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Reading from A to Z: The Alphabetic Sequence in Experimental Literature and Visual Art


“Reading from A to Z” argues for the significance of the alphabetic sequence to the transatlantic experimental literature and visual art from the modern period to the present. While it may be most familiar to us as a didactic device to instruct children, various experimental writers and avant-gardists have used the alphabetic sequence to structure some of their most radical work. The alphabetic 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. These inherent tensions between meaning and arbitrariness, sense and nonsense, order and chaos have been exploited by a century of experimental writers and artists who have employed the alphabetic sequence as a device for formal experimentation, radical content, and institutional and cultural critique.

“Reading from A to Z” argues that, as a result of the post-Saussurean linguistic turn of the twentieth-century humanities, the alphabetic sequence—the medium of language itself—became a vital means for artistic investigation. By bringing together works from across different genres and media, the dissertation suggests that most experimental alphabetic works have a push and pull effect: they admit a complicity in a mass culture of order that is standardized, segmented, and sequenced, while simultaneously expressing a desire for something other to that order. In the hands of writers and artists, the alphabetic sequence is both tyrannical and liberatory. For Virginia Woolf in the 1920s, the alphabetic sequence is a rational means of understanding a totalized world as well as a generative creative structure, while for John Baldessari and Martha Rosler in the 1970s, the sequence is an oppressive symbol of institutional and patriarchal power and also the means through which to imagine a resistance to that power. By taking on works as diverse as Gertrude Stein’s long-ignored writing for children and the recent spate of alphabetized texts by Kenneth Goldsmith and other conceptual poets, the dissertation finds commonalities across a century of experimental writing and art. It pushes past Bourdieuian sociological readings of the avant-garde to establish a common ground between experimental writing and art movements, and ultimately reveals the alphabetic sequence—as a formal structure, a metaphor for knowledge, a didactic tool, an organizational system, and a procedural method—as the paradigmatic trope of a language-obsessed century.

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