What We Do with Alphabets and Birthdays
Naming and numbering as cultural techniques of homonization in Gertrude Stein’s ABC
In accordance with standard generic expectations of the children’s ABC Gertrude Stein’s To Do. A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (1941) consists of a story for each letter of the alphabet featuring four characters with names starting with the relevant letter. However, special attention is paid to the different roles of the eye and the ear in reading and rhyme, puns, homonyms and the sonorous ambiguity of letters and words are continuously undermining the alphabetic structuration of Stein’s ABC, with the consequence of fundamentally shaking the stability of the proper name. Even worse it seems to become, when the well known practice of numeric identification – the birthday – is introduced and this seemingly neutral, temporal marker of identity becomes highly disputable, for instance when characters start to fight over their birthdays. The consequences of such alpha-numeric ambiguities often prove surprisingly violent to the characters of the book that frequently drown, burn up or vaporize when their names, letters and birthdays are being challenged. At other points in the stories, however, these challenges create Deleuzian lines of flight, that allow characters to take off from spatial confinement and anchoring.
I want to suggest that Stein in her ABC is investigating the alphanumerical structuration of our communication, that is, our use of letters and numbers. As German media theorist Berhard Siegert has put it “the basic operation of those cultural techniques responsible for processing the distinction between nature and culture, or barbarism and civilization, is a filtering operation.” To Do is about this filtering operation, the name and the birthday are markers that filter the figures off from their surroundings and from chaos and in turn act as cultural techniques of hominization, or anthropotechnics, as they tie disparate objects together into practices that in turn “produce something that within a given culture is addressed ‘a person.’” (Siegert 2015). But To Do is also a book that lingers where ever this filtering operation becomes threatened, disturbed, interrupted – and in this way it stresses the channel, the materiality, the phatic element in all communication.
In German media theory ‘cultural technique’ as a concept has been fronted in recent years at the cost of a more static material concept of medium, in order to address the materiality of artistic and cultural practices in a more dynamic way. A general characteristic of cultural techniques like “reading, writing, painting, counting or making music” are that they are practices that exist prior to the structuration and theorization that is represented by for instance notational systems such as the alphabet. “People wrote long before they conceptualized writing or alphabets.” (Macho 2004) By allowing us to think for instance of reading independent of the alphabet Macho’s definition takes hold of the intermingling in any cultural technique of the aspects of investigation and quest. The article will also develop the general affinity between this dynamic approach to the material aspects of writing and Stein’s oeuvre, that is reinforced by her complicated publication history and reception where only few ‘books as artifacts’ are available. In stead Stein’s works are open and processual documents, that deliberately disturb the borders between seeing and hearing, forcing the reader to do both at the same time, or fluctuate between them, and as media poetic objects they challenge the frontier between interfaces of reading and writing (Emerson 2008).
In To Do, it is clear that the fundamental processes of homonization actualized are not the seamless or neutral practices assumed in didactic literature as well as academic writing. In stead, Stein is underlining the violent and disciplining aspects that are inherent in our conceptualization of these practices, when the investigation of seemingly rational cultural techniques such as reading and counting turns into an irrational quest led by omens, superstition and arbitrary violence. Yet, she is also attentive to the freedom inherent in this inessential technological conception of man as lines of flight are introduced. Especially interesting is the way it is played out in the final story of Z, where Zero appears as a character, suggesting the infinite potential in numeric notation when the spatial aspect of place-value systems introduces a topological economy of signs (Vismann 2008 , Siegert 2015).
The Fifth International EAM conference, University of Rennes 2, 1.- 4. juni 2016