FIGURING THE WORD
ESSAYS ON BOOKS, WRITING, AND VISUAL POETICS

by
Johanna Drucker

 

every era of human history artists, poets, professional and amateur scribes have been sensitive to the visual properties of written forms. Consequently there is no shortage of material evidence supporting the idea that writing is a visual medium. Maximizing the potential of such qualities as color, composition, design, and style, writing embodies language in an unlimited variety of distinctive forms. History and culture reside in these material means: the chiselled line of the Roman majuscules, the worried hand of a remade will, the bureaucratic regularity of a cuneiform account, the sophisticated inventions of a Renaissance type designer, the least mark of a tentative witness, and the bold sweep of an authoritative pen. In these and an infinitude of other cases, it is clear that significance inheres in the written form of language as much on account of the properties of physical materials as through a textıs linguistic content. Whether incidental or foregrounded, such specific properties of written language are what ensure its unique role within human culture.

It may well be that there is no human urge more fundamental than that of mark makingimagoand yet performs the signifying operations of the logos.It is an act of individual expression and an instance of that most rule-bound and social of human systems

The critical apperception of writing has engaged literary critics, art historians, psychologists, and anthropologists

In the twentieth century, artistic manifestations are many and varied, crossing the disciplines of literature, the fine arts, and graphic de-sign, in a fertile intersection of creative innovation. The striking work of the typographically innovative French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé casts its influence over poetic activity of the early 1900s, inspiring the visual experiments of writers and artists in an era in which commercial typography and mass produced print media were appropriated and absorbed into Futurist, Dada, and Cubist collage. Poets who never worked extensively in images per se were nonetheless often inspired by the permission granted by such modern experiments to expand the visual potential of the page by shaping the form, space, and distribution of written language according to a schematic which intertwined format and meaning in novel ways. Ezra Poundıs apocryphal (but real) fascination with art historian Ernest Fenollosaıs work on the Chinese character is one of the mythic moments in the history of modern poetryıs engagement with the material manifestation of language in written form. Taking literally the age-old misconception of Chinese characters as word-pictures, rather than representations of phonetic signs, Pound used this visual idea to structure his imagistic verse. Meanwhile, in their collaborative essays of 1912 and 1913, ³The Word as Such² and ³The Letter as Such,² Russian Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenyk articulated a quasi-mystical belief in the visual power of language which had resonance with centuriesı old traditions of ascribing meaning to letters as signs. And perhaps most renowned of all the revolutionary calls-to-arms is in the work of the Italian major-duomo of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti. Also working in the 1910s, he galvanized visually inventive poetic verse with his texts ³Words in Liberty² and ³The Wireless Imagination.² These gestures (among others) inaugurate the 20th century era of interactions between visual and verbal arts and are followed in rapid succession by other creative innovations in visual poetics and painted language.

In the 1950s and 1960s the theoretical writings of Concrete poets and Lettrists add to the long list of manifesto-like statements asserting the potential of visual poetics, followed by the work of Pop and Conceptual artists, who became intrigued with language as an artistic form. The transformations of production and reproduction technologies in the course of the 20th century made the means of experimentation increasingly available. Hot type, cold type, press type, photographic manipulation, and finally the phenomenon of desk-top publishing now exist in complementary parallel with the (equally innovative) traditional means of drawing, painting, and graphic design skills. Animated pages, holographic work, and virtual displays of illusionistically dimensional landscapes are now all part of the artistic vocabulary which figures language in visual form.

Writing thus exists along a broad spectrum from the most elemental gestural trace to the standard sign. All writing has the capacity to be both looked at and read, to be present as material and to function as the sign of an absent meaning. It can be structured and shaped

Between Personal Expression and Social System

The basic binary character of writing is its capacity to function simultaneously as an instance of personal and of social expression. Mira Schorıs painting, Personal Writing (1994), embodies this crucial duality. The work is comprised of thirty small canvases. Each letter in the title appears twice in the complete work
 

   Mira Schor, Personal Writing,
   1994, oil on linen, 
   12² x 16² each panel.

The first set of images has a rational clarity to it: fine blue lines shape each individual letter in a well-made exercise carefully placed within the boundaries of the canvas. The blue paint of these letters suggests chalk, pen, or graphite

The second set of images are based on Schorıs adult hand. Blowing them up to the same scale as that of the schoolgirl hand, she invested each painted letter with elaborate visual  and tactile richness. In a deep, glowing, red which bleeds into the background of soft, pink, fleshlike ground, the letters vibrate with bodily associations. They stretch, cramp, and sweep with conviction

The concept of the personal in Schorıs work is both romantic and critical. Her idea of individuality clearly takes into account that social training conditions the physical body whose personality eventually comes through the systemic constraints

The idea of the social construction of individual identity

But writing is not only an instance of language

In Schorıs work both the thematic content and execution reinforce the idea that the training of hand and eye in the acquisition of writing are part of a process of socialization. Learning writing as a social system one partially gives up the individual inflection of character or personality, only to acquire it again, as inevitably as oneıs body acquires a characteristic walk, posture, and shape over time while functioning according to the norms and expectations of oneıs cultural and social world. Writing bears the visible traces of somatic individuation and encodes various functions of the social order and law, the structures and strictures of permission, control, and bounded identity. ³Personal writing²  is always an inscription of the individual within the symbolic.

In Glenn Ligonıs work, Black Like Me #2,(1992), language, individual identity, and social conventions also converge. Like Schorıs painting, Ligonıs piece embodies its thematics in a method of production as well as in the content of its statement. But the richly individual quality of writing in Schorıs painted work contrasts dramatically with the stencilled marks which comprise the text of Glenn Ligonıs work. The ³me² of his textual statement and the letters of the visual stencil are formatted and formulaic, struggling simultaneously to embody and to protest fixed stereotypes of form, shape, color, meaning. Using these stencils and a thick, heavy, greasy black crayon, Ligon creates an increasingly dense field of writing. Following the conventional direction of reading, the single statement of the title is repeated time after time, until it results in a field of layered, overlapped, and finally unreadable text as it moves from the top to the bottom of the canvas. A work in black and white, Ligonıs image encodes questions of racial stereotypes: the term ³colored,² with all of its associations of racial slurs and apartheid policies, is rendered only in the monochrome tones of black on white though the ³me² of the title, if it identifies the artist, is an African-American man. But like any first person pronoun in English, ³me² bears no particular marks of identification with regard to gender, race, or other characteristics. The denial in the statement has to be read both as a personal utterance and a statement the reader experiences and identifies with through his or her own articulation. Written language particularly allows for such slippages since the unvoiced written form reveals few significant clues to the identity of its maker.

  Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me #2,1992, oil stick and gesso on canvas, 80² x 30².

Visually Ligonıs piece is simple and striking

In their own distinct ways, Schor and Ligon both embody the tension between the individual quality of expression and the constraints of a rule-bound linguistic system. Schorıs painterly lushness invites a romantic reading while coldly refuting it in the same instance and Ligonıs minimal means protest the inadequacies of individual expression as a challenge to the inequities inscribed in the cultural order. In both cases the visual properties of the work are what encode these meanings, not merely as an incidental visual presentation, but through their signification as manifest form.

From Trace to Sign: Gesture, Letterform, and Glyph

Not all written language is gestural or somatic

Pierre Alechinskyıs Exercise dıécritureprovides an exemplary instance of the automatic impulse at its most basic. In Alechinskyıs painting, writing is a productive act rooted in gesture. The painting inscribes the tactile, physical, motor pleasures of mark making. Rhythmic gestures bring signs into being which are almost letters, almost legible, almost elements of some real alphabetExercise dıécritureis about scribing, inscribing, bringing into being. It is about the ways in which gesture precedes language as an expressive indication. Gesture is human action outside of the fixed parameters of language, anterior to language historically, independent of it conceptually, and more primal, more fundamental as a human self-assertion in the space of the cosmos, the material world, and the social group. The physical anthropologist, André Leroi-Gourhan, in his 1964 book Gesture and Speech, outlines the evolutionary relation between patterns of brain function, development, gestural activity, and language. Leroi-Gourhan suggests that the specialization of human limbs to isolate aspects of the survival functions of gathering, hunting, eating (as well as climbing, tool-making, self-defense), freed the mouth and lips for language and created crucial oppositions between the hands and the face which permitted a language of gesture to emerge in contradistinction to that of speech. For Leroi-Gourhan, gesture is a rhythmic, somatic, elemental self-expression while speech is social and communicative. The manual production of marks and glyphs is a code in which expressive self-assertion and communicative functions intertwine.
 

Pierre Alechinsky, Exercise dıEcriture,1950. Destroyed. © 1999 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

The gestural mark is a trace of the very act of production as dynamic action. The trace makes itself in the dynamic pleasure of material making and as such, remains a sign which has not yet reached the threshold of meaning. But though freed from responsibility to language, Alechinskyıs Exercisestill invokes the linguistic as some ultimate authority capable of legitimating the value of those marks as significant rather than gratuitous. By calling these loops and strokes ³écriture,² Alechinsky seems to want to allow that the somatic impulse can be brought into the rule of symbolic order, that these marks could be possessed of meaning

Within cultural anthropology, there is another framework for assessing such uses of writing as significant acts. Claude Levi-Strauss, in his essay ³The Writing Lesson,² posits the basic argument that writing colonizes and empowers simultaneously, concentrating power in the act of sign making. Even when those signs donıt represent an actual language, writing acts to hierarchize authority through the mere control of written forms. This is a performative aspect of writing as a ritual act rather than an inscribed form of language. Alechinskyıs work inscribes some of this authority, that of the empowering form which becomes authoritative through its production

If such traces of somatic gesture remain unreadable because they stop short of participation in the symbolic system, then the glyphic sign which presents itself as the image of an esoteric meaning employs a different kind of resistance to legibility. This fascination with the glyph< that written form which is encoded, encrypted, secretive and complex

The glyphic motif found in Karen Papachekıs drawings or suggested in the pictographic imagery of Kenneth Patchenıs illuminated poems was elaborately explored in the work of the French Lettrist group founded in the late 1940s by Romanian Isidore Isou. The Lettrists played with such cryptic innovations, challenging the legibility of signs in order to subvert the symbolic order of language through an attack on its basic code. Lettrist marks range from the gestural, somatic, trace signs of the automatic tradition to all manner of invented signs which engage with an alternative tradition of the hieroglyphic character and its mythic visual propensity. This impulse is fabulously fulfilled by those Lettrists who play out  their variations of the mark into a sublime mode of anarchistic subversion of the normative order of what had once been a systematic language.

In Riff Raff,a work produced by Lettrist Maurice Lemaître in 1950, a series of signs spiral out from a single core image
 

Riff Raffis typical of Lettrist work, however, in its complex visual formulation of a pseudo or personal language. Lemaîtreıs inventions here are not arbitrary, merely unorthodox, and thus point out the necessity for convention as a stabilizing framework for meaning production. But in other Lettrist works the glyphs are not recognizable as images. They are condensed, illegible, and yet particular signs

Conceptual, Temporal, and Material Structures

In addition to those artists engaged with the somatic trace of handwriting or the inventive glyphs of their own invention, there are those for whom the virtues of writing reside in a use of conventional, almost neutral, forms within conceptual or material structures which motivate their aesthetic agenda. There are many philosophical tensions which arise in these works

In the 1966 piece by Robert Smithson, Heap of Language,the artist has created an architectonic form on gridded paper out of words which refer to language as well as embody it. ³Language   phraseology   speech   tongue   lingo   vernacular² the piece begins. It proceeds in an accumulative pile, the literal heap of the title, down into its broad base where the list ends with the word ³cipher.² Readable and literal, the handwritten text has very little of an expressive quality
 

Robert Smithson, Heap of Language,1966, pencil on paper, 6 1/2² x 22². Photo courtesy John Weber Gallery.

The piece is precisely what it says it is, and yet, in this straightforward simplicity it confounds the problems of presence and reference, managing to collapse them into the same activity. The words are what they say they are and yet they add up to something more

By contrast to Smithsonıs Heap,Annette Lemieuxıs Hell Text(1991) creates form through the seemingly natural mode of accumulation. One word follows another in vivid white etched with heat against the glowing red ground of the work. A minimal and refined visual work, its elegant script letters march in regular form across the space of the cotton cloth. The script type marks this as a personal statement, echoed in the use of the first-person voice for the narrative of the prose. The words describe a chilling series of events in which an individual is subject to an authoritarian and absolute system of control. It is a tale with unavoidable associations with the official acts of totalitarian regimes< an arbitrary seeming arrest and deportation (of Jews, Gypsies, gays, dissidents, or merely any other targeted group) to a camp. The ³hell² described in the text has an indeterminate historical location and yet resonates with any number of specific possibilities. Individual and yet generic, too perfect for a real hand, the script ³signifies² handwriting through the associative properties. The form of the piece belies its threat, covering the horror in a delicate image of fine script. The visually  peaceful repetition becomes charged in a reading which reveals the sinister quality of inevitability. A Kafkaesque sense of being at the mercy of some absent force combines with a Sartrean ³no exit² in a grim repetitive exercise of horror. The openendedness of the movement of line after line, has no clear beginning (mid-sentence, with no majuscule, the text enters the upper left of the canvas as if it had already been in progress for some time and it exits the lower right in the same manner) and no resolved end. Thus the text and its formal qualities contradict each other
 

The list of artists for whom language serves as a primary material is a long one

Writing contains a record of time in the very accretion of marks which is both a record of temporal production and the trace of a time-based somatic gesture. For the viewer or reader this fact has its own tension in the fact that a written image can apparently be grasped

In a page such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S.ıs re-rendering of The Scarlet Letter,the densely rubricated letters imposed on the page read in relation to schematic structures of the conventional text: bold, emblazoned signs of work which overwhelm the linear progression of the printed page. There is another tension here which is fundamental to the concerns of linguistic philosophy in the 20th century: the conflict between the apparent capacity of language to embody knowledge within a logical system (such as the format of the printed page and narrative text) and the actuality of used language with all of its illogical peculiarities (the elaborate, individual, and idiosyncratic signs of the handwrought letters). What, in fact, do these things have to do with each other? What real relation is there between abstract structures of language and the lived experience which language can record? One could argue that all of the later work of logician and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is focused on the dilemma raised in such work (and it is not surprising that his is the major influence on conceptual artists concerned with language)

Found, Appropriated, Reworked

If the somatic, expressive, gestural trace and the encoded cryptic sign of the glyph define one end of the spectrum of legibility, and conventional writing serves as the basis of other conceptual and material structures, then written language produced by mechanical or technical means often embodies the standardized conventions of letterforms, page formats, and conventions of literary and other forms in a way which is most closely related to the language as a cultural form. Artists who make use of typewriters, hot type, phototype, and computer printout or other fixed sets of letterforms create a personal inflection at a secondary level of articulation

Appropriation and transformation of existing or found language motivated Tom Phillips piece, A Humument,a meticulously reworked version of the Victorian novel A Human Document (1892) on the pages of which Phillips painted, drew, or sketched, leaving some words and phrases untouched while obliterating the rest in the service of a vivid visual pattern or form. As an extended exercise in intervention in an existing form, that of a rather banal and ordinary book which becomes extraordinary in the process, the Phillips project embodies both process and metaphor within its interventions. By taking the book as a visual and material form Phillips manages to excise from the pages of its narrative text an entirely new narrative, one in which the printed structures of lines, words, gutters, and margins give rise to innovative visual and verbal structures. The book is both literally found and also metaphorically given here, and the artistıs hand inscribes a palimpsestic projection which is both attentive to and disregarding of the information on those pages. Print becomes a structuring grid as well as an actual text, the new text functions at the expense of the original, and the sequenced pages (taken in fact from multiple examples of the novel) make a new book which is only partially indebted to the original. Manufactured and constructed, A Humumentdisplays a power of invention in which text and image blend

Phillipsı book is an instance of appropriation

It is fitting to end with Phillipsı work since it moves language away from the wall and painting and back into the realm of the book. As a cultural form the book has a long and complex legacy as the Law and the Word. It has a vernacular and secular history as well, and in this multifaceted identity it is like language

Written Image as Material and Memory

In the world and of it, written language materializes thought into form and form into history, culture, and record. And just as there are pleasures in the rhythmic passage of air through larynx and over the palate to be beaten by the tongue and pressed against the teeth, so there are the parallel pleasures of pressing pen into soft paper, the stylus into clay, of hitting the keyboard of a responsive typewriter, or watching the lines of letters appear in the glow of a monitor. Memory serves us well through this material and returns embodied as the witness to our having made certain moments into a record on the page while the temporal life of writing aches towards the future, longing for that recovery which is available, again and again, through the physical form inscribed with information in the trace of material. Writing inscribes many paradoxes and tensions in its materiality

Sources Cited and Recommended:
David Diringer, The Story of the Alphabet.New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1948.

Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word,Chicago: The University of Chicago   Press, 1994.

<The Alphabetic Labyrinth.London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Sigmund Freud, ³Beyond the Pleasure Principle,² The Standard Edition of theComplete Psychological Works,Vol. 18, James Strachey, trans., London:  Hogarth Press, 1950; pp.14-18.

Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry.Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Jacques Lacan, ³The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I² Ecrits.Paris: Le Seuil, 1966.

Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech(originally published in 1964 in French as Le Geste et La Parole).Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1993.

Claude Levi-Strauss, ³The Writing Lesson,² Tristes Tropiques.New York:  Criterion Books, 1961; pp.286-297.

Armando Petrucci, Public Lettering.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Emmett Williams, An Anthology of Concrete Poetry.New York: Something Else Press, 1967.

This essay was written for the Washington University Gallery of Art exhibition titled The Dual Muse: The Writer as Artist, the Artist as Writer,held in St. Louis from November 7 to December 21, 1997 with additional sponsorship from the International Writers Center.
 
 

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