Signe : Signe (or Precisely, Alphabet).* – Mike Zahn

Spring 2019

Donald Baechler Alphabet 2003

‘In childhood, linguistic reverie focuses at once on the elements of natural language, and on the vocables constituted from them, and it may even begin working on the latter before any analytical ability. We are going to violate the order of the text a bit, and probably that of lived experience, so as to begin with the elementary speculations to which Michel Leiris devotes, almost exclusively, the first fifteen pages of the chapter titled, precisely, Alphabet.**

‘It goes without saying that, for the child, properly phonic analysis remains inaccessible and without doubt inconceivable for a long time. On the other hand, graphic analysis is given, so to speak, in shapes at once simple and seductive, in various presentations— images, blocks, the sculpted letters of shop signs, and so on— that fall into this category. But a readymade analysis is no longer, or not yet, a genuine analysis. Here, straightforwardly, each letter appears as an autonomous and picturesque shape, even as a concrete object, prior to any consciousness of its possible utilization in a greater linguistic whole, whether syllable, word, or sentence. At the outset, the only perceptible whole is, naturally, the alphabet itself. Letters are therefore concrete objects that belong to a concrete unity that is “the alphabet-object, a thing with shape and weight, opacity and consistency,” which directs attention spontaneously to the materiality of the elements of— what is not yet— writing.

Donald Baechler Untitled (Composition with Cucumber) 1988

‘With their material existence confirmed and intensified in this way, the elements of language quite naturally take on an evocative value of their own, a direct and autonomous signification. “Letters do not remain dead letters, but are shot through with the life force of a precious Kabbalah.” As in Hugo or in Claudel, we find here a repertory of formal equivalences between letters and objects: is a stepladder; a soldier or a column; Othe original spheroid of the world; a winding path or a snake; lightning; the cross; the fragment of a portico or the fork in a tree; is a fat stomach; a tenon; a corbel; J a fishhook or an inverted crook; a chair without legs; a zig-zag; a pillar supporting an architrave; the longitudinal section of a vase . . .
Among the secondary graphemes, the cedilla { } evokes a small pig’s tail, and in a more specific memory, a crank like the one used by the owner of the bazaar at the corner of Michelangelo and Auteuil Streets, for operating the awning that protected his shop stall. As the reader has noticed, every letter is interpreted solely according to its shape as a printed capital, reconfirming the dominance of the alphabet.

Donald Baechler Colorful Ball 2010

Such materiality is of course graphic, plastic— “a lightweight scaffolding of letters, an impalpable framework of girders, the book’s thickened space” — chromatic — “a yellowish alphabet” — and above all, and in the present case, gustatory and, as it were, alimentary. This description may seem absolutely idiosyncratic, and it probably is, given its circumstantial causes: Alphabet happens to rhyme with Olibet, a trademark of sweet biscuits and butter cookies, which transmits its yellowish color— corroborated by the yellow cover of the primer of the ABCs— and its consistency of “fine and dense crumbs” to “alphabet”. Another of its manifestations also happens to be “pasta for alphabet soup”, whence that almost daily experience of “ eating an A, a B, a C, a D” and thus “tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge”, from which issues yet another experience, apparently unique but crucial: “One evening, when I was under the weather and had gulped down a little too much soup too fast, I suddenly emitted, greatly to the detriment of the tablecloth and the large, deep breadbasket next to me, an enormous series of letters which I had not digested and which remained as legible as the fat letters that compose, if not the headlines, at least the subtitles of a major daily newspaper.” **

Andy Warhol Polaroid Triptych (Donald Baechler) 1986

*Excerpts from Mimologiques: Voyage and Cratylie, Gerard Genette, 1995.
**Genette’s chapter title ’Signe : Signe’ alludes to the wordplay characteristic of Michel Leiris, especially his Biffures and Glossarie,excerpted here.

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