces and movements between the traces. Doing so allows us to recover the lost, remember the forgotten, and appreciate the familiar.

Through walking, we feel a place to get to know it. Sometimes, walking can be a recourse to making a connection to something unknown. Getting lost is like experiencing a breakdown in communication, a crisis of meaning.

Walking involves a durational relationship between our bodies and the ground. That relationship can be visualized not just as horizontal connections across the surface of land, but as vertical links through geological layers of time as well. Past and present converge when we walk. And we commune with others, then and now.

Festivus grievance, 2017. Photo by the author.
Festivus grievance, 2017. Photo by the author.

Through vertical channels, past transgressions connect to present and future ones. In our communion with the past, we should maintain a sensitivity to the wrongs committed on the land upon which we walk. Our futures depend on it.

Walking can help to build communities through shared storytelling and shared desire. With our stories and collective desire, we raise awareness, we mobilize protests, and we fuel revolutions. Our generative, heterogeneous, communal walking contrasts the destructive form of homogenized mass walking deployed by authoritarian regimes.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, walking upright on two feet with ease is a privilege.

**

A mentor once said, “Sometimes you have to resolve to resist your own intellectual tendencies.”6 So now I release the ghost of Jacques Derrida. May he find another context. A memento remains in the form of a Festivus grievance aired against me by a beloved colleague and friend: “You walk too slow, bitch.”



Endnotes

1. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is on the ancestral lands of the Sioux and the Ojibwe. This land is now threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining, a toxic practice that would pollute the waterways and endanger its ecosystems. To learn more, visit www.savetheboundarywaters.org.

2. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 330.

3. For more on transgression, see Rebecca Solnit, “Crossing Over,” in Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma, ed. Michelle White (Houston: The Menil Collection, 2017), 171–75.

4. Not a direct quote, but inspired by Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking” (1805-06), in An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes, ed. and trans. Philip B. Miller (New York: Dutton, 1982), 218–222.

5. Julia Kristeva, “The System and the Speaking Subject” (1975), in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 25–33.

6. “Richard Shiff with Katy Siegel,” The Brooklyn Rail (May 2008).

Contributor

Jessamine Batario

is an art historian who lives in Maine. She is currently the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College.

close

The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues