Friday, 1 March 2013

I.M.A.A Reading Group 12.02.13: Theodor Adorno - Punctuation Marks

Adorno's Punctuation Marks was written in 1953, and playfully discusses the nature of punctuation in written language, with references to ancient usage and the personification of certain marks. I had come across this essay whilst conducting research into the work of Rosa Barba, an artist who is interested in gaps and breaks, and suggested it for the reading group. I thought it would be interesting to discuss a piece of writing about writing, and also to read writing about writing, then, with this particular reading group being punctuated by pancakes and late arrivals, we had some compelling, fun and anecdote-driven discussions.

Present: Lauren Velvick, Marcelle Holt, Natalie Bradbury, Maurice Carlin, Sara Nesteruk and Hannah Leighton Boyce.


The essay itself is much jollier, and more flowery than many of us expected from Adorno, poetically expressing the often subtle, yet indispensible function of punctuation for the written word. Initially, it seemed like it was the writers in the group who had enjoyed this essay the most, perhaps finding a cameraderie in this indulgently in-depth analysis of, and story about these marks, which can make all the difference to a piece of writing regardless of it's content.


By having had our attention focussed on punctuation in general, the discussion turned to the most common ways in which we write in our every-day lives. Leading to questions about how punctuation is used in social media such as twitter, and other short communications. Marcelle, who had performed research into twitter, in terms of the performance of identity for her undergraduate dissertation, recognised how some users are better at tweeting than others. What, we wondered, made a good tweeter, and would they also be considered to be a good writer, by dint of their twitter skills?


It was noted how within text messages, when they first became a ubiquitous form of communication, punctuation was famously abandoned in favour of a form of written language in which many, if not most words were shortened, for essentially practical reasons. Text messages are also private, which can be seen to remove the performative element associated with twitter, however, anecdotal evidence suggests that with certain of our peers, there would be a performative element to text messages, whereby they would function as banter, or a form of 'jamming'. Good writing, it seems, is appreciated no matter its form, and a perceptive use of punctuation is an integral part of this.


Adorno refers to punctuation marks as "friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language" linking their use in written language, to how written music is punctuated to indicate the length of notes and breaks. Indeed, how punctuation is used by a writer alters the pace and flow of a text, and Adorno's analysis here is quite beautiful. His characterisation of individual punctuation marks also belies a sort-of wistful affection for these abstract and dispensable - as we have seen in the case of text messages - marks, which may be overlooked for their importance in enriching a piece of writing with mood and subtle meanings.


"An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Krais, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (« ») lick their lips."(p. 1)






"a drooping moustache"



The text is not an objective analysis of punctuation by any means, and according to Adorno's own interpretation, nor could it be, for the understanding and use of punctuation is as personal as the appreciation of music. In line with this, the majority of our discussion centered around how we experience written language, especially as there has been an explosion in new ways to communicate via the written word since this essay was written. We observed how on-line, punctuation is vital in conveying the complexities of what is being said, and usages have evolved in innovative and specific ways in different communities. This is befitting of the opinionated way in which Adorno discusses punctuation, and whilst he occasionally refers to changes in usage negatively, as a whole the text seems to be a piece describing Adorno's own experience of punctuation, rather than a treatise on correct usage.



Adorno's Punctuation Marks is available for free on Ubuweb