Second Letter Against the Language (To Sean Bonney)*

Lama El Khatib and Haytham El Wardany

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.

There are names which cannot be pronounced, yet no transaction occurs without them. These words of immense power circulate in an economy of self-silencing voices. If these words are screamed however, pulled from our throats and exploded with rage, they can rip our ears and destroy our hearing. Only then can we listen to the murmurs that have always surrounded us. The echoes of those who breathed their last in a word of power. Each death hosted in the crevice of a letter. T H E R E S A. Each space a life made possible again. A passage extending from the dead to the living, and from the living to the dead.


These inaudible murmurs never stop shrieking. They are not faint whispers of something obscure, but a familiar hum that suddenly splinters into a spirited, fragmented rhythm. You pointed to such “unheards” and danced to them for days on end at Berlin’s Landwehrkanal. A body of water whose life-ness is interrupted by death, historical and contemporary.

The Landwehrkanal was built in the nineteenth century along the Spree river, connecting its upper and lower parts which cross Berlin from east to west. It was built to facilitate the transportation of goods such as raw sugar, tobacco, and coffee coming into the city, goods carried by ships, across the seas, from the colonies. This canal is not the work of nature, but a product of the labor of many. During the construction of the canal, in the midst of the revolution of 1848, many workers were killed after protesting their working conditions. Months after the spark ignited by the  1918-19 revolution, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered and her body thrown in the canal. There are many other bodies there, omitted from history’s canon. Remains dissolved in the waters of the canal to this day and corpses whose enforced labor latched onto the goods transported here. Corpses as collateral to life in the city. This history of violence and resistance is what gives the canal its sounds, this is what prevents its silence.

But these sounds, and others like them, remain drowned by what you called that “auditory bleach” that flattens all. And their tune is replaced by an alien sound that renders the living helpless cadavers. The bleach tames the spectrum of hearing and, in turn, mutes speech and writing into language. A language made for the living with purchase only in the land of the dead. A currency alienating both worlds and keeping their timelines apart. And yet I think of you at the canal pronouncing words of power straight out into the water. “Theresa May.” “Stephan Crabb.” Are you longing for something to creep through the sounds you produce? Are you voicing those words to disturb your hearing? Are you practicing the magic Pasolini proposed, and transmuting those names into sheer anger?

There must be then within language or on its edges–in its words and alphabet–gaps or fissures from which to make space again for those inaudible sounds. A derived form of poetic labor to unwork the configurations of this lingual stuckness. The “long systematic derangement of the senses” is a project for the destruction of contemporary subjectivity. In 1967, Amiri Baraka wrote about a specific, electrifying sound. The Screamers. A short fiction on the famous real-life saxophonist Lynn Hope whose wailing riff extends beyond music as an incarnation of hatred, anger, and despair. A sound so ugly that it becomes “a basis for thought” in and of itself.  Hope repeats that sound over and over until it spills not only outside the confines of music, but of sound, of the city, shattering harmony, defying the police. Hope screams his “personal evaluation of the world” with a power that ruptures the very world it emerges from. Thinking with Baraka in 2011, you singled out Live in Seattle. The sound of one horn producing “a dimensional time-loop”, a Benjaminian monad of a past that was never realized. This potential energy from 1965 appears as eternally postponed and up for grabs. A counter-currency for today. I listened to b jenkins the other day. Moten’s vocals interrupt Lopez’s bass and Cleaver’s drums and out jumps a distorted signal of a choir of thinkers. Of friends. Theirs, mine, and yours. A choir of historical moments. “A phonic materialism of what appears not to be  phonic.”

The collective work of the past can only emerge when individual senses are honed to their fullest. Hope’s scream. The monadic horn. Moten’s “reading”. You repeatedly screamed out those words of power. Perhaps it is from within the voice that this operation of the senses can play out. Mladen Dolar’s intervention into Walter Benjamin’s famous Theses on the Concept of History proposes a similar undertaking. Dolar rewrote: “If the puppet called historical materialism is to win, it must enlist the services of the voice.” Neither mere deliverer of a word’s meaning nor pure aural stimulation, Dolar’s voice insists upon itself as a “lever of thought”. It operates between sound and language yet belongs to neither. “Voices are the texture of the social.” An operation that exists across space and time. Benjamin lends his voice to Dolar. Rimbaud to you. You to me. The voice never materializes fully into an aesthetic object nor does it completely disintegrate into abstract meaning-production. It is the point of failure of both. The failure of becoming all-encompassing. The blind spot of both meaning and form. Of politics and aesthetics. Of language in its two faces.

Vowels are the scream-to-come contained in every unpronounceable name. They are the moments in which voices come into contact with words. Not as a seamless unit but as a couple, mismatched. Can the articulations of vowels be pushed into this disjointedness? Can vowels force out sounds that pierce through time? “When a specific distortion in the vowels is achieved we can hear heaven.” A vowel is the sound of Hope’s horn that moves “with the elegance of something that is too ugly to describe.” A vowel is that moment in Live in Seattle, an asynchronous presence that only appears when the orbit of the past collides with the now. A vowel is Moten, Lopez, and Cleaver as an ensemble of many more than three. At this exact point, a vowel may deviate from its usual sound, and through the bleach our ears may perceive inaudible vibrations. Are these vibrations of the past or the future? Voices of the dead or the living? They mirror the cry of the factory owner in the last scene of Pasolini’s Theorem. When referencing it in your Letter against the Language, you wondered if he let it out as he entered the kingdom of the living or as he left it.


In late 2019 or early 2020 or yesterday, I left my flat in Neukölln to somewhere I no longer recall. An A4 sheet hung on a makeshift wall salvaged from the construction site next door. I barely noticed it. I got closer.

“for ‘I love you’ say fuck the police”

“for ‘alarm clock’ say fuck the police”

“for ‘make it new’ say fuck the police”

I ran my fingers across the recurring phrase, my hand unable to pull itself away from the words. Over and over, my fingers brushed the contours of your writing. Hours later, I finally made it to the meeting. I sat there with many others and to every question my hand responded reciting your lines. “How are you?”  My hand slowly picked up a glass of water and smashed it to the floor. “How was your day?” Another glass broken. “What are you doing?” My hand ripped the posters that covered the walls. 

Question after question, every part of that space was destroyed. And my hand kept going. Then, there was dust everywhere, and suddenly the air was sucked out of the room completely, forcing a vacuum that shattered all the windows near me. Everyone screamed. I laid there on the ground. Fires erupted. Blood. Moments later, I finally managed to stand myself up and run away. But somewhere inside that room my hand was still screaming.

The vowel called Sean or Bonney lived in Berlin in the second decade of the twenty-first century, studied magic, utopia, and weaponry, and died before that decade was over, leaving Berlin as he had first arrived to it… The exiled reach the city in waves – at every historical juncture. Fleeing defeat. Escaping prisons and trauma. Dead who do not want to bury their dead. You came here from London after the student protests there. You may have come to escape madness, rapid gentrification, or to flee from defeat and the daily poisons that crush the senses. Berlin is a map of hope and failure. A star cluster that arose by chance on the edge of an ancient black hole. But it is also a map of neo-fascism and capital. Down the street, the far-right torched cars and attacked shops and cafes. On Liebigstrasse, Rigaer Strasse, Weisestrasse the police violently enforced evictions. On Adalbertstrasse, an old musician committed suicide after the landlady expelled him. The lives of many pour out onto Berlin’s streets yet these streets have become machines for reproducing the labor of the senses, not for disturbing it.

In this city, vowels can die. And when vowels die, or get killed, they become stones. But stones can be a weapon too. Perhaps outdated, but still capable of damaging the large digestive tract that has swallowed everything whole. Stones can break the teeth of those who chew them, dry the saliva of those who swallow them, and upset the intestines of those who digest them. Stones will smash windows. Stones will light up when the power goes out. Cement blocks will close down roads. Pebbles will slip through the slots of ATMs and lodge there. As for fallen comets, they will vibrate with frequencies from stars that died long ago, waking us up in the darkness of our rooms. Us? Those who live at the heart of this deadly gut. Those with senses hijacked, whose eyes are blinded by the lights, whose ears are silenced by the soundtrack of the everyday, whose speech is impaired by the death of vowels. Those who walk with their senses exiled to a distant prison, or drenched in bleach.


You titled your last book Our Death. In the poem that carries the book’s title, you wrote, in the voice of an other, that you only care for things that fall unseen, those that remain without an image and without a name. You wrote that after you came across a dead man. It was something that could not be photographed. As you stood there, you pictured yourself amongst remnants of entire calendars smashed by the man’s death. What you saw break was the line that forms a boundary engraved in time and geography. A line not palpable to the existing sensory capacities of you and I. When you returned three hours later to the same place, you found nothing. Neither  the man nor the people that gathered around him. But you knew that his death, though no longer visible, would remain there forever.

Our Death. In order to say “our death”, we must first learn to say “we”.  But what is this “we” that gathers the living and the dead? The non-living with the living? What kind of “we” can bring together you and I without bleaching us into sameness? Where is this “we” that can accommodate all those exiled? The defeated? All things? All senses? What is the shape of this “we” that is neither an “I” in which everyone melts nor a negation of “I”? If there is a possibility for such a “we”, it is in language. You once wrote, “speak the language of the dead.” This is neither metaphor, nor an alternative language carried in words, but one that crawls through the wreckage of words.  And so “we” is not a word that can be easily placed upon the tongue of an “I”. Rather, it can be uttered only when the tongue is cut off and the “I” is cracked.

The “I” performs the basic function of a lyrical voice–a speaking subject. Frances Kruk proposes the “cracked I”. The cracks are the tiny figurative spaces in which a history of violence, even one not personally encountered, is processed, scrambled, and shot back out into the world. “The I is an other.” This history emerges through an uncertain “I” that is not able to express itself in a completely coherent language.

Only when “I” becomes such a vowel can we then say “we”. An untimely we. A “we” of those who tried and did not succeed. Those who resisted and did not win. Those who came from the future. We? 1662. 1968. 1771. 2020. 1830. 2011. 1850. “We” does not refer to a possible collectivity, but it is a practice of an impossible one that emerges from the collapse of the first. We are always an “ensemble of the living and the dead”. A collectivity that does not appear to our senses, but one that is barred, and that requires effort and labor, and a long and organized disturbance of the senses in order to emerge.

To say ”we” in the language of the dead, is to say that we, the living, are penetrated by the demands of the dead. It is to learn an impossible language. The impossible is the future dreamed by those who left, and which we, who came after them, could not yet achieve. The possible always involves the impossible. But we do not see it or hear it because our senses have been trained to disable it. Without another language, we cannot see or hear the labor of the dead.

The labor of the dead is working against being petrified into dead labor, or capital. Marx learned about dead labor from listening to the language of the non-living. If political economy, as proposed by Smith, is the language of the living, then the criticism of political economy is learning the language of the dead. Marx listened to the words of commodities, and learned from them the difference between living and dead labor. He learned from them the meaning of value, of surplus. Smith’s invisible hand of the market, which facilitates the accumulation of capital, is in Marx, the hand of an alienated and exploited laborer that works even in death.

The impossible language is precisely the language of all that drowns in bleach: senses, flesh, and bone. It is a defective language because of a history of violence and could therefore be the strongest weapon against it. A language that appears only as “all of our languages will sparkle and burn.”  It is a language of countless vowels killed and turned to stones. It is a language of countless vowels yet to be screamed.  It is a language of vowels, dead and alive. And one we must learn so that we can live together.

This text is indebted to many thinkers and writers. References to their works are not limited to what is mentioned in quotation marks, but also enter into the fabric of the text and its content. This is in conversation with Bonney’s own work. In Letter against the Firmament he writes:“Many of these poems, especially The Commons, and the first handful of Letters, contain a number of unattributed quotations. This is in the tradition of what in some areas of folk music is known as a ‘cuckoo song’, where the singer will intersperse their own lyrics alongside whatever fragments of other songs happen to come to mind, thus creating a tapestry or collage in which the ‘lyric I’ loses its privatied being, and instead becomes a collective, an oppositional collective, spreading backwards and forward through known and unknown time. These sources, just as in the old songs my work is inspired by, will remain anonymous. My ideal reader is one who would recognise some, if not most of them.”

Many thanks to all who contributed to its writing: Sean Bonney, Arthur Rimbaud, Karl Marx, Fred Moten, Walter Benjamin, Amiri Baraka, Frances Kruk, Aimé Césaire, Keston Sutherland, Rosa Luxemburg, Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa, Cedric Robinson, Mladen Dolar, Sylvia Wynter, CLR James, Octavia Butler, Kodwo Eshun, the SWRG, and many others.

* The title of this text picks up the thread from Sean Bonney’s Letter against the Language, which was published in his last book Our Death in 2019. Sean Bonney (1969-2019) is a ghost, or an anarchist poet, born and raised in Britain. He lived the last few years of his short life in Berlin, where he died in 2019. In his writings, Bonney is concerned with the return of the dead and with finding a literary form for the social antagonisms that have claimed their lives. He often recalls the legacy of anarchist philosophy and poetry in their broad sense. His long poem Letter against the Language records the arrival of the speaking “I” in a new city whose words it cannot utter, not because it cannot speak the new language, but because these words of power require an anti-magic to utter them. The poem evokes the specter of Pasolini who writes in one of his last texts that those very inexpressible words are names. The “names of those responsible for the massacres.” This new city that the poem”s “I” arrives to is the same city in which the speaking subject of this text writes. A speaking subject, a writer and another, have all arrived to this city at different times, at different historical moments, and for different reasons. Berlin, which over time has become a city of many ghosts fleeing defeat and the impossibility of life. This text could not have been written in any other city, as the writers of the text first became acquainted with Sean Bonney’s poetry after his death. Much of what is contained in this text is an attempt to pick up the thread of writing from his texts, in the hope of preserving the weak thread that connects the future of the living to the past of the dead.