The Violence of the Letter

Toward a Theory of Writing

Subjects: Literary Studies, Literary Criticism and Theory, Writing, Cultural Studies
Open Access : 9780472903238, 212 pages, 1 figure, 6 x 9, September 2023
Paperback : 9780472055913, 212 pages, 1 figure, 6 x 9, September 2023
Hardcover : 9780472075911, 212 pages, 1 figure, 6 x 9, September 2023
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The alphabet's devastating consequences for humanity

Table of contents

Chapter 1. A Brief Technical Detour
Chapter 2. The Trauma of Literacy
Chapter 3. The Alphabet and Reproduction
Chapter 4. Plato and the Forms of Alphabetic Writing
Chapter 5. The Alphabet and Money
Chapter 6. Letters of Fire and Blood
Chapter 7. The Subject Is Always Alphabetized


The emergence of the alphabet in ancient Greece, usually heralded as the first step in the inexorable march toward reason and progress, in fact signaled the introduction of a chance technology that hijacked the future, with devastating consequences for humanity. By investigating an array of cultural artifacts, ranging from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Oracle at Delphi to Luther's challenge to the Church, this book demonstrates how the apparently benign emergence of writing made possible far-ranging systems of organized domination and unprecedented levels of violence. The Violence of the Letter considers how a twenty-six-letter code changed the face of the world, and not always for the better.

Melanie McMahon has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from King's College London and a Master's degree in History from Washington University in St. Louis. Her articles have appeared in Irish Studies Review, Textual Practice, and Angelaki. Her current project is about Jacques Derrida and settler colonialism. The Violence of the Letter is her first book.

The Violence of the Letter is exceptionally well written, and the style is original and enjoyable. It engages insightfully with domination, offers a reframing of the Oedipus complex, returns on the separation of soul and body, dissects the violence of alphabetization, and observes the interaction of writing, colonialism, and capitalism: a must read.”

—Lorenzo Veracini, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne

- Lorenzo Veracini

“This book is a provocative, innovative, and engaging work . . . will prove an important and novel contribution to ‘theory’ in general and to ‘theory of writing’ in particular.”

—Ron Scapp, College of Mount Saint Vincent

- Ron Scapp

“McMahon activates a range of scholarship from neuroscience, literary theories, and cultural histories. The Violence of the Letter explores diverse sets of relations about how the alphabet works as a particular kind of phenomena for writing. Its significance is a theory of literacy about the governing of social life in Western modernities.”

—Thomas S. Popkewitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison

- Thomas S. Popkewitz

Co-Winner: 2024 ACLA Renè Wellek Prize for Monograph | 04/18/2024