Where is a Single Anthology - Xu Bing's World/Letter Play

Komatsuzaki Takuo 

The Library of Babel: Characters/Books/Media (Tokyo: NTT Publishing): 


Words, if it need be said, are central to the communication process both in speech and in letter-based written language. Spoken language relies on various complex sound produced through the larynx and other parts the body. People who use the same words may pronounce them in unique ways, depending on region and age, giving rise to subtle differences in the pronunciation of a single word. The different accents placed on a word, sentence rhythms and pitch give spoken words and almost infinite number of variations and social position of the speaker can also transform words. Spoken communication thus presents various complicated nuances that can only be understood in the context of each particular conversation.

To properly transcribe speech would entail cataloguing all of these contextually produced nuances-a feat impossible with any written notation system that is based on letters or even phonograms to express sound or ideographs to express ideas. Letters are a limited entity that cannot represent the entirety of expression found in the human language.

The current debate about letters-and more specifically characters-centers on electronic media. Presently 6,355 characters are possible with the JIS Level One and Level Two Codes. Any character not included simply cannot be used. Moreover with the rapid displacement of the JIS codes by the simpler Unicode being proposed by the Americans as the international standard, Japan's unique culture is being endangered.

As previously mentioned, letters are unable to accurately express words used in human speech. It is impossible to properly distinguish in writing, for example, between" hello" as it spoken in the Tokyo and Osaka dialects. The archaic Japanese of the Manyyoshu is an example of how language, while meaningful as a written record of the past, is wholly inadequate as a record of speech. The poems are recorded in ancient Chinese characters, But beside these we find notes on how they should be pronounced and interpreted. In this sense letters-whether hand-written, printed or electronic-always possess certain incompleteness and can never fully represent the present or the past.

A similar problem occurs when using any letter-based notation system such as the Roman alphabet or Korean hangul. An extreme example is the case of closely related Germanic or Romance languages: a computer without German fonts cannot display and umlaut even though it can display the rest of the text correctly. This rigid limitation occurs often in the realm of electronic correspondence. An ideal system would allow all users to express themselves using every letter in their native script-an overly optimistic solution perhaps, given the original inadequacy of letters in fully expressing words, but one which technology may eventually provide.

More serious still is the relation between electronic media and cultural nationalism, the theme take up brilliantly by Chinese artist Xu Bing. With a deftly humorous touch Xu Bing both invents and manipulates "Chinese" characters to expose the inadequacies of written language. Each of the 4,000 characters in his "A Book from the Sky" (1991) was created by him, and it goes without saying that none of them appear in either of the JIS standards. They possess neither meaning nor phonetic value and will probably never appear on any keyboard. Although by definition a book ("a number of printed pages fastened together and enclosed in a cover,"according to Webster's) it serves not function as a medium. Written with "characters that bear no knowledge," it is neither a conveyor of information nor information in itself.

In contrast, Xu Bing's "Introduction to New English Calligraphy“ (1994-96) is a work that points towards the possibilities of expression in electronic media. The work is essentially a computer program that allows users to type in letters of the Roman alphabet to produce one of Xu Bing's faux ideograms. Each letter corresponds to one element of a character (called a radical) so that typing out a word actually "draws" a complete character.

For Westerners unaccustomed to characters, the charm of the work may just be in seeing the familiar letters of one's culture transformed into the exotic characters of a foreign culture. But for the different people of the East who share the use of characters for their writing, however, Xu Bing's transformation of the alphabet into a form resembling characters-essentially the adoption of a Western into an Eastern frame-is an unbelievable, fantastic optical illusion. (pp. 55-56)