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“Every two weeks, the world loses a language. Out of approximately 7,000 languages spoken on earth today, at least half will have fallen silent by the end of this century,” artist Lena Herzog told an audience at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2018. In a world in which English increasingly dominates global conversations and cultures, every part of Herzog’s statement will seem staggering: the vast diversity, the rapid loss, the impending extinction. Perhaps more surprising, however, are the reasons this mass linguistic disappearance is taking place. As Herzog explained in her speech, which she reads aloud in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” this extinction is no accident. Rather, it is the outcome of a human history in which concentrated hegemonic powers required the erasure of any form of communication that precluded their understanding and, crucially, their control.
“[Power] has also always known that it would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to control various minority populations and tribes because of the language and cultural barrier,” Herzog says. “Thus, it has obliterated these other languages as much as it could, either by simple genocide or by squeezing other cultures out, absorbing them and vanishing them, sometimes intentionally, mostly, as a by-product of conquest, cultural absorption, or domination. … The sophistication in messaging in [the United States] is unparalleled by anything any authoritarian or totalitarian state could have ever created.”
This language genocide is at the heart of the Russian-American artist’s project titled “Last Whispers,” an immersive “oratorio,” or audiovisual installation, that branches out into virtual reality. The work, which collects clips of dead or dying languages recorded by linguists around the world and filed in international archives, has been shown in London, New York and Los Angeles, with planned exhibitions in many other world cities. In a poetic, potent effort, Herzog shows us what the world has already lost, or is on the verge of losing. You can hear some examples in the trailer below, which demonstrates how more than words are at stake.
“Humanity is losing the knowledge, the variety of worldviews, and the cosmologies that indigenous communities have for centuries encoded in these languages and cultures. Let there be no doubt: This is a mass extinction,” Herzog says.
In conversation with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, Herzog emphasizes how the “variousness of our human mind” is one of the reasons for optimism about our species, yet the eradication of languages by dominant powers imposes monolithic conformity on us all, pushing us to speak 30 dominant languages, and, primarily, English. The dangers of this erasure, Scheer and Herzog agree, are immense. We don’t have to go far to see the results of this, as Scheer explains.
“Right now, we have this immigration crisis, and the way to fuel that crisis is to deny the humanity of the people called ‘immigrants,’ ’’ he says. “And if you tune out their language … you’re denying that they had a history. If you deny they had a history, you’re denying their humanity. If you deny their humanity, you can imprison them, you can kill them, you can drown them—it doesn’t matter, because they are not significant.”
Listen to the entire speech read by Herzog, as well as the full discussion the visual artist has with Scheer on the harrowing effects of the linguistic mass extinction that “Last Whispers” explores. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, which is going to be a little bit different. We’re talking about a very powerful–but I can’t call it a movie, and I can’t call it a video or a documentary; it’s an immersive audio-video. And it’s something that I saw here in Los Angeles at the Ford Theatre, and then–where there was a very interesting panel discussion–and then at the L.A. County art museum. And it was really a phenomenal experience for me, because it’s about the disappearance of language, and diversity in language. There are 7,000 different languages still existent in the world. They disappear at the rate of–what was the rate? I’ll ask you, how many every two weeks?
Lena Herzog: Every two weeks, a language dies.
RS: A language dies. And in this–can’t call it a movie; in this immersive audio-video, which is very beautiful to watch and listen to, and it’s done with sound engineers–they have collected, or visited, different languages spoken around the world. And you get the great sense of not only beauty and mystery and complexity to these languages, spoken by indigenous people here in the Americas, spoken in Africa, spoken in Russia, spoken in southern Sakhalin between Russia and Japan–all over the world. And what these languages convey is the complexity of the human experience, and the tragedy of their being wiped out by what are 30 dominant languages, and of course English is the most dominant. And with wiping that out, and with our indifference to the loss of languages, and deliberate assault on this diversity–because in country after country, the dominant culture tries to wipe out the language. So for instance, here in America, Native Americans were forced to go to English-speaking schools and drop their, any reference to their own language, as part of cultural imperialism. And what this work represents is a cry for help; it’s called an oratorio, it’s not a requiem; I’ll let Lena talk about it. But first I want to begin with part of a speech that she gave at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, called “The Politics of Silence.” So why don’t you–Lena, welcome.
LH: Thank you.
RS: And why don’t you begin by reading or delivering this speech that you gave at MOMA.
LH: Well, it’s–I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art to give a talk at the R&D session about silencing. And when I–
RS: You should give, by the way, the title of the movie.
LH: It’s not really a movie, it’s an immersive experience. It doesn’t have a plot, you know. And it’s our biggest feature, is that it is a sound sculpture. But it’s misleading to say that. Essentially, when you are in the presence of the work, you feel like you’re in the presence of the speakers speaking in extinct and endangered languages, talking, singing all around you. So–
RS: But the title is Last Whispers.
LH: The title is Last Whispers.
RS: Yeah. OK.
LH: So ah–so I–“Silencio: The Politics of Silencing.”
Silence. What might it mean? Does it mean anything at all? Could it be a signal of death or of possibility, ‘a hand extended’ (as John Berger once said) or silence of despair?
Maybe it means nothing at all.
In the Spanish culture of flamenco, silencio—or silence—is usually the most dramatic moment, coming after a great buildup in tempo and revealing an entire song or a dance; it is then, in that silence, that your heart skips a beat. During silencio, the words and the gestures get imprinted on your mind and, more importantly, your heart.
When I began working on my recent project Last Whispers, which is dedicated to dying languages, I was stunned by the sheer scale of this phenomenon, by the sheer scale of this extinction. Every two weeks, the world loses a language. Out of approximately 7,000 spoken languages on earth today, at least half will have fallen silent by the end of this century. Some predict a far more radical future—or, rather, lack thereof—for the world’s linguistic diversity. Many of these languages, having never been recorded, are vanishing without a trace. Humanity is losing the knowledge, the variety of worldviews, and the cosmologies that indigenous communities have for centuries encoded in these languages and cultures. Let there be no doubt: this is a mass extinction. By definition, it occurs in silence, since silence is the very form of this extinction.
I have just used an oblique form and a passive voice to avoid naming the culprits, the agencies responsible for this extinction, for I am well trained in the thinking patterns that power structures have always dictated. This is key to understanding the politics of silencing—because we know it instinctively, we can feel it, but we are too afraid to name it. So. Let’s call it. Let me repeat the question: What are the thinking patterns that power structures demand, that they mandate? Answer seems to be simple—Never point at them unless you wish to be punished.
Depending on the country and the century you’re living in, if you do that—if you name the power and those who own it, call them out for what they do—you will be disappeared, killed, or, more effectively, ridiculed, accused of having delusions, being a conspiracy theorist; you’ll be shamed, you’ll be Twitter- and Facebook-stoned, or … you may experience all of the above, each of which has only one goal: to silence you.
It is key for power to disguise its agency and to spread the demagogic “we.”
The way power arranges it is by engendering our thinking and feeling on its behalf and against our own interests. It’s quite a number those in power do on us. We do their dirty work for them—and against each other. Feudal times, with their witch burning and actual stoning, had nothing on our times, the effectiveness of the mass control of our minds and emotions. Thus, the constant noise, drowning out any clear thought, the noise of our own voices, tugged here, nudged there, manipulated everywhere through highly researched tools for the simultaneously individualized and mass produced networks of linguistic references and psychological perceptions made by and for power and those who hold it.
The sophistication in messaging in this country is unparalleled by any authoritarian or totalitarian state, because they never needed it: they have always had force. The history of mind manipulation begins with the very myths of the nation’s founding; it’s continued through the theory and instant application of various technologies made to hollow out meaning from words and facts from information. Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Frank Luntz, to name just a few, various think tanks, culture wars, media wars, all bankrolled by the people who own the world’s wealth, have created a massive, highly controlled network of perceptions and trigger points in all of us individually and en masse—and for as long as power has existed. They do not do it through any carefully choreographed conspiracy of secret societies, but through a fairly open and crude conspiracy of greed, the overarching indifference to anything other than that which is to their own benefit—the oldest and most effective conspiracy of them all.
These networks of messages and perceptions can be deployed only in dominant languages of the dominant powers. How would power, especially a globalized dominant power and its culture, handle these definitions, and punish those who dare transgress them in a language they do not understand? How would they dominate this language and people who speak it? The disempowered have always known that there is this linguistic limitation of power, and thus new languages are constantly being born and die in prisons and ghettos. Twins around the world, especially identical twins, are known to frequently author their own language. Individuals who create such languages do so to evade surveillance of those who have power over them and to claim their own freedom of thought.
Power, on its side, has always also known that it would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to control various minority populations and tribes because of the language and cultural barrier. Thus it has obliterated these other languages as much as it could, either by simple genocide or by squeezing out other cultures, absorbing them, vanishing them, sometimes intentionally, but mostly as a by-product of conquest, cultural absorption, or domination. The Roman Empire alone is responsible for the death of at least a thousand languages, which it achieved by simply killing people who spoke them. Nowadays, this is done by a technological spread of communications in dominant languages and a near vacuum in the cultural and media production of minority languages. No room is left in societies for them. No room is left in the minds.
As the writer Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
At this time of globalization, urbanization, and climate change, communities all over the world face deprivation and marginalization when their ways of life and the languages they speak become a barrier to access to knowledge, education, and resources. So they give up their language on their own as the dominant cultures simply create economies and institutions that are indifferent to world diversity, not to mention the fact that these minority cultures are not susceptible to the modern means of political control. Because minority cultures fall outside both economic and political structures of dominant power, they are either soft-armed into adopting those structures or else they get profoundly marginalized and are allowed to disappear.
Few exceptions have bucked this tragic trend. The Gaelic language is one of them. For 800 years the British Empire forbade speaking, writing, educating, and communicating in Gaelic. After the bloody uprising euphemistically called “the Troubles,” the Good Friday accord, the settlement, provided for the revitalization of the Gaelic language by redirecting policy and resources towards that goal. That’s the only way it works: policy and wealth dedicated to the task. Gaelic instruction became mandatory in Irish schools; radio and other cultural and media programming were created because of it. And now the generation of people in their 40s and younger can speak Gaelic to their grandparents, but to very few of their parents. That middle generation can be shown as a cautionary tale of what would have happened to an entire Irish culture and language. These persisted not because of the “luck of the Irish” but because of a stubborn belief that the young generation’s grandparents had in their origins. Yet they also speak English as well, having thus become a fully bilingual people who are culturally rooted and worldly at the same time.
Not every culture can do that. And most didn’t.
Dominant powers and cultures become dominant because, among other things, they are ruthless and efficient, and because they can control all resources, in particular how we–those who live in their culture and language–think, what we know, what we feel. That’s why they are dominant. The rest were vanished by us; more precisely, by those who own the world’s economic and political order. Anything and everything that stood or stands in their way is destroyed or is allowed to die.
Janet Frame had a brilliant insight into the nature of silence as a black mirror, showing us not only those we’ve vanished but those who is left—ourselves. In “Scented Gardens for the Blind” she had this revelation:
People dread silence because it is transparent; like clear water, which reveals every obstacle—the used, the dead, the drowned, silence reveals the cast-off words and thoughts dropped in to obscure its clear stream. And when people stare too close to silence they sometimes face their own reflections, their magnified shadows in the depths, and that frightens them. I know; I know.
When a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
This old philosophical trope, the basic epistemological exercise seemed handy. What is our sense towards the un-observed un-heard worlds? I have come to think of this old exercise as an exercise in empathy: does it matter that trees and universes collapse all around us? Who is to blame? My answer is simple: it’s us. And somewhere, between our obliviousness to others and our own inevitable oblivion, rest the scales of some brutal justice.
While working on Last Whispers, I listened to thousands of recordings of extinct and endangered languages without knowing what they were saying or singing about. I got addicted to them. They remind me that while we are drowning in the noise of our own voices, nudged here, tugged there, manipulated everywhere, we are floating on an ocean filled with a silence of others.
RS: That’s Lena Herzog, reading a talk she gave at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. And I–you know, this is different from one of my podcasts; maybe different from any podcast. But I think it conveys the spirit and, dare I say it, the ideology of this oratorio that you have created. And what we’re missing are actually the sounds. Maybe I could get part of this and splice it in here. But what’s so powerful about watching your product, immersing myself in it for actually two days here in Los Angeles at the Ford–what is it called, anyway? The Ford–
LH: The Ford Theatre.
RS: The Ford Theatre, this great historic, stone structure. And at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And by the way, KCRW was a sponsor, I noticed, of the Ford thing, the emblem of it was up there. And what was wonderful was the–I mean, the introduction of hundreds of these languages. And even though, as you say, one could not understand them, there was a beauty, there was a haunting mystery. And you–you know, and then there’s two culprits here. One is the one you’ve pointed out, which is simply the power of nations to destroy anyone in their purview. And you’re originally raised in the old Soviet Union, and a number of the languages that really were forced to disappear from deliberate inattention, or from coercion, were in the vast territorial reach of the Soviet Union, all the way over to Asia from Europe. And, but within the United States, the destruction of indigenous languages, and Mexico, the destruction–I mean, Oaxaca, for instance. A lot of folks here in L.A. like Oaxacan food, but the area of Oaxaca had 37 or 38 indigenous languages. And they were basically crushed by the insistence on using Spanish, the language that came over from the conquerors. And what I–that’s one force, the deliberate destruction of language. And I think in your work, you indicate there’s something inherently subversive or threatening about these different languages, because they define life differently. We’re big here at the Annenberg School on talking about storytelling, but storytelling has a lot to do with the language that’s used to tell that story, the nuance, the history it conveys, the mystery. And so it’s not an accident that these languages get crushed. And as I said before, in the case of Native Americans here in what is now the United States, they were forced, young kids were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools, Native kids. And forced to learn English and abandon their Cheyenne or Sioux language. But the other thing is the power of mass media. And that is that you mentioned the 30 dominant languages, but right now there’s really one dominant language, English.
LH: That’s right.
RS: And because of the power of commercial entertainment, movies and so forth, at an accelerating rate because of the internet, you have a cultural imperialism that seems like it’s not engineered and mindless, but has all the power of massive armies to change people, to deny any rebellion they might have, to convince them that they’re happy being dominated. So there’s that Orwellian element. And I’ve talked quite a bit, but I want to bring up one figure you mentioned in your talk, because we are here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Somebody we don’t talk much about here, because we also have a big division of public relations: Edward Bernays, the person you mentioned, was–the nephew of Sigmund Freud–was the founder of public relations.
LH: That’s right.
RS: And the whole art of persuading people that what may not be good for them is good for them. And it began with a campaign he had called the torches of liberty, which was to get women to smoke.
LH: That’s right.
RS: Smoke. And they’d light up these cigarettes, which end up causing cancer. And even then we knew that cigarettes were not good for you. But half the population had been saved, the medical problems of cigarette smoking, and were convinced that actually lighting up a cigarette represented a torch of freedom.
LH: They were incredibly effective to our own detriment. And of course, the whole idea of linguistic manipulation, and manipulating stories, has been developing in the United States, particularly as a science, for a very long time. But power has always done that. I mean, if you think about even the Old Testament, what’s the first sentence there? “In the beginning was the Word.” But what is the second sentence? “And the Word was with God.” So immediately, it reduces a very radical notion that before the world was the Word. It takes 2,000 years for theologians to try to unpack it; they still haven’t. But the second sentence is introducing hierarchy. It’s introducing authority, immediately. So empires have always done that, and they’ve always took specific care that they were in charge of stories. So when you’re talking about, for example, the plight of languages in the Soviet Union–well, that plight is inherited from the Russian Empire. Because the Russian Empire, which was enormous, spanning over 11 or 12 time zones, absorbed so many minority cultures. But I have to say that the Revolution of 1917 had a mandate of liberation of the oppressed minorities. One of the mandates is–well, the main mandate was the liberation of the oppressed. And by the way, liberation movements across the world were actually kind of breaks on this absorption, on this cultural absorption. So for example in Brazil, under Lula da Silva, there were a lot of protections that were put in place, including protections in the law, for the indigenous communities, on behalf of the indigenous communities. So that was a break in the pattern. In the Soviet Union after the Revolution of 1917, there was also some sort of a break in that pattern. There were things that you would describe like affirmative action for minority cultures. They were awkward, and a lot of the times failing attempts, but at least they were attempts.
RS: But there’s something–OK, let’s cut to the chase here. There’s a political stick here, which is controlling people.
RS: And diversity is the enemy of control. And diversity of language–I know, growing up in the Bronx for instance, you know, everyone had some foreign language. And these languages, they had brought from other countries as zones of protection. They could talk to each other. Now we live in a society where you can observe every email and every phone conversation. But I remember growing up, if you were in a Jewish neighborhood, these people had preserved Yiddish coming from Eastern Europe because it wasn’t the language that the czars, police, or the Bolsheviks easily understood. And so you operated in a zone of protection for your religion or your ideas or what have you. This has certainly been true of people from all over, whether it was the Chinese community in the United States, or what have you. One of the things that was done to the slave population was to strip it of the protection of language, and strip it of any connection with Africa. So I want to take a break now for a minute, and then get back to this idea of the inherent subversion–the good sense–subversion of diversity in languages and other things to dominant power. And that its essential mechanism of freedom is to be able to define the language you want to use, express yourself in your own language, and state power that wants to control completely has to own language. That was the message of Orwell, of Huxley: the ultimate power requires controlling language. Take this break and we’ll be right back. [omission for station break] I’m back with Lena Herzog, who was a photographer through most of her creative work. Grew up in the old Soviet Union, came to this country in 1990 as a 20-year-old. In some of the talks you’ve given, you describe your own sense of confusion about language. You originally as a child wanted to be the great Russian writer, and then how could you become the great English writer. And then you’ve picked this form, the immersive audio-video–I have to get this across to people in case they get a chance to see it, watch it, hear it. It’s quite phenomenal. Because you basically are taking these, a good sample of these 7,000 languages that are at risk of disappearing, and you expose us in this work to the beauty of the language; it’s like listening to music. And you put it up against the background of the silence of nature, and the essential question that’s posed is, what happens when language disappears? You know, what takes its place? And it’s really a scary, solitary world when you can’t communicate. So why don’t you–first of all, what has been the reaction to this work? I know you’re sort of on a world tour now with it. I know there are some centers–you mentioned the one in London, and others that are preserving language. You have allies in this work. You got a good reception here in Los Angeles at the museum, and at the Autry Museum and others, at LACMA. So what is this, there’s a struggle going on to preserve language, and people are rediscovering the value of language.
LH: The unsung heroes in the story are the linguists and language activists. And what they essentially do is stand in this, against this enormous tide of obliteration of diversity. And by “diversity” I mean a genuine, fundamental diversity. Because when you speak about political control of language, when you control language you control minds. That is why powers always wanted that so desperately. And that was their primary barrier that they needed to get over to each individual in the society.
RS: Well, it’s the key to ethnic cleansing–
RS: –it’s the key to religious cleansing. I mean, basically–
LH: Key to controlling stories. That they need to tell us.
RS: I just want to say one thing. For people who don’t understand the vitality of language–and I didn’t until the other night, in a certain way–you know, there’s always this idea, well, you can translate. And historians can go back and look, and tell us what were the Sioux saying, or the Cheyenne, or the Zapotec language, or what have you. And one of the points was made, and I forget his name, but the guy who runs the Autry Museum here–
LH: Richard West. Professor West.
RS: Yeah. And he’s in part an indigenous person, and he–
LH: Cheyenne. Yeah.
RS: Cheyenne, and he made a compelling point. He read a passage about an individual marching through life, and God is at their side. And you can translate it one way, as if this omnipresent western or Christian God is overseeing him. But he said that’s the wrong translation. And to really be inside that culture, you would say no, God is in everything–in the trees, in the wind, in all of that, and it’s not a controlling experience, it’s, you know, a sharing experience. And it gave it a totally different meaning. And so there’s a conceit at work that we can understand and preserve all of these cultures–as historians, as intellectuals–without knowing their languages, without hearing it spoken. And I must say, 10, 15 minutes into your oratorio, you are disabused of that notion. Because just hearing these languages, you are desperate to know, what are they really saying? It’s like listening to a great piece of music; you know, what is it really saying to me? And you can’t just look at the notes, you have to hear it played, you have to experience it.
LH: That’s right. And I–so, to go back to the heroes of the story, the linguists and the archivists and the language enthusiasts–and also last speakers, who continue to speak their language, and stand against the tide–I ask them, can you please tell me about an origin story. Because most cultures, they have their own origin story. And they said well, my God, we are lucky if we can get through a dictionary and the grammar, let alone something as complex as a myth. But some of them, we did have. But the reality on the ground–
RS: This is at the University of London, it’s one of the key places–
LH: One of the key archives. But I worked with at least 20 archives around the world, including the Smithsonian, the Rosetta Project, [inaudible]. I worked with I think most of the major world language archives that do archive recordings and documentation on endangered and extinct languages. And it’s only–I asked them how many are there of you guys on the ground working, doing this work. And they said they’re probably around 500. And that’s nothing.
RS: This is 500 people going with tape recorders–
RS: –around the world. And we should point out, this is all through Africa, Asia–
LH: Papua New Guinea, India. All around the world. And you know, their mikes break; their recordings are, you know, old, and they don’t have money. They’re always financially strapped. And look at the Rosetta Stone; I mean, how many volumes have been written about Rosetta Stone? Rosetta Stone is a piece of granite with three scripts in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in demotic, and in Greek. What is it? It’s considered to be the most important monument of art, and it’s in the British Museum. Now, what is the monument to? It’s essentially a monument to an extinction of languages, the extinction that is of a profound cultural nature. Because it needed translation. There were very few Egyptian priests that could understand the hieroglyphs anymore, because that was already an extinct language. So they had to be translated into also a language that was demotic, and then the language of power, which was Greek. So–and all of a sudden, we are–all around us, languages are dying right now. This moment. This very moment. And we–I think that, you know, if we really get down to it and serious about thinking about what is it that we are as a human family. And if we want to have some kind of record of the variousness, actually, of our human mind. Which is one of the most optimistic things around, is that we are not monolithic. That our human creativity has all these various ways to be.
RS: Unless we’re forced to be monolithic.
LH: Unless we are forced.
RS: And I mean, that is really the issue. Do you either thrill to diversity–and I’m not using this as a political slogan, although that could be a valid slogan; I’m not disputing that—but I mean that just in the sense of your notion of humanity and creativity and the significance of life. We here at the university talk a lot about storytelling, but are we telling the story of people who look like us, speak the same language, and so forth? No, they say–well, we’ll broaden it. Well, then, what do we do? We broaden it to the 30 languages that are now dominant. But do we really care–and I keep getting back to Native Americans here, whether in what’s called Mexico or the United States, because they’re so close at hand. And we know nothing about their stories. I mean, I did a podcast recently with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who just wrote a whole book about Native Americans, and the cleansing of Native Americans with these militias enshrined in the Second Amendment. And we know nothing about that, or very little. And they do speak to us through a language; we even had the Navajo, for instance, who were code crackers, and helped keep secrets during World War II. But those languages, we don’t have very much. And this is repeated throughout the world. So we’re telling very much contemporary stories through the perspective of a dominant culture, is really what’s happening.
LH: Well, dominant culture would be very challenged to hear stories. When we hear stories of the people they are vanquishing, we are humanizing. How can they keep going, and not know that they are monsters, if they hear the stories of the people they are vanquishing, that they are silencing, that they are bombing? So it is natural. I mean, I sometimes see this kind of blanking out by people who really would rather not hear anything of what goes on in the places where they go to bomb, where they go to conquer, or of the people that they silence. And it’s–it’s, I think, a willful gesture, a willful, almost a defense mechanism, to keep doing this.
RS: This storytelling of the other–and yes, it can come within the 30 dominant languages, too. I mean, for instance, right now we have this immigration crisis. And the way to fuel that crisis is to deny the humanity of the people called immigrants. That’s very simple. And if you tune out their language–including whether it’s a major language like Spanish, or certainly the indigenous language of, many of the people come even under the rubric of Spanish-speaking–you’re denying that they had a history. If you deny that they had a history, you’re denying their humanity. If you deny their humanity, you can imprison them, you can kill them, you can drown them. It doesn’t matter, because they are not significant. And what your oratorio does is it–just as, you know, something about nature, and there’s a lot of nature in your work. The forest, and so forth, and the trees, and the connection of trees; there’s a lot of mysticism about that, in the best sense. But if we’re not aware of it, the beauty of the language, the complexity, or if we get angry because we can’t immediately understand it, we doom ourselves to ignorance, to a shallow, shallow perception of who we are as people.
LH: That’s right. Well, we have become provincial. We have become provincial. And actually, most empires are culturally provincial. Through their hubris, not wanting to know others, not seeing other cultures, other ways. You know, you become highly limited, and at the end, kind of simple.
RS: But not limited in your impunity and your ability to murder without concern, to destroy–
LH: Well, that’s the limitless part.
RS: I applaud the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Ford Theatre, for having your work, for celebrating it; and they did. And very prominent people here in Los Angeles in the cultural community endorsed your work, and you’ve gotten good write-ups and so forth. But so many of these efforts just then disappear–poof! Why? Because they contain an inconvenient truth. They force us to see the limits of our own culture, our own arrogance. If people want to touch base with you and Last Whispers, how do we get the word out? Where can they hear this, see it, watch it, immerse themselves in what you call, and I think correctly, an immersive audio-video. Because you’re not doing it justice to call it a film or a documentary or anything. What it is is you took this raw material–just let me cut to the chase here–you took this raw material that was sitting on the shelves in some academic institutions and centers, right–
LH: In the archives.
RS: Yeah, archives, but basically, archives basically are put there to be forgotten by most people. And as you say, a very small group of 500 people who go around, drag themselves around the world trying to record these conversations, trying to understand them, and then they are filed somewhere. And what you’ve done is taken–you took this raw material and really created something quite beautiful. You know, let me just editorialize here. Really compelling, compelling. And accessible–although not always immediately accessible; it requires paying attention, it requires giving up your own prejudice about the importance of what you want to do in an hour, or your world, or where you’re going to eat, or so forth. It’s not immediately accessible, it requires an education. And in this work, you know, OK–I think a large number of people who watched it when I was there got it. But then what happens to it? What are your goals for this, how can people–first of all, right off the bat, anyone listening to this who has stuck with us up to this point, how do they get to have this immersive audio-video experience?
LH: Well, we are going to be in quite a few venues, and the shows are currently posting on LastWhispers.org. We try to make sure that we post every new venue, and we’ll be touring around for a very long time. The work, for sure, will tour around. There is also, other than the 45-minute immersive video-audio work, there is also a 7-minute virtual reality, Last Whispersvirtual reality. And that reaches, you know, another new, and I think for the most part younger, demographic. And I mean, our goal was not didactic. So I worked with this brilliant team of sound designers and engineers and composers, Mark Mangini and Marco Capalbo, who have helped me organize this work in sort of a choral piece, of a human chorus. And what I noticed whenever we showed it–either at the British Museum, or in London, or at the Kennedy Center, which invited us back, or at the Ford–[was] that people are mesmerized. I think that we are actually wired to want to know others; as much as we are brainwashed to deny them by power structures, actually, in us, we have also a very profound communal sense. And we want to know what the world is made up of, and other voices, and other ways. And so–and I noticed that people just sit there after the work is over, and they don’t leave. Which is great, actually, to see that.
RS: Well, let me end this, then, on not necessarily a unifying note, but something to think about. I was raised in the melting pot. You know, and my contemporaries. It was celebrated; but the melting pot didn’t include black people, who weren’t even allowed to play baseball professionally when I was in school. And our military was segregated, and women were restricted, half the population, on what they were allowed to do. And certainly, we did that with all sorts of immigrant groups, the Chinese and so forth, in this country. And yet, there was an ideal of the melting pot. And for most of my life, I celebrated that ideal. And as a white male, I was allowed to melt. You know? I was allowed to become this dominant, into this dominant group. And frankly, it’s a somewhat boring–not just somewhat, it’s a fatally boring construction, actually, the idea of melting us all into one. It’s a denial of what makes life worth living, which is alternatives, and differences, and different perceptions, and different music, and different ideas, and different philosophies. And language, the uniformity of language, is critical to it. And you know, yes, you were required to take a foreign language, usually the one of your parents or something, that you took in school. But the whole idea that somehow we had reached the apex of civilization–I remember when I was young I would hear every once in a while, “Free, white, and 21”–and they should have said “male”–and you’ve got it made, right? Free, white, 21, man–well, you’re not free if you’re restricted to your skin color, if you’re restricted to your cultural background. What your immersive experience here, the audio-video–and I recommend it to anyone–it’s a reminder of how much we lose when we can’t hear.
RS: You know, when we’re so narrow, when we block it out. Whether we do it institutionally, we do it through our mega-cultural, massive, you know, cultural enterprises, and commercialized culture. But we become tone-deaf, tone-deaf. And what hit me, in my sort of, my final observation, it was a shattering experience to sit there all that time and hear languages that I could not comprehend, but that were clearly poetic, were beautiful, were complex–
LH: We miss the beauty.
LH: We miss the beauty, and that’s a terrible impoverishment. Why should we?
RS: Yes. Well, the “why should we” unfortunately probably has a lot to do with the maintenance of dominant power and everything else. But–
LH: Exactly what we talked about in the first part, yeah.
RS: Yes. OK, well, thank you, Lena Herzog, who has created Last Whispers, an immersive audio-video program which you should immerse yourself in. And we’ll try to list the site–what was it again?
RS: LastWhispers.org. I want to thank Kat Yore and Mario Diaz, the engineers at KCRW’s studio. Joshua Scheer, the producer of Scheer Intelligence. And here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Sebastian Grubaugh, who holds down the fort and will deliver a wonderful finished product. Thank you so much. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.