John Berger

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John Berger

‘Language is a body, a living creature … and this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate’.

John Berger’s work has revolutionized the way we understand visual language. In this new book he writes about language itself, and how it relates to thought, art, song, storytelling and political discourse today. Also containing Berger’s own drawings, notes, memories and reflections on everything from Albert Camus to global capitalism, Confabulations takes us to what is ‘true, essential and urgent’.


Between water safety advisory bodies, there has recently been great dissention about what best to do when caught in a rip. The two most supported polemics assert that one should: A) swim parallel to the shore; B) relax into the current whilst signalling for help. After rigorous debate and research, it is largely accepted that neither of these strategies is infallible, leading to a hybrid general consensus. A strong, confident swimmer should attempt to swim parallel to the shore. Conversely, a more timid swimmer is best advised to stay afloat and signal distress.

Berger devoted his life to understanding the ways we create and consume signs, or ‘language’, in the broadest sense of the word. It is therefore no great surprise that the title of Confabulations is such a perfect a textual signifier for its content with wry, self-deprecating humour evident in its selection. True to multiple dictionary definitions of itself as a word-sign, ‘Confabulations’ acts as both a wide-ranging, imaginatively liberal investigation of language and culture, and a memoir embellished through Berger’s imaginative poetic readings and retellings of events.

As with many of the great semioticians, Berger emphasises that rather than a curtailment, its limitations are a vital part of both the morphing body of the ‘living creature’ that is language, and its ability to generate meaning. Like the space between the ice crystals of a cloud, or the gaps in the materiality of a fishing trap, language also resides in its own absences. The nonlinear structure of his text and its superficially disparate content supports and reflects this concept of a whole that functions as much through its own porosity as through the continuous thematic threads that expound upon the sociocultural conditioning of language.

With modulating inflection, Berger is at times intensely personal and poignant, at others ideologically critical. However a sub-tone hums throughout the text, one of dogged determination. Berger’s lifelong paramour (language, of course) has been co-opted by capitalism and its bureaucronies. It’s a difficult point to argue when even the most historically avant-garde testing grounds of language – scholarly investigation and the creative arts – are currently often governed by embedded financial interests. Obviously Berger believes language was worth fighting for. His assertions regarding how best to conduct this rescue mission might be likened to that of the water safety advisory committee. If you are a strong linguistic swimmer, assume a Bergerian mantle and resist the rip of capitalism’s flashcard acronymic prose. Centuries of linguistic sediment offer guidance in forging new paths. But if the tide feels overwhelming, insurmountable, impossibly dense, you can also wait it out. Just don’t forget to signal for help because, as a language mammal, the position you find yourself in is fundamentally f*&%#d.

Leanne Hermosilla works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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