John Durham Peters notes gibberish

Written by
Sarah Malone, Department of English
Oct. 4, 2023

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2023, John Durham Peters, the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University, delivered a public lecture, “Notes Toward the Media History of Gibberish,” while at Princeton as the Short-Term Whitney J. Oates Fellow in the Humanities Council and the Department of English.

Peters led the audience in Betts Auditorium through a tour of the present "efflorescence" of gibberish in media, and through barcodes, ISBN codes, cryptography, ancient and imagined alphabets, Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel, and myriad other gibberish.

"Gibberish is the language of the other," Peters said. "We typically attribute it to languages we don't know how to read."

"Literacy is typically complicated and involves coding of elaborate kinds that cost a lot of time to learn." He showed a screen capture of the code for the web announcement of his lecture, and an Egyptian hieratic, dated c. 1500 BCE, and said of each, "It costs a lot time to learn how to do this."

Arguing for the relevance of the humanities, he said that the humanities are "about figuring out code. We figure out how to decode, how to read and write."

"What we've go to do," he said, "is to figure out how to democratize" the "supposed gibberish" of the "the digital age."

"The promise of gibberish," Peters said, in what he called his "final ethical, political pitch" for gibberish, "is not to dismiss other languages for their unintelligibility, like our language is nature and we didn't have to go through this eruption into language that we all had to do to go from gibberish into intelligibility."