Reading from A to Z:
Alphabets, Didacticism, Politics


The alphabet organizes our lives. We sit in alphabetical order in grade school classrooms and we graduate in alphabetical order from high schools, colleges, and universities. Our personnel files are organized alphabetically, in filing cabinets and on computer screens. When we vote in the United States, we check in with volunteers at the polls who locate us in electoral rolls of alphabetically-ordered citizens.

“Reading from A to Z” reads the alphabetic sequence—a ubiquitous cultural form—in the Anglophone literature and visual culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Writers and artists from Virginia Woolf to Gertrude Stein, from Mary Kelly to Harryette Mullen, have used the alphabetic sequence to figure the relationship between self, other, language, and authoritative social structures. 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 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.

More than just a compendium of alphabetic texts, “Reading from A to Z” intervenes in current scholarly debates about the political possibilities of aesthetic forms by documenting the ways in which the alphabetic form has become increasingly politicized over the last century. “A” may be for “Apple” in many children’s books, but “Reading from A to Z” explores Walter Cole’s ethnographic ABC book in which “A is for Arab,” Martha Rosler’s feminist video art in which “A is for Apron,” and Solmaz Sharif’s Look, a collection of antiwar poems in which A is for “assess,” “area,” and “threshold of acceptability”—all terms taken from the US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. “Reading from A to Z” suggests that the alphabetic sequence not only offers a means of organizing the existing world, but also a means of suggesting who and what may be included within a newly imagined world. By reading literature and visual art, but also cultural texts such as children’s games and dictionaries, art exhibitions and governmental systems, “Reading from A to Z” suggests that the alphabetic form 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 a form, the alphabetical sequence can be both tyrannical and liberatory.