Theorizing the alphabet

On Steve McCaffery's 'Nichol's Graphic Cratylism'

Note: above, a video of Steve McCaffery giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Rachel Blau DuPlessis responds to McCaffery’s talk in the essay that follows. 


Whenever Steve McCaffery talks, he opens areas of and occasions for research into poetry and poetics. Here he enters simultaneously into the career of bpNichol (his sometime collaborator until Nichol’s untimely and tragic death in 1988) and into the fraught question of the origins of written language. Nichol, a prodigiously creative poet and performer, original and boundless, seems to have cultivated a wild and naïve persona, and a casual, open-hearted approach to his multifarious creative occasions. McCaffery’s goal (here and elsewhere) has been to articulate the informed, analytic, and theoretical claims that — he avers — were always present in and underlying Nichol’s work. In this suggestive intervention, McCaffery proposes that Nichol drew upon Alfred Kallir’s Sign and Design: The psychogenetic source of the alphabet — a book to which Nichol alludes on two occasions, and one that McCaffery and Jed Rasula include in their dazzling Imagining Language: An Anthology. McCaffery proposes that Kallir’s psychosexual theories of visual origins of writing informed Nichol’s experiments with concrete poetry and vispo, with wordplay, with the translation of letters into words, and essentially infused his “Cratylan” propensities to claim that names (words) were natural, not conventional signs. That last alludes to a much-debated dialogue in the Socratic canon concerning the origins of names and the relationship of word and thing. Nichol tried always to reject any split (some kind of original fall or flaw) between word and world (word and thing), and to affirm the Cratylan position — that words and things are originally the same. In all his work Nichol was “prelapsarian” — he attempted to reunify signifier and signified by (in McCaffery’s mot) “playfulness as epistemology.” Among these efforts, visual text work was essential to the deep materiality of language in and as writing.

McCaffery’s appeal in the name of Nichol to the hermetic (McCaffery would say “natural”) wing of linguistics has been an aspect of his work for years: the paragrammic claims of Saussure, the sexualization of the alphabet and its basis in our organic body beyond the eye-ear split (as in Kallir), the ludic charms of Nichol’s generative experiments with the “patter of letter feet” are all swirled together in a deft metonymic chain of linguistic speculation. The Cratylan nugget — that words are not conventional sounds attached to things, but instead had their long-ago origins in things (tracked via etymology) — is highly debatable, half-plausible, and magical.

The way Kallir seems to cover (in both senses) the discrepancy between word and thing is to propose that writing emerged from a collective unconscious as a “magical chain of procreative symbols necessary for human survival.” Anything appealing to a collective unconscious is both a yearning point and an unprovable one. Here is the moment for a timeline, extracted from the Smithsonian’s timeline of humans: 1) emergence of the first humans 1.8 million years ago, along with control of fire; 2) homo sapiens and Neanderthals [among others?] 800,000–200,000 years ago, and a period of rapid brain expansion; 3) 250,000–30,000 years ago “symbolic culture” emerges, illustrated by a fertility icon; 4) 12,000 years ago emergence of agriculture; 5) 4,500 years ago — writing emerges. The gap between human beings and then symbolic culture and then writing is such that almost any theory of writing’s origins could be hypothesized. Symbolic culture is attached to fertility — but also presumably to burial and to certain crafts (pots for storage of grain and of the dead). 

McCaffery’s short essay is quite culture-bound, but charming in its arousing feeling that McCaffery, or Nichol, or Kallir, or someone has finally activated ultimate ground, ultimate origin, in evoking the origins or basis or primal necessity as implicit in every alphabetic sign. This means a symbolic reading of alphabetic signs as if pictographs: in the manly tip of impregnation (the upside down A), the open womb of the letter C, the pregnant woman in letter D, the swollen breasts of the letter B, the cunt-cuneiform of the letter V, and the penis and balls (or was that the moment of impregnation?) of letter Y. When you are inside these claims, it’s a bit like reading your horoscope or wearing healing crystals — every speculation always seems right. Or, to say it another way — how can wrongness or rightness ever be proven? There are both other languages (many) and other sign systems for conveying language (many). If the theories are suggestive and have given “metaphors for poetry” to the fecund and important creator Nichol, why not? We must be happy that Kallir was on Nichol’s shelf and that years later McCaffery discusses, as relevant to Nichol, the mysteries of our medium, starting with the alphabet and going into rare points of allegorical reading and pictographic magic. We watch (on YouTube) the McCafferyian philological and bibliomantic sleight of hand, temporarily disinterested that this claim is bound to one linked version of the origins of our letters (in Egyptian-Hebrew-Phoenician-Greek-Latin) and that it is so culture-bound to our writing system as to constitute an explosive blind spot. And why not “the English letter as a medium for poetry”? Happy, happy Anglophones! That this theorizing about the alphabet is cheerfully sexual just makes Nichol’s own lowercase initials interestingly androgynous. Good for him, one wants to say. Let that penis inseminate as many womb-breasts as it wants! No little puppies were hurt in the making of this movie. It was only, sadly, much too short. One remains free to speculate about the very dazzling, startling, and probably unfixable origins of languages, writing systems, and all their human varieties from evidence of all kinds. And we can give thanks for all kinds of poetics drawing on many theories of language while at the same time thanking McCaffery for his always generous and emancipatory reading of Nichol’s work.