‘protocerealbox’: Collective Attendance and the Real Work of Language

Fred Moten, in his essay, “the plan,” offers a personal insight into the high stakes gambit that is language. His work, and the necessary collective of saints and demons who complement this work, to communicate with and accommodate the needs of his son (who is on the autism spectrum) demonstrate both how precious human expression is and how risky it is to rely on its prescribed or “normal” modes. For Moten, every legible sentiment is an “incalculable gift,” a triumphal overlapping of a linguistic venn diagram constantly in-flux. In turn, every miss, every inscrutable silence or unpredictable lingual barrage is perceived as a “loss”, felt as a deficit in their mutual understanding and a lack of what should/could/might be known between them. Those “loss[es],” the heart ships passing unknown and unannounced, are, at the end of the day, immaterial. Lorenzo is Fred Moten’s son and he is his father. There is no limit to the energy expended or attempts made to bridge the gap between expression and understanding, call and response. To navigate a spontaneously alternating excess and absence of language, Moten conscripts an army. Trained and untrained, saints and un-saints, trial and error, a parent employs the ear, heart, and acumen of the collective to build a language functional enough for both of them–assemble a bouquet from all the flowers they can find.

Moten deftly applies this approach to his study of ZONG!. With the “big kids,” he engages with the text of ZONG! very similarly to how he engages with the students at his son’s kindergarten. Crucial to and implicit in both endeavors is that no matter the difficulty–the “complex and abstract” quality–or the infrequency of the flowers for the woods, the communication is essential and not only demands but deserves your effort and energy. It needs to be understood as much as you need to understand it. Once that principle is doubtless, in both cases you will need help. For his son, Moten committed himself to the thankless task of researching and identifying the people and institutions that would be best for his son’s development and their family’s needs. For Zong!, Moten welcomes the scholars, critics, and students that will help to illuminate the text. In both cases, care must be taken not to compromise the properties and peculiarities (no matter how inconvenient according to Western/normative literary/social standards) that make these voices their own. One must also be willing to do the work within oneself, to not get stuck in any “loss” or the expectation of what could have been, but to understand the method of communication as “the woods..where the flowers grow.” Discipline, sharp senses, and faith are required.

In her essay “Interview with an Empire,” M. Nourbese Philip laments that “ far too many of us still take language for granted.” In Zong!, she won’t let us. Moten confronts the visceral significance of communicating through language–and the innumerable pitfalls, shortcomings, and injustices therein–with his son. When miscommunication and illegibility are an almost certain risk, each utterance and each silence take on a new, individual weight. ZONG! issues the reader a similar task. We have to work. We have to listen to the multiple voices through multiple ears, and navigate the hydrodynamic disjunction of her choral verses and vegetative silences armed with context as a compass and empathy as a star. We supplement, we listen, we assume discomfort, we mourn, we mourn. Such is the “hard, sweet life of language.” Such is life with no protection from it.

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