Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book Review: Johanna Drucker's The Alphabetic Labyrinth

Yes, it's another book review. Someone recently mentioned to me that all I seem to do here these days is review books.  I don't know what to tell you; I spend most of my time writing and reading, so that's what comes out.  At any rate, it's my birthday on Saturday, so you can count on a personal statement around then, at least.
Drucker recounts the history of the alphabet, with a focus on the symbolic meaning people have afforded it over the century.  The book is divided into 10 chapters, which can roughly be thought of as two background chapters, and eight that correspond to various historical periods in Western culture, and how the alphabet was regarded in them.  Chapter 3 starts with the Greek and Roman period, with a focus on how the Greeks considered the alphabet as composed of the fundamental building blocks with which you could build up to a description of the universe. Chapter 4 covers the early Christian eras, in which the power of the written language--and the alphabet--was usually given divine attribution: "I am the alpha and the omega", for example, uses the beginning and end of alphabet as a metaphor for the entirety of existence. Other chapters cover the medieval period and the Church's appropriation of the written word, the Renaissance and the turn to rationalization, and the 18th century and their belief that writing was a necessary condition for the existence of civilization.  (There's a chapter on Kabbalah too.)  Chapter 9 covers the 19th century and the alphabet's role in the debate of creationism vs evolution (was written language divinely inspired, or did it come about naturally?)and the last chapter considers the alphabet in the digital age.

That's a very brief condensation (I've been working on shorter summaries), but it paints the basic picture. Drucker uses a lot of illustrations in the book, which is essential, I think, given the subject matter and the visual nature of the alphabet.  I kind of wish she did a bit more of an introduction, to give a more complete summation of her own stance on the use of the alphabet.  I can understand why she didn't; I think Drucker is really going for historical objectivity than pursuing her own argument, per se.  That said, if the book could be said to have an argument, I think it would be that accounts of the alphabet are always situated in a wider cultural and historical context.  There are plenty of cases, for example, where changes in alphabet are caused by changes in technology.  When we change to the printing press, handwriting becomes something specialized and unique, and writing manuals focus on aesthetic flourish.  But when mass production hits paper production, and industrialization scales up in general, there's a demand for a lot of people who can write notes by hand very quickly, and writing manuals become about getting a job.  There's power struggle embedded in font choice too--two overt examples would be Constantine created a font that was specifically not like previous Roman types, to distance his empire from the previous persecution of Christians, and when Louis XIV ordered the creation of a font that represented the dominating, transcendent nature of his reign.  Likewise, the scholarship about the alphabet had power discourses.  There was the obviously loaded question of what culture invented the first alphabet (the Nazis, for example, weren't very keen on the Semitic claim to that title) and more subtler ones that I mentioned above, such as the evolution vs. creationism issue, or the promotion of Europe's domination by claiming that civilizations needed an evolved written form.  We use and imbue the alphabet with power.

For me personally, the book was a trip down memory lane, as it reminded me in particular of other stuff I've read.  (That's right, we're not just talking about books, we're talking about books that the book reminds me of; maybe I do need a new topic.)  The mystic attributions of the alphabet remind me of Francis Yates' Art of Memory, in that she also covers a lot of the same mystic groups, who imbue similar magical attributes to the concept of the memory palace.  I wonder if there's a connection between alphabet and spatializing memory.  I suppose my off the cuff response would be that they're both about the reverence of knowledge, and preserving knowledge.  Anyway, the script history portion of the book could have been taken directly out of my old textual studies course.  I've complained about the course before, and I'll complain about it now (it was soooo boring), and with God as my witness, someday I'll complain again, but I also have to admit it comes in handy.  Because I was already familiar with uncials and Merovingian book script and so forth, I could follow along with what otherwise would be a very dry reading.  Finally, the book also had a lot of cross-over with Siegfried Zielinski's Deep Time.  First, there was a methodological similarity, as Drucker was interested in people who had the more radical interpretations of the alphabet (my favorite is Alfred Kallir, who argued that letters outlined the human sexual reproduction processes, and that as we spoke, we thus unconsciously reinforced our psyches).  But she's also talking about a lot of the same people--Athanasius Kircher, Giuseppe Balsamo, Raymond Llull.  It's an overlap that makes sense: Drucker discusses most of them in terms of mysticism, universal languages, and cryptography, all of which Zielinski is particularly interested in.  But I was struck by how much of this stuff I'd already come across in other ways.  Like the alphabet moved through power discussions, it moved in and out of European historical traditions.

Finally, though, there's the selfish question: what's in this for me?  As usual, what brought me to this text is the videogame studies, which means the image/text issue is what I'm interested in here.  Image text comparisons aren't really a direct concern with Drucker, but there's enough overlap here for me to find a lot of things useful.  The comparison does come out in full, for example, in the discussion of illuminated letters, which at one point got so complex that people started putting pictures of the book's content in the letters that started the story.  And naturally, some commentators complained, because the seductive images were taking away from the purity of the words' ideas.  That's something I can use; the notion that the alphabet, and by extension, words themselves, speak to some sort of purity of thought.  I can use the discussion on digital font more directly, obviously.  And in general, it'll serve me well to keep in mind that it's never just about the words.  Discussions about the alphabet were discussions situated in much broader discourses, and with text in games, it'll behoove me to keep that in mind.

Later Days.

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