new books | about granary | catalog | search rare/op poetry | home

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 text's 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 making-just as there is no activity which characterizes human culture more distinctly than that of language. Not all written language is produced directly by hand, but whether marks, strokes, signs, glyphs, letters, or characters, writing's visual forms possess an irresolvably dual identity in their material existence as images and their function as elements of language. Because of this fundamental dualism, writing is charged with binary qualities. It manifests itself with the phenomenal presence of the imagoand 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-language. It is at once personal and social, unique and cultural, asserting real physical presence and functioning through intertextual chains of association and reference. It is both an object and an act, a sign and a basis for signification, a thing in itself and something coming into being, a production and a process, an inscription and the activity of inscribing.

The critical apperception of writing has engaged literary critics, art historians, psychologists, and anthropologists-as well as many scholars of paleography, typographic history, forgery, or decipherment whose professional studies focus on the examination of written forms. Conceptual parameters for understanding the cultural significance of written language thus emerge from many quarters. An enormous bibliography exists on writing as a material form and it maps a territory of discourse in which the functions of language-as-image stretch from a macro-level of embodying the symbolic law which effectually defines culture as human to the micro-level at which writing can be understood in psychoanalytic terms. Within artistic practices the engagement with writing as a visual form foregrounds these dialogues-between personal and social, somatic and symbolic, conceptual and material, and real and metaphoric domains-which are all inherent aspects of writing as a visual form.

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 Pound's apocryphal (but real) fascination with art historian Ernest Fenollosa's work on the Chinese character is one of the mythic moments in the history of modern poetry's 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, "The Word as Such" and "The Letter as Such," Russian Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenyk articulated a quasi-mystical belief in the visual power of language which had resonance with centuries' 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 "Words in Liberty" and "The Wireless Imagination." 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-or merely accumulate according to standard conventions. It can be found, appropriated, manipulated, and effaced. As a form of individual expression writing is a somatically inflected sign, a production of the bodily self which seeks identity in an image of its own making. As a social and cultural system, writing partakes of the semiotic conditions of meaning production within the constraints of the rule bound system of language. The richness of written language resides in these multi-faceted qualities, and from them, as a consequence, many curious contradictions and parallells open in the field of writing.

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 Schor's 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-once in a clear, simple, line handwritten according to the models Schor copied as a schoolgirl and once in a sumptuous, painterly rendering of her idiosyncratic, adult hand.
   Mira Schor, Personal Writing,
   1994, oil on linen, 
   12" x 16" 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 materials of the schoolroom- observing a decorum of self-discipline and good behavior in the face of the rules of the educational system. Childishly perfect, these letters were painted from blown up xeroxes of exercises in an old schoolbook. In a smaller, almost inconspicuous hand, Schor has added the two letters "im" before the first word in this series, giving it the contradictory double meaning: "personal/impersonal."

The second set of images are based on Schor's 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-sometimes striking against the confines of the canvas frame, unable to behave with the same good manners as the letters in the exercise hand. Schor has switched the color scheme of the last two letters of the word, "personal." Here again she bifurcates the reading in this painterly line so that "personal writing" can also be read as "person writing."

The concept of the personal in Schor's 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-but only as an inflection, a marked difference within the system itself. The rules of writing, like the rules of language, require a degree of compliance and standardization. A stylish distinction is permitted, but not pure invention, if writing is to function as communication.

The idea of the social construction of individual identity-or subjectivity-within the strictures of cultural systems and codes is a common critical notion in the 20th century. Psychoanalytic assessments of individual subjectivity formation grant a great deal of significance to the developmental function of language. As Sigmund Freud observed, language acquisition permits a child to negotiate the traumas of separation or frustration by providing a means of representing presences and absences. Language functions as a symbol or surrogate for an absent breast, parent, toy or other object. According to the psychoanalyst, in learning language a child is simultaneously provided a means of representing the world and of finding out his or her place within the social and cultural (largely patriarchal) order. For a feminist like Schor, the issue of personal language is bound up in the difficulties posed by the hierarchies of power into which female subjectivity must be placed. Inflecting the acquired signs of handwriting with a personal character asserts the successful formation of a subject position while acknowledging its constraints within the givens of the rule-bound order of both language and the social domain.

But writing is not only an instance of language-it is also an image, and as such participates in yet another developmental function underscored by psychoanalytic theory. According to Jacques Lacan, images serve a crucial role in preparing the child for language acquistion in a transition termed "the mirror stage." Lacan suggests that it is by perceiving itself in a mirrored image (either real or metaphoric) that a child is first provided with a sense of its own wholeness as a person, body, and psychic unit. Prior to this the child exists in a condition called "the imaginary"-undifferentiated, unbounded, and fragmented by its zones of erotic, motor, tactile sensations. The imago of the mirror-stage provides for a form of identification-through self-representation as image. Any image-painted, inscribed, or reflected-which seems to be an image of the self, can guarantee identity in these terms. Thus the manifestation of an individuated identity which shows itself in the bodily gesture of mark-making-as scribbles, random signs, or the "personal writing" of Schor's piece-links the self and the hand-made mark in a primary psychoanalytic function. As an image writing permits a subjective, narcissistic, identification with a perceived self-identity in the expressive form of a written inscription. From a psychoanalytic perspective, then, the function of writing is both to provide an image of the self and to position that self within language as the system of the symbolic order.

In Schor's 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 one's body acquires a characteristic walk, posture, and shape over time while functioning according to the norms and expectations of one's 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. "Personal writing"  is always an inscription of the individual within the symbolic.

In Glenn Ligon's work, Black Like Me #2,(1992), language, individual identity, and social conventions also converge. Like Schor's painting, Ligon's 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 Schor's painted work contrasts dramatically with the stencilled marks which comprise the text of Glenn Ligon's work. The "me" 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, Ligon's image encodes questions of racial stereotypes: the term "colored," with all of its associations of racial slurs and apartheid policies, is rendered only in the monochrome tones of black on white though the "me" of the title, if it identifies the artist, is an African-American man. But like any first person pronoun in English, "me" 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, 80" x 30".

Visually Ligon's piece is simple and striking-there is an implied violence in the gradual distintegration of the text as it becomes absorbed in the marks of its own making. The waxy medium smears so that the letters lose their clear boundaries of distinction. There is an effacement of clear statement as the field of writing loses its capacity to be read. This loss of legibility comes from the obsessive repetition of material, a losing battle for belief even in the statement itself-as if it cancels and nullifies in the act of continual assertion. Individual protest or a mere statment of fact, an outcry or expression of resigned defeat the work cannot be comfortably resolved into either category and therefore fluctuates in that intermediating zone occupied by writing at the intersection of the personal and social domains. The hand-madeness of the marks in Ligon's work is constrained by the dictates of the conventional forms of the stencils and thus is almost-but not quite-invisible as an element of the piece. One senses the gestural presence of the body pressing the waxy crayon onto the canvas, rubbing and smearing as it moves in a preordained direction to produce and reproduce the text.

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. Schor's painterly lushness invites a romantic reading while coldly refuting it in the same instance and Ligon's 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-the spectrum of writing includes much which is fully mechanical as well as intimate and personal. At one extreme there are the signs, letters, or characters whose legibility depends upon their adherence to conventions. At the other end are gestural traces. And somewhere on this spectrum, not quite within conventions or outside of them, are mysterious glyphic forms which exercise their own peculiar fascination through a charged quality of suggestive meaning, inaccessible and indecipherable, but potently hinted at in the visual complexities of a written sign.

Pierre Alechinsky's Exercise d'écritureprovides an exemplary instance of the automatic impulse at its most basic. In Alechinsky's 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 alphabet-but not quite. Exercise d'écritureis 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 d'Ecriture,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, Alechinsky's 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 "écriture," 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-not merely be scribbled arabesques marking off the subdivisions of a graphic space. Replaying the original act of gestural self-expression, automatic and aleatory, wandering and unconstrained, Alechinsky nonetheless acknowledges his eventual submission to the rules of the symbolic order.

Within cultural anthropology, there is another framework for assessing such uses of writing as significant acts. Claude Levi-Strauss, in his essay "The Writing Lesson," posits the basic argument that writing colonizes and empowers simultaneously, concentrating power in the act of sign making. Even when those signs don't 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. Alechinsky's work inscribes some of this authority, that of the empowering form which becomes authoritative through its production-demarcating the writer from the watching audience, the written from the unwritten, the sign from the vast universe of undifferentiated chaos. It is in this cult power that sign making accrues to itself a capacity to function as magic in human culture. The power of signing establishes fundamental differences: between the human social and that which is beyond, between the legislated world and the unlegislatable, between the symbolizable and that which is inaccessible to symbol making. At the heart of all of these capacities to divide the conceptualization of the world through human systems is the fundamental function of the trace-that materialization of gesture which makes the first line of demarcation against which meaning can be produced. Such a trace produces the differentiating boundary which renders meaning possible-serving as the point of reference against which symbols can be located, read, interpreted. Thus the exercise of Alechinsky's writing embodies a primal bringing into being which creates meaning through an act of differentiation, the expressive gesture which asserts one's own individual and then social identity upon the resistant but receptive material of the world.

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 -shows up in the work of many visual artists. There is the work of Albrecht Durer making images to accompany the Renaissance's rediscovered hieroglyphic texts of Horapollo-or the typographic analyses of Geofroy Tory grounded in Pythagorean symbolism and lore-or the many emblem books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries committed to a visual presentation of cryptic meaning-and there are the finely wrought images in Aldus Manutius's great tribute to the imaginative power of hieroglyphic signs, his Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii of 1499. Thus while on the one hand writing gains a certain power through its ability to provide legitimacy it also exercises a power of fascination in the cryptically illegible condition of the glyph. Such a power has continued into the 20th century, where there is no shortage of artists, writers, critics, and theorists for whom this aspect of writing carries a potent charge.

The glyphic motif found in Karen Papachek's drawings or suggested in the pictographic imagery of Kenneth Patchen's 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-a tiny schematic map of Paris reduced to an elliptical shape bisected by the curve of the Seine. Each of the signs in this piece seems to speak directly to the eye -a tiny image of books, a ball, calipers, a bottle, stool, wheel, tent, or the Eiffel tower-to make a "poem" whose "words" are actual images. The meaning of the work is far from clear-pronouncing the words rebus-like in French results in a certain sequence of sounds, each of which stretches in an effort to fit the elastic phonetic form of a sentence. But there are very few actual letters here, and the idea of the intriguing image-sign serving a directly communicative function is as quickly defeated by Lemaître's example as it was by the efforts of those frustrated Renaissance polymaths attempting to decipher an Egyptian stele without benefit of the Rosetta stone's trilingual key.
Maurice Lemaître, Riff Raff, 1950, drawing, 5" x 3 1/2".

Riff Raffis typical of Lettrist work, however, in its complex visual formulation of a pseudo or personal language. Lemaître's 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-each distinctly formed, discrete in its character, but as unreadable as the signs of any unfamiliar writing script. There is no point of entry into this work, rather its busy, worked, field swarms with the animate energy of a bloodstream of organic creatures-plankton and platelets, cells and molecules, viral and bacterial entities-each formed in accord with a logic which seems to promise a universe of sense. There is no deciphering this code-even if one reads the Riff Raff poem through its phonetic values, the images remain, not fully absorbed into that linguistic reformulation. One can't ignore the emphatic shadow on the inside of the horned curve of the croissant pictogram or fail to notice and wonder at the spheroid heads of those schematic figures whose postures suggest "sitting" or "standing" or "diving" as verbs. These pictorial non-equivalents have meaning not accounted for in mere linguistic substitution- and the power of the glyph-whether alchemical, magical, esoteric, or exotic is precisely this resistance to recuperation within the closed system of mere meaning. The affective presence of the image continues to exert its own seductive energy, not as a surplus value, merely as a quality which cannot be contained within the fixed economy of language.

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-particularly between the notion of an immaterial, idealist concept and the fact of the materiality which every instance of written language embodies.

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. "Language   phraseology   speech   tongue   lingo   vernacular" 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 "cipher." Readable and literal, the handwritten text has very little of an expressive quality-the writing is regular and even, fitting into the gridded strucure with all the correct proportion of a minimalist work. Some of the words refer, in the normal linguistic mode, to objects and or ideas which are not fully present- "Mrs. Malaprop" or the "thesaurus." Thus the even-handed treatment of the words, making each so much the same as the next, becomes itself a device for foregrounding the distinct differences among the terms. How, after all, can "root" be rendered in the same mode as "take an assumed name" given the completely different worlds which they invoke? By the same token, this reductive act, this levelling of differences among the words, turns each into a bricklike component, an element of real, sheer, actual, literal material with which Smithson builds the earth-like heap of his sculptural construction on the page. In precise inverse of the building process, the "heap" is made from the top down, its crowning stone "Language" having been the first to be put into place, while the base support extends in a suggestion of an ever widening support, contradicting all the logic of real structure through the artifices of written form.
Robert Smithson, Heap of Language,1966, pencil on paper, 6 1/2" x 22". 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-a structure, a form, a materially dense work which describes the materials of the language of which it is made. The capacity of language to refer to an idea, to invoke it in Platonic terms, is put into conflict with the actual material presence of language itself. All material objects and forms have a history and character, as Aristotle noted in his description of the world. The classical opposition between idea and description, between a transcendent form and an embodied empirical form makes itself apparent in the duality which conceptual artists ascribe to language. Perhaps the most striking paradox of all in conceptual art was the use of written language to suggest "idea"-when in fact writing is the most evidently and insistently material of linguistic modes.

By contrast to Smithson's Heap,Annette Lemieux's 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 "hell" 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 "signifies" 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 "no exit" 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-linguistic horror and visual smoothness, reference to brutality and a presence of clear aesthetic refinement. Hell is the individual trapped within the machinations of a social order which can be inconceivably relentless in its logical abuses and mastering narratives.
Annette Lemieux, Hell Text,1991, branding on cotton, 54 1/8" x 144". Photo courtesy Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1991.

The list of artists for whom language serves as a primary material is a long one-and the practices by which they engage with the conceptual and philsophical issues of linguistic representation in visual form are varied. One has only to think of John Baldessari's conundrum statements, those otherwise blank canvases bearing laconic statements like "Pure Beauty" or "A Work With Only One Property" in block lettering, or the simple date paintings of On Kawara, or the self-reflexive "Five Words in Orange Neon" or enlarged dictionary definitions of "Meaning" or "Idea" by Joseph Kosuth, to conjure three completely distinct approaches to the use of language as a visual and conceptual medium.

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-like a picture-in an immediate perception while the act of reading returns another temporal dimension to the text-different from the labored energy inscribed in the act of production.

In a page such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S.'s 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)-which recognizes that the logical structures of language are always in conflict with its illogical actualities and that within the contradictions suggested by the latter lies the beginning of philosophical inquiry.

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-either as structure or statement or some combination of the two. The tropes according to which a technical process acquires the status of metaphor remains a striking feature of such works-with the very basic components of the alphabet able to function as neutral-seeming bearers of meaning and as self-consciously self-referential signs of production fraught with value in their own right. A letter, a page, a book-any of these may be significant on formal terms, working as an image of the vast space of potential or as the closed and studied texture of an authoritative document and so forth.

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 artist's 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-sometimes in counterpoint dialogue, sometimes in indissoluble unity, sometimes in clashing contradiction within a single page. Nothing is actually erased in Phillips' work, but much is obliterated by the layering effect of pigment, saturating the field already saturated by the written word. What emerges is new, but never fully original, always containing the referenced source within the remade structures of the pages.

Phillips' book is an instance of appropriation-a recognition of the fact that language lives in the world and thus has a life beyond the original intention of its first author. Working with eliminative processes, pulling a new structure out from the flesh and dross of linguistic excess, Phillips also edits to make the received material of worldly language into a personal statement through the deft art of subtraction so that the poetic statement stands out clearly, pulled from the thick mass of language into a stark figure.

It is fitting to end with Phillips' 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-which lives the most exalted of philosophical existences and serves as the basis of the most mundane transactions. But the book, as poet and philosopher Edmund Jabès has noted, is never closed. Its infinitude is always inscribed by its boundaries, which, by marking themselves, indicate the place of questioning the possibility for containment.

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-between idea and material, personal experience and social order, logical structures of thought and the illogical record of lived experience.

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, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," 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, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I" 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, "The Writing Lesson," 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.

[more about Figuring the Word] [end]

new books | about granary | catalog | search rare/op poetry | home

to contact and/or order books press here:  Granary Books