Sunday, October 11, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 40 (Johanna Drucker)

Drucker, Johanna
The Alphabetic Labyrinth


Purchased in the fall of 1997 at Talking Leaves Books for the first course I took with Charles Bernstein. He called it "Textual Conditions." I recall that on the first day of class we went around the room introducing ourselves. Charles asked each of us to state our names and then describe our very first "textual experience." Ba-dump-bum. I think I talked about seeing the lyrics in my head to Frank Sinatra's cover of Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," which my father used to play repeatedly on an eight track tape in the car when I was a kid.

I don't think Drucker visited, but this book became a key focus for the class, introducing us to issues of visual textuality, the materiality of language, and so forth. We read a lot about textual scholarship. I remember we had, as always, lots of visitors in the class. We had a visit from textual scholar Randall McLeod, aka, Random Cloud, who showed us a machine he had invented to aid him in his work. Kevin Killian and Dody Bellamy were the first readers in the series that year. Jackson MacLow spent about a week here around the time of his 75th birthday. Marta Werner gave a talk on textual scholarship in Dickinson. Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk visited from England. David Bromige, Caroline Bergvall, Steve McCaffery, and Laura Moriarty all either read or visited the class or both. Joan Jonas came to class and showed us some of the videos she made in in NY in the early 70's. I remember also looking at pictures of the cave paintings at Lascaux and reading Bataille's essay about them. I met all kinds of future friends in that class: Taylor Brady and Ben Friedlander and Alicia Cohen and Yunte Haung and Brent Cunningham and Graham Foust and Joel Bettridge.

I was also more or less introduced to the internet in that class. In NY, I had the internet at several of my jobs, but I didn't use it much and I didn't much understand it. I didn't have email until I got to Buffalo. Charles' class made the first use of the internet I had experienced. It was a very transitional moment in tech history.

Everyone was still on dial-up. Many students still printed their papers at school using the university computer lab. The internet was still very text-based. Very shortly, the internet became both the vehicle for and the central subject of our discussion on textual conditions.

from The Alphabetic Labyrinth

In some form or other the letters we recognize as the alphabet have been in continuous use for more than three thousand years. Currently, the alphabet is more widespread than any other system of written language. A full account of its origin and development has only bee pieced together during the 20th century, and the obscurity of this history through the many centuries of its use has fostered much speculation about the origin and symbolic value of the letters. Thus, in addition to serving as an efficient means of representing many spoken languages, the alphabet has also served as a set of symbols whose distinct visual characteristics have provoked a plenitude of imaginative projections. These symbolic interpretations of the visual forms of the letters of the alphabet provide a rich record of cultural history and ideas which interweave the domains of philosophy and religion, mysticism and magic, linguistic and humanistic inquiry.

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