On Hyphens

On Hyphens


Susie Quillinan


If hyphens had words, I think they might use Harun Farocki’s: “We can drop right into the middle of events.” 1

Despite appearances, a hyphen is a thing in motion. It splits and joins, opens and closes, builds and breaks. It can move us through time, make space for new meaning and invite us to see anew. When used to construct compound words, a hyphen becomes, I would argue, the linguistic equivalent of a public square. It sits in that empty-full hole: exposed and conspicuous, opening up a space right there at the crossroads of a pair of ideas. The hyphen allows us to construct notions from half built words and abbreviations that together outline something entirely new, waiting to be defined. It forms mutant spaces and suggests experimental travels. It creates if not a space in common, at the very least, a proposition to construct a common space.

Nobody or nothing exists in isolation: everything is an element of a structure. Every structure is in its turn an element of another structure. Everything that exists is a structure. To understand something, is to understand the structure of which it is a part and/or the elements forming the structure that that something is. 2 The word hyphen comes from the ancient Greek, meaning “in one”. Originally, it lay on the ground between two words or two parts of a word. A stepping stone to comprehension, a footbridge to new ideas. At some point it migrated north and settled, suspended in the space between. From this point of exposure, the hyphen seems to carry with it an almost inbuilt obsolescence. While it will likely continue to be used to unite broken words across line breaks in type, its use as a builder of word-ideas exists in layover territory, a pit-stop on the way to “common use”.

In a sense, the hyphen is the most architectural of all grammatical notations. In its insistent horizontality, the hyphen constructs not upwards as a skyscraper but outwards-across, like a bridge. It cleaves ideas to each other, commingles disparate thought forms, political concepts, people; forcing them to share space across a minor but insistent divide. The effect is additive, constructive, at times perhaps, combative. In these cases, the use of a hyphen emphasises that the thoughts, words or identities cleaved together by its bridge are in a state of total equilibrium. Both hold equal and specific weight. Neither is more dominant nor inclined to be absorbed into the other. The hyphen is an indicator of a perfect tension, its diminutiveness a sign not of architectonic dominance but of harmonious suspension. Hyphenation is thus invoked here, not to produce a new entity or identity out of old categories, but as a term that remains both old and new, as well as in-between, since it brings together two words or concepts, but without merging them into one. Rather, it accentuates the split, and sometimes jarringly, uncomfortably, and counter-intuitively brings together two different designations. The hyphen can conjoin, obviously, but can also bring into form dialectics or antagonisms.  Through this modest horizontal scratch on the page, we process ideas through language-in-time, absorbing new forms and odd couplings. We accumulate meanings around familiar ideas, inserting a hyphen to make them feel less strange (e-mail) until the hyphen is no longer needed. Eventually the eye no longer needs to pause to relate the past to the future, to recalibrate our expectations and process a new set of representations. And the speed with which we absorb these new thought forms into common usage seems to be increasing. In the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary hyphens were removed from 16,000 entries. The transit lounge of punctuation has served its purpose, given us the space and time to process where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.

So, from another angle, we might understand the hyphen as less architectonic and more aura. It captures a moment in time at the dawn of a new idea or a new set of relations. And then with each subsequent use the need for the hyphen fades a little, as familiarity replaces contention until the tiny mark disappears. A quiet suggestion that if the space of the hyphen can be thought, the messier space of existence in the tension, the state of in-between-ness is already being lived.

“The wound is an eye. Can we look into its eyes?” (Cecilia Vicuña)

To some eyes, the hyphen is a scar on the page, a problem to be solved, a hole to be closed. When a hyphen is removed from a compound, one of two things happen. Either, the hyphen proves to be a reminder that this coupling was never going to work. The words divorce and the hyphen, no longer needed, is replaced by clear space. Or, it is decided that neither hyphen nor space is needed and the hyphenated word is “closed”. The Chicago Manual of Style states that “With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online)”. Interesting to think of “closing” words (word-wounds). As if an idea, once made familiar, closes itself off to the world. Th-is ma-kes m-e wa-nt t-o hy-ph-en-ate ev-ery wo-rd. But the point is not always to integrate and disappear into common usage. Sometimes the very point is to be ‘in one’. To hold the space in between and use it to build, or breathe, or pay attention. By insisting on the visibility that comes with holding the articulation firmly in place, the hyphen can turn our gaze from the structures on the page to the constructs of society; of history itself.

In 1990 the “hyphen war” (so-called in the English language press) played out in the re-naming of the newly democratic nation of what had been known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In this moment of redefining the future of a nation and shaking off the
chains and traumas of the past, the job of ensuring equal visibility and stature to the citizens of this land, fell to the humble hyphen. The Czechoslovak Republic became the Republic of Czecho-Slovakia; became the “Czechoslovak Federative Republic,” (with a hyphen in the Slovak language but not in the Czech). While calling it a ‘war’ might have overstated the conflict, the fact remains that the hyphen was an agent of visibility, representation and equality. It told us where to look and to remember this act of looking every time the new nation-state was invoked. To build new worlds, sometimes we don’t need new words, just new ways of seeing them.

The APA style guide claims that “A properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.” In this formulation, hyphens are a bulwark against ambiguity. They perform the operation of making visible and focusing attention for the purpose of frictionless reading and meaning-making. Without them, the reader fumbles, misunderstands, or fails to see. Visibility however, does not necessarily eradicate ambiguity. In fact, often the opposite is true. A hyphen asks us to see two or more forms as they are, articulated separately but attached to each other. It asks us to consider the singular in relation to a larger common space. Though that common space is particular, specific, and the attachment prescribed, the jolt of relating these forms to each other automatically opens the mind to new relations. If this can be hyphenated with that, what else can we join together? In a conversation with John Akomfrah, artist and writer Raimi Ghadamosi addresses the hyphen as an alternative to the idea of the hybrid, particularly in relation to identity.

…while the hyphen provides an alternative to the hybrid, it also points to the fact that you are what you attach yourself to. The hyphen in this case does become a form of attachment, rather than it being about ownership.  Perhaps then, the hyphen is infrastructure. Facilitating transition and wandering between spaces. Maybe the work of the hyphen is less about constructing new spaces between or across conceptual divides, but rather drawing the outline around a space we have already formed, within which we are already operating, and finding ways to connect them. This is a more performative, embodied hyphenation. It calls to mind Mierle Laderman Ukeles who traced such a space through the physical embodiment of the hyphen: the handshake. In her performance ‘Touch Sanitation’ (1979-80), Laderman Ukeles shook hands with 8,500 sanitation workers in New York City. Through this repeated act of hyphenating herself with others (maintenance workers whose work rendered them invisible) Ukeles traced a space of co-ness, common-ness. These are the spaces we trace when we open up our practices to others. When we look and think together. When we make the body porous, the text mobile, the site (un)common. Edouard Glissant attempts to convey the potential for opening up spaces of thinking through the humble hyphen when he unpacks in a note at the back of his book Poetics of Relation, the meaning of a hyphen in the French word for commonplace (lieu-commun).

Failing to attain this multiplicity, we attempt to reach it from the very environment of the language in which we express ourselves…we open the linguistic bastion and in tum multiply the language that we inhabit; we open stars into it: into a use-language that, by shortcutting, reassembles the language and scatters it. 5  So, what are artists if not hyphens? Constructing new ideas, re-examining old ones. Guiding them into view and inviting the audience to sit in that exposed common space
between concepts, where thinking happens; where feeling happens. Hyphenating in order to make legible certain ideas, words, identities. To make ourselves legible to ourselves. artist-curator, dancer-writer, artist-mother, non-binary. Co-a-lism. To make ourselves legible as a group, in the social realm, as a set of intersecting lives and ideas. Like train carriages gathering passengers. Room for the lone traveler as much as for the group. Space for the already-known and the yet-to-be-understood. A tiny horizon reaching out across a divide. Perhaps if we look closely, the hyphen itself is composed of a multitude of smaller hyphens. Adding, parsing, elucidating, equivocating, doubting, recalling, representing. Sharpening focus. Making space to breathe. The hyphen is time shared and time demanded. Time for thinking actively in the public square of ideas, living in the space in-between. Time to ask ‘do you see me?’ ‘do we understand yet?’ The hyphen as the social, the commons. The place of study, of improvising, of experimenting, of paying attention. It’s a tiny space to demand for ourselves. A small mark to concede. A linguistic footbridge, the grammatical notation that says ‘here we are, thinking together, in-between’. Co-a-lism.

1Harun Farocki, Parallel II, 2014. One-channel video installation, color, sound, 9 minutes.
2Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” Kontexts no. 6-7, 1975
3Simon Sheikh “None of the Above: From Hybridity to Hyphenation” Manifesta Journal #17 (2017)
4John Akomfrah / Raimi Ghadamosi “Raimi Ghadamosi Talks with John Akomfrah” Manifesta Journal #17 (2017)
5Edouard Glissant “Poetics of Relation” Trans. Betsy Wing. (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997) p. 226

Susie Quillinan makes texts, curatorial and study programming, and library experiences. As an independent curator and researcher with a focus on study, leisure, experimental pedagogies and artist-made infrastructures she applies artistic and curatorial practices to the development of models that provoke spaces for thinking, discussing and being at leisure. Quillinan is currently co-director of TeCA (Teoría, Cuidad y Arte), an organisation with a focus on creating a critical and collaborative space with relation to art, architecture and urbanism in Latin America; co-director of HAWAPI – an independent residency, exhibition & publication project based in Perú; and lead researcher of Plan Autopoiesis, a research project that looks at study and library experiments in art practice. She was co-curator of the second Transart Triennale (NY & Berlin) and a thesis advisor for Master’s students at Transart Institute. She has worked with artists on large scale projects for various museums, galleries and institutions including the Biennale di Venezia; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Lima (MAC) & Cornell University and has developed curatorial programming, editorial projects and study programmes in various locales including Lima, New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Melbourne and Mexico City.