Sexuality Policy Watch

Shibboleth: lethal cracks

By Sonia Corrêa

Searching for works of art that would reflect the dystopian state of world affairs in January 2017, I recalled walking over the (already filled) crack wide opened by Doris Salcedo, in 2007, on the ground floor of the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern to create Shibboleth. Every time I crossed the hall I avoided stepping on the crack because it felt like inflicting pain on a barely healed scar. I had seen few Salcedo’s works before,  but had never heard of Shibboleth.

Violence, forced limits and drastic separations are central to Salcedo’s aesthetic investigations, inspired by decades of armed conflict in Colombia, her country of origin. In January 2017, I saw Shibboleth also dialoguing with the 2010’s world landscape. At that point in time, having spent three months in London I thought of  borders: the new walls being  built, the old open borders being closed, to which the term shibboleth itself  so eloquently, because it is:

‘a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or a sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly’. The Old Testament relates that the Ephraimites were trying to cross the river Jordan when they were caught by their sworn enemies the Gileadites, who forced them all to say the word “shibboleth”. Since the unfortunate Ephraimites’ dialect did not include the sound “sh”, this allowed the Gileadites to identify and slaughter large numbers of Ephraimites. So a shibboleth is “a token of power: the power to judge and kill (from  a Jon Henley’s article) 

Salcedo’s metaphor sharply illuminates the lethality of state violence at borders. It reminds us that this  violence is ingrained in the Biblical narrative so often conjured these days, in my country, as elswhere, as the ‘only trustful source of truth and justice’. In physically evokes frontiers converted into sudden cracks. Shibboleth speaks directly to the troubling intersections between gender, sexuality and border control, as an analogy can be made between this biblical linguistic standard and the tests being applied to Muslim migrants in Europe to measure their attitudes in relation to women’s and LGBT rights, as a criteria for country admission. In January, 2017, when I wrote this note for the first time, the same assumption had been enshrined in the text of the Executive Order issued by the Trump administration to close the US borders. [1]

However, the Shibbolet metaphor is polysemic. In October, 2018, it contundently evokes the deep political polarization of Brazilian society, which escalated to previously unseen levels in the presidential election. It speaks to the sudden emergence of internal cracks that erode the ability of persons to communicate with each other, that propel new forms violence and, most principally, pervade ordinary life with political suspicion and fear. In this fractured semiosphere, any political utterance can be as lethal a Shibboleth.[2]

To learn more about Shibboleth check the Tate Modern and Khana Academy websites.

To learn more about Doris Salcedo’s work.



[1] See, Dhawan, Nikita “Homonationalism and State-phobia: The post-colonial predicament of queering modernity. In Maria Amelia Viteri and Manuela Picq (ed) Queering Paradigms V- Queering Narratives of Modernity. Peter Lang, Oxford (2015). The text of the Executive order reads as follows: … In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation

[2] Semiosphere is the concept crafted by the Estonian semiotician Yuri Lotman in the 1980s  to portray the exchnage of signs emitted by organisms in their environment.

Skip to content