Lengthening And Twisting ‘round Itself

by D. Graham Burnet, 2020.

It was at first a dream reported in intimate settings. Because it hardly seemed to merit wider dissemination. Those visited by the vision in the early phase of the outbreak merely shared it with those beside whom they awoke — or if they opened their eyes alone, took up a worn pad by the bed and jotted a few lines. Writing helped. It was good to link the letters in a cursive hand.

I can reproduce my own scribbles here: “It was as if each of the letters of the alphabet, one by one, curled up like a cat, enfolding itself in sovereign disregard. Quite like a cat, in that each letter grew a little tail, which it then wrapped about itself in complacent solipsism. It was the ‘a’ that did it first, lengthening and twisting ’round itself until it became an @ — an ‘a’ withdrawn defiantly into its shell. The whole alphabet followed: b, c, d, in turn, folding away into cysts of themselves, impervious, inert, durable, solitary.”

That was how I tried to describe it. Only gradually did it become clear that the dream was operating along lines of transmission hitherto unknown in the annals of human experience. Was it actually infectious? Did whatever spirit-spore that secreted its principle move between people by touch? By breath?

There were panics, naturally, but they abated — since, for all the mystery, there seemed to be no adverse effects. Indeed, there were hardly even consequences. We sensed, to be sure, that language itself was somehow tiring of us. That those work-horses of our expressive enterprise — the individual letters — were nightly staging an unsettling protest. Even so, we awoke in the mornings and found each character again willing to serve its role, to submit to ligatures, to trip off the tongue, to pulse upon the screen. They were not the pillbugs of our recurrent nightmare.

Now, of course, the dream itself is widely shared, but I think we would all agree that we go about our business much as before. Though it is true that there is something different about the @ these days. Who can see it (on the keyboard, on the screen) and not feel a little nocturnal shiver? It has about it, we sense, an air of rebellion — a certain cloaked recalcitrance.

We use it less, I think. Or maybe more.

D. Graham Burnett is based in New York City. He trained in the history and philosophy of science, and works at the intersection of historical inquiry and artistic practice. Recent work includes: “Schema for a School” (with Asad Raza and Jeff Dolven) at the Ljubljana Biennial (2015) and The Shed (2018); and “El Halo del Cuidar” (with Lane Stroud and Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) at the Reina Sofia (2019). Burnett is associated with the research collective ESTAR(SER) and the “Friends of Attention.” He teaches at Princeton.