The first word almost anyone learns to spell is their own name. (Though never is one’s name one’s first spoken word.) This at a time when letters are deliberate and discrete forms. I learn the spelling of my name before the formation of letters becomes second nature.
Is it true that cursive is no longer taught in elementary school?
The English alphabet, like nearly all alphabets, is phonetic, with each letter loosely mapped to a particular sound. A sequence of alphabetic characters—a word, a sentence—is a script and a score. Even reading silently is an aural act: you voice these words to yourself; you modulate its tone, bringing it down now to a soft whisper. But nerves rise around representations
A counter-history of the alphabet has it not as a contingent shorthand for verbal communication but as a graphic system whose magic is indeed in its formal properties. The spell works not in its being spoken but in its sequence of letters (hence its name). Often this fantasy takes on an Orientalist casting as in poet Ezra Pound’s and historian Ernest Fenollosa’s theory of the ideographic nature of Chinese characters. Following Fenollosa, Pound believed Chinese characters to be imagistic representations rather than sonic representations, such that the character for “tree” is fundamentally a picture of a tree. This theory is interesting not because of its accuracy(to be clear, it is patently false!) but because of its conflation of alphabet with image and its suggestion of a mode of reading based not in symbolic literacy but graphic interpretation.
Let’s say then that a letter represents a phoneme—a single “unit” of sound in a language—and that from somewhere else in the body that a letter as well has a magic weight connected to the letter’s specific orthographic form. Two drawings serve as a key to Mark Booth’s recent exhibition at Devening Projects and simultaneously unfold this doubleness. The familiar 26 letters are distributed in order over the two drawings, each letter defined by the sharp white of the paper set against an embossed matte black. Each letter too is mirrored in varying reflective symmetries — there’s no single point of perspective here; each letter its own discrete reflective unit. Our graphic literacy is bolstered by the familiar alphabetic sequence. Considered individually though, the ability to decode wavers: nothing other than the sequence delineates the double ‘W’ from the double ‘M,’ while the double ‘C’ and double ‘O’ both approach an infinity symbol. I was pleased as a child to find this doubleness in the spoken name of the first letter of my name: ‘double-U.’
Alongside names, the sequence of the alphabet is learned early on. This is pragmatic, certainly, but also a ritual: the alphabet song an incantation. The letters in Booth’s abecedary here appear with some of that runic force inscribed in that childhood ritual. These are not new letters—it’s as if in the double aspect their familiarity is doubled too, their forms ‘truer’ than the singular forms employed in everyday reading and writing. The letters most suited for occult purposes are self-evidently those that demonstrate symmetry—‘X’ and ‘O’ for instance. A mirror doesn’t return its reflections unaltered. A fully symmetrical alphabet, like this one Booth offers, opens the possibility of doing writing that is equally attendant to sonic and graphic form. This alphabet is in order because it must be approached at an elementary level.
Another elementary ritual: imagine a point. Now imagine another point, and a line extending between the points. Now imagine the line unfolding into a square. And now the right angles of the square following this linear development into a cube. And now envision the next step in this sequence: the cube’s resolution into a four-dimensional tesseract.
I have trouble. In this exercise, I feel my thinking reach out beyond itself as it comes against a dark impasse. I intuit the final step’s logic but I can’t carry it out as an inner image. Geometry unfolds—writing too, and the connection between the disciplines is underworked outside of occult practices and concrete poetry. However, with the symmetrical alphabet, we’ve already begun the analogous version of the point-line-cube-tesseract sequence.
The final step—the one I can only intuit but not envision—is suggested in a set of drawings on the wall opposite the symmetrical abecedary. Each of the 25 unframed sheets contains a single letter form, a hybrid form comprising elements of varying letters. Some of the simpler forms edge toward legibility, like the first in the sequence, an ‘H’ affixed by its upper appendages to the two low points of what looks like a ’W,’ suggesting the word ‘WHY.’ Or perhaps the ‘W’ is, in fact, two ‘V’s—this relatively simple form is unstable. Or more to the point, it is unstable in my mind. On the paper, the black of the letterform is still and secure. A four-dimensional shape like a tesseract can be represented in two and three dimensions, but these representations wobble as I try to mentally unfold them. These letters wobble too—the more complex letterforms here are untraceable; perhaps an identifiable appendage or element here, but the forms are not dissectible. But still, they are undeniably letters. And so even in their obdurate concreteness, they retain a connection to sound.
A letter represents a particular phoneme. What is the sound of a tesseract? The issue of reading—which is to say, the issue of performing—is raised by these hybrid letterforms. While each form is composed of elements of various letters, these letters are not superimposed but incorporated. In other words, the sound represented by each new letter is monophonic, not harmonic—not simply the simultaneous sounding of each of the elements of which the letter is constructed. Each drawing here then works as a score for performance that questions the very possibility of performability—a theme familiar in Booth’s previous works, which include a functionally endless text loop performance (God is Represented by the Sea) and an audio listing of circumstances that could potentially happen in the future.
In therapy the other day, I spent a long time in trying to retrace a thought that had come up against something that had extinguished it. Perhaps that is a different kind of limit than the one I come up against when I try to imagine a tesseract, but in either case, I’m struck by the strong sense I have of the form of what’s just beyond me. Like looking out of a window at night (not in the city) or looking into a mirror in the dark (which terrified me as a child). Perhaps darkness though isn’t, in fact, what’s most basic here—instead, the sense of this limit as a substance, as a form with a texture. What I can’t think is just as well white as black (and perhaps white is more apt given my propensity to assign blackness to this limit.) It’s foggy, I say. Or it’s fuzzy. It’s spackled. The letterforms in Booth’s drawings are spackled too, diffuse white flecks over the black of the letters. Impossible to sense if I’m getting closer to the point where I can revolve these forms in my mind or whether they are receding. They’re out at that wide, hovering limit a bit beyond me.
The show’s title is given in the works below the symmetrical alphabet: written in the same reflective script, ISLET, INLET, ISTHMUS, IBEX. The words all start with me, with ‘I,’ and end in forms that exceed me. The abstract landforms of an inlet, an islet, and isthmus; like the vague, hovered forms of nonthought. And then some little springy movement out there, an echo, an ibex, an ‘X.’