Remains to be said … the “um” in art and other disfluencies

  • Maureen de Jager
Keywords: Department of Fine Art


Taking as my starting point an artwork of “fillers” – a 2010 sound piece by Fine Art student Romie Sciscio foregrounding the disfluent speech of various visiting academics to the Department of Fine Art, Rhodes University – I propose that speech disfluencies such as “um”, “kind of” and “I suppose” should not simply be derided as white noise or verbal graffiti. Rather, filled pauses – understood both literally and metaphorically – may be seen to function critically, precisely because they are located neither inside nor outside the “message” of speech. They hover between presence and absence, seemingly content-less and yet dimly portentous: they do and do not matter to meaning. As such, they require (or provoke and demand) a different kind of listening – the acoustic equivalent of reading between the lines.

An artwork of filled pauses is the lens, then, through which I consider the possibilities of “liminal” speech (itself a lens through which I consider a particularly South African fascination with silence and verbalisation). Pivotal to post-apartheid “healing” has been the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): a ‘public rehearsal of memory’ (Nuttall 1998:75) intended to “give voice” to the experiences of those silenced by and within South Africa’s repressive past. Sanctioned by the TRC, verbalisation has been figured as public catharsis. As many have argued, however, there can be no straightforward “telling it like it is”, especially when trauma inhibits speech. Instead, the false fluency that usurps and tidies the work of memory may be perniciously counterproductive, turning tentative stories into totalising narratives.

In response, I investigate a “manner of speaking” between the extremes of muteness and glibness: one which voices the fraught terrain of memory self-reflexively. Such liminal speech has the potential to approximate truth not by ‘excavating silence’ (Brink 1998:33), but by tripping itself up with filled pauses and declaring its own disfluency in the process.