2002 The Alphabetic Body

Parallax 8, 92-104


Cultures restructure  the mind, not only in terms of its specific contents,  which  are  obviously  culture  bound,  but  also  in  terms of its fundamental   neurological  organization.  1

Before the end, something is coming to an end. The general digitization  of channels and information erases the dijferences

among individual media . Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known lo consumers as interface. 2


The end of the book? Yes storehouse, producer and disseminator of knowledge, instrument of western monotheism, begetter of civilization the ancient, self­ standing, alphabetic text which folded so much between its edges and co\·ers, is being opened up, distributed and outsourced; its content and functions disseminated, hypcrtcxtualized, transformed and multimediated into an edgeless web of a billion lexias, mathematical ideograms, icons and image streams circulating on the net.

Of course there arc still books (more than ever) and reading will continue, increasingly dominated, no doubt, by the digital technology that obsolesced  the  printing  press: books will be available on a chip  that can be inserted into a backlit, take-to bed, easy-to-hold, eyesight-friendly reading screen, equipped with  indexing  and concordance facilities, variable size typeface  and  other  goodies.  Or,  further  down the road, there will be eyeglasses projecting micro-reduced words onto the retina (further still, directly into the brain via an implant). But is this reading and how long will the retina/brain  be  willing  to be  so engaged?  A few hundred  years,  according to Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s estimate in Speech and Gesture from the 1960s: ‘For centuries yet reading will go on being important […] but writing is probably doomed to disappear rapidly to be replaced by dictaphonic equipment with  automatic printing’; 3 or, as we’d say now, replaced by voice-recognition  software and a printer. And there is also text recognition  software and a speaker.


I am that I am.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image  or  any likeness  of any thing  that  is  in  heaven above  or  that  is in  the  earth  beneath  or  that  is  in  the  water  under  the  earth.

Thou shalt not   take the name ef the lord thy God in vain.

A pivotal line of biblical prose plus the first few commandments of which more later. It was read, or rather voiced, to us by Ralph, a text-recognition construct who helps me with my work. Not only can Ralph voice any alphabetic text presented to him, he can also write or rather textualize speech that his microphone hears, which allows him to play a part in a reading/writing scenario, either split into Ralph 1 and Ralph2, call and response style, or by himself as an auto-dictator where he’s given a text A which he voices as B, hears himself speaking B which he textualizes as C, voices C as D, hears himself speak D which he textualizes as E, and so on.

Leroi-Gourhan would surely have been intrigued and maybe amused at the prospect of these reading, writing, hearing and voicing Ralphs.

The end of the book? ‘”‘hy not the end of the alphabetic medium in which (here in the ‘Vest) the book is written? For some, the encl of the alphabet would be the encl of everything: ‘Human society, the world, the whole of mankind is in the alphabet’. True, Victor Hugo, the alphabet is wonderful, out of its rigorously ordered spacing came universal codification, the bible, technoscientific reasoning, abstract logic and philosophy, history,  democratic  literacy, and conferences  on the  book  and  its ends; a great source; more,  as we shall see, than  one realizes.

The alphabet is an extraordinary simple, robust technology with  a powerful viral capacity to disseminate and consolidate itself; a medium able to interface across multiple linguistic platforms and inscribe the speech of a huge variety of languages. But it is only one mode of writing speech, an action it achieves by notating the smallest hearable sound bits segments of spoken language. Closely related are syllabaries, super-segmental systems that notate entire syllables and in the opposite direction, the sub-segmental or ‘fcatural’ systems (as linguist Geoffrey Sampson .calls thcm 4 ) notating distinct sonic features, of which Korean Han’gul is the only known naturally evolved example. Distinct from these phonographic systems and more suitable than any of them to inscribe a heavily homophonic language like Chinese is the logographic system which works by notating sounds of the smallest separate meaning bits morphemes of speech. The Japanese use a mixture of both logographic and phonographic systems. What I have to  say about the effect of alphabetic writing in relation to the body has intriguing connections to these other orthographies, but I’m not going to pursue these.

In the form familiar to us, alphabetic writing is the result of a long evolution  from its proto-sinaitic beginnings which emerged out of Egyptian  hieroglyphics. The details of this history needn’t concern us, but two large-scale features of ‘writing’, namely pictures and ideographs, arc relevant. Firstly, it seems generally accepted that the alphabet  resulted  through   the  acrophonic  principle  whereby  the  consonants  of  a word to be inscribed are represented by pictures of objects whose names begin with those consonants; a system of acronyms that works smoothly for semitic languages such as proto-sinaitic whose words always begin with a consonant. Then, through scribal needs or otherwise, the visual, iconic element of the representations was eliminated to produce purely abstract graphs for consonants; which were later supplemented by graphs for vowels when the system was taken up by the Greeks. The alphabet, then, by use or design, eschews the pictorial. But not perfectly: the original sonic marks – letters – have always carried some visually informed meaning, first through handwriting and later through typefaces and graphic design. Secondly, not all elements of what constitutes alphabetic writing notate sounds: the blank space between words,  punctuation and diacritical marks,  question marks, quote marks, hyphens, marks of exclamation, ellipses, parantheses, and so on, do not indicate sounds of speech but notate symbolic practices or operations that arc performed on what is written  purely through letters. Moreover, as we shall see, the ideographic principle plays a vital role in the larger elaboration of alphabetic literacy.

The alphabet is not only a particular textual implementation of the vocal body, a way of in-scribing it, it also impinges on and constructs this body in relation to the construction of other bodies the visual, symbolic, but also the gestural which continue to haunt it. What I would like to do here is to offer a certain provocation, a hypothesis which elaborates one aspect of this construction. I shall do so by making a connection between the alphabet and the body through the topic of gesture.

Speech as gesture

A particular motive for proceeding via gesture will emerge presently, but before that several general reasons. Firstly, there are natural lines of force between gesture and human corporeality: as the affective medium and semiotic env·elope of the body, gesture reaches deep into human sociality through its vital role in hominization (the proffered breast, the functions of facial expressivity, pointing, the phenomenon of turn-taking, the induction via motherese into speech), and its linkage to the embodied wordless empathy without which what sociologist Michel Maffesoli calls puissance or ‘the will to live’, would not be possible. 5 Secondly, the digitization of information is reconfiguring the major sense modalities, restructuring the media which store, control and re-present them, and overhauling the ways we perceive and respond to the body’s movements by means of speech-recognition and speech-synthesis technologies and the creation of gesture-based  forms of human/machine interface. Thirdly, and nearer the theme here, the recognition that Sign, the gestural mode of communication employed by the deaf, is a fully authenticated – tongueless – language (contrary to etymology of lingua) has challenged speech-based linguistics and legitimated certain eighteenth century ideas on the gestural roots of speech and its infrastructure, making feasible, in particular, ‘a scenario for deriving syntax from visible gesture’. 6 These affirmations of gesture’s importance have occurred despite considerable resistance. Sign has still to recover from its phono-imperialist banishment of 1880, when the international conference of deaf educators pronounced that ‘Gesture, instead of addressing the mind,  addresses the imagination and the senses. Thus, for us, it is an absolute  necessity  to prohibit  that language and  to


replace it with living speech, the only instrument of human thought’. 7 And even now, thirty years after American Sign Language (ASL) was demonstrated as full) equivalent to spoken languages, several universities in the United States refuse it as a fulfillment of graduate language requirements on the kettle-logic grounds that ASL is not a ‘real’ language; ASL is not a ‘foreign’ language; and, ASL, in any case, lacks a written form.

Besides Sign, other gestural forms – gesticulation and emblems             have been likewise subordinated to speech, and since these subordinations foreshadow schematically the effect of the alphabet which interest me here, I’ll briefly describe them. Gesticulation refers to the fleeting, involuntary and barely discernible movements accompanying speech which seem primitive and unconnected to the expression or formulation of abstract  thought. But if such gestures arc primitive  so is thought  itself, since as psychologist David McNeill has demonstrated, they are systematically connected to thought by being in exact synchrony with the spoken words they relate to; an effect only explicable physiologically, he argues, if both words and gesticulation arise from a common  necessarily wordless  source through what he calls a dialectic of socially constrained  and  organized  speech  (sequential ,  analytic,  segmented)  and  images (simultaneous, synthetic, holistic) that are individual and idiosyncratic. Gesticulation and speech,  then,  despite  the  farmer’s evident  communicational  redundancy,  are cognitively  and  operationally  on  an  equal  footing.  Emblems  refer  to  what  we ordinarily   call  gestures  –         thumbs  up,  kissing  fingertips,  winking,  shrugging, genuflecting,  giving  the  finger , pointing,  smacking  one’s  forehead,  etc – which ‘regulate and comment on the behaviour of others, reveal one’s own emotional states, make promises, swear oaths [and are] used to salute, command, request, reply to some  challenge,  insult,  threaten,  seek  protection,  express  contempt  or  fear’.8  A formidable array of social and ethical functions which arc not, it should be noted, interchangeable with spoken language: what for example is the speech equivalent of a wink? Of averting one’s face? Moreovcr, their mode of action across diverse social and religious practices indicates their contra-orality, their ability to displace, disrupt and work against the flow of articulated knowledge governed by speech in favour of certain  forms  of  silence  – micro-vehicles  perhaps  of Nietzschean  forgetfulness, allowing closings of ‘the doors and windows of consciousness .[…] a little quietness’ plays a crucial role: far from a supplemental relation to speech , then, gesture here is oppositional and exclusionar y .

In addition to the denigration of Sign and phonocentric mispcrceptions/ repressions of gesticulation and emblems, another (more originary) mode of gesture, which ‘says’ nothing, not through silence, but as part of the very act of saying, as the wordless movement or gesture inside speech itself; one, moreover, which lies at the root of these other subordinations.

Speech is produced by systematic movements of the body the lips, teeth, tongue, checks, jaw, glottis , vocal chords, larynx, chest, lungs, diaphragm   a fact suggesting it might be regarded as a species of gesture; auditory rather than visible, but gesture nonetheless. Research in phonetics, voice recognition and artificial speech synthesis O\Tr the past two decades bears this out. l\1loreover, not only is the production of speech gestural but , less expected, so is its perception: ‘Surprisingly’, evolutionary


neurologist Terrence Deacon finds himself saying, ‘auditory processing of speech sounds docs not appear to be based on extracting basic acoustic parameters of the signal, as a scientist might design a computer to do before mapping them onto speech sounds. Speech analysis appears designed  instead to predict which oral-vocal movements produced them and ignore the rcst’.9 It seems, then, we listen to speech sounds as a physician listens to heartbeats, not as sounds in their own right but as signals about the body movements causing them. ‘”‘c focus on what happens between sounds, to the dynamics of their preparatory phases, pauses, holds, accelerations, completions and silences; we perceive spoken sounds as we perceive gestures.

Two types of movement constitute speech: rapid vibrations and articulations of (essentially) the mouth and tongue, and the longer waves and pulsations of (essentially) the larynx and lungs. The former so-called phonemic system producing phonemes, words and word-strings, and the latter so-called prosodic system governing the production of tone, emphasis and rhythm. Neurologically, there are two ways of ensuring the unity, complimcntarity and simultaneous functioning of the phonemic and the prosodic systems within speech. There is the horizontal axis of hemispheric specialization: the left brain handling the syntax controlling sequences of discrete articulatory movements and the right brain handling the images and analogue patterns associated with prosody. There is also the vertical, phylogcnic axis: the circuits, pathways and communicational loops connecting the nco-cortex to the midbrain and limbic region; circuits that integrate the longer prosodic waves with the short discontinuities of word production.

Prosody originates from innate primate calls, and whilst the two arc closely related as signals and though ‘laughing, sobbing, screaming with fright, crying with pain, groaning, and sighing’ do indeed constitute a more or less innate repertoire of prosody-like calls, they are distinct. For, as Deacon points out, ‘unlike calls of other species, prosodic vocal modification is continuous and highly correlated with the speech process. It is as though the call circuits are being continuously stimulated by vocal output systems’; 10 as though, in other words, the internal neurological basis of hearing oneself speak accomplishes a de-innatification of the midbrain and limbic systems which allows the prosodic components of speech to be a culturally malleable vehicle of human affect. Put differently, the auto-perception of hearing oneself speak – being affected by an apparatus, here language, exterior to oneself – deterritorializcs an instinctual response. As such, it is part of a general exogeneity whereby the body psyche is assembled, invented and created from outside itself. Though recognizable as a means of producing subjectivities within the contemporary ecology of digital forms, the principle of exogencity – in the form of external memory systems and the cognitive infrastructures they give rise to   appears, according to cognitive ethologist Merlin Donald, to have been the principal driving force in the evolution of human thought.

The Alphabetic Principle

If, like any cognitive technology, the alphabet alters the brain of its user, the alteration brought about by alphabetic writing is, as we shall see, particularly dramatic. The


alphabet, as is acknowledged, docs not notate speech as such: it writes down what’s said but not how what is said is said, the words spoken not the manner of their saying; it transcribes, in Rousseau’s terms, the voice (voix) but is silent about the sound (sons), what he variously called  the passion  and spirit of speech, what  is designated  here  as prosody  – the  affect,  tone,  rhythm,  emphasis, pitch  and  the movements of spoken language which among other things make song possible. The action of the alphabet thus institutes, that is, allows to come into being and then perpetuates, a horizontal and vertical separation. In place of a balanced bilaterality the integration within speech of right brain prosody and left brain syntax – there is intensification of the left and marginalization  of the right; and instead of a two- way limbic-cortical  traffic there is a hierarchy: a foregrounded  neocortex over a weakly active or absent midbrain .

Omitting prosody in favour of the words themselves is one of several, perhaps the least important, alphabet-driven sources of an intensified left brain. mlore forceful is alphabetic writing’s defining anti-pictoralism (refusal of right-brained image processing) and the ordering, linearizing force of inscribing one letter after another. The effects of linearization has been much commented upon, positively – ‘Writing’, Leroi-Gourhan observed, ‘has by dint of its one-dimensionality provided the analytic instrument indispensible to our philosophical and scientific thinking’ 11 – and negatively by many, from Marshall McLuhan’s complaints about the baleful consequences of printing to those who, like Derrida, describe linearity, and all the scribal hierarchies associated with it, as being a ‘repression of pluri-dimensional thought’ .12

But it is the vertical dimension, which seems not to have been elaborated in relation to phonetic writing, alphabetic or otherwise, that interests me here. Though the effects of the hierarchy of cortex over midbrain – as consonant (culture) over vowels (nature), for example have been discussed ever since Rousseau. The alphabet disrupts the  integrated complimentarity of upper and lower, tongue and larynx, articulation and breath, consonant and vowel; it effects a pulling apart and deactivating of circuits between the neocortex and the rnidbrain. The consequences of this separation constitute alphabetic writing’s greatest and most visible achievement and its undeclared and invisible legacy. The achievement was the virtualization of speech: cutting words loose from the voice, internal and external gestures, the hcrc­ and-now breathing presence and corporeality of the one who utters them, and thereby creating the \Vest’s spectacular three thousand year efflorescence of literate culture’s so-called ‘speech at a distance’. Less obviously, this same cutting loose, to be precise, the absented prosody that is the condition for its possibility, occasions the alphabet’s hidden legacy, namely the installation of a certain metaphysical opposition within its texts.

In relation to its absenting and re-presencing of prosody, the alphabet’s mediation of written discourse and creation of prose has been two-fold. One, the attempt at more or less immediate reconstitution of the voice and its affects in the form of poetry as that form of textuality most committed to prosody’s mimetic recuperation at its original level of the word. Two, the alphabet’s production of an entire technology  of  textuality  and  apparatus  of  inscribing  affect  that  goes  beyondrecuperation and beyond the level of the word by distributing new forms of textualized prosody onto the lexicon and syntax through the creation of phrases, usages, figures, formulas, textual diagrammatics and styles that make up the array of effects designated as ‘literary’. Alphabetic writing’s equivalent of prosody, then, the gestures which accompany and determine the reception of its texts, are rhetorics, figurations and styles. Styles, however, that shuttle back and forth, oscillating between the written and spoken, between the poetic voice and the styled narrative, as the literary apparatus goes beyond speech to create new textual forms of affect whilst simultaneously forming a feedback loop that constantly re-configures the speakable. The latter in terms of practice but also theoretical, in the sense that ‘we introspect language’, as David Olson puts it, ‘in terms laid down by our writing systems’. 13 Such then is a schematic of the alphabet’s visible achievement.

The invisible effect – what I’m calling the alphabet’s hidden legacy – issues in a form of subordination, more radical than witnessed earlier of various forms of gesture to speech. Here, prosody is the gesture and the words spoken are the ‘speech’, and the hierarchy is the foregrounding of the latter over the former. Thus, to return to the vertical neurological separation, the alphabet can be seen to institute and perpetuate a primary dualism, the familiar metaphysical hierarchy of mind over body, whose ultimate expression will be that of pure, disembodied mind. By separating prosody from words, the alphabet allows to come into existence, encourages the reality of, a free-standing cortical entity, an autonomous mind-agency detached from the affectual apparatus of the limbic region. An absent or under-represented or disenfranchised and repressed midbrain and an always present, inevitably foregrounded,  totalizing neocortex represent the neurological correlate  of the hierarchy of mind, soul and spirit over body whose outworks – replicated and fractally reproduced at every level of discourse – constitutes Western metaphysics. At its limit, the alphabet makes available – determines, supports, gives credence to, provides a matrix for, perpetuates – a being for whom the loss of-prosody is no loss at all; a psychic entity who speaks in a voice without tone, emphasis, irony, distance from itself, humour, doubleness, affect, pain or the possibility of such things; an absent, invisible, bodiless  being who/which has presided over the writing of speech in the West since its inception.

In his book 7he Alphabetic Effect, which argues that the tablets of the law given by God to Moses in Sinai were written in an alphabetic script, Robert Logan points out that ‘the occurrence of monotheism, codified law, and the alphabet all at the same moment in history cannot have been accidental’. 14 Indeed not.  And while carefully avoiding making a causal link, he suggests that the abstractness of the three innovations must have been mutually reinforcing (which of course is a kind of circular causality). Similarly, Gerard Pommier talks in the same breath of the ‘jump from the hieroglyphic to the consonant, from polytheism to monotheism’ and observes – fusing gods and writing – that ‘at the very time Akhnaton was inventing monotheism, hieroglyphics were in the process of being destroyed in writing, beginning with those which featured divinities in the Egyptian pantheon’ .15 Evidently, the coming into being of the alphabet – whether this is seen as a de-picturing move in relation to Egyptian hieroglyphics or, as indicated earlier, a withering of the motivational content of signs as part of the action of acrophony – and the advent of a single, abstract and invisible God in the West are unlikely to be historically separable.

In any event, God, speech, writing (divine or otherwise) and human hearing are certainly folded into each other in their original biblical appearances in Exodus: from ‘AndMoses wrote all the words of the Lord’, to ‘And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of testimony, tables of stone written with the finger of God’. What, it is possible to ask, are the differences here? God communed with Moses; God wrote the words with his own hand; God spoke the words out loud; God dictated the words to Moses who wrote them down. Did God’s speech display any affect? Was the tone the same when communing (delivering the pretext or preamble?) as it was when declaiming? When dictating? Did or could Moses observe the presence or absence of feeling? Emphasis? Was God angry? Mournful? Jealously self-proclamatory? Businesslike, impersonal and neutral? Of course, to the author(s) of the alphabetic text, Exodus and to theists in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as (with certain differences) Islamic theists, such questions have no sense; at least in so far as these traditions have no resources for establishing differences that could be humanly registered between the ways God spoke and wrote words.

Let us hear Ralph again remembering that he knows nothing – can know nothing –  about how the words of alphabetic texts might have been or might be said.


Is this how we are to imagine Moses heard the voice of the God of Western monotheism, voice of a being for whom voix and sons coincide, for whom the question of prosody cannot arise because speaking and alphabetically writing the words spoken are indistinguishable, identical? Such would be the case if this being were an artefact of alphabetic writing, the manifestation of a cortex detached from its all too embodied limbic body and externalized as a being, an autonomous entity, in transcendental space. On this understanding, the alphabet operates an abstract onto-theological machine for the production of an absent, invisible, unembodied God-being; and it does this not by merely representing/alluding to it as a topic (which it has done from the beginning), or by being an origin ‘In the beginning was the word’, or by serving as the vehicle for union with such a being ‘The word was with God, the word was God’, but by constantly performing and causing to come into a transcendentally absent presence, the voice of a speaker with no tone, no body.

But phenomenologically it would be more accurate to say a theoretically toneless since, as is evident from listening to Ralph, its virtually impossible for humans to receive a voice and not to impute tonality to words apparently addressed to them, however machinically denuded of tone their source is known to be. This being so, maybe a more interesting description of God’s voice is to understand it as evincing, and being received as, an aboriginal gesture, as the murmur of language itself, as alphabetic writing’s white noise, an undifferentiated  heteroglossia of all possible tones, voices and manners of utterance that the medium makes  available and onto which any desired affect can be projected.

Philosophical alphabetics

Let’s leave God where we found Him, as the limit of the alphabet’s dualizing effect, and return to the principle  of alphabetic writing as such. Of the discourses most purely  alphabetic, most rigorously committed  to excluding pictures and symbols, whilst at the same time most affected by the dualism the alphabet installs – because most involved  in articulating, challenging, repressing,  embracing or twisting free from it – philosophy stands out. Thus, as an exchange of alphabetic texts (which it has always been), philosophy, both in its analytic and so-called continental forms, resists the ideogram by insisting (implicitly through  disciplinary and institutional means) on being speakable, on its texts being able to be read aloud in principle if not practice. The same insistence on spcakability excludes the pictographic – how does  one  utter  a  picture?  – though  in  truth  philosophy’s   inability/refusal   to countenance the presence of images in its texts, its unease in the face of the picture, is too  thorough,  unexamined,  universal  and  deep-rooted  not  to suggest  other iconophobic or anti-visualist forces at work.

Thus, to cite a particularly telling (but completely representative ) example, consider Husserl’s essay ‘The Origin of Geomct1y’. Geometry, as distinct from arithmetic and algebra, and regardless or the formalizations it undergoes, is a ‘pictorial’ subject in that diagrams are a means by which  it furthers and creates itself and the objects and/ or icons of the spatial objects it studies. Not only do diagrams (as means, objects or icons) not figure in Husserl’s essay but their ubiquitous presence in geometry whether necessary or otherwise – and their absence from his text recei\ ·e no comment from him. One should perhaps set Husserl’s blindness to images and his silence about it in a certain context: when he wrote his essay, a group of French mathematicians operating   under   the   name   Nicholas   Bourbaki   was   implementing   a   project, conceptualized (and known to Husserl) earlier in the century, to re-write the whole of mathematics in the formal language of first-order set theory. The result- thousands of pages of ‘words’ made from a mathematical alphabet of a dozen or so symbolic ‘letters’ and governed by a linear syntax, without a single diagram; an entire corpus, alphabetizing in the name of a Platonist-inspired program of rigour, the richest, most elaborated  trans-alphabetic  discourse  yet  invented.  Further,  not only is Husserl’s essay on geometry without diagrams or reference to them and without comment on this  absence,  but  Derrida’s  extended  commentary  (whose  principal  focus  is the question of ideality, signs and writing in Husserl’s essay) is in turn silent on these omissions and indeed on the entire topic.

Unlike Christianity which long ago abandoned the second commandment (reducing its scope to the interdiction of flagrant idolatry), philosophical alphabeticism is faithful, like Judaism and Islam, to the commandment’s original interdiction of all picturing. Like image less religious texts and diagram-free re-writings of mathematics, such philosophical texts shield themselves from any connection to the body of the text, of its creator, of its readers – introduced by the presence of the explicitly visual. Of course, it needs to be elaborated, which I will not do here, why visual images, with their need to be looked at (and not looked through as is the case for letters and symbols) and so cognized outside the routines and protocols of ‘reading’, insist on the body, how they de-occlude it and how such insistence counters the transcendentalizing forces at work in such faithful texts.

This  fidelity  to  austere,  alphabetic  purity  coupled  with  an  inescapable  m1ss1on  to engage  with  the  question  of metaphysical  dualism,  thcologizcd  or otherwise,  places



a peculiarly intense burden on philosophy’s prose since, from what’s been said, it is at the level of prose style, poetics, textual voice, figuration and internal conceptual personae, that philosophy is obliged to stage its encounter with the onto-theological consequences of the alphabet’s omission of prosody. (An obligation not needed in other alphabetic discourses such as history, law, scientific treatises, and so on with no comparable mission). In a general sense, all this foregrounding of style and claims for its importance vis-a-vis philosophy would be surprising or foreign only to philosophers in the analytic tradition for whom the question of prose and poetics of their texts is never an issue; for those outside this tradition it is hardly surprising. The texts of many figures from Hegel and Nietzsche onward arc valuable, distinguished and philosophically pregnant precisely through their styles, cognitive poetics and figures; but the reason for it offered here, its structural necessity within the metaphysics of alphabetic writing, is perhaps novel.

Finally, and independently of the idcographical nature of litcrariness discussed earlier, philosophy might subvert, attempt to weaken or jump out  of  pure  alphabcticism. Thus,  Heidegger’s   augmenting  the  stock  of  diacritical  marks  through   his  tmesic ( Gestell ) and anti-tmcsic (being-in-the-world) use of hyphens and his introduction of a11 ideogram of crossing-out (X-ing out the alphabetic word with  a letter!); Derrida ‘s silent, written ‘a’ of dijferance and his unspeakable (at least by a single voice ) text Glas; and, somewhat differently, the strategic introduction of pictures into  A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. On this last,  one  has  the  program  outlined  by Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen: ”While marking the closure of  the  Western metaphysical tradition , deconstruction also signals the opening of post-print culture. Deconstruction remains bound to and by the world of print it nonetheless calls into question. “‘hat comes after deconstruction? Imagology’. 16 Yes, but  it’s  the  alphabet that philosophy remains bound to and by, and imagology, manifested by them in a consciously imagized and graphically stylized text that escapes print’s  linearities,  is only part of the story. A consciously idcogrammatized text with symbols and diagrams doing philosophical work would be another part; and a consciously gesturalized text which went beyond both images  and  symbols would,  as we  shall now  see, constitute  a third  part.

Corporeal or gesturo-haptic writing

Imagining a future in which alphabetic writing and with it philosophy and literature as we know them will disappear, to be replaced by forms evolved from them, Leroi­ Gourhan assures us that the mentality and accomplishments of these artefacts will not be lost, since the ‘curiously archaic forms employed by thinking human beings during the period of alphabetic graph ism will be preserved in print’. 17 ‘Vhich prompts an obvious enquiry: what newly evolving forms here in the archaic present beyond alphabetic writing and thinking is digitality opening up? Clearly, not new forms of phonetic inscription (though current work on mark-up languages oflcrs an exception) , but rather an opening which puts into play the corporealizing axiom of digitality and goes beyond the alphabet’s notating of the speech organs’ movements. First question: why speech organs, why not notate the movement of any and all the body’s organs  and  parts,  aural  or  otherwise,  signifying  and  a-signifying  alike?  Second question: why interpret writing as representation, why notation, the projection onto speech of a pre-set list of marks and a syntax; why not an a-symbolic mediation, a medium (like photography, video, sound recording) able to make a direct itcrable trace of the look of  the visual real, or the sound  of the audible real,  but with movement; a trace of the moving real. Could there be a form of kinematic writing able to capture – enact or reproduce, not notate – the actual movements of the body in space and time? The answer is yes, digital technology does indeed offer such a possibility; it’s called motion and force capture.

To capture the motion of a body, one tracks it usually by attaching sensors (responsive to visual or magnetic or aural or inertial tracking technologies)  to chosen points  on the body (of an animal, machine, human) and takes periodic readings, i.e. digitized samples, of where in space these sensors arc as the body moves. Relatedly, the propensity to move which issues in pressure  and force can be captured by a variant of this. The resulting data set contains the information needed to reproduce the original motion/force of the chosen aspects of the body in an unlimited series of situations.

Like digital sound recording, the readings are raw data, almost purely metonymic sampling rather than metaphoric representation; they constitute a de­ tcrritorialization of the original motion from the place, time, circumstances, physical form and presence of its performance; in which form it can be re-territorialized, able, for example, to drive an animation, become the motion of an automaton, puppet, robot, cartoon figure, electronic doll, virtual reality avatar or indeed of another human body. Captured gestures arc already used in art objects, computer games, virtual choreography, animated films, different kinds of electronic installations and various realizations of the concept of virtual theatre; and captured forces enabling haptic action at a distance now occur in simulated handling of molecules and tele-surgcry to arm-wrestling and sexual contact between participants across the planet.

What is captured could include the entirety of human body movement and gestures from the locomoting, cavorting,  dancing body through emblems, the gestures of Signing, gesticulation, passing facial expressions, the briefest eyeblink. Force capture includes the haptic tactile, pressure and contact movements  which  embrace caresses of the skin, squeezes, pinches, shakings, kisses, slaps on the back, touslings, hugs, graspings and numerous other named and nameless proactions and communings that make up human embodiment. The resulting ability to capture the entire communicational, instrumental and affective traffic of the body constitutes a gesturo-haptic medium of vast and as yet unrealized and certainly unthcorized potential; a medium that escapes the purely signifying and representational by operating within interactive and immcrsivc regimes. In other words, haptic gestures do not communicate as such; they do not convey messages or transmit meanings or bear signification which pre-exist them; they are not signs in Saussure’s or Pierce’s sense, though they may become so retrospectively in that they come to signify (if that is the term) their own happening; their meaning is the fact and consequence of their having occurred. In this sense, the gcsturo-haptic is a medium with features opposed to the alphabetic: by enacting and executing its ‘messages’ it is evidently governed by a participatory rather than representational logic, having to do primarily with action,  deeds not words and inscriptions, with faire rather than dire, with performative and interactive states before constative and descriptive statements.

Nonetheless, despite these differences from the alphabetic, the gesturo-haptic medium offers itself as a distant descendant of the virtualizing action performed on speech by the alphabet. It certainly makes available to gestures –                                                                           human, animal or machine – the same kinds of conceptual mobility, spatio-temporal dislocation, iterability and freedom from the contexts of their production, as the notational system of alphabetic writing afforded human speech . The alphabet allowed (insisted) that words become objects,  discrete  items  of  awareness  that  could  be  isolated,  studied,  compared, replicated and systematized, giving rise to grammar, written discourse and literature, and a science of linguistics. Likewise gestures with respect to their digitally captured forms; they too are now being identified, individualized, examined, replicated and synthesized as discrete objects of conscious attention. The opportunity is thus opened for such newly digitized  and objectified gestures to emerge  from the shadow of speech, to be ‘grammaticalized ‘ and give rise to a gesturology, which might serve as the medium for Sign to possess a ‘literature’ and might do for the principled silences and unwords of the gesturo-haptic body, not least their production of its presence to itself and others, what linguistics has clone for spoken language. Or, as Artaud wanted for his theatre of cruelty, such a gesturology might displace or silence speech, subordinating it to the imperatives and possibilities  of pure gesture, screams and other ‘primitive’ signals of the body.

 But such an imagined gesturology should not be understood in  any passive  sense that would  underplay  the productive  aspect  of a  hapto-gestural  medium:  beyond a recording, tracing or capturing of the psychic manifestations of a fixed and given body, such mediation is constitutive and yields a source of becoming for this  very body . The principle of exogeneity encountered earlier in relation to Donald’s account of the evolution of cognition can be extended from cognition and memory to systems of capture. Thus, just as the human possession of something as basic  as a  number sense is not, contrary to accepted views, an innate ability or a ‘faculty’ or even an endogenously evolved skill, but a capacity assembled from different and independent brain activities each on their own having nothing to do with number , so captured gestures promise the construction of previously non-existent assemblages of bodily affect, of new ncurophysiologies, new forms of corporeality, new subjectivities . And such exogenesis of the psychic body, unlike the example  of number  sense, will  not be confined to the putting together of internal , already existent and individual brain activities, but will be assembled outside  the individual via networks, mediated pluralities and cultural groupings yet to be constructed. Truly, as Gilles Dcleuze paraphrasing Spinoza, has said: ‘We’re only just beginning  to  understand  what  a body  is capable  of’.

If alphabetic writing’s particular reconfiguration of bodies at the level of neurophysiology installs a transcendental fissure inside its texts, whose ultimate ontological form is the disembodied Goel of the West, then  the end of the alphabet as we know it would herald a seismic shift in western theism, a dissolution of the mono-deity  that  might  match  in  its  consequences  that  deity’s  inauguration . But  is such a thing possible? Is the end of the alphabet thinkable from within alphabetic writing here in the West? And having become aware of the alphabet’s effects, one can ask about those of contemporary cognitive technologies and wonder what manner of being or beings we are facilitating, what  new forms of metaphysical or post­ metaphysical modes of religion are we installing inside the participatory, gesturo-haptic and immersive forms of digital writing now under construction?


1   Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modem Mind. Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture (Cambriclge, MA: Harvard    University    Press,    1991),  p.4.

2    Frieclrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans . Geofrey  Wimhrop  and  Michael  Wutz (Stanford,  CA:  Stanford  University   Press,   1999), p.I.

3   Andre  Lcroi-Gourhan,  Gesture  and  Speech,  trans. Anna Berger (Cambridge, i\IA: i\IIT Press, 1993), p.40+.

4  Geoflrey  Sampson,  Writing Systems (Stanford , CA: Stanford  University  Press,  1985).

5 Michel   Maffesoli,   The  Shadow  of Dyonius.  A Contribution to the Sociology of the Orgy (SUNY Press, 1993)

6 David Armstrong et al. Gesture and the Nature of Language (Cambridge U. Press 1995, p 23)

7 Quoted in Harlan Lane, What the Mind Hears. A History of the Deaf, (Random House, 1984) p. 391
8  David McNeill, Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought (Chicago: Chicago U. Press,  1992), p.64.9  Terrence    Deacon  Symbolic   Species. The Co-Evolution  of Language   and  the Brain     (New   York: Norton, 1997), p.359.10 Deacon, Symbolic Species, p.418.11   Leroi-Gourhan,  Gesture and Speech, p.404.12 Jacques Derrida, Of  Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak  (Baltimore, Johns  Hopkins  U. Press,  1976), p.86.

13 David  Olson,  The  World  on  Paper , Cambridge: Cambridge  University  Press,   1994), p.8.

14  Robert  Logan,  The Alphabetic Effect: the Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization (New York: Morrow 1986) p. 87

15  Quoted   in    Marc -Alain  Quaknatin,   Mysteries  of the Alphabet  (New York: Abbeviille Press,  1999), p.46.

16 Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen, Imagolog1es. Media Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1994), no page numbers.

17 Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, p404

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