On 16th October I had the opportunity to present some of my PhD research with a talk centred on ‘alphabetical indexes and narrative’ for RHUL’s Practice-based department.

IMG Sketch for an Alphabet
‘The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.’
– Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists (Rizzoli, 2009)

‘Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement… anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.’
– Walter Abish: Alphabetical Africa (New Directions, 1974)

Seed catalogues, telephone directories, war memorials’ lists of the dead: alphabetical indexes provide a simple, consultable system of collating written data. When the model of a follows b follows c is disrupted within a text by an author, it automatically signals a refutation of such artificial demarcations. I hope to discuss the ways in which various creative works, from children’s battledores to Ron Silliman’s thousand-plus-page poem, challenge traditional claims of abecedary structure and permit an expression of reality’s unruliness. In terms of my own practice, my novel’s central character works at a dictionary house; as his inability to perform with and within the codes required by his employers increases, the reassurance he found in alphabetical taxonomies and lexicographical strictures begins to fall away. Correspondingly, the novel’s architecture and content becomes disjointed and disarrayed. My talk and reading will examine my work and research into texts’ adherence to or purposeful subversion of conventional alphabetical order, and the ways in which the use of the alphabet as subject and procedure can affect narrative.

And so on and so forth. This was followed by a corresponding talk by Amy Cutler; an expert on everything that is interesting, this evening she gave an account of ‘forest trauma’ and cultural geographies of the coast and wood. You can catch her award-winning Passenger film project this week at Somerset House as part of The Culture Capital Exchange’s Inside Out Festival. Do’t.

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