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Text as Shape, Text as Meaning: Papyrology and Dotremont’s Logogrammes


The core of the praxes of papyrology, epigraphy and cuneiform studies is a sensemaking endeavour. Although the focus of the study of textual artefacts is usually the text and the traces of text borne by the artefacts, scholars, whilst engaging in decipherment, mobilize a wide range of perceptual and conceptual processes. Through an ethnographic analysis of textual artefact scholars at work, we were able to identify some of the strategies of interpretation that the scholars deploy (Tarte, 2014). In this paper, we will present a few of the perceptual processes that we identified and show how they seem to correspond to results from the cognitive sciences literature (Flores d'Arcais, 1994; James & Atwood, 2009; Longcamp et al., 2008; Seki et al., 1995; Taylor et al., 2012; Yu et al., 2011). One of the intuitive strategies that scholars deploy is that of tracing the lines and strokes as they see them in an effort to connect the text as meaning with the text as shape. We will also argue through a few examples such as the Artemidorus Papyrus (Gallazzi et al., 2008) and the Vindolanda tablets (Bowman & Thomas, 1983; Bowman & Thomas, 1994; Bowman & Thomas, 2003) that the materiality of the textual artefacts plays a crucial role in the act of sensemaking that allows scholars to build an interpretation of the textual artefacts. Reflecting on the acts of drawing and tracing as well as on the act of sounding out the texts, as a way of deciphering ancient barely legible texts, we will then draw some parallels with the artistic endeavour of Christian Dotremont in his “logogrammes”.

Figure 1 – (left): C. Dotremont, 1974 « en écriture dans le texte »; (right) Two tracings of a same roman tablet yielding diverging interpretations (Bowman et al., 2009).

Dotremont, in search of the materiality of language goes beyond sense-making with his “logogrammes”; he makes sense of words by shifting his viewers-spectators’ gaze towards the materiality of the words, their shape, and their dynamics in a first instance, and then he offers, in a corner of the page, what he calls a legible (a) (b) “calligraphed” transcription – a transcription that uses the “abstract barbarism of Latin letters”1 (Aubert, 2012)). In Dotremont’s endeavour, the act of “writing-painting”, as he calls it, is primarily material.  rounding up the argument, we will conclude that, for non-specialists, the ancient texts might look like a logogram, but a logogram that needs more work in order to express the abstract words it carries.


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1 In the original text by Aubert: “Cette mise à distance du sens au profit du trace scriptural l’avait [Dotremont] fait réfléchir sur les dangers de l’abstraction du langage, « la barbarie abstraite des lettres latines » comme il [Dotremont] disait dans ce texte [Signification et sinification – Cobraland]