The first chapter of Hieroglyphic Modernisms exposes the complex history of Western misconceptions of Egyptian writing from antiquity to the present. Hieroglyphs bridge the gap between modern technologies and the ancient past, looking forward to the rise of new media and backward to the dispersal of languages in the mythical moment of the Tower of Babel. The contradictory ways in which hieroglyphs were interpreted in the West come to shape the differing ways that modernist writers and filmmakers understood the relationship between writing, film, and other new media. On the one hand, poets like Ezra Pound and film theorists like Vachel Lindsay and Sergei Eisenstein use the visual languages of China and of Egypt as a more primal or direct alternative to written words. But Freud, Proust, and the later Eisenstein conversely emphasize the phonetic qualities of Egyptian writing, its similarity to alphabetical scripts. The chapter concludes by arguing that even avant-garde invocations of hieroglyphics depend on narrative form through an examination of Hollis Frampton’s experimental film Zorns Lemma.
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