The use and understanding of language in society and human history is of great interest to socialists and anyone who wants to understand how human society developed. This exhibition by young artist Adam Thomas investigates language and our understanding of it.
The first thing you notice as you enter is what looks like a metal mobile for a giant baby’s crib. This is actually based on a “linguistic tree”, and most if not all of the room is art created from a scientific understanding of language. The linguistic tree, which hangs from the ceiling, is free from any technical or linguistic explanation, allowing you to appreciate the complexity of its structure without knowing what sentence the tree grew from. Every person on the planet invents such a tree every time they construct a sentence, so whether people at the exhibit are aware or not, they are looking at the inventiveness of their own brain expressed in art.
This work is the culmination of a longstanding fascination with language by quietly spoken Thomas. In previous work he has included diagrams of grammatical structure, and in interviews has spoken of speech problems he experienced from an early age.
Though his interest in language is partly personal, the exhibition is concerned with the social and political dimensions of language too. One of several books exhibited on the wall is What is History? by left wing historian EH Carr. The book has parts of the cover removed to reveal words such as “socialist” and “Bolshevik” within Carr’s biography. My interpretation was that cutting into the book and revealing important words, chapter titles and sentences is an attempt to show the relationship between outward form and content. This is key to a Marxist understanding of history and culture – an approach that looks not just at the surface details but tries to identify the social forces at work as well.
Frederick Engels looked at language in this way in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. He argued that the development of the use of tools for social labour was a key part of our evolution and that language was the next major development. Social labour “brought society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other.”
As we developed our ability to shape the world around us through labour we also developed the ability to communicate and symbolically represent the world with language, leading to modern languages which across the world share the same complexity and beauty. This is very nicely represented in this small exhibition.
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