ALL TALK | Alps

One of the arresting things about Alps is the hard-to-resolve fact that these performances of the dead are so conspicuously performances. By Louis Rogers

 

At a meeting held in a cavernous sports hall, the apparent leader of the attendees officially names their group the Alps. The name is picked for two reasons. First, it has no obvious relation to the work they carry out – impersonating the recently deceased for the family and friends they’ve left behind. Second, it has symbolic value: like the Alps, the leader’s idiosyncratic logic goes, the members of this group are irreplaceable yet could replace anyone. 

When the Alps go to work, they speak scripts dictated by their clients in dry monotones (it doesn’t seem to be a flair for acting that makes them irreplaceable). Participating in recreations of arguments, tender moments or sexual adventures, their flat speech has a double valency similar to that arcane name “Alps”: it teeters on the brink of meaninglessness but implies some symbolic significance (why have the clients chosen this moment, these words, to repeat?).

One of the arresting things about Alps is the hard-to-resolve fact that these performances of the dead are so conspicuously performances: they are repeated, amended, and, frankly, unconvincing. The words they involve – whether they semantically express sympathy, fear, anger or lust – sound performative in a way that draws attention to their own ineffectiveness: they are lugubrious, laboured, startlingly uninflected. 

The philosopher of language J.L. Austin suggested that “performative utterances” – speech that does things, rather than just describing them – couldn’t be judged as true or false, but rather as “happy” or “unhappy”, depending on whether it is surrounded by the right conditions. His definition makes allowance for the way “performativity” can sit at an exact opposite from effective action. The words characters speak in Alps performatively swing and miss for meaningfulness, and we are never quite able to determine their sincerity or intention, within or without demarcated performances. The picture it paints of human communication, and our relationships with the past, is an “unhappy” one to say the least. But denying its awful pall of truth would take some real theatrics.

 

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