To Ryan Kuo
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
—Rainer Maria Rilke 
I grew up saying ‘ichigo’ (Japanese for ‘strawberry’) and ‘strawberry’ (English) at the same time. This is how I first came to distrust language.
—Kanna Hüdson 
When he was five or six years old my nephew began texting me from his father’s mobile phone. He devised novel emoji paragraphs, stringing along characters until they formed an idiosyncratic story in graphic form. I delighted in his self-invented amusement and imagined him on the other side of the phone delighting in my emoji-coded responses.
The precocious oddity of this mode of communicating charmed me. For one, I didn’t communicate with any extended family members via a mobile phone at his age. For another, the interface designer Shigetaka Kurita had not yet invented the first modern emoji library at NTT DOCOMO, a Japanese mobile phone company. By the time the user interface chatbox became mainstream, my use of it was, typical of my Millennial peers, siloed by generation. I wasn’t AOL Instant Messenger chatting with Boomers.
It is night time, when sunsets vanish and all retreat into nucleus form. The Child is not eating the assigned egg. The Mother speaks in hushed tones. The Father wears a grim face. The egg’s soft yellow part oozing out of the gelatinous white part is disgusting. But no one may leave the table until it is gone. When their eyes are turned away, The Child spoons up and buries the runny slime into a potted plant.
One day, when I appeared distracted or took too long to respond during our exchange, my nephew abandoned the emojis and with earnest solemnity typed out this sentence:
if you love me, react
The phrase has become some kind of shorthand in the family—I would say ‘inside joke’ but I don’t love a joke the child isn’t in on—as an accurate distillation of social media behavior. If you love me, react emits an emotional gravity, some preternatural understanding about the terms of the exchange, as though the young speaker perceives a double meaning in the unanswered text or tardy reply. There is a keen perception of the terms of address, or social syntax. (During the US holiday celebrated over a dead turkey, my nephew quietly announced, seemingly to himself, that he felt ‘sad’ eating it.)
There is an unspoken asymmetry about their language. The Mother and The Father wield the natal language. The Child wields the social language of their landscape, like filling out administrative forms. But The Child loses power once they enter the house, like the sun dying over a horizon.
But if before I had marveled at the effect of advances in mobile phone technology on long-distance family communiqués, I now felt awed by the sense of openness and safety of that correspondence. The child’s congruency between what he felt and how he expressed it was an advancement all its own. The securely attached child, to use a phrase from the psychodynamic relational model, retains assurance that you will be there. A superior emotional infrastructure has quietly emerged. No one should take it for granted.
Where my bilingualism was annexed between the territories of English and Persian, my first language, my nephew’s dual languages are English and internet. Here I hope to get my point across without employing ‘digital native’, a term that should be banished for always, as it is inaccurate and untrue. But there is something preverbal about internetal language that makes if you love me, react an encapsulated phrase beyond innate childhood cuteness; its syntax understands that synchronous communication is co-created by two parties who understand the terms of their language and its meaning, and that the exchange is encased in a particularly activated moment in time, by which I mean a ‘here’ and ‘now’ that is alive and vital.
Except that isn’t how language actually works, not in my social experience of the organised family, and not in yours.
The Father: Winner winner, lobster dinner.
The geolocation of self has changed as a generalised understanding about the internal psychology of the contemporary family has transformed. There is no word for the feeling of watching a new generation have it easier than you in their family of origin. This has been made even more clear by watching my Millennial friends parent their children using sign language as early as five months old, far earlier than the available output of speech. They tell me that signing allays the child’s frustration in not being able to express their needs and emotions, consequently creating a bond between parent and child before the arrival of verbalised ‘mama’ and ‘dada’.
The Mother: 1-2-3-4 let me hear you stomp the floor!
In the early fifteenth century, puzzle implied putting something in a certain position. This carried through to the sixteenth, when puzzle (or pusle, bewilder, interrogate, or confound) was a frequentative of pose (from Medieval French aposer, to perplex). Puzzle was to pose what nuzzle is to nose.
Around two hundred years later, puzzle morphed to mean a resolution or discovery of something ‘by long cogitation or careful investigation’. The meaning of puzzle as ‘toy contrived to test one’s ingenuity’ is as recent as the mid-nineteenth century. It is that obsolete rendering that I am most fond of. Pose means ‘assume a certain attitude or character’, for example, an artist’s model, suggesting artifice or gambit.
Does puzzle then mean to obfuscate deliberately, for the sake of the ruse? Or does puzzle imply that obfuscation is inherent and constitutional, as inviolable as genetics?
The Father and The Mother: Give me a B! Give me an E! Give me an S! Give me a T! What’s that spell? Best! Put us to the test! We won’t give ’em a rest!
Puzzle in Ancient Greek aligns with both aínigma (from the verb ainíssomai, ‘to speak in riddles’; ‘talking with insinuations or with codes, making wordplay’) and grîphos, ‘challenging question, enigma’. The Latin equivalent of grîphos is scirpus, as in nodum in scirpo quaerere, ‘to find trouble where there is none’. Do you see how many dark holes and points of bewilderment are contained here? Perplexity implies an ego or false self riddled with the misunderstandings of language, its multiple deviations, attempts, trials, and essays to be seen and heard. No wonder puzzle (both as enigma and children’s toy) is quebra-cabeça in Portuguese and casse-tête in French, literally ‘head breaker’.
The Mother: You can come back. You can always return.
The Father: [silent absence]
The Child: It is too late. It is really too late.
Like psychodynamic therapy, family retelling is retroactive. In this memoiristic mode it matters who is speaking; reliable narration matters most at the moment it is most intimately resisted. I used to teach college students theories of authorship, one involving Michel Foucault’s 1969 lecture, ‘What is an Author?’ Foucault unearthed Friedrich Nietszche’s life and works on paper to assemble and reassemble the person writing. Is Nietzsche uniquely the author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra? Or does his authorship extend to his laundry list of daily errands, his letters to the editor, his private diary entries? In each case there is a distinction between the person inside and outside the privacy of the house.
The Mother: [denial, detachment, defensiveness]
The Father: [unavailability, rejection, projection]
The Child: [withdrawal, disappearance, flight]
I listen to a very famous psychologist tell an adult survivor calling in to her podcast that she should open communication with her abusive mother, an anticolonial cultural hero in their home country. I turn it off.
I have unanswered questions. How does pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s ‘good enough’ parent theory work for minoritarian subjects? For immigrant kids? Who can tell us about the glitches of vernacular bilingualism, the effect of miscomprehension in rote exchange, the variant uses and misuses of silence?
How many other people have googled ‘what does Buddhism say about’ and ‘toxic parents’? Or ‘hypergeography’ and ‘aborted dialogues’? ‘Discontinuous interface’ and ‘clash of values’?
The Father: [epic poem]
The Mother: [novel]
The Child: [autofiction]
I run my own postulates through a calculating machine, immune to criticism. The parent is weaker because unprocessed trauma runs the danger of becoming an identity. The child is stronger as a result of muscular habitual questioning. Language is the site of terror in this realm because it is where distance rebuilds and reconciliation breaks down.
Sometimes my own theories mock me, because I remember Atlas, a Titan in Greek mythology, as a punishment for the war against Zeus is depicted with the burden of carrying a celestial globe on his shoulders for eternity. I write down on a Post-it near my computer as I write to you, ‘Walk lightly’.
View the Project
Ryan Kuo’s Puzzle is part of a series of M+ digital commissions exploring online creative practices that sit at the intersection of visual culture and technology.
Image on top: Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi, Crouching Figure of Atlas (detail), 1481–1536. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry G. Sperling Fund, 1992. Photo Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. www.metmuseum.org.
The alternative title for this essay is ‘Bad Listening’.
Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘I Live My Life in Widening Circles’, Reflections 15 (Spring 2012): 69, https://reflections.yale.edu/article/seize-day-vocation-calling-work/i-live-my-life-widening-circles.
Kanna Hüdson,‘“We are the Tiniest Particle”: Authorial Agency and the Body’, Intersections 10, no. 1 (2009): 389–430.
‘Psychodynamic therapy aims to help the client identify important pieces of the puzzle that makes them who they are and rearrange them in ways that allow the client to form a more functional and positive sense of self’, emphasis mine. Courtney E. Ackerman, ‘What is Psychodynamic Therapy? 5 Tools & Techniques’, Positive Psychology, 10 August 2017, https://positivepsychology.com/psychodynamic-therapy/.
‘Winnicott's realisation, in 1942, that “there’s no such thing as an infant” highlighted the fact that it is not possible to see an individual without taking into account the profound psychic influence of the parents.’ Jan Abram, ‘Donald Woods Winnicott’, Institute of Psychoanalysis, 2015, https://positivepsychology.com/psychodynamic-therapy/.
The other version of the Post-it is ‘Hold this lightly’.