RESEARCH

Reading from A to Z:
Alphabets, Experiments, Pedagogies

bauhaus3Jacquelyn’s book project, “Reading from A to Z,” argues for the significance of the alphabetic sequence to the experimental literature and visual art from the modern period to the present. While it may be most familiar to us as a didactic device to instruct children, various experimental writers and artists have used the alphabetic sequence to structure some of their most radical work. The alphabetic sequence is a culturally-meaningful trope with great symbolic import; we are, after all, initiated into written discourse by learning our ABCs, and the sequence signifies logic, sense, and an encyclopedic and linear way of thinking about and representing the world. But the string of twenty-six arbitrary signifiers also represents rationality’s complete opposite; the alphabet is just as potent a symbol and technology of nonsense, arbitrariness, and (children’s) play. These inherent tensions between meaning and arbitrariness, sense and nonsense, order and chaos have been exploited by a century of experimental writers and artists who have employed the alphabetic sequence as a device for formal experimentation, radical content, and institutional and cultural critique.

In the past one hundred years, writers and artists have used the alphabetic sequence to explore the possibilities and limitations of a symbolic discourse that, part and parcel of the post-Saussurean linguistic turn of the twentieth-century humanities, could no longer be read as transparent. “Reading from A to Z” suggests that most experimental alphabetic works have a push and pull effect: they admit a complicity in a mass culture and language of order that is standardized, segmented, and sequenced, while simultaneously expressing a desire for something other to that order. In literature and art, then, the alphabetical sequence is both tyrannical and liberatory.

The project reads works by an eclectic mix of writers and artists (including Stein, Woolf, Duchamp, Loy, Barnes, Rosler, Kelly, Mullen, and Goldsmith) across genres and media, and identifies a significant twentieth-century trend: an exploration of language’s potentialities in experimental (or highbrow) literature and art via distinctly lowbrow and didactic children’s forms and genres. “Reading from A to Z” ultimately reveals the alphabetic sequence as the paradigmatic trope of a language-obsessed century that, even in its most radical moments, always returns to its ABCs.