We know from aesthetic history, that of literature, architecture, and the visual arts, that important chapters — and debates — in each lineage have circled around normative concerns relating to a sense of the “better” or “ideal” work of art, defined with almost obsessive dependence on what the cultural norms of each historical moment impose on the social order of each age. As an authorial and artistic strategy, the place of the figurative, the political, the improvisatory, and the entropic has occupied different degrees of prominence, for example, in the Edwardian period than that immediately before it. And while distinct language has emerged in each time to defend or attack the place of such strategies in the frame of the work, there is no denying that, as in a semantic deep structure, the underlying premise of all arguments has been folded into questions around form as the proscenium on which the matter is to be settled. Enveloped unarguably as we now are in a paradigmatic time of expression whose process and production are nearly simultaneous, as the architecture of new media affords us, the intimacy of medium with form raises concerns about how inconsistently, in light of its importance, we have been willing to explore the meaning of form itself for artistic implication.
One culprit of this inconsistency is the duality of implication that associates in the name of form; it appears as simultaneously as a noun, to characterize the phenomenal appearance of a genre — as in poetic form — and synonymously as an adjective — the formal properties of the sculptural. These uses seem homologous, identical, equated with each other in the semantic intent to which they address themselves. And the terminological ubiquity of these words suggests that we have found in them something both sweepingly abstract and comforting in their adequacy as signifiers that connect author with reader in commonly shared meaning. We might have learned by now that terms with these features, abstraction and comfort of reference, are like the word “God”, ubiquitous not because everyone understands them equally but, rather the opposite, because they are taken in entirely idiosyncratic, subjective, personal, individualized, and therefore unequal ways, such that the philosophical distinction between sense and reference that we take as beginning with Gottlob Frege is relevant to these misunderstandings.
One salient example of the asymmetry of expression between sense and reference as consequential to form came up in a recent discussion I had with one of my second-year MFA students about the structure of her sculptural work. In this Digital+Media department, all students are exploring the synthesis of new media — not necessarily digital — and a more traditional medium of the visual arts, such as sculpture, film, photography, and other two dimensional protocols. My student’s work, involving the use of a chemically denatured conflux of tear gas and pepper spray — two weaponized gases typically used in the social extreme of the “political demonstration”, that moment of engagement, beyond the orderly one of the “rally”, when an otherwise conforming public becomes agitated into the role of “demonstrators” and police, too, become polarized into the mode of military response signified by their black uniforms, shields, masks, and riot gear. In the context of the student’s project, the problem was how to use this gaseous transformation in a statement that would also physically involve the work’s viewer. Her principal idea was to create a booth that the visitor would enter, but beyond that, no other possibilities suggested themselves. I made several suggestions, responding to the need for closing the phenomenological gap of between the two very disparate worlds of a political confrontation on one hand and the anesthetized confines of a gallery setting on the other. But to the artist, these all seemed too obvious, perhaps too didactic, and perhaps they were, so after two hours of visual hypothesis, we adjourned without resolution. The problem here lay in how the polemical force of the medium — its natural use makes sense only in a law enforcement context — could not be brought into association, could not be referenced from within the gallery’s very abstracted world of demonstration. The work is one whose form, as it stood, overflowed with sense but was devoid of reference. And for the potential in a work of art’s aesthetic contemplation to become one of sublime transformation, both some feeling of sense and of reference must be experienced, however inchoately. The abyss that threatened the integrity of this work, the condition that maintained in a contingent and still-disintegrated (non-integrated) state was decided entirely by the form of the work. For perhaps the installation, as a traversable glass box, was too formally indeterminate to permit the sense-reference gap to be closed through any line of associative inference.
But this is not the same as asserting that the sense and reference of a work must point to the same discursive space. To be sure, this distance is already an unavoidable byproduct of the interpretive ambiguity that we regularly encounter — to hear of the name of Duchamp as a canonical instance of reference, for example, is to open dialogue to several new senses, to include the country and zeitgeist of the artist; the man and the prominence of his family; and the origins of conceptual expression in art. But Duchamp intuitively grasped the sense-reference problem almost too well, for the readymade makes exactly the case I am speaking of, namely, something in whose aesthetic ontology, reference undermines, refutes, and contradicts sense. By extension, that which has been called ‘technoculture’ participates in this sense-reference dissonance, for which reason it has been called “Anti-Aesthetic”, as we know from arguments presented by Habermas, Baudrillard, Jameson, Krauss and others in Hal Foster’s eponymous book. Nor was this condition one of confusion only for popular culture — the enlightened aficionado, too, was now lost at sea in this procession of divergent signifiers, so that Habermas, in Foster’s work, would observe that “Bourgeois art had two expectations of the audiences. On the one hand, the layman who enjoyed art should educate himself to become an expert. On the other hand, he should also behave as a competent consumer who uses art and relates aesthetic experiences to his own life problems. This second, and seemingly harmless, manner of experiencing art has lost its radical implications exactly because it had a confused relation to the attitude of being an expert and a professional.”
That neither expectation has blossomed from the potential to the real has led some (albeit in varying degrees of satisfaction) — Arthur Danto, Donald Kuspit, Suzi Gablik — to read the postmodern condition as synonymous with an end of art, in a post-dialectical reprise of Hegel’s argument three centuries earlier. This rupture is of course, only the break of sense from reference transposed to a larger scope, for sense here is history itself, and reference, of course, is its anchored optic in the world of art, whose conventions, once sacrosanct, have been superseded by a turn from the past, so that the “present”, the “anti-aesthetic”, and the “ahistorical” mean equally.
Varieties of Form as Categorical Signifier
While to the visual arts historian, the two centuries that have marked that gradual dissolution of painting’s compositional tradition, most frequently chronicled as the abandonment of figuration and subsequent embrace of impressionist, abstract, and contemporary directions may seem a notably sudden period of aesthetic revolution, we know that a more temporally compressed and ubiquitously evident schism around the question of form has been, in roughly half that time, come much further. I am speaking about both the radicalization of literature and poetry as paroxystically free forms in the noun sense and by dramatic opposition, the formal retention of that manifested marking of the word on the page that is the concern of typography, where form operates entirely as an adjective.
What, in the past twenty years, have been doubtlessly very inspiring discussions on the fanciful flight of textual organization and structure in digital media, specifically how speculations about how the literary has become mechanized through new experiences for reading rooted in the earliest hypertext systems and extending out to the most contemporary projects, has scarcely been been tempered by the equally dramatic contrast, one which we must now read as refusal, of typography’s immobility from essentially the same formal concerns that print has adopted since Gutenberg’s time, and even long before that. For in this case, the marvel that was movable type relied on the mechanical galley; its flexible frame could operate as a press plate only by the process of compression on two axes of force, even though the consequence of only one of those has been contemplated by formal criticism and expressive freedom. The more famous of these forces is, of course, the vertical compression of the press’s inked platen onto the paper, resulting in the printed page that has given us the basis for all distributed knowledge prior to the dominance of the electronic network. Since in print, this compression produces the impression, it therefore produces the content. Much less frequently discussed is the other, a lateral compression, under which the page elements were assembled into a single place by squeezing them together into the galley proof, tightened with vice grips into a rectangular enclosure and then positioned under the press for subsequent inking and vertical compression.
That textuality became in every sense a system, not merely for the organization of elements in place but for keeping such elements, as social entities would be in the polis, in a state of order, is evident from the exalted status that the printed word was allowed to occupy in the architectural and sculptural domains, where it was to be placed above everything foundational like columns and plinths and below the most privileged entities of consideration, like deities and leaders. The column of Trajan in Rome operates as a testament not merely to an emperor but to the function of text as the medium for logical historicism of the emperors’ two victories in the epic campaigns against the Dacians, mirrored in the process of writing itself — all documented on a frieze that, rather than appearing traditionally in the middle as a singular layer supporting the cornice, is instead a full scroll of text over 600 feet in length in bas relief that rotates spirally upward to culminate at the pedestal where the sculptural portrait of Trajan proper could be said to begin. There is but one view of Trajan at the top but twenty-three rotations of the historical text; this work is both about the status of one mortal and the memorializing power of the word. Modern typeface designations, including the Italic, Antiqua, and Roman, confirm how the typographic roots of two millenia remain within contemporary textual conventions, even if many were reconfigured, reformed, if you like, with the cursiva humanistica of the Renaissance. To be sure, that the field of typography has not moved far from its historical fidelity to this past — the flare at the end of a letter terminal that is known as the serif comes to us from ancient Rome, with today’s principal decisions being whether it should be Adnate (flowing with curvature from its connecting element) or Abrupt — or from its fealty to conservatively geometrical order as visual organization is a problem we shall consider below.
Speaking conceptually of the second compression in the mechanical production of text, it would have been fair to call the typesetter a sculptor, since in the medium of molten metals both employed exactly the same process. This would not surprise anyone who understood Gutenberg’s vocation as a goldsmith, a commercial sculptor. In the same way as the sculptor, creating typically in bronze, would have employed an empty cast, injecting or pouring into it the hot metallic medium to harden and materialize into the form of the final work, the typesetter injects molten type metal into a type mold that becomes the inkable plate, the block, in the printing industry. This block, whether used for pouring and manufacture of a hot plate, or composited manually into galleys, as was the practice much earlier, is what I am pointing to in the more obscure but no less influential compression, because whether as a matrix for the pourable plate, or as an ad hoc galley set, the elemental form of text as we continue to see today in its symmetrical organization is an accident of process rather than a nod to optimal readership. In the principal system for mechanical typesetting, the Linotype, sorts — letters and symbols, spacers, and slugs — are selected from a storage unit and dropped into place to create lines of type. As the writer must select from the words of a language, the typesetter, too, executes a retrieval task for composing text, the galley being the stage where the lateral compression happens; it is not the birth of the page, but rather its structure as a matrix.
Why we have not separated the printed composition’s rectilinear organization as (once) determined by the physical constraints of the galley’s frame from the conceptual, aesthetic organization of the page is perhaps due to the lingering, if retrograde, connection not to printing but to typography that this latter profession maintains to that simplifying archetype. The lingering traditionalism of typographic form is almost too evident in Hans Rudolf Bosshard’s recent and lavishly detailed The Typographic Grid, in which gridded page elements restrict, and reflect the tenets of page design in a manner that could almost be confused for a study in kind of window and edifice facade modularity whose deformations would be the product of hypercontemporary architectural studios like from the OMA back to modernist ones like that of Mies van der Rohe.
In this company too, is Willi Kunz’s Grid Systems in Graphic Design/Raster Systeme Fur Die Visuele Gestaltung, in which text is often rendered into window-like frames conflating its symbolic literacy to the constraint of simple form.
As these examples only begin to illustrate, the predominance of geometrically primitivistic visual organization in which type, which is to say text in print, has remained subsumed, has needed an aesthetic outlet for the stultification of its reductionist organizing principles. Kunz’s work can be read, both literally and phenomenally, as the overlay of a presumably interesting visual form over a more constrained textual one. And if we remove text altogether, many design books have no issue with treating the first of these two elements autonomously, suggesting a visual aesthetic entirely of its own making, almost like the proverbial problem set in any visual studio course, the study is one of form as organization, not as literature, as Kimberly Elam’s Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type implies — text has been greeked out altogether to grey blocks — a practice that is de rigueur in graphic design books, and which, by arguing for structure as entirely distinct from the content it is supposed to nurture, again returns us to an incomplete aesthetic of sense without reference.
Where and how in the logic of design deliberations, it remains to be asked, does this breakdown, this schism, this unquestioned rupture between visual form and literary form take place? And how does the textual revert back to the rectilinear constraints of the galley proof when that structure has become so superseded by the freedom that visual form in design is formulating? Wolfgang Weingart’s My Way to Typography shows an illustrative example. Telling of his early interest in the letter M, Weingart focused on the formal properties of this letter to those gradually intense deconstructive levels that begin to see it more as a symbol, and then as a glyph, than as a textual component as it is distilled away from its literary context.
In a sequence of diagrams redolent with the kind of open enthusiasm that we know from children’s wonder in playing with letters, Weingart performs a chain of inchoate contortions on a circus of M‘s whose acrobatic stretches morph from the typographic into something like a Futurist poster study.
And yet, once played out to near-Dadaist proportion, the deformations of the letter collapse, inexplicably, back down into symmetric primitives, for even the addition of a third dimension in Weingart’s adoption of the letter study into a modular cube makes evident the seeming immutability of typography’s need to return to the ordered simplicity of a matrix or a grid.
From across the table of contents, the newspaper galley, the book index, and significantly distinct contexts, the presence of the word is bound to the substantive notion of form as an object with definite, limited, and regular boundaries. Excepting the fringes of poetic experimentation, there exists no literary genre in the West whose textual organization has successfully escaped this constraint. Not surprisingly, then, electronic literature’s extension on that history has directed itself on the adjectival version of form – forms for reading, which is to say, form as process descriptive of a particular post-literary encounter. And that encounter depends on mechanisms that undermine and negate the linearity of the gridded reading, a problem that shall be explored in the next post.