When Language Fails: In the Margins of a Diary

by Tania Arcimovich

A few days after the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, the people detained (even if they were only there by chance) during the protest demonstrations of August 9 to 12 were released from jails around the country. Their bodies and minds had witnessed the incredible level of violence during those days. Almost everyone who listens to or reads their stories is shocked to learn of the radically disrupted daily routine, raising the question of what a human being is.

Having always associated the term “to witness” with the history of wars and genocides, I could not imagine that it would one day refer to current events in my own country. Is there any language capable of describing the experiences recounted by victims and by witnesses looking on, finding themselves in a situation where violence is happening and being unable to stop it? Do any words exist that can translate the pain of others? Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Yet I am assured that I must speak about it. But how? Since the first days of this experience of being a witness, the inadequacy of language has been central for me. I could not write anything as an immediate reaction, even though this was urgently needed in order to occupy media space, the main field for ideological struggles and a means for solidarity. Carving out letter by letter, I tried to hear my voice. But I could not.

On August 15, 2020, a group of Belarusian artists gathered near the Palace of Arts in Minsk to crusade against violence in an action titled “The Art of Regime.” They held up photos of people whose bodies had been injured (bloodied, bruised, maimed) by the state military forces over the previous days. There was a man who flaunted his beaten body, turning it into an object. Analyzing this action, curator and scholar Alеksei Borisionok mentions that “organizers saw exhausted protesting bodies as a biopolitical raw material, where power was inscribed through the violence in order to coerce, rule and control – a specific ‘art of governing.’”(1) This focus on the body plays a specific role for the Belarusian protests, as it demonstrates, among other things, its potential to turn into a collective political body. The brutal reaction of the authorities to the people’s demands – to schedule new elections and stop violence – highlighted the extreme vulnerability of the body in authoritarian countries, its sufferings becoming a tool used by those in power to maintain control. Moreover, it was the vulnerability of these bodies that became the catalyst for the solidarity of the people: injured bodies took care of each other in prison by sharing hygiene items, keeping each other warm, and supporting each other emotionally.

Nevertheless, despite the gestures of solidarity and, as Aleksei Borisionok points out, “blurring the line between the representation of violence and its material embodiment,” I suppose that this action also demonstrated the insufficiency of language. The artists kept silent, manifesting the surrender of the artistic imagination as the realm brutally violated in art, which had as a result grown dumb. The images and the bodies spoke. The words that would be able to go beyond representation were lost.

Soon, the Belarusian artist Antonina Slobodchikova created a series of posters titled “Violence.” Together with the translator Iryna Herasimovich, she wrote the word in different languages – Belarusian, Russian, English, German, Hungarian and others, crossing it out with a red line. Following the ideas of John L. Austin to do things with words, the artist used “violence” as a fact – as a statement, rejecting its performative power. It was her red line that was acting. She intruded into the matter of reality, appropriating the power of language for herself. In her artworks, Antonina continually explores this ideological flexibility of language (and speech), whether making collages or drawing pictures. And now, the breakdown of ethical foundations resulting from the abrogation of human law had underscored the potential of such an artistic intervention into language.

Before the events of August, Antonina had made a video work titled “Disappearing Hope,” which she released later. As repressions increased, this work assumed a special meaning. Some 30,000 people passed through detentions in the months that followed, and the conditions for the prisoners were shocking. One thousand testimonies of torture victims were documented, but we know that many people are still keeping silent. Some of them died.(2) Antonina’s video started with the word “hope” written on a sandy beach. Waves slowly roll in to attack it. They erase the word. “Hope” disappears. The image of the blank surface freezes. Did the brutal performance of reality win, paralyzing us?

I read the Bible and Koran, Adorno and Arendt, stories of the Belarusian poets and writers who were repressed and killed by Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. I read the global news. I know that the experience of my country is not unique. Thousands of people all over the world – men and women, children, black and white, transgender people, ethnic minorities and many others – suffer from wars, violence, and discrimination. They are injured, killed, raped, tortured. They leave their homes. They lose hope.

Watching Antonina’s video again and again, I did not accept the defeat, although it was evident that flowers cannot do anything against weapons. Not because they are flowers but rather – referring to Katherine Verdery’s definition – as a matter of the “cognitive organisation[s] of the world”(3) which, like parallel lines, do not grasp each other. “Do not appeal to ethics,” someone wrote in the blog, “It does not exist there.”
- Hey, they killed a man, I said.
- It is geopolitics, he responded.
- I don’t care. They killed a man, I’m talking about a crime.
- We must find out more.
- I don’t need to know more. They killed several people, crippled thousands, but even one is too much.
And I see how the world of serious men who are keen on economics and power is laughing at me.
- You are so naïve.

Dear Antonina, if you do not mind, I would like to join your performance, as I really believe that we are able to intrude in the matter of reality. It might sound naïve, I know, but who cares if we write our words on paper or on sand, because they are significant and still keep the world from madness. Therefore, I will come to this beach every day to write these words again and again in order to oppress this brutal reality that is trying to assert itself. I know that we will win, as the waves cannot resist our insistence. No matter how powerless the language is, my deep faith is not.

The video can be found here


1 Borisionok, Aleksei. Arresting Images, Arrested Bodies, L’Internationale Online, December 20, 2020.

2 At the time this essay was written, more than 35,000 people had been detained since summer 2020. There are 501 political prisoners. Eight people have died (were killed or died in unknown circumstances) as a result of the Belarusian protests. The number of victims increases as the repression, which covers the whole country, continues.

3 Verdery, Katherine, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 4.

External Links
(c) Antonina Slobodchikova, Disappearing Hope, 2020, videostill

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