Learning Beyond Alphabets

Boris Buden

Boris Buden is a writer, cultural critic and translator. He studied philosophy in Zagreb and received his PhD in Cultural Theory from Humboldt University, Berlin. His essays and articles cover topics related to philosophy, politics, and cultural and art criticism. Among his translations into Croatian are some of the most important works of Sigmund Freud. Buden has co-edited several books and is author of Übersetzung: Das Versprechen eines Begriffs (Translation: Promises of a Concept, 2008, with Stefan Nowotny), Zone des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus (Zone of Transition: On the End of Post-communism, 2009), Findet Europa, (Find Europe, 2015), among others. Buden is permanent fellow at the European Institute of Progressive Cultural Policies, Vienna. He lives and works in Berlin.

Olga Schubert

Olga Schubert is Project Head of the New Alphabet School and has been working as a Research Consultant at Haus der Kulturen der Welt since 2015. Together with Bernd Scherer and Stefan Aue she co-edited the Wörterbuch der Gegenwart (Dictionary of Now), Matthes&Seitz 2019, and together with Eylem Sengezer and Sara Hillnhuetter the Glossar inflationärer Begriffe (Glossary of inflationary terms,) ngbk 2013. She is also the author of 100 Years of Now and the Temporality of Curatorial Research (Sternberg Press 2019). 

Ludwig Leo, Laborschule Bielefeld (draft, detail), 1971 | Ludwig-Leo-Archive, Academy of the Arts, Berlin, Nr. 5 Bl. 10

The New Alphabet School is a school for artistic, curatorial, archival, poetic, activist, critical, and affirmative research practices that take place outside of academia or other institutional contexts.

The first event within the frame of the three-year-project is a five-day (Un-)Learning Place with workshops and interventions by Berlin-based artistic, curatorial, and activist collectives in January 2019.

Designed as a translational hub, the school connects various forms of collectively produced knowledge, making it possible for the participants to detect and address its incommensurability within the established knowledge regimes. Its mode of conduct is neither inter- nor trans-disciplinary but is genuinely undisciplinary. The school does not aim at productively connecting the existing disciplines of knowledge or creating a parallel. It is rather an attempt to break the areal logic of the disciplinary divisions, which has been imposed on knowledge production since the wake of colonial-imperial modernity. These divisions have not only separated the subject of knowledge from its object, both in terms of nature and society, they have also socially divided people into those who are seen as qualified to think and know and those who are not; into the professionals and the laypeople. Moreover, the logic of area has acquired a normative meaning that goes as far as to divide humanity by anthropological difference, separating the civilized from the uncivilized by geo-cultural area, regardless of their place in time. Disciplinary division of knowledge is at the very core of logocentrism, ethnocentrism, and phonocentrism, which have up until now haunted the geo-cultural area called “the West.” Yet this normative identity block, the fortress of knowledge as we know it, is no longer stable. There are ever more cracks in its walls. It is in these cracks where the New Alphabet School with its (Un-)Learning Place will search for what is common in both knowledge and life.

There is nothing natural or innocent in the alphabets. They were instituted as tools that turn language into a finite number of discrete objects, which can be combined, measured, calculated, deciphered, translated, and traded. As infrastructures of writing, alphabets have essentially influenced the today still dominant understanding of language based on the paradigm of communication. Here language as a bearer of a message appears as a code and a written text. To read a text then means to deploy the code so as to transmit the linguistic information it contains. In this model meaning finally appears as the identity of code and message, that is, as a result of successful communication.

It is in this conceptual context that the learning of alphabets has been institutionalized to provide, in terms of universal literacy, the common foundation of knowledge—with far reaching socio-political and economic consequences. Alphabets have both decisively contributed to the Romantic identification of language and national community under the paradigm of sovereignty and facilitated the transformation of language into a commodity and/or resource of contemporary capitalism.

But here again the order of the old alphabets, together with the petrified institutions of disciplinary knowledge and its correspondent social, political, cultural, and economic arrangements—nation, state, territory, “free” market—is today crumbling. It proves increasingly unable to cope with the new complexity of the world brought about by globalization, digitalization, global warming, the crisis of representative democracy, and a rapid expansion of technology into the unknown spaces of the new post-human sociality. Once created to generate universality of linguistic practice, the knowledge of the world, and human togetherness, alphabets seem to have turned into the obstacles that prevent us from understanding the language in which the future is addressing us. Shall we unlearn them?

This is not what the New Alphabet School attempts. We don’t want to simply delete the old alphabets from our minds as obsolete and useless in order to make space for the new ones. Rather it implies an encounter with their failed promise to perfectly encode the entire knowledge of the world, making it universally translatable into every particular idiom by rendering it as a combination of discernible components. It is about their missed claims to both the measurability and commensurability of languages, to the linguistic equivalences of which our alphabetically ordered vocabularies are composed. A German phrase in which precisely the disciplinary organization of knowledge is explicitly addressed: Die Volkswirtschaftslehre (auch Nationalökonomie, Wirtschaftliche Staatswissenschaften oder Sozialökonomie, kurz VWL), ist ein Teilgebiet der Wirtschaftswissenschaft, was translated into English by a machine as: The economics of economics (including economics, economics, economics, economics, economics, economics) is a part of economics. A philosopher once said that there is no better starting point for thought than laughter. But funny or not, an encounter with the untranslatable is possible only through the living praxis of translation. Not as an auxiliary or secondary form of linguistic practice, into which it is degraded under the paradigm of communication, but as a social relation in which the intrinsic heterogeneity of language and of all knowledge is brought to light.

It is in this sense that an unlearning of the old alphabets shall unfold—through the creation of the New Alphabet School as a temporal and loose (non-aggregate) community of foreigners who have come together not on the ground of any presupposed unity, be it of a linguistic, social, political, or epistemic nature, but in joining each other in the labor of translational exchange as a form of learning that can address the common only in constantly creating it anew.

This also applies to English as the language of the New Alphabet School. Far from being a neutral tool of mutual understanding and transparent communication that smoothly bridges linguistic differences, it ceaselessly transforms them into power relations, forging social and cultural differentiation. In the New Alphabet School English is not a solution; rather it is a problem—an overburdened Lingua Franca that increasingly fails to cope with the opacity of the ever-broadening vernacular spaces. One can no longer speak it without critically reflecting on the unpredictable effects of its hegemonic omnipresence.

Finally, speaking of critique, the New Alphabet School also has a stake here. But it cannot imagine itself in a privileged, autonomous position of being against and outside of a self-constructed object of critique. The School does not want to criticize the world by professionally distancing itself and thereby privatizing what is social in being together. To perform critique for The New Alphabet School rather means to passionately dedicate itself to and take care of that which is at the same time foreign and present. Its mode of critique is situated in stubbornly continuing to ask the same questions and maintain the same concerns rather than coming up with the latest critical idea or perspective. At stake is an experience of effectively addressing in others the indeterminacy, potentiality, and virtuality of what is common and shared, which is, in fact, what translation is all about.


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Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society, London/New York: Marion Boyars, 1970.

Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson: Border as Method, or: The Multiplication of Labor, London: Duke University Press, 2013.

Naoki Sakai: Translation and Subjectivity: On Japan and Cultural Nationalism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Jon Solomon: “The Freedom of the Translator in the Age of Precarious Mobility: the Humanities, Area Studies, and Logistics,” in: Transversal, no.7 (2008), https://transversal.at/transversal/0718/solomon/en

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“Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity: Interview with Jacques Rancière,” by Marie-Aude Baronian and Mireille Rosello, in: Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 2, no.1 (Summer 2008). Translated by Gregory Elliot, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrinterview.html

Paolo Virno: A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Translated by Isabelle Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.