Morrison, Toni — Nobel Lecture

Morrison, Toni.  “Nobel Lecture.” Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 8 Oct 2014. <>

Morrison uses a story of a wise, blind woman and young visitors who come to test her clairvoyance as a frame for a scorching indictment on the violences of language and our common culpability for letting them continue.  Speaking for her protagonist, Morrison is worried about how language is “withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes.”  She defines a dead language as “unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis [. . .] censored and censoring.  Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining [. . .] its own exclusivity and dominance.  However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential” (para. 11).  Moreover, Morrison says, “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forego its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.  Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”  Such language, she writes, “tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.  Sexist language, racist language, theistic language — all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas” (para. 13).  Morrison carefully delineates the social effects of such language: “There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming, slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death.  There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination” (para. 14).

But Morrison spends the second half of her address pointing toward an alternative, a way out.  For instance, she points out the foolishness and deathliness of monologic discourses: “She has thought about what could have been the intellectual history of any discipline if it had not insisted upon, or been forced into, the waste of time and life that rationalization for and represnetations of dominance required — lethal discourses of exclusion blocking access to cognition for both the excluder and the excluded” (para. 16).  Morrison similarly offers a political/pedagogical agenda for responding to oppressive language in its many guises: “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 [. . .] it must be rejected, altered, exposed” (para. 13)

And Morrison insists that, despite the difficulties if not impossibilities, the attempt to offer the next generation some other kind of linguistic inheritance is of critical importance.  Speaking for the young visitors who come to test the wise woman, she articulates a series of questions and ends in a call for us to own that responsibility:

  • “‘Is there no speech,’ they ask her, ‘no words you can give us that helps break through your dossier of failures?'” (para. 26)
  • “‘Do we have to begin consciousness with a battle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost . . .?” (para. 28)
  • “Our inheritance is an affront.  You want us to have your old, blank eyes and see only cruelty and mediocrity.  Do you think we are stupid enough to perjure ourselves again and again with the fiction of nationhood?  How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?'” (para.29)
  • “Is there no context for our lives?  No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong?” (para. 30)
  • “Make up a story.  Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is created.  We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald.”  (para. 30)
  • “We know you can never do it properly — once and for all.  Passion is never enough; neither is skill.  But try [. . .] Don’t tell is what to believe, what to fear.  Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravel’s fear’s caul” (para. 30)

There are strong resonances in Morrison’s address to Galtung’s definition of violence as anything that limits our reaching our full human potential.  She notes that unyielding, policing, exclusionary, dominant discourses are dead because they “thwart human potential.”  She defines oppressive language as violence, noting that it limits knowledge and moves relentlessly toward diminished mental capacity (“the bottom-out mind”).  But Morrison also explicitly links language use to menace, subjugation, fascism, death, slaughter, death, torture, rape, and assassination.

Less directly, Morrison suggests that “Word-work is sublime [. . .] because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life” (para. 20).  “We die,” she writes, and “That may be the meaning of life.  But we do language.  That may be the measure of our lives” (para. 21).  The extent to which we reach our full potential as language users, then, would be the measure of our humanity, our human difference.  The range of ways in which we can do language, the degree to which we reach our full potential as language users is, then, the measure of our lives.  Similarly, Morrison writes that “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined, and possible lives of its speakers, readers, and writers” (para. 18).  The full life-force of a language lies its ability to depict, describe, or portray our imagined and possible lives, our full human potential.

But my real take-away from her address is a feeling of obligation, of being called to do what may be impossible but is utterly necessary nonetheless.  Early in the piece, Morrison writes that “when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat [. . . ] all users and makers are accountable for its demise” (para. 12).  We are all on the hook, then, for the current state of affairs, for the desperately impoverished and ever-narrowing kinds of discourse that exist in the civic/public sphere.  There are other kinds of discourses that we have allowed to wither and die, that we are not valuing, using, or teaching.  When Morrison decries the “tongue-suicide [ . . .] common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience” (para. 12), I recognize that we have all allowed this infantile, evacuated language to exist, to remain, to gain ascendancy, that we have all contributed to a discourse that alienates us and forbids us access to our full range of human instincts by not valuing, using, and teaching an alternative discourse.  We are complicit in our collective tongue-suicide.

In the end, I leave Morrison’s address inspired.  We can develop a rhetoric of nonviolence; we can compose nonviolence.  There are words we can give the next generation that will help them break through our dossier of failures.  They don’t need to begin consciousness with a battle we have already lost.  We can offer them an inheritance that is not toxic.  We can pass along words that will help them start strong, a narrative that will create them at the very moment we are creating it.  We can show them how to believe rather than only, merely doubt, how to unravel the fear with which we have come to clothe ourselves.  We can and we must.

— Paul Heilker


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