October 14, 2014

Mirene Arsanios

She decided to remain at the hotel overnight, preferring not to travel in the dark, was a sentence she copied from page seventeen of a book called WORDS, a manual for students of business who wished to "keep abreast of work practices and customs." The sentence illustrated how the final consonant of a verb was doubled before a suffix beginning with a vowel.

The book was printed in 1911, in the United States of America. She was in Beirut and more than a century away from the context and history of WORDS, yet, she was in a hotel and it was getting dark outside. She decided to remain at the hotel overnight. She was tired after all.

It wasn't her first time in Beirut, but this time, she had come for a two-day conference on science and aesthetics hosted by the Beirut Art Center. The conference was over and her stay at the hotel was no longer covered. If she hadn't procrastinated all day, she could have taken the train and left the city by night. She was behind schedule with nearly everything: packing, responding to emails, feeding herself. She also had an essay to write for the Reanimation Library, she would write it tonight, she thought. To those who can best do the work, all work in this world is sooner or later committed.

To begin her essay, she stared at WORDS' innocuous, brown laminated cover for a few seconds. Pronunciation, Application, Spelling, were embossed in an inverted triangle just beneath the title. She thought of scraping the cover with her finger in order to sneak into the book, rubbing off the paper page after page, as if to dig a small tunnel. Instead, she opened WORDS on the Contents page. It comprised one- hundred-and-two lessons spanning from the use of prefixes and suffixes, to technical vocabularies on Electrical and Radio.

Annular, bimetallic, coherer, concentric, elliptic, equalizers, galvanic, voltage, depolarize, alternating, coupling, vacuum, Macaroni, kinetic, residual, hysteresis.

In her Mac's Dictionary App, hysteresis was defined as the phenomenon in which the value of a physical property lags behind changes in the effect causing it, as for instance when magnetic induction lags behind the magnetizing force. WORDS' second edition was published in 1929, the year of the great financial crash, a massive and unprecedented magnetic induction. How ironic, or plain that it was intended for business students. WORDS, perhaps like capitalism itself, didn't know anything about capitalism. It was simply a guide for those wishing to get acquainted with the language of calamities. An etiquette book, a secretarial manual written on the premise that in order to do business, one must speak business. Could WORDS have precipitated the greatest crash in modern history? That thought made her smile.

His balance at the bank was not so large as he had figured.
Among the enclosures we failed to find the account current.
The stock exchange was a reliable barometer of business conditions.
Every well-managed business is operated on a budget.
The number of capitalists in America is increasing rapidly.

She called room service to order an onion soup with extra cheese, referred to as "premium topping" on the menu. The desk clerk asked for her last name. Marsanios, she replied. Could you please spell it for me?
M A R S A N I O S.

She hung up and peered out at the street from her room window; it was pitch black, swallowed up in the night. A grinding moped drove by. She imagined it to be red and its driver bald, without a helmet. He might have been carrying a shopping bag or two. She shut the window, re-opened the book, and resumed her sensory inspection, a kind of scrutiny involving reading, touching, and listening to the flat sound of the book's yellowed pages, the way it made other objects in the room like the bed and the desk, and the table lamp on the bureau and her cluttered suitcase, swell and crash against each other.

On the front endpaper of the book, Reanimation Library Mid Manhattan Branch Museum of Modern Art 23 January - 9 March, was stamped in blue ink that the paper had soaked up, making the letters fuzzy. Margaret Wheeler, 1930- 44th Street was penned on the upper right corner in a perfectly even handwriting flourished with curvy letter ends.

44th Street was not far from the MoMA. She wondered if Margaret Wheeler ever went to MoMA and if she did, did she carry WORDS with her, as a subway read? Was she interested in General Business Terms, Legal Terms, Hardware and Cutlery, Civil Engineering? All sub-sections of WORDS' part on Technical Vocabularies? She could only speculate on the past whereabouts of the book and on its owner's interests, but she could tell, without a shadow of doubt, that Margaret Wheeler would never have thought that her book WORDS would have ended in the dim room of a Beirut hotel.

Luggage, Passenger, Refrigerator, Salvage (!), Sailor, Signal, Steamer, Tourist, Tunnel, Ventilator, Voyage, Ellipsis, Violation, Via, Time, Tidal.

What time was it? She felt her arms and legs grow heavy, the jet lag was kicking in. She grabbed a Mirinda bottle from the mini-fridge, opened her luggage, pulled out a clean t-shirt, and turned on the ventilator. The air was muggy and she felt sweaty, her t-shirt clung to her back.

Time travels but history doesn't, illustrated the the word time on page eighty-one. How did time travel? And what was time without history? She began her essay by scribbling on a piece of paper with the hotel's letterhead: When an object from the past reappears, the tissues connecting the object to the world it belonged to are severed. The words used to relate to the object have changed too. The way the object is held in hand too. Its value no longer belongs to a present-day economy. It becomes exceptionally significant or entirely devoid of any interest, unworthy of our attention, too demanding of one's time precisely because the object has lost its connection to time. Economically speaking, it no longer triggers consumerist impulses; it becomes a fetish. Was the Reanimation Library a collection of books converting past impulses into present fetishes, and archiving them? What currency did a book like WORDS have today? As she finished her sentences, she wondered, why, of all books, had she picked WORDS? A technocratic, misogynist,—She was not really prepared to handle the important assignment (Lesson 12); She attended to her duties systematically (Lesson 24); She has the ability to type rapidly, but inaccuracy is her weakness (Lesson 40); The employer censured his stenographer for misspelling "precede" but praised the arrangement of her letters (Lesson 42); Miss Adam's files were in perfect order while Miss Francis' were in utter confusion (Lesson 13)—dull business manual with an unattractive cover? Was it because she loved words, especially those she didn't understand? To her, words were like signals pointing to things she wouldn't see without them. She was also curious about the way words sat in her mouth, how the tip of the tongue was placed in English. She wanted to reanimate words that hadn't been spoken in a long while, words that hadn't traveled, or that had died via an ellipsis.

She had chosen the wrong book. For WORDS, words belonged to vocabularies, a body of its own nomenclature. It embraced new words, swiftly discarding old ones: "New words and new meanings for old words spring up overnight. The numerous scientific discoveries and inventions bring with them a host of technical terms that must take their place in one's everyday vocabulary."[1] Now WORDS' new words had aged, or had simply become words—destination, luggage, traffic—that were neither old, nor new, as if the old and the new had cancelled each other out and softened their edges through habit.

Amt. Amount ; Av. Average; Bldg. Building ; Ltd. Limited; C.B. Cash Book ; ff. following ; C.P.A. Certified Public Accountant ; TMB. Tweet me Back.

WORDS' desire to streamline language made more sense after she googled the book's publisher, and found out it was none other than John Robert Gregg, the inventor of the Gregg shorthand, a system of pen stenography widely used in the early 20th century. Shorthand compressed English into abbreviated hieroglyphs so as to increase the speed of writing. It resembled small strings of overcooked noodles lined up on a page. She wrote: With mechanical, and later digitized stenography, shorthand fell out of use. Like all inventions geared towards efficiency, shorthand was not only a tool, it was an instrument for ideology with its own understanding of human communication and language. She paused here and felt like tourist, someone writing a piece on 1920's shorthand and language manuals, a topic she knew nothing about. How far had she travelled? It was eleven o'clock. Considering the time difference, it was six in the morning. She continued. Shorthand wasn't only a writing tool; it was a new language. Entire literary books were translated into shorthand. So that readers could read faster? Or was it rather a radical reconfiguration of what language could be?

She read somewhere, in a book with a softer cover than WORDS that words were like beehives in which meanings, spellings, and usages cross-pollinated.

Though a system, language is idiosyncratic. It is a system of deviation. Shorthand, on the other hand, gets rid of the superfluous, the unnecessary noise of a long word like "essentialize", which Microsoft Word, too, won't recognize. To cut, reduce, simplify, was and still is a modern project, a shortcut to the real. IRL, a few days ago, she had written P, a friend living seven hours ahead, asking for references on language and learning. P had sent her a link to Dr. Comstock's Treatise on Phonology, published in 1855. In the book's introduction, Dr. Comstock proposes, "not only to simplify but to perfect the English language by the appropriation of a letter to every elementary sound. The appropriation of a letter to every elementary sound is not only the true means by which perfection in the orthography on any language can be reached, but it is the only way in which pronunciation can be rendered at once uniform, simple, and easy of acquisition."[2] Dr. Comstock had also devised a vocal gymnasium to cure stammering and perfect elocution.

Gregg and Comstock, albeit in different ways and at different times, both worked to align language with productivity, obliterating the grain of the voice, the texture of mispronunciation, and all that is physical, faulty, specific. Like her accent in English.

In defiance of their project, she pronounced mispronunciation, observing the way her tongue sat in in her mouth with "n" initiating the syllable "nun."

WORDS and Treatise on Phonology were both terrified objects, books that feared their own condition as books, distressing over their inability to keep up with what they are made of: words. They were written during the day, not at night when "words spring up," like self-generated little monster populating a room during sleep. She imagined John Robert Gregg waking up one morning, dumbstruck at a the nightly formation of a word like "Feminism."

Bolshevik: any radical socialist of political upheavalist.
Feminism: a theory that advocates doing away with restrictions upon the political, social, and economic relations of women.

Microsoft Word didn't recognize the word upheavalist, and as synonym for Feminism, it gave her radicalism. She thought about the relationship between dictionaries and ideology. IHHO, it was huge. She thought about how WORDS' eagerness with the modern came with an embedded suspicion of leftist and radical politics. Every illustrative sentence in the book written in the third person feminine represented a submissive and obedient position: She attended to her duties systematically (Lesson 24), illustrated how the majority of adverbs are formed from adjectives by adding the suffix ly.

She thought about the politics of grammar, about the relationship between language and capitalism in a book like WORDS. About how American English had become the language of capitalism because of how prone it was to change, mutation, adaptation, and appropriation. That's what made it so compelling. American English knew that YOLO.

Capitalism produces systems and objects that change our experience of time and space. Not only new words are invented to express social and historical mutations, today, the economical and technological systems we live in and under, perpetually generate new words and conditions for words. Emoticons are an example of contemporary shorthand. She ended her sentence here.

In its modern project, WORDS was rather innocuous. It was simply a book. Its pages turned like a book, and it aged like one. She no longer thought of WORDS, her dinner had arrived. She grabbed the silver spoon and broke into the cheese layer shielding the onion soup from her mouth.


[1] Sorelle P. Rupert, Kitt W. Charles. Words: Spelling, Pronunciation, Definition, and Application. The Gregg Publishing Company, 1929.
[ 2 ] Comstock, Andrew. Treatise on Phonology. Philadelphia, E.H. Butler, & Co., 1855.

Mirene Arsanios's writings have appeared in both arts and literary magazines such as Bidoun, Cura, The Rumpus, Ink & Coda, and Enizagam. She runs 98editions, a small Beirut press, and edits Makhzin, a trilingual magazine for experimental writing. She holds an MFA in Writing from Bard College.

View WORDS in the catalog here.

Read other Word Processor essays.