The Nobel Lecture
In 1993, novelist Toni Morrison became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. She was also the second American to earn that honor since John Steinbeck had in 1961. Delivering her Nobel lecture to the Swedish Academy, Morrison makes use of a fable/folk tale of how young people sought to undercut the clairvoyant abilities of a blind woman by directly questioning her on what she cannot see—a bird in their hands and whether it is alive or not. Seeing the symbolism behind the blind woman’s answer—wherein she “shift[ed] attention away from assertions of power to the instrument which that power is exercised”—the folk tale affords Morrison the opportunity to theorize about the power and purpose of language, as well as the role that writers and readers have by working (or not) within that system. Acutely aware of literary reception of her work, now magnified more on a global scale upon becoming a Nobel Prize recipient, Morrison’s speech holds considerable weight. Her translation and interpretation of the blind woman’s views, indicated by “she”, becomes a projection of herself, likewise defending her craft and its value; and the young people arguably become reflections of literary critics/general readership/society, whose demands and questioning of the blind woman/the writer reveal the interesting expectations and value audiences place on makers of language.
Memorable passages in Morrison’s speech:
– Of course, her distinctions between “living” and “dead/moribund” language and how it is handled by writers and received by readers. She argues that language can be a “living thing”, able to “control” and with “agency”. It holds “vitality” as it is an “act with consequences.” This however, at the same time, positions language as “susceptible to death, erasure” through deliberate censorship, disuse or disinterest, only “salvageable” by writer/reader’s “effort of the will.” In its death, she holds “all users and makers … accountable for its demise.” For Morrison, as she concludes later in the speech, the “future of language” rests with its users and makers.
– Morrison’s understanding of the power of language, through her negation of its effect when moribund—“thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.” Here, Morrison speaks of the weaponization of language. Logically, this negation simultaneously reveals Morrison’s views of the stunning abilities of language when it does have “agency” and is a “living thing.”
– Morrison’s point about how oppressive language “does more than represent violence; it is violence.” That it can preserve privilege and “limits knowledge” and doesn’t
encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” These “policing languages,” as Morrison labels them, become the “systematic looting of language.” Morrison argues that oppressive languages “must be rejected, altered, and exposed,” and that is exactly what her work does, for those knowledgeable of her body of work.
– Her note on the limits of language/writing: when words fail to do full justice, to capture a grave situation at hand, like mourning the loss of life. In these instances, Morrison finds that language has “its force, its felicity … in its reach toward the ineffable.”
– Finally, Morrison’s understanding of the significance of language, again paralleling her idea of it being an “act with consequences,” she mentioned at the onset of her speech. Morrison talks about the longevity of language when used, in contrast with our own mortality: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” She equates languages with existence itself.
– The final passages of the speech that return to the folk tale, but now expands into a creative and lengthy monologue for the collective, the young people, as they catalogue their demands and criticisms of the blind woman, a reflection of Morrison herself. Confrontational at first, their demands expose the troubling expectations placed upon writers of wisdom. Yet, their words become useful as they too reflect on the power of language: “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”
– The closing passages by the young people as they ask the blind woman to “Tell us…”: their requests (less demanding in tone) in effect serve as Morrison’s projection of what motivates her to write, what topics/commentaries she seeks to address in her work—giving voice to women, “the margin,” slave history and experience, etc. Capturing these experiences, injustices and so forth, are for Morrison the true power which language holds; how “lovely” it is to come to this realization, she concludes.
Morrison’s Nobel Lecture poses an abundance of uses for our exam, an incredibly versatile text. Part theoretical, part literary, in my opinion, Morrison’s views about the power of language and the value of writing/literature. One might connect her points on oppressive language and marginalization to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, placing her speech in conversation with the commentary offered by Beatty through the father in the book or the Court’s rebuke of the Sellout for his unconstitutional act, Hominy’s oppression and segregation. Easily tied to the Nobel lecture is John Milton’s Areopagitica, as he opposed the movement towards licensing and censorship of writers by Parliament in 17th century England. Morrison’s commentary on moribund language and the deliberate “effort of the will” best compliment Milton’s protest of censorship—both writers insisting on the value of writing. Finally, one might also consider the power dynamics and the voice of the oppressed as reveled by both Morrison’s speech, Anne Boyer’s “The Revolt of the Peasant Girls,” Pascale Casanova’s “Literature as a World,” and certainly Jodi Melamed’s “Making Global Citizens.” Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture is certainly one of the most versatile texts on our exam list.
“Being a writer, she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences.”
Toni Morrison uses this quote in her speech, “The Nobel Lecture.” When you think about it, language is exactly as Morrison proposes, “an act with consequences.” What language is and the way it is used is always open to multiple interpretations. Language can do good, but it can also do harm. Language is used to express experiences, desires, injustices and more.
• How can language be looked at as a force for change?
I believe this question can be answered by looking at texts such as Areopagitica, and Citizen.
• In Areopagitica, Milton is demanding that writing be uncensored and free for all to read. His essay in and of itself reflects his moment in history, for the want of change. The consequences of this piece of writing cause a reflection on the previous censorship of language. It enables him to have a voice for the benefits of language and what can be produced from it. He says, “it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civil Wisdome.” Milton here argues that by censoring the print of writing, truth is being withheld from society. He is advocating for progress and knowledge that comes from language. The very real consequences of Milton’s writing produced a change in what could then be printed.
• In Citizen, Claudia Rankine is expressing the injustices she has encountered in life. What her experiences have been because of her race, are reflected in her poems. Language is an outlet for her to express her experiences, and it also allows readers to be reflective of her struggles. Language in this case allows the reader to be a part of the author’s life and the consequences produced here are a reflection on the reader’s part of their participation, if any, in similar circumstances as Rankine describes.
• Antigone is another form of language that calls for change. The political structure in the play is corrupt and called to attention. Through language, the tyranny of politics is exposed and the consequences are a revelation of that corruption. It also concurs with the view of censorship. Who gets to say what is wrong and what is right. This correlates to Milton’s argument in the sense that censorship of the justice system by one person is repressive of truth.
• These works coincide with Casanova, because language can be used to express “struggles of all sorts – political, social, national, gender, ethnic.” Language itself creates the “world literary space” that Casanova refers to, and that would be a theory to link these works to. Levine would also be a good choice, because language is a form. It represents, as Morrison says, an act with consequences.” How we choose to use the form of language creates many formal effects. You can link how the forms of each text enable the consequences of the language.
Morrison was boring in Ohio in 1931. A lover of literature since she was a child and heavily influenced by her fathers’ stories of the African American tradition, Morrison’s works centered on the African American experience. Her works center on African American history and African Americans in contemporary time. Her works general err on the side of darkness found in humanity, yet they bring about redemption, making her works relatable, allowing for empathy for her characters. She is a 20th-century novelist with her first novel being published in 1970. In 1993 she was the first African American female to win the Nobel Peace Prize for literature. She won because “her novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.
She gave a speech in which she discusses the power of language. Language has the capability to exalt, oppress, scar and sanctify, plunder and redeem. Words can be used to uplift or to deny the truth or to translate experience. Morrison uses language and the bird as analogies depending on how you want to see them. The bird represents language and people have the power in their hands to make use of language to either create or destroy.
“Children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language.” This is language that is used to create violence and attack one another, this is language that comes from those who are killed or who are participating in the killing. Those who their voice or who are developing a voice and are attacked for their opinions or choices are those who become dumb and who then participate in silencing others. They perpetuate this violent cycle.
I am not certain, but I see an interesting connection between the voice of Beatty and Rankine, both central characters are voiceless narrators. People who feel defeated and dumb in their world. Worlds, where they are presented with microaggressions and are tasked with representing the world around them yet, are silenced for it.
Theoretical texts: Melamed and Casanova
In 1993, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for her visionary novels that shed light on the essential aspects of the American reality. She used her speech as an opportunity to provide her audience with the tale of a blind, wise elderly woman and a dead bird to shed light on the power of language.
Some notable moments of Morrison’s speech include:
“Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.” The dead bird that Morrison’s tale is based around is clearly meant to embody the concept of language, a concept which has no control over how it is used, unaware of the race, gender, etc. of the person speaking, but nevertheless the old woman is understanding still of the ways that is can be used as a weapon.
“She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise. In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love.” Here Morrison makes clear the fear she has that we will one day stop verbally communicating with one another and turn instead to violence to solve our problems. Without language, there can be no true expression, and Morrison intends for her audience to understand that, as speakers of any languages, we are all responsible for making sure that it thrives and survives.
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed.” By exposing the power that language holds, Morrison highlights the violence that exists within our society and presents language as the only way to stop it. Too often oppression is thought about through only physical violence, and many people do not realize that the language we use in the media, in government, and in daily conversation has just as much power to oppress as a gun or military power. The only way for us, as a society, to end the use of oppressive language is to become immediately aware of it, acknowledge it, be consciously aware of it going forward.
This lecture can be used alongside Rankine’s Citizen, as the section on oppressive language can be paired well with section 3, where Rankine explores the ways that language has been used against her. Additionally, Morrison’s lecture can be paired with Casanova’s “Literature as World”, Levine’s “The Affordances of Form”, and Federici’s “Caliban” if we are able to draw a connection/contrast between the oppressiveness of language alongside that of Capitalism.
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