The social mechanisms enforcing the legibility of Latin letters on paper and screen are the same mechanisms by which we write trees and birds, weeds and wolves, seals and serpents into the world. Thus trees, dogs, and humans are written and read like so many As, Bs, and Cs.
At its most elementary stage – that is, in elementary school – becoming literate means recognizing that when I draw
I write a letter A, just as drawing
makes a letter B, and so forth.
Reading performs this act of writing over and over again, to the point where a quick scan of a page without any explicit awareness of individual letter-shapes can eventually come to make us forget about its mechanics altogether.
For this to happen, however, social enforcement demands that each letter is the same – that this A repeats this A which repeats this A, and so with every other letter. If letters are not repeated sufficiently, they become ostracized as ‘bad handwriting’ or ‘autocorrect failures’. And if I don’t recognize them as repeated instances, I am ostracized as an ‘illiterate’ or worse, a clinical case.
But letters are not repeated, and they do remain individuals. They are iterated. Each appearance of a letter A is recognizably an instance of a letter A but each appearance of a letter A is also recognizably different; self-evidently in handwriting and contextually when typed. The degree of freedom that letters thus have gives rise to letterism and asemic writing, two literary genres directly assaying the letter as such.
Writing trees and cows and humans into the world is enforced in the same way. To be spatially literate means recognizing that when I seem to recognize
I rather write an entity ‘tree’, composed of roots, stem, and a crown of branches and leaves.
Spatial reading is to perform this act of writing over and over again, until the scanning of a landscape is done unconsciously and plants become an indifferent backdrop to humdrum car rides.
This too, as for letters, requires that all trees are the same. After all, if a plant’s stem is not as prominent, it’s a shrub, not a tree; if the branches are too close by, it’s a hedge, not a tree. Fish and cows and human beings, too, are written in this way.
The enforcement mechanism is the same as that governing the writing of letters. If I call a car a tree, a fish a human, a shrub a cow, I become ostracized, typically by way of clinical enforcement. And trees, fish, and cows which do not conform to their type are ostracized, as the presence of monsters and hybrids in the public’s imagination amply attests.
But trees and cows and fish and human beings are not repeated and they too remain individuals. Like letters, they are iterated, recognizably the same each time they appear and yet different, too. Their degree of freedom is the condition of possibility of wildness and wilderness, rebellion and revolt.
The way we write letters, then, is the archetype of the way we write ourselves and the animals and plants into the world – with well-known catastrophic effects. Only when trees are interchangeable like A and A and A do they become lumber for logging. Only when cows are interchangeable like B and B and B do they become cattle for the slaughterhouse. Only when humans are interchangeable like C and C and C do they become labour power for sweatshops.
Were we to write letters differently, therefore, we would also be able to write animals and plants and ourselves differently. To achieve this, we can turn to the remains of ancient proto-alphabets. But we must remain vigilant, as the primary purpose of introducing these was the very repetition described above: recording interchangeable lumber, cattle, labour-power.
I have described a way to use ancient proto-alphabets against repetition in my recent work Breaking the Alphabet. Each of the predecessors of the Latin Alphabet introduces degrees of freedom. Ancient Phoenician, written right to left and without most of the vowels of Greek or Latin, destabilizes the familiarity of alphabetic writing. Thus the phrase “sample sentence” written in Phoenician letters:
Linear B, the writing of ancient Mycenae, introduces syllabic writing. It also contains logograms, signs corresponding to ideas and symbols. Thus again the phrase “sample sentence”:
Linear B thus introduces an idea of polysemy well known to writers in Mandarin or calligraphers in Arabic. We take from it the notion that all letters, including Phoenician and Latin ones, can be read as individuals in their own right, defying repetition altogether.
This in turn paves the way for introducing Egyptian (Middle Kingdom). Not only are these far removed from Latin letters – Hieroglyphs often express up to three consonants at a time and are usually polysemic, serving as syllabic signs, logograms, determinants, or as illustrations.
Moreover, Hieroglyphs are typically written neither right-to-left nor left-to-right, but are arranged top-to-bottom by aesthetic concerns. Thus once more the phrase “sample sentence” – without any logograms or determinants:
Most importantly, Hieroglyphs introduce animal-letters, such as
for D, or
Linear B, too, has at least one such animal-letter, namely
This brings us back to the idea of letters as entities as such.
Taking the elements introduced by each proto-alphabet – non-linear writing order, polysemic readings, destabilization of consonants and vowels and letter-shapes, animal-letters – we can combine them all into an Anti-Alphabet whose letters come alive. Each letter is thus an animal or a plant introducing into page or screen the world outside of page or screen and itself as an inhabitant of that world.
By coming alive themselves, the Anti-Alphabet’s letters threaten the enforcement of repetition. As each letter of the Anti-Alphabet activates its iterative potential to escape repetition and become polysemic – become animal and plant – it becomes a living individual beyond page and screen.
With letters becoming living individuals, we can learn to write plants and animals and humans into the world differently, too. And with repetition weakening, the world’s living individuals re-emerge.