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The Agency of Letters

In their 1913 manifesto ‘The Letter as Such’, the Russian futurist poets Alexander Kruchonykh and Velemir Khlebnikov deride those who have failed to understand that letters are not just linguistic signs but also expressive forms. For them, to habitually use the same old fonts, to impose them uniformly on entire texts, and to overlook the possibilities of creative handwriting entirely without regard to the specific context in which letters are being written, by whom and to whom, is to unwittingly and unnecessarily allow language to become a prison-house. ‘You’ve seen the letters of their words,’ they write, ‘strung out in straight lines with shaved heads, resentful, each one just like the others,’ hardly letters at all, just ‘stamped out marks.’ We must, Kruchonykh and Khlebnikov exhort, stop treating language as if it were simply a transparent medium for the communication of meaning. Writing – handwriting in particular – is a more directly mimetic form. Letters are like bodies; writing, like dance, can function as a kind of bodily mechanism for the mimetic expression of emotions. ‘Our mood,’ they continue, ‘alters our handwriting as we write’, and this mood is conveyed to the reader ‘independently of the words’.