What Is a Letter?

I went to hear Johanna Drucker give a talk yesterday: ABC Histories: The Letters, Past and Future. She was asking questions about the ways we conceptualize what a letter is, versus the ways we understand how a letter is produced. It took me the length of her talk to really start to grasp her idea of using aesthesis to get at what a letter really is. In fact, my grasp is still extremely tenuous, but I'm going to try to articulate the way I understand her approach…

When Johanna asks, "What is a letter?" she's not asking, "How is a letter made?" She's not asking what the technology or method of making that letter shape is, or what pen strokes make up a given letter. The question she's asking is harder to get at because we take letters for granted; we all assume we know what an "A" is. We recognize it on the page, we read it, we write it, without taking into account its role as a cultural object that has weight beyond simple linguistic representation.

When we do start to think about what a letter is, we might think of it in terms of its construction (this letter's ductus follows these specific strokes, or this letter is built out of so many pixels), but Johanna's talk focused much more on other ways we understand letters. For instance, she suggested that we might view a letter in terms of its origin (or mythologies of its origin), turning the alphabet into a sort of cultural inventory, or a way of cataloging history into components relevant to our own culture. She used an example of ideas about the letter "A" developing from the shape of tent poles or an ox's skull, references that we use to understand and shape our view of earlier cultures. Johanna suggested we might also conceptualize a letter in terms of its value–numerical, allegorical, symbolic. (As a sort of side note here she mentioned that the alphabet is the first place that we get into symbolic representation, instead of pictograph-type representation, as a culture. The idea of that shift is amazing to me—to go from drawing a little picture of what you're talking about to combining a set of abstract marks to create meaning—it gives me a new respect for each letterform, and a much richer and nuanced way of looking at type and writing. It's one of those ideas that triggered some kind of forehead- smacking recognition: "Of course!" but was totally new to me at the same time. Thanks, Johanna!) She also got into how we use the alphabet for social engineering projects, and how the form of letters can play into asserting cultural values (think of the morals infused into kids' alphabet books), how we might understand a letter form in terms of its efficacy (contemporary readers might prefer Bodoni to Gutenberg's text, but his audience would have recognized his set of letters, as it was based on contemporary letterforms), and how we imbue letters with spiritual or sacred meaning.

So, how does available technology affect the way we conceptualize letters? Johanna made some really good points in getting at this question, and I think a lot of them could be extended to other areas of the ways we understand words, language, writing, reading, and even forms of storytelling or narrative. She pointed out that new forms of technology don't necessarily replace older technologies; instead, they affect the specialization of older technologies. For example, we might use a computer for a lot of our writing, but if we need to jot down a grocery list, most of us will still scribble on a scrap of paper. Or, in my case, computers fascinate me, but I still send handwritten letters to my friends and study calligraphy and typesetting whenever I get the chance.

Johanna made a good point when she mentioned that new technologies offer us a lens for looking at older technologies and questioning the cultural decisions that were made in their usage. I think this is where the really complicated, interesting, and useful part of her talk came in—Through technology, letter forms are infinitely variable; we can, in theory, make any kind of letter form we can imagine to achieve any of the functions listed above. We can extend this view of writing technologies from letters to narratives; I'm thinking of how early writing technologies required a fairly linear version of storytelling, but contemporary technologies offer opportunities for completely insane narratives, really— infinite variations are possible in terms of writing and reading, and Ts'ui Pên's Garden of Forking Paths is possible in a very real way.

At the end of the talk, Warren Sack asked a great question about why, when we have these infinitely variable options for creating and communicating in radically different ways, we repeat the labor methods suggested by older technologies. There was also a really interesting conversation about the authority attributed to mechanically reproduced text, versus handwritten, especially within the context of music notation. What's gained and what's lost in mechanical reproduction of text?


2 responses to “What Is a Letter?

  1. that letters are the first doorway symbolic representation makes me think of my nephew elliott, who just turned 2. Did I tell you about this? He cant just yet hold a complete conversation with an adult (he and his twin have a twin speak that they use with each other) , but he can share his joy and love of the letters A and G. His favorite toy is an alphabet book, which he will stare forever at A and G and also show it to you over and over again. And in the last 2 weeks ive had 3 or 4 phone conversations with him where he says “hey hey hey” and i say “hi elliott” and he says “A.” and i repeat “A.” and he laughs. and then he says “G” and i repeat “g” and he laughs. Then my sister later on the phone tells me that he had his book in his hand when talking to me. I feel like he understands that particular piece of knowledge that he now shares with adults – i dont know how he comprehends it, but i think that its totally the beginning of understanding that there are things to learn in the world that you can share with others – does that make any sense?

    btw – you comin to maker faire?

  2. I give this blog an A.

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