Rudrum, David (2014) Shlips of the tongue: or, experimenting with the Shibboleth. In: De l’expérimental dans l’art / Concerning the experimental in art, 2-3rd October, 2014, Université du Maine (Le Mans). (Unpublished)

As a poetry installation that juxtaposes and contrasts the sound of the spoken word with the look of the written word, Say: “Parsley” is an experimental work by any standards. The work of London-based French-Norwegian poet Caroline Bergvall and Irish composer and installation artist Ciarán Maher, Say: “Parsley” experiments not least by questioning the boundaries between poetry and conceptual art. However, in the context of a conference on the experimental in art, what makes it an interesting and apposite work for analysis is that it is itself based on the idea of a simple and ruthlessly practical linguistic experiment: namely, the shibboleth.
As the OED has it, a shibboleth is “a test word” – more specifically, “a word used as a test for detecting foreigners”. According to the Book of Judges, this experiment was first administered by Jephthah against the hapless Ephraimite fugitives, forty-two thousand of whom were killed on the banks of the Jordan because their inability to pronounce the “sh” in “shibboleth” gave them away. Bergvall and Maher’s title Say: “Parsley” recalls a similar test performed in 1937 by the soldiers of Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, in order to detect and slaughter tens of thousands of Creole Haitians whose French accents meant they were unable to roll the “r” in the Spanish word “perejil” – parsley. This installation experiments not only with the mismatch between written and spoken word, and the obvious difficulties this produces for non-native speakers, but invites reflection on the way in which language inevitably acts as a gatekeeper to community membership. Its political nature was particularly apparent when exhibited in the city of Antwerp in 2008, where it inevitably called to mind the ongoing friction between Francophone and Flemish-speaking Belgian communities, as well as debates about the impact of English on European languages thanks to globalization.
Say: “Parsley” is the subject of a recent discussion by Marjorie Perloff; the idea of the shibboleth has been explored by Jacques Derrida. Whilst this paper will take their insights as a starting point, it focusses more on the relationship between experiments in language, poetry, and community. The examples of Jephthah and Trujillo demonstrate that experiments with language are by no means a good in themselves, and can be used for exclusionary purposes as well as creative ones. Thus, the paper points out the tension between on the one hand the work’s exploration, via the trope of shibboleth, of the theme of exclusion, and on the other hand, the work’s form, qua installation, as a dynamic space of interaction for those readers/listeners who shared the experience of it.

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