“Just Words”

In the summer of 2016, the artist Paul Ramirez Jonas mounted Public Trust, an interactive artwork hinging on promises made by participants (and circulated via billboard, rubbing, photo, and social media), at three sites in Boston. For the ensuing book, Paul Ramirez Jonas: Public Trust (APC, 2017), I wrote an account of the work—a report on the experiences of the work by others, a reflection on my efforts to come up with a satisfactory oath, an essay on the relationship between language and reality in the so-called post-truth era.

The book can be purchased here, and the essay can be read in full below.

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“Just Words”

1.

The billboard reads: MONDAY WILL BE SUNNY. JAPAN PLEDGES TO SPEND $30B IN AFRICA. M JAGGER VOWS TO SUPPORT HIS 8TH CHILD. I PROMISE NOT TO BE A SILENT BYSTANDER. THERE WILL BE A WAR ON GOLD. NEW 5G TECHNOLOGY WILL SPEED UP PHONES. The statements are formed by black plastic letters slotted into thirteen tracks, like the weekly special at a suburban hamburger shop. Behind the sixteen-foot-tall billboard stands the public library’s Dudley branch, an imposing pile of concrete blocks topped by a solitary ribbon of opaque windows. To the right is a folding table scattered with white letters, a silver call bell, an assortment of books, a piggy bank, an eggshell-colored rock, and an antique flip clock.

The day is—as tomorrow promises to be—sunny. A couple of women in black shades and matching gray T-shirts hang out by a three-paneled display structure, which is divided into quadrilaterals by red metal tubes. Banners emblazoned with PUBLIC and TRUST crown adjacent panels, and the third is dominated by a blackboard with an invitation to passersby: JOIN THE CONVERSATION. Looking up at the billboard, I wonder what it will be like—if this is what it is like—for language to nearly be emptied of meaning, and reality to subsequently be wrecked. Public pledges fail to reveal anything about the intentions of the speaker or provoke any expectations on the part of the audience. “We will build a great wall along the southern border, and Mexico will pay for the wall.”

A middle-aged Puerto Rican man with a scraggly goatee and skewed eyeglasses rides his bicycle past the women, who cheerfully ask, “Would you like to make a promise?” He flashes a noncommittal grin and keeps pedaling back and forth beneath a cluster of scruffy trees. Eventually he stops, but instead of responding to the invitation he brags about his basketball skills and evaluates the shelters and squats where he’s recently slept. He seems not to care why the young white women are in Roxbury: 57 percent African American, 27 percent Latino; 36 percent poverty rate; 42 percent child poverty rate; one-third of adults lacking a high school diploma.

They tell him anyway: Artist Paul Ramirez Jonas’s work, Public Trust, encourages locals to sit down with a stranger, make a promise, and consider how—or if—our words guarantee our actions and bind us together. Public Trust is organized by a local nonprofit called Now and There, and after a week in Dudley Square it’ll move to Kendall Center in Cambridge, then Copley Square. “So, would you like to make a promise?”

The man shrugs and points to the nearby Ferdinand Furniture building, where, he theorizes, the National Security Agency has set up shop. The local landmark, erected in the 1880s but dilapidated since the neighborhood of Roxbury was emptied of white residents in the 1970s, has just been renovated, renamed, made to house a tax-payer-funded business incubator, and promoted as the beachhead for Boston’s next “innovation district.” The custom here is to discuss improvements, he snarls, for years and years and years, then trade them for new blueprints meant to spur the careers of junior politicians. He suspects that the NSA is developing drones, camouflaged as birds and stars, for urban reconnaissance and crime control. He wants to know: Haven’t we got enough eyes on us?

2.
Silvi, a twenty-nine-year-old artist with electric brown eyes, tracks a black man in his mid-thirties as he exits the bus station across the street and strides toward the plaza. He scans the installation, his eyes shifting from the billboard to the informational display to the women clutching clipboards and cell phones. Silvi calls out to him, Hi! Are you interested in making a promise today? Her voice is chirpy but declamatory. The man halts, then pivots toward her.

Silvi’s elbows are planted on the table, her hands clasped above the rows of letters, and the sun shines on the tattoos that score her forearms. The man, who introduces himself as Anthony, wears a black polo shirt with the Greyhound logo on the breast and blocky glasses.

What are you all doing? he asks.

We’re collecting promises from citizens like yourself, she says. I’m what we’re calling an ambassador—not a title I’m in love with.

Huh. Why’s this happening?

Well . . . at this point, we don’t know who to trust, right? She motions toward the billboard, the pledges of the day. We’re asking if, by making promises—to ourselves, to friends, family, neighbors—we can help restore trust, and our belief in words.

Anthony impassively nods his head, which seems to indicate that he accepts but is not entirely taken with this proposition. But Silvi has already begun to rearrange the letters on the table. She dismantles the previous promise and explains how his words will be preserved in a rubbing: one copy will be posted on the red-rimmed display structure, the other will be his to keep—an artwork, in an edition of two. Anthony follows her fingers as they flit across the board. As she speaks, she occasionally lifts her head, brushes back her hair to reveal dime-sized plugs pinned through her lobes.

Silvi asks, without stilling her hands, if Anthony works at Greyhound, and he replies that he’s been in customer service and baggage for six years.

Do you like it?

Anthony chuckles with amusement at the notion of feeling passionate about Greyhound. Yeah, it gets a little repetitive, but they treat me well.

OK, are you ready?

Anthony rolls his eyes back and meditates for a few seconds. Then he calmly states: I promise always to progress.

What a promise! Silvi exclaims. She praises his attitude. I always tell myself: Whatever went wrong yesterday, that’s yesterday—that’s not today. She shows Anthony one of her tattoos, which says PMA: Positive Mental Attitude. You watch the news and it’s like the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, you know?
I’ve just got to instill positivity in my friends and in my children, Anthony says. Silvi rhythmically nods her head as she assembles the promise. Every few seconds she looks into his porcelain pupils, fixes him to his seat. When you’ve got children, you become the center of the universe. They follow you wherever you go, whatever you do. Even when they’re not around you feel their eyes on you. I try to think about this every time I make a decision, every time I open my mouth. I push them forward by pushing myself forward.

Anthony examines the promise, nods approvingly, and tells Silvi that he’d like to consecrate his words with a handshake. I give you my word. Silvi drops a piece of drawing paper over the table and Anthony presses his index fingers against the top two corners. He monitors her hand as she makes the rubbing, as impressions of the letters appear.

3.

What, I ask myself, after Anthony has gone to pick up his son and daughter from school, was exceptional about his promise? At a certain point, by some obscure mechanism, Anthony seemed to have overcome his doubts, submitted to Public Trust’s protocols, and become highly attuned to the manner and meaning of his speech. Or perhaps I was more affected than him? I couldn’t pinpoint what, if anything, had actually happened. I could only recall facial expressions and tonal shifts, the subtle change from stranger to intimate, the uptick in deliberateness that signals awareness of each word—all of which I had observed to some degree during nearly every promise.

The same five words, I realize, are bound to mean something dramatically different to each person who pronounces them. Whatever distinguishes a promise—especially a promise having to do with how to live one’s life—is unlikely to be apparent to onlookers. This makes the content of the promise somewhat peripheral: Public Trust isn’t out to record and enforce contracts, but rather to stir in participants a sense of the gravity of speech and the ways in which we entrust ourselves to each other. Some of these are mundane and go unnoticed, some are remarkable and attended by much ceremony, hand-shaking, and back-patting. Residents of Roxbury might be reminded of instances of the latter, in which government officials pledged to make up for decades of neglect, alleviate poverty, eliminate blight, and so on. They might be reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. saying, in 1965, “The vision of the New Boston must extend into the heart of Roxbury. Boston must become a testing ground for the ideal of freedom.” They might be reminded of the city’s campaign, begun in 1974, to desegregate schools by sending children from Roxbury to South Boston, which was predominantly Irish, and they might remember how protestors met buses with racial epithets and rocks, how the students huddled beneath seats and guarded their heads against shards of glass as the drivers sped away in retreat, how white families fled for the suburbs. They might be reminded of Mayor Marty Walsh’s recent exhortation to “give people in Dudley the chance to understand what the tech and innovation economy can be for them.”

I’m told by the organizers of Public Trust that steps have been taken in the preceding months to involve residents in the formulation of the project (as opposed to simply requesting that they show up), and to draw a line between this “conversation about the value of words” and “art,” which might be identified as the vanguard of gentrification. Conversations have transpired with local activists, educators, politicians, and ministers, and posters have been dropped at neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants, whose entryways are cluttered with pamphlets (“Remove all elected officials who justify racist police terror”), broadsheets (“Teachers try to make do with fewer staff, supplies”), business cards (“Haroon Rashid, author of My Cultural Birthrights and Other Black Gold”), and flyers (“Grown Folks Saturday’s with DJ Christophlex”).

Throughout the day, as promises are extracted from curious pedestrians, inscribed on the tabletop board, transmitted to the billboard, and published on Twitter and Instagram, I wonder what promise I’ll make, whether I’ll remain a notebook-toting observer, whether declining to participate will be interpreted as a judgment of the project rather than an admission of my inability to commit to any single statement. I’ve been ruminating for weeks, auditing my behavior and ambitions, replaying arguments and scanning newspaper headlines, compiling kernels of pledges, then trying out phrases at my desk and on the subway. I’ve not made much progress. I’ve thought about what I can control in my own life, and to whom I’m accountable—myself, my wife, my newborn son, my relatives (alive and dead), my friends, my colleagues—and how much I’d like for the domain in which my actions matter to encompass many more people, for accountability to convincingly extend to a community, a city, a society. At the same time, this notion seems ridiculous and likely to lead to a vague promise to make a difference—or, worse, to supply me with an excuse not to consider how to act in the world that I actually inhabit.

Now I’m not only beset by indecision but acutely aware of how my promise might be interpreted by passersby: how the speech of a thirty-three-year-old white man, a writer transported from New York to Dudley Square for the afternoon to observe the effects of public art on locals, might address Roxbury residents, who are known to him only through newspaper articles and demographic data reviewed during his train ride. As I walk around the neighborhood, I mull over a promise I’d sketched about remedying the inequalities of parenting. Couldn’t this be interpreted as chastising inattentive fathers? Easy for me to talk about addressing inequality within my domestic sphere, given the amount of time I could spend cleaning, cooking, and running errands instead of drinking with friends, going to museums, and seeking Trump’s roots in diaries about the language of Nazism.

What kind of promise would satisfy the mandate for sincerity and self-expression without flagging the presence of a patronizing interloper? I’ve been so intent on crafting a perfectly balanced representation of myself that I’ve failed to consider the word limit, which all my drafts exceed. (I promise to write shorter sentences.) Returning to the library, I watch a few rounds of promises, and I consider appropriating the words of previous participants, which might be as genuine for me as for them. But as I rehearse the most anodyne formulations, I recognize, with regret, the degree to which they’re animated by quotidian struggles that are foreign to me: I promise to be big, brave, and bold. I will work less and spend more time with my family. I promise to take care of my kids. I promise to be patient.

4.

To make this kind of promise in public seems to mandate an alignment of what one says and who one is. Yet the language I employ might serve to showcase a persona as much as to betray my fundamental characteristics as an individual. How often does a promise have more to do with simulation than authentication? But that doesn’t mean the promise is false: Perhaps, in making a promise, I’m saying that I’ll become someone different and pretending to be someone different, or perhaps I’m forging a self—however that may be a performance or a necessary fiction—through this ancient act.

Philosopher J. L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words (1962), observes that we all contain innumerable contradictions, and may have complex (and obscure) motivations for representing ourselves in a particular way. But we nevertheless are bound by speech, and even come into being through speech. Austin attended to the nuances of everyday speech at a time when American philosophy departments were in thrall to logical positivism, and statements were typically judged as demonstrably true or false, and otherwise meaningless—a calculus that was applied to manifold areas of life, to the detriment of ambiguity, much less poetry. Austin’s influential book describes the uses and social nature of ordinary language, and distinguishes between statements that describe the world or deliver information about the psychology of the speaker and those that produce an actual effect. Chief among the latter, which he dubs “performative utterances,” are promises.

Austin’s analysis of the promise begins with the famous line from Euripides’s Hippolytus: “My tongue swore to, but my mind is not on oath / my mind is unsworn.” Hippolytus, the protagonist, is announcing that he’ll renege on a vow to keep a secret, and that he never actually meant what he said. But Austin, after mulling the contradictions and conflicts that often attend the making of a promise, concludes that tongue can’t be divorced from mind. “Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond.” A promise can be made in bad faith or voided, but the speaker has nevertheless performed the act. And when bonds are broken, we fault the speaker but do not conclude that she did not promise after all, or that the entire category of utterance is a sham.

Many have objected to Austin’s claims, especially to his confidence that a performative utterance will succeed—that words will translate into action—under the right conditions: the proper context, compliance with agreed-upon protocols, and the transparency of the speaker’s intentions. Given the promiscuity of language, the fact that we’re always in the process of performing or fabricating ourselves, etc., how can Austin believe that a promise will mean the same thing to the speaker and whomever is listening, much less have the intended effect? If I stand in front of the Dudley library and state, with my hand on a Bible or Jupiter Stone, and promise to be a better person this year, will the context of my statement and the underlying intention be apparent to passersby—and in approximately the same way to every passerby? Isn’t the promise likely to mean something different to nearly everyone who says or hears it?

Obviously, we can’t precisely discern who is speaking and what is being said. Yet if we look at how words function in our daily lives, we find that they typically do their work, to forge bonds, even if our intentions remain somewhat muddled.

Or, at least, they used to. Rather than harangue people about the degradation of language—as if they aren’t aware that our age is supremely apocalyptic, unimaginable to our political progenitors, repugnant to our grandparents—Public Trust establishes a realm, however minimal and ephemeral, in which the status of words is assured. Yet the artwork also acts as a reminder of the tragic aspect of the promise, which has to do with the likelihood of what Austin calls “misfire,” in which the bond formed by words is breached. This occurs because a promise is hollow or because of elements beyond our control, despite our best intentions. Knowing that misfire is unavoidable might make us additionally skeptical of individual promises, even if we maintain faith in the promise as an utterance; or it might make us accept the impossibility of truly and clearly meaning what we say and vanquishing ambiguity—which to Austin is the basis for the credibility of the promise.

To philosopher Stanley Cavell, who was mentored by Austin, this realization is at once liberating and humbling, as it presents “the human being as a field of vulnerability whose actions and words imply wider consequences and effects and results—if narrower meaning—than we should be answerable for.” If we’re to be less philosophically inclined, and more attentive to the problems of the day, we might simply ask: Is it worse to always and forever be tethered to your words and deeds (and the body from which they emanate), or to live in a world in which sincerity has no currency?

5.

“I am your voice”—somehow this works as an offer of representation and not an act of appropriation. Really, there is nothing but the voice, which is sturdy enough to inspire credence, malleable enough to incorporate millions. Like “We the people.” We, like the colonists, are unsure of who we are (or who we purport to be) when we speak, when we emit texts and images from online accounts, when we grasp for intentions, sincerity, context, protocols. So we seek the authentic voice, the one that truly addresses us, amid the PR-flacked politicians who flail for a message (much less a self) that coheres and resonates across disparate platforms and despite self-sorting mechanisms. That voice may be a promise to be a voice. That voice may refuse to be photographed from behind, below, or either side.

And who is the “I,” if there is an “I”? I ask because Trump’s coup seems to be to turn himself into a plausible vessel for the aspirations and resentments of working-class Americans without anyone (including ex-wives, including himself) being able to confidently say what constitutes “him.” I can’t get my head around this; I guess that it betrays an epochal appreciation for the self as a constant and consistent performance. Trump seems to have vacuum-packed and frozen much of his psychology in order to cultivate his solitary role: the metropolitan avatar of success, as constructed by a child from Playboy ads and Howard Hughes biopics. He has an act, and he typically nails it (whereas Clinton toggles between characters, and often delivers underwhelming performances). “I think I’m pretty constant,” he said in a 2014 interview. “I actually think I’m pretty constant. . . . I guess I’m a performer, but I don’t think of myself as a performer. . . . I’ve always gotten much more publicity than anyone else, and I don’t have PR agents.”

Trump performs without seeming or knowing to perform. Which is to say that, as a product of our media environment, he’s the real thing. He’s always uttering the essential promise of our era: I am who I say I am. I click to confirm that I’m the subject of my expressions and transactions, to reinforce the inseparability of my accounts, the records associated with them, and myself. From the incessant affirmation of identity, which is built less from immutable facts than the labor of constructing a self to be consumed by others, and read by machines, countless promises flow (especially via dating apps). What kind of bonds do they form, compared to the promises made by Roxbury residents in the plaza by the library? Who are the people swearing on the Jupiter Stone in relation to the data-constellations that occupy their accounts? How do their voices seek to be in concert, if not by draining into @realDonaldTrump?

I recall how Austin and his fellow ordinary-language philosophers, who were conditioned by the true–false binarism of logical positivism, encountered the most quotidian exchanges as if they were Shakespeare sonnets, if not alien verses, rich with ambiguity and possibility. If Public Trust suddenly makes us regard our own language as strange, powerful, and rudimentary to our understanding of ourselves as humans who’ve chosen to create a world with other humans, the ambassadors provide no primer on the history of speech and politics. Perhaps none is needed, given the stirring in participants of a sense of connection to the ancient world via the Jupiter Stone, not to mention Boston’s neoclassical glut and the fetish made by pundits of comparisons to the Greeks. We hold this truth to be self-evident: that Western politics is rooted in the oath, which “links the speaker to his speech and, at the same time, words to reality,” as philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes in The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (2010).

But Agamben claims that the oath—a species of promise that involves a divine witness—actually precedes politics, and speaks to the entwinement of religion and law, which both hinge on the “truth and efficacy of language.” He views the gods—especially the Christian deity—as machines for the production and maintenance of oaths, given that their words have an intrinsic connection to reality: Gods never misfire, always mean what they say, and can never be doubted.

In the ancient world, the oath was tied to the imitation of divine speech. This effort was, of course, faulty, and many ancient authors warned of the dire consequences of violating promises, reneging on oral contracts. The point of the oath, in creating a ritual out of speech—complete with protocols and accoutrements that shuttle the speaker into a sacred realm—was not so much to banish lies as to protect against the inevitability of falsehood, which might owe to the treachery of the speaker or poor weather. The speaker had to make a public declaration, invoke a divine witness (to affirm the bond between words and reality), and also level a curse against perjury (to acknowledge that violating the oath is tantamount to desecrating the names of the gods). This was the case regardless of how banal the oath, which is to say that “the very signifying force of language” was always at stake.

Agamben offers a philologist’s account of the post-truth era: Humans are defined—distinguished from beasts—by their possession of language, and civilization is founded on the ties between what we say and what we do. With those ties severed, we’ve entered into a postlapsarian state, characterized by blasphemy, in which individuals no longer have the means to forge political associations. We’re unmoored from one another and alienated from ourselves. We can no longer distinguish between human and animal, between political life and biological existence. Speech becomes vanity and law becomes an instrument for the raw assertion of power.

Without faith in the meaning of words, why would people entrust themselves, their families, their property, their freedoms, and their security to one another, merely on the basis of handshakes and promises and signed pieces of paper? The emblematic scene in Agamben’s book is of ancient Greek town criers, in advance of each assembly, cursing anyone who betrays the will of the people. (Like the oath, the curse acts as a “sacrament of power,” a sign of submission to divinity and law.) I couldn’t read this passage without yearning to see the same performance precede every session of Congress, without imagining hundreds of heads hung low in shame—and while recognizing how easily the gesture could be solemnly performed and instantly deposited into the antique dustbin reserved for venerable and nugatory traditions, e.g., the oath of office. Which suggests that we may still subscribe to the notion that the cornerstone of government is belief in the correspondence between language and action, but we may also call this hopeless idealism.

6.

I visit Public Trust again on September 16 at Copley Square, which symbolizes the transformation—and promotion—of Boston as a progressive mecca after the Civil War (“O happy town beside the sea,” Emerson rhapsodized, “Whose roads lead everywhere to all.”). The sky is perfectly clear and every thirty seconds, as if on a timer, a bracing breeze attenuates the sun’s warmth. I take Boston’s clogged commercial artery, Boylston Street, where tourists decked out in Red Sox and/or Patriots and/or Harvard apparel cycle between upscale chains and oyster-bar terraces. Outside the Apple store, which is about to unload the first shipment of iPhone 7s, dozens of people stand in a serpentine line and punch at their soon-to-be-artifactual devices.

Approaching the square, I see the puddingstone facade of Old South Church and the granite cylinders of Trinity Church. The Fairmont hotel, a Beaux-Arts cruise ship, is parked between them, and I. M. Pei’s glass-sheathed Hancock Tower hogs the air rights above. A farmers’ market bounds the pristine plot of grass on three sides, and as I walk toward Trinity Church I pass booths stocked with straw baskets and pine boxes bearing distinctive varieties of tomato, potato, pepper, and eggplant, each with a charming name. The vendors smile, chat, and snack on each other’s vegan baked goods, smoked fish, cured meats, herbed goat cheeses, and other picturesque and costly foods. People of all ages, races, and, I assume, religious and political persuasions lounge in the grass; they occasionally hoist iPhones and pan from one feature to the next, unsure of which to capture. Finally I see the Public Trust billboard on the eastern edge of the yard, facing the library, bearing the day’s promises: WINTER WILL BE COLDER. SECURITY PROTOCOL PROMISES TRUST. “I WILL BE VOTING” EDWARD SNOWDEN. I COMMIT TO MEDITATE EVERY DAY. DEVELOPERS PROMISE TO KEEP ORANGE DINOSAUR. GM COMMITS TO 100% RENEWABLES BY 2050.

The final promise is to be logged on the next day, and there’s a twenty-minute wait for a spot at one of the two tables on either side of the billboard. The ambassadors tasked with cajoling passersby are idle, as hardly anyone needs enticement beyond the presence of two long lines. At Dudley Square, conversations often began with a pedestrian posing a concern, which an ambassador attempted to assuage (and turn into a reason for the pedestrian to participate). How many promises had to be harvested from the neighborhood in order for the project to succeed? What do I get out of these conversations? What do you get, what does the artist get? Who and where is the artist? Here there seems to be no skepticism. Everyone has assumed that the project is innocuous, or at least unlikely to be personally exploitative, and for most nothing more is at stake. The ambassadors are at once buoyant and methodical, more like overburdened notaries than cautious interlopers.

I sit at one of the tables as Julia, an unassuming painter in her late twenties, quizzes Yasmine, an ebullient and slightly skittish young woman from Saudi Arabia, about her promise. Yasmine, who has the glinting brown eyes and glossy cheeks of a newborn, blinks and scratches at the top of her hijab, begins and abandons sentences. She speaks deliberately, and frequently corrects her pronunciation and questions her word choice, grasps for a more fitting expression, as if practicing for an oral exam. She is, she says, devoted to learning and wants never to stop, which is why she’s studying English in Boston. She wants to make a difference in her country, which is why she plans to return to Jeddah to pursue a career in international law. She knows from experience, and from what her parents have told her, that to accomplish her goals will be challenging, so she has to be persistent.

As Yasmine wonders how to incorporate all her concerns and ambitions into a perfectly characteristic promise, Julia gently reminds her of the limited amount of space on the board. Flustered, she strings together words—keep learning, make a difference, accomplish goals—until Julia makes a suggestion: I promise to keep learning . . . and never to give up. Yasmine contorts her lips, bows her head, murmurs the line several times, then grins and glances up at the ambassador. I promise to keep learning and don’t give up, she says. After the rephrased promise has been assembled on the board, she consecrates it by swearing on the Koran as well as dousing her head with water from the Ganges. She winces and beams as the water flows down her hijab and onto her brow.

Before standing up, Yasmine snaps a picture of the ambassador, then feebly asks, as if embarrassed to have forgotten, What company do you work for? Julia replies, Huh? Yasmine asks again, What company? Julia, confused, recites the script, but in the past tense: You’ve just participated in Public Trust, an artwork that asks us to consider the relationship between words and actions, the contracts we make with ourselves and others, organized by Paul Ramirez Jonas. Ah, Yasmine says. She nods, smiles, and thanks the ambassador repeatedly, but she seems nonplussed, as if there is nothing she can do with this information.

7.

As the sun drops behind the horizon, Trinity Church’s granite is tinted auburn. I gaze across the square at the library’s chain of window arches and bust of Minerva, goddess of wisdom. The facade seems like a warped reflection of the billboard: one is incised with the names of good and great men who ennobled the masses, the other looks like the marquee of a chintzy drive-in, with the names of B-movies supplanted by sincere and perfunctory and risible pledges. The promises of our epoch ricochet against those of Boston circa 1895, which reprise those of 1865 and 1776 and 400 BC. The present lampoons the past, and vice versa. In my mind, the library’s Parthenon-style lobby, which teems with marble extracted from Sienna, Tunisia, Knoxville, Levanto, and other exotic locales, morphs into an interiors emporium with a specialty in luxury wet rooms, then a prized Trump Tower penthouse.

I look back at Yasmine, who’s been lingering by the table, chatting with a group of Egyptian twentysomethings who followed her in line, lounging on the lawn, photographing the procession of promise-makers from table to billboard. Elsewhere, students from the Midwest sip cold-pressed juices on benches, tourists from Pakistan consult guidebooks and point to landmarks, suburbanites balance bulging shopping bags, pinstriped financiers stride across the plaza with briefcases wagging. The idyllic scene could have been staged by a PR firm hired to burnish Boston’s cosmopolitan image, which may be why it seems so fragile, artificial, as if each carefree smile is telegraphing dramatic irony.

I realize that Yasmine, like most people, might find Public Trust, as a brand of artwork, to be incomprehensible on the level of inputs and outputs. We’re used to trading personal information and innermost thoughts for the feeling of belonging, entertainment, convenience, discounted merchandise, and, eventually, the abolition of disease and colonization of Mars. We’re used to leasing our eyeballs, monetizing our dissent, and submitting to nonstop surveillance. We’re less and less used to interactions that are designed only to be impressed on our memory, to be conjured with the expression of a phrase—I promise—rather than retrieved with the click of a button or the triggering of an algorithm (but also published to Instagram and Twitter, circulation being the means by which bonds are formed between speaker and addressee, and a metric of the success of any public art project).

How strange that the transformative power of language might elude us even in an open-air museum placarded by the pledges of the founders, who conjured the nation via the Constitution, which circulated from town to town, assimilating readers into the first-person plural of “We the people,” remaking colonists as citizens, forging a republic from those who previously had defined themselves by homeland, residence, trade, religion, holdings of land and slaves. On the other hand, the perennial problem of sincerity and transparency, voiced by John Adams: “A Notion prevails among all Parties that it is politest and genteelest to be on the Side of Administration, that the better Sort, the Wiser Few, are on one Side; and that the Multitude, the Vulgar, the Herd, the Rabble, the Mob only are on the other.”

A trio of women storms the table being helmed by Silvi. Two are college-age and one is in her forties, but seems to be playing the role of a fellow millennial. One of the younger women, a brunette wearing the top two-thirds of a sprayed-on baseball jersey, complains, with faux exasperation, that they’ve been waiting approximately forever, which elicits squeals—as does nearly every subsequent statement.

Who’s voting for Edward Snowden? What’s with the orange dinosaur? Which one of us is going first?

At the urging of her friends, the older woman sits down. Her freshly cropped and dyed hair contrasts with her functional wardrobe of denim overalls and a black hoodie. The third woman, who is tall with an avian mien, reveals that they’re all in the same drawing class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and their professor sent them to Public Trust as an assignment. I’m going back to school, the older woman explains, to cheers and applause; I’m starting over again, doing what I always wanted.

When Silvi asks if she’s thought of her promise, the older woman begs her friends for help.

How about the one we were talking about earlier, Steph?

Oh, yeah, that was a good one, trills the woman in the jersey.

I don’t know . . .

The millennials look down expectantly. Steph clears her throat and, with mock solemnity, announces, I promise to keep masturbating. An eruption of high-pitched giggling ensues.

Steph turns and looks at Silvi, who is impassive. That’s too silly, I know, I know.

Silvi suggests to the millennials that they sit down and operate as a team. She locks eyes with Steph and asks what she feels she owes to herself, what she owes to others, what kind of promise might guarantee that she makes good on these debts. She lists pledges made in the past half hour and runs through the verification process: spell out the promise on the table, swear on one of these objects, make a charcoal rubbing, transfer to the billboard, pose for a photo.

After joking, stammering, and deflecting for a minute, Steph’s face tightens. She seems to seal herself off from the world beyond the table. The millennials, processing the message, become quiet and observant. Honesty, she says, is very important to me. I’ve been clean for twenty years, but for six years, when I was drinking—everything fell apart, as tends to happen. I wasn’t living how I wanted to live, and the worst thing was that my mother was there and saw—or at least knew—everything. I thought—I was always thinking—about how honest my mother was, and I wondered if I could be like that someday. At the time I couldn’t, no matter what, but someday, I thought.

So . . . do you want to make a promise about being honest, about being as honest as your mother?

Yes. I promise . . . to live my life . . . as honestly . . . as my mother did.

The millennials coo with encouragement. As Steph pins the paper to the table and Silvi makes the rubbings, they begin to deliberate, their levity having mostly been subsumed by muted purposefulness. The woman in the jersey resolves to always choose kindness, no matter the situation and personalities with which she’s confronted. The birdlike woman commits to keep trying side dishes, a reference to an earlier conversation about placing conventional limits on one’s experience of the world (and also, apparently, a crass joke about sexual intrepidness).

Soon the three women stand up, timidly eye each other, and try to revive their banter. So, what now? I dunno. Are you working on your drawings? Yeah, I probably have a few more hours to put in. They look in different directions as they walk toward the billboard. They quietly wait as the promises are mounted, faces nearly frozen. Then each poses, beaming reflexively, dwarfed by the stack of statements, as the others point and click.

8.

To participate in Public Trust seems to require a belief that the meaningfulness of words either has not entirely been eroded or can somehow be restored—not to mention that society is founded on honest communication, not posturing and manipulation. At Copley Square, most of the promises, however genuine, are about improving the speaker, who is hardly made accountable to anyone: I promise to take better care of myself and my art. I promise to listen more and eat healthier. I promise to believe in my ability to achieve my MBA dream. I promise to always be authentic. The promises were not so different in Roxbury, I realize, although I often understood them to be motivated by a need for care, strength, and protection. (There were exceptions: I promise to continue to educate my people. I promise to see fairness and equality in housing in Boston. I promise to persevere in the face of adversity.)

Does this reflect a lack of faith in the bonds made by words to extend beyond friends and family? Or a sense that our words and actions, however self-oriented, are apt to radiate outward? Or a conviction that our capacity to touch the lives of others is minimal, so we might as well pursue our own interests and hope that they all align someday?

Toward the end of the afternoon, I walk from one side of the table to the other and sit down across from Silvi. I worry about the usefulness of individually modeling the pact that should be at the crux of public life. This isn’t Transcendental Meditation, we’re not going to achieve world peace by getting the square root of 1 percent of the population to make a promise at once. We might preserve the feeling, carry it with us. Yet I can imagine a country in which nearly all people are mindful of the crucial relationship between language and reality, and are nevertheless governed by an elite for whom blasphemy is a fair price for power. I can imagine a country in which people maintain the credibility of oaths, and “e pluribus unum” is nevertheless supplanted by a choice Trumpism: “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”

I weigh the sanctity of language against the need, voiced by Cavell, to accept ambiguity. This balance seems especially vital given the migration of so many speakers and so much speech to digital realms. If we’re to fully assume our digital identities, we might as well offload oaths to an algorithm that can automatically enforce them, and in the process nullify concerns about broken promises, as well as subtract deities from the equation. (This is now possible, thanks to the blockchain, the decentralized public ledger that enables people to transfer money, place bets, run governments, or manage corporations without having to rely on an intermediary.) But if all exchanges were turned into binding contracts, why would anyone take seriously a promise that is based merely on an utterance, a discernible intention, a recitation before a holy book?

Most people would rather not inhabit a world in which promises are immunized against misfire (even though they may, unwittingly or not, usher it into existence). Perhaps this is because the relationship between language and reality can’t be guaranteed without abolishing insincerity and infelicity, without rejecting what it means to be human. Promises are risky and tenuous, and this seems as essential to the bond that they create as the obligations that they establish.

So, what’ll it be? Silvi asks.

My instinct, now, is to insist on the right to fabricate, falsify, and otherwise use words to deform the world, and even skewer the ideals of Pericles-fetishizing philologists. I sympathize with the drive to restore the “signifying force of language,” in Agamben’s words, yet I wonder if the campaign isn’t a little . . . Make America Ancient Greece Again. But is this really why I feel reticent about presenting myself in such a sincere fashion, rather than putting forward a carefully crafted and purposefully partial avatar? Perhaps I also feel this way because here, at the nucleus of colonial tourism, at the most patriotic of farmers’ markets, I, an American of certain means and circumstances, feel convinced that my intentions will be transparent, my self will be aligned with my speech. Which relates to the feeling that channeling myself into digital vessels is a zero-sum game: Every addition to these insatiable personas involves a subtraction from a finite reserve of essential material; the more fully I inhabit the world of digital platforms, the less I inhabit myself. I’m reminded of Immanuel Kant’s belief that the public sphere is made by individuals reading and writing in solitude, that collectivity hinges on the maintenance of our private and inner lives.

I decide to return to my original promise, which stems from having had a child and, in the following months, sensing that I was not sufficiently mindful of the inequity that seems to be inherent in parenting, or not consistently making decisions based on this knowledge. Instead, I’d been assuaged by the notion that my wife, Rachel, was more or less content with her role, or that the lopsidedness of our dynamic would progressively be mitigated as our son became less reliant on her as a food source. Rachel had noticed the promise scrawled in a notebook that I had left open on the dining table: I promise to be mindful of the inequality inherent in parenting. She called it sweet, and asked if mindfulness is enough. Do you want to act differently or simply keep in mind that you should act differently?

Silvi nods and fixes her eyes on me as I explain, which makes me feel pinned to the bench. My pulse accelerates. How about . . . aware? Your space is limited.

Well, what I really want to say has to do with the link between consciousness and behavior. To me, awareness doesn’t necessarily have to do with action. For instance, I’m aware of the refugee crisis in Syria, and I’m not doing very much about it.

OK. How about this “inherent in”? Why not simply “of parenting”?

I think . . . well, don’t you think it makes sense to be clear that this is a kind of fundamental issue, and not a situation that I created or that anyone creates through their actions or inaction, at least not at first, although, of course, nearly everyone aggravates the situation in their own way?

We go back and forth like this for several minutes, Silvi coaxing and editing me. I could posture, dissemble, or speak as someone other than myself, but I’d be conscious of the effort. I feel slightly exposed, and I tap my fingers on the bench as Silvi assembles the letters: I promise to be aware of the inequality of parenting. I pin the paper to the table and focus on the sound of charcoal sliding against the paper, scraping against the plastic letters.