A few weeks ago my class had an extensive discussion of the “slutwalk,” in which female students put on provocative clothing (or whatever clothing they like) and parade the campus in order radically to challenge the idea that anyone, however she dresses, is ever “asking for it.” I had a few thoughts in the course of the discussion, and here is one of them.
My students tend to believe that there are codes inscribed in facial expression, bodily gestures, and clothing — that these form a discourse, beyond words, one that we use to communicate, one that must be understood within a given cultural frame. And yet they also believe that they may, if they so desire, mute this discourse, un-speak and un-hear it, such that one would no longer be expressing with the body and the face and the clothing, such that not even one’s tone of voice would count, but only words: no means no, however you say it, and whatever gestures accompany it.
I am interested in this resurgence of the logos, this notion that the word, flat and dead, without accompaniment, without ornament or subtext, and above all disembodied, is the top dog of communication. It seems obvious to so many people, but to me it seems only legally obvious. By this I mean that in the kind of legal cases that prompted activities like the slutwalk, it was necessary to draw a line between operative signals and inoperative signals, and the only place where such a line can be drawn with clarity — and thus the correct place to draw it — is between words and everything else. But leaving aside the legality and speaking philosophically, the decision to draw the line there seems arbitrary.