Semiotics of the Schoolroom

by Jenny Wu


In the fall and winter of 2019, the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, where I lived, went to school, and occasionally taught, held an exhibition of the work of multidisciplinary artist Bethany Collins.[1]

At the entrance of the museum, I saw, to my right, Odyssey: 1852/1980, made up of two juxtaposed translations of the same passage from Book 13 of Homer’s Odyssey. The text on the left was the older of the two, translated in 1852 by Walter Leaf, a banker and classical scholar. The text on the right was the newer one (though many now postdate it), translated in 1980 by Walter Shewring, a profession of classics and poet. Two corresponding pages from each text were displayed side by side, inviting a close reading of one legible remark on each page: “what land is this? what people? what men are born here?” (Leaf); “What country, what land is this? Who are the people that dwell in it?” (Shewring). The rest of the text had been rubbed away—detritus, resembling eraser shavings, was preserved between the paper and the glass.

Odyssey: 1852 / 1980 by Bethany Collins. Graphite and toner on Somerset paper, 2018. Photo credit: Dusty Kessler.


The pages had been enlarged, hand-drawn, and subjected to a process of excavation and reburial. In a way, they serve as visual representations of historical memory. The texts, despite being mostly illegible, retained their recognizable academic form: paragraph breaks, footnotes, chapter headers. The juxtaposed pages brought back memories of early schooldays, when we would write with pencil and correct our mistakes with gummy erasers. The schoolroom was also where we acquired complex language and learned the art of comparison. No sooner had I been seduced by the familiar mise-en-page than the work began to unsettle me, by way of disquieting visuals—archaicness, illegibility, repetition—and made me question the very language I was taught to speak, how that language fed into larger, more pernicious systems.

Semiotics of the schoolroom: notebook, pen, pencil, eraser, mind, body.

The texts invited comparison—and scrutiny—as they played off and played up their differences. The word “country” appeared in the Shewring translation—bringing along the baggage of nationhood and borders—and yet the people were described as those who dwell,” a synonym for “live” that implied a kind of meager transience. The Leaf translation evoked “land” but not the act of surviving on land. Instead, the Leaf translation asked, “What men are born here?” (emphasis mine), implying a set of birthrights or a process of naturalization, wherein language plays a role not only in shaping communities but also in reinforcing values.

Standing in front of Odyssey: 1852/1980, I wondered about juxtaposition, and I wondered about legibility. In 2017, I had been introduced, by way of a visiting lecturer, to the poet Bhanu Kapil and her book Schizophrene, which takes on the form of fragments, made so because, supposedly, the poet threw the notebook containing a finished book manuscript into her garden and let nature wash away all the words other than what is left. The pages are mostly white space. The transcribed fragments are disconnected but revolve around the central themes of diaspora, migration, exile. The book begins with a brief foreword, titled “Passive Notes”: “For some years, I tried to write an epic on Partition and its trans-generational effects” (italics belong to the author).

Kapil’s book is a meditation on nationhood. From the section titled “Partition”:

            12:20 on the third day; notes from the glass coffin. Schizophrene.

            Because it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space.[2]

In the erasure of a failed epic—a genre that documents the heroic or mythic deeds of a people, in a given time and place—the act of storytelling—testifying to one’s physical coordinates in time and space—is both foregrounded and called into question by Kapil’s speaker. It is as though the transmission of the text, much like an oral tradition, is in large part given to chance. The survival of the whole relies on the survival of its parts and vice versa. This seems to have happened, to some degree, organically to Homer’s Odyssey over the years: dictation, transcription, translation, erasure. On what, then, does the longevity of an epic depend?

The transmission of epics nowadays is seen as obligatory. Collins’s work acknowledges this particular epic’s long pedagogical shelf-life while pointing out the subtle ways in which language shapes a political worldview. Languages themselves carry colonial baggage. The “English department” as we know it today started in India, at a time when Greek was what was studied in English universities. This was because what Greece was to England, England was to its colonies. Only when the British saw a fully functional English department running in their colony did they think of the vernacular English as something worthy of study. This is perhaps another of Collins’s implications, that literary studies have reinforced colonial hierarchies.

In this way, although Odyssey: 1852/1980 presents itself as an erasure, I believe that Collins’s process is also akin to that of an excavator, a person who finds what is hidden beneath the surface of language and brings it to light. But the interpretive responsibility is the viewer’s. In the viewer’s mind, the words must be excavated once again—reconstituted from the blank page, as Collins does by writing with graphite—to address their shortcomings.



[1] The exhibition, Chorus, was organized by Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Chief Curator of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), with Misa Jeffereis, Assistant Curator.

[2] Bhanu Kapil. Schizophrene. New York: Nightboat (2011). 41.

Jenny Wu is a writer, editor, and art historian. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BOMBThe Literary ReviewDenver QuarterlyRefract Journal, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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