Making Things Mean Things – Part 0

Part 0 – It’s Not Academic/Where to Begin(?)

Aside from listening to the same music (Greg Ginn’s post-Black Flag instrumental project “Gone”), not much of how I write is the same as when I was in graduate school, cranking out literary theory essays that said a lot while saying nothing. Back then, my standard operating procedure was to compose bits and pieces of the essay on separate sheets of paper and then to arrange them on my floor, writing transitions and conjunctions on new sheets to bridge the original sheets together. It made my head feel like exploding, and that was before I even sat down at the computer to write the essay itself. The writing process was the best part – it was a release of all the intellectual tension I built up trying to force some coherence on the frayed strands of thought tangled up in my head. Throw in a day of editing as a buffer before the torture of checking my cites and references and compiling a works cited (the only part of an essay anyone in academia actually reads, anyway). I lasted two years before dropping out in a fireball of incomplete coursework.

I’ve been thinking for a couple years about alphabets, and I have wanted to write an essay about alphabets for a while, but I haven’t been able to start it. The essays on my blog have been mostly “freehand” – meaning, no outlines, no notes except for jotting down an idea or two, and none have taken me more than a couple nights to write (“The Worlds of Luigi Serafini” being the exception – it took around a week). It’s a deliberately non-academic way to write, but it satisfies the only thing I do miss about graduate school – really deep individual intellectual engagement with a particular subject matter. I don’t cite, because I talk enough about my source material that if you care, you can find it yourself. I say things like “if you care” rather than “if one cares.” It’s not stilted. Well, as unstilted as my fairly dry, stilted writing can get, anyway. It’s fun. So, I’ve got this idea to write an essay about alphabets that maybe a handful of people will read. But I can’t start it. There’s too much going on, and I feel the old pull to start sketching clumps of it on sheets to try to force some order into the process. Maybe do some more research before I start writing? There is a cornucopia of research on the connection between alphabets and meaning, and I suppose I should meticulously read all of it (or at least enough that I can act as if I’ve meticulously read all of it) – symbology, cultural studies, linguistics, aesthetic judgment… brush up on my Kant, my Saussure, get my Wittgenstein going again (did I sell my copy of Philosophical Grammar to a bookstore? I can’t even remember anymore). There’s a 30% chance I’ll talk about smooth vs. striated space when I write about alphabets. It’s been a long time since I cracked the spine on Deleuze and Guattari.

But the point of this is not to explain alphabets to anyone. I don’t care to take five years becoming the expert in order to establish some sort of credibility. My goal is to explain my personal aesthetic experience of certain alphabets to anyone who cares (raise your hands). The only thing keeping me going when I was slogging through my miserable time as a Ph.D. student was the notion that I might “do it” and break some new intellectual ground. Dropping out, I had to come to terms with the fact that that ship was sailing – but what I realized when I started writing again was that my personal experience with literature and art had always been left out of the equation, and that was interesting to explore. And, because I’m your garden variety web 2.0 exhibitionist, I put that exploration out there, and a surprising number of people seem to be interested in it.

“Making Things Mean Things” is the title of the essay. I’m going to post it as a series of entries rather than one giant blob, because the major hurdle to my even being able to envision starting it was not being able to conceive of it as a complete idea. Problem solved – I don’t know how long it will be, or how long it will take me, or even how often I will add new chapters. But it will be fun.


2 Responses to “Making Things Mean Things – Part 0”

  1. 1 mjp January 30, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Starting to write when finishing the idea seems impossible or insurmountable is what separates the men from the boys (sorry, ladies, your books are cute, but the men are talking). Good on ya, keep typing. Moxie and all that. FTW!

  2. 2 Lisa K February 2, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Nonsequitur FYI, via Bookfinder’s blog:


    I just found out via Boing Boing that the city of Boston has shut down it’s 78 year old print shop in a cost cutting effort and is now auctioning off its equipment in 200 lots. The auction is being held on Feb 24 at 11AM estern and will be simultaneously conducted in the factory at 174 North St. as well as digitally.

    There is all sorts of great old printing gear so I suggest any pamphleteers, zinesters, and print shops take a gander at the wares on offer. In the Boston Globe they described an old-fashioned platen press with a hand lever and foot pedal and a Linotype machines that stand 6 1/2 feet tall as two of the pieces.

    [Now Reading: Old Mans War by John Scalzi]”

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