Reading from A to Z:
Alphabets, Didacticism, Politics
Jacquelyn’s book project argues that the alphabetic sequence is a dominant aesthetic form of the 20th and 21st centuries and that it figures the relationship between self, other, language, and authoritative social structures. While it may be most familiar to us as a didactic device to instruct children, many writers and artists of the past 100 years have used the alphabetic sequence to structure their non-juvenile work. The 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 26 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.
“Reading from A to Z,” which intervenes in current scholarly debates about the political possibilities of aesthetic forms, suggests that the alphabetical sequence has become increasingly politicized in the past 100 years. In poetry, novels, visual art, film, and other media, the sequence is a means not just of organizing an existing world, but a means of suggesting who and what may be included within a newly imagined world—and how. Alphabetical ordering in a work of art often admits its 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. As an aesthetic form, the alphabetical sequence can be both tyrannical and liberatory.
By reading alphabetic texts from the modern period to the present that both build on a literary form of poetry (the abecedarian) and on an organizational methodology (alphabetization), this project examines a form that leaps from genre to genre, from medium to medium, that shapes our texts and lives. The book begins with a close reading of Virginia Woolf’s juvenilia, life writing, and the alphabetic obsession of Mr. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse, and argues that for Woolf the alphabet is more than just a symbol of a patriarchal order; it is a generative structure that engenders intimacy and the occasion for aesthetic creation. The book expands its scope with each chapter, and reads didactic engagements with the alphabet by modernists Stein, Loy, and Barnes; feminist visual art and film by Rosler, Kelly, and Friedrich; and conceptual writing projects by Goldsmith, Bök, and Werschler-Henry that studiously avoid politics—a form of politics in and of itself. It concludes with a reading of 21st-century abecedarians by Collins, Patricia Smith, Mullen, and Sharif that aim to memorialize nationalize traumas and, I suggest, teach political lessons. “Reading from A to Z” ultimately reveals the alphabetic sequence as the paradigmatic form of a language-obsessed century that, even in its most radical moments, always returns to its ABCs.