The Edge of Words

Statement of purpose

This page discusses our intellectual statement of purpose.


Over the past fifty years, the cutting edge of humanities research has twice shifted decisively. A third shift is now under way. Like the first two, it has begun as a diffuse movement whose underlying principles are not always apparent; it has changed radically the direction of our research almost without us recognising it. It is time to look it in the face.

The first decisive shift happened in the 1960s. It was the great theoretical revolution which taught us that the world is not transparent to language. We discovered that we construct our reality in language; so to understand our reality, we have to look at how words work. There is indeed, we were told, nothing beyond the text; so we should look at texts.

Then, especially in the 1980s, came the application of that theoretical revolution to the understanding of how group identities (sexual, political, historical, class-based, ethnic, postcolonial) are constructed within the specificities of particular languages. This second revolution gave rise to a generally accepted new mode of rigorous critical thinking in word-based disciplines: one that interrogates language use in order to analyse the dynamics of power relations and identity construction, in their historical context.

However, those working in other media, especially music and the visual arts, as well as scientists, theologists, and psychoanalysts, were never entirely comfortable with that critical mode of thought. Gradually, they persuaded us that in fact, we construct our reality and our identities, not only in words, but always in words plus something else ... something else that resists reduction to the words of any language. Correspondingly, we have become less satisfied with looking at the internal workings of language; we want to see how language intersects with those other discourses that resist it, be they in different media (music, image, abstract art, movement), or in applications of language that contest our linguistic relativism (science and religion, especially). The expansion of translation studies has similarly thrown into relief the question of what there is between a source text and a target text, not contained within the words of either language.

The new cutting edge, therefore, is where our words meet ... something that maintains it exists before, outwith, or beyond the control of words. And working between many languages throws into relief what escapes them all.

Within the Division of European Languages and Cultures, Celtic and Scottish Studies, and the associated sections of Film Studies and Translation Studies, the University of Edinburgh has a truly extraordinary concentration and diversity of researchers working at every facet of that cutting edge. Word and image studies, word and music studies, and theories of intermediality; film studies, theatre studies, the relationship between written and unwritten cultures, between lyrics, songs, and dance; comparative literature, and the problematics of literary translation; trauma, censorship, psychoanalysis, and the question of what prevents, refuses or escapes expression in words; all these are fields in which colleagues in our two departments are world-class experts. What has been lacking to date is the forum for bringing them all together, to direct their minds, not to their individual fields (or languages), but to the wider and more essential question of the edge of words itself. That is what this project aims in the first place to provide. The results will also illuminate our interactions with other academics in Edinburgh and further afield, and with the wider public. After all, one thing is clear from our experience as academics and as teachers, and from our knowledge exchange activities: nothing fascinates our colleagues, our students, and our broader public more than what happens at the edge of words.