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Visible Writings

Visible Writings: Cultures, Forms, Readings

Marija Dalbello
Mary Shaw
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Visible Writings
    Book Description:

    Exploring the concept and history of visual and graphic epistemologies, this engrossing collection of essays by artists, curators, and scholars provides keen insights into the many forms of connection between visibility and legibility. With more than 130 color and black-and-white photographs,Visible Writingssheds new light on the visual dimensions of writing as well as writing's interaction with images in ways that affect our experiences of reading and seeing.Multicultural in character and historical in range, essays discuss pre-Colombian Mesoamerican scripts, inscriptions on ancient Greek vases, medieval illuminations, Renaissance prints, Enlightenment concepts of the legible, and the Western "reading" of Chinese ideograms. A rich array of modern forms, including comics, poster art, typographic signs, scribblings in writers' manuscripts, anthropomorphic statistical pictograms, the street writings of 9/11, intersections between poetry and painting, the use of color in literary texts, and the use of writing in visual art are also addressed.Visible Writingsreaches outside the traditional venues of literature and art history into topics that consider design, history of writing, philosophy of language, and the emerging area of visual studies. Marija Dalbello, Mary Shaw, and the other contributors offer both scholars and those with a more casual interest in literature and art the opportunity, simply stated, to see the writing on the wall.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5455-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-1)
    (pp. 2-10)
    Mary Shaw

    All writing is visible, but we don’t always see it. By contrast, the writings treated here become highly visible insofar as they draw the reader’s attention to their visual dimensions. Thus, as we enter into this collection, we ask you first to doubly focus your gaze, to look right and left, to mark that we, the editors, like our contributing authors, come to this complex topic from different perspectives. Cultures, forms, readings: the plural, open-ended subtitle suggests that we strive to embrace many points of view without pretending that a complete picture of visible writings can be somehow here achieved....

    (pp. 3-12)
    Marija Dalbello

    The immediacy of vision so pointedly evoked in this quotation suggests the irreducibility of vision to the sense of touch, or to the word. Seeing is an existential relation establishing what we know, but we cannot explain the world without the word, just as “words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by the [world].”² This collection explores the irreducible nature of the senses by focusing on the visibility of language and the legibility of image.

    The contributors present arguments about the reflexivity of language and writing and the aesthetics of visibility and invisibility. Their essays do not...

  6. Buzz Spector, Encyclopaedia
    (pp. 13-14)
  7. CONTOURS OF MEANING IN THE SCRIPTS OF ANCIENT MESOAMERICA: Western Epistemology and the Phonetic Issue
    (pp. 15-36)
    Gordon Brotherston

    The possible paradox in the termwriting without lettershas not overtroubled western epistemology. But if a script cannot be shown ultimately to depend on the spoken word, thelogosboth Greek and biblical, then does it really deserve the name? Although they may concede a certain space to semasiography (the phase in writing in which a sketch conveys the direct likeness of an idea), today computational and other contemporary theorists effectively reiterate the “no” pronounced by the teleologues of more than a century ago, among them Karl Marx and E. B. Tylor, who posited a phonetic ingredient as indispensable...

  8. ARTS IN LETTERS: The Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing
    (pp. 37-54)
    Alexandra Pappas

    When considering writing in ancient Greece, scholars from a variety of disciplines will recall Plato’s famous discomfort with the medium: it dulls a sharp memory; it easily deceives its audience, being the appearance of wisdom rather than true wisdom; and it is indiscriminately mobile, available even to those who cannot understand it.¹ Famed thinkers since the fourth century b.c.e. have queried Plato’s diatribe against the written text but not always with consensus or satisfactory conclusion. I find it more useful, though, to widen the lens to examine the interdisciplinary relationship between ancient Greek words and images, which scholars from the...

  9. LETTER AND SPIRIT: The Power of the Letter, the Enlivenment of the Word in Medieval Art
    (pp. 55-76)
    Cynthia Hahn

    In about 900 c.e. Asser, bishop of Sherbourne, wrote of an incident during the childhood of the English King Alfred: “One day, … showing him and his brothers a book of English poetry … [his mother] said: ‘I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest.’ Spurred on by these words, or rather by divine inspiration, and attracted by the beauty of the initial letter in the book, Alfred … immediately … learnt it.”¹ Among the interesting aspects of this story, one stands out in high relief. In explaining how Alfred so quickly became...

  10. VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE LETTERS: Text versus Image in Renaissance England and Europe
    (pp. 77-98)
    Peter Stallybrass

    I used to think that I knew the story of the Fall in Genesis. It went something like this: Adam and Eve eat the forbidden apple, they become suddenly aware of their nakedness, and they try to hide their genitals with fig leaves. But God is not deceived and casts them out of Eden. To prevent their returning, he places Saint Michael with a flaming sword at the gates of Paradise.

    One of the primary ways in which this story was spread in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe was through the circulation of thousands of woodcuts and engravings in printed books....

    (pp. 99-112)
    Lorraine Piroux

    In the work of Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, we find a curious fascination with fetishized books—those that are rarely, if ever, read but instead take on a baroque usage centered on aesthetic perception and the symbolism of the object. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s conception of the book is distinguished by a penchant for printed texts that are resistant to reading, and their material irreducibility forms a curious contrast to the universally legible printed book that was almost unanimously celebrated during the Enlightenment.

    One is reminded of the bitter observation that the hermit in Bernardin’sPaul et Virginieoffers to his...

    (pp. 113-129)
    Jacques Neefs

    On each page of a manuscript, the writing goes in search of the work by orchestrating its space. Words seek out sentences; the path of creation is made visible in writing. The gestures of creation can be read; they expose the thought process venturing toward the text that will constitute the work. The order of the gestures and the way in which sentences are unfurled on the page and possible formulations are set out take on a shape that is as distinctive as the handwriting itself. Just as the handwriting constitutes a signature extended across the totality of the writing,...

  13. Buzz Spector
    (pp. 130-134)
    (pp. 135-150)
    Mary Shaw

    “Visible writing,” as the present collection underscores, varies widely in different times and places. It is therefore tempting to simplify the notion by assuming that it corresponds to a single, homogeneous phenomenon within a given cultural framework. We might think, for instance, that modern poetic texts draw attention to their own visual aspects for similar aesthetic reasons and in similar ways. Yet a close look at examples emerging in roughly the same time, place, and cultural context reveals that this is hardly the case. Indeed, the two most widely known European works inaugurating the modern tradition of poetic visible writing—...

  15. MATHEMATICS FOR “JUST PLAIN FOLKS”: Allegories of Quantitative and Qualitative Information in the Habsburg Sphere
    (pp. 151-176)
    Marija Dalbello

    This verbal calculus echoes a visual display that appears in the 1904 issue of an almanac published by the J. Steinbrener firm. The visual diagram (figure 9.1) and the accompanying text explore mathematical meanings, yet without mathematical symbols.² Both are anchored in the social world of the central European readers of these almanacs, which were widely circulated throughout the Habsburg Empire at the time when the interests of competing nations had given rise to an arms race. In response to this political environment, the diagram image and narration point to complementary modes of understanding, raising the question of how the...

  16. BENEATH THE WORDS: Visual Messages in French Fin-de-Siècle Posters
    (pp. 177-194)
    Phillip Dennis Cate

    In November 1894 art critic Arsène Alexandre and publisher Félix Juven foundedLe Rire(Laughter), a humorous, fully illustrated journal. To announce this new weekly publication and its satirical premise Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) created a large black-and-white poster (figure 10.1) in the rich lithographic style of Honoré Daumier. A grand allegorical figure representing laughter dominates the foreground and theatrically presents to the viewer the menagerie of social types that will be attacked: an academician, a military general standing side by side with a skeletal symbol of death as a pompous representative of royalty, at the bottom right a quack...

  17. HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE A PICTOGRAM? On “Visible Writing” in Comics
    (pp. 195-210)
    François Cornilliat

    The art form known in English as comics and in French asbande dessinéetypically features a peculiar interaction of text and image, of the visible and the legible.¹ My purpose here is simply to highlight some of this interaction’s modalities and effects. Limiting myself to the French-speaking side, I will comment first on a few aspects of bande dessinée’s original development, from the 1830s through the Belle Epoque, as successive pioneers confronted the issue of visibilityaslegibility. Then I will focus on a single example from the 1960s, which offers a miniature allegory of “visible writing” as comics,...

  18. INVITING WORDS INTO THE IMAGE: Multiple Meanings in Modern and Contemporary Art
    (pp. 211-236)
    Marilyn Symmes, Christine Giviskos and Julia Tulovsky

    For centuries, art and informational pictures have served as a universal language that transcends nationality, chronological time, and geography. At key stages of early educational development, children learn to interpret illustrations in picture books before learning to read the accompanying words. Yet reading fiction and nonfiction texts and viewing art is a lifelong pursuit. People study art and texts because these works give us insight into creativity, increase our understanding of the world, allow us to explore the realm of ideas, or simply offer pleasure. But what happens when an artist entwines the verbal and the visual so that viewers...

  19. COLOR WRITINGS: On Three Polychrome Texts
    (pp. 237-253)
    Tiphaine Samoyault

    There is a form of visibility that relies not on images, nor on drawings, nor on illuminations in the strict sense, nor even on the layout of letters or typography, but on color. When we consider that all texts are visible, we might ask what particular kind of visibility they receive from the fact of being written, then printed bichromatically or quadrichromatically? Before moving on to any analysis, we can offer a few hypotheses, which will have to be verified by the texts. First, this way of creating contrasts, through the use of color, with the bulk of print, shows...

  20. Buzz Spector
    (pp. 254-258)
  21. THE FIGURATIVE AND THE GESTURAL: Chinese Writing According to Marcel Granet
    (pp. 259-272)
    Li Jinjia

    The first presentations of Chinese writing in Europe were the work of Jesuit missionaries, and they date from the end of the sixteenth century.¹ Since then, Chinese writing has never ceased to fascinate westerners, generating multiple studies and controversies among sinologists of every caliber. Until recently, however, western sinologists were captivated primarily by the visual aspect of Chinese writing, which was often presented as an autonomous graphic system. These scholars tended to study Chinese writing independently from, and beyond spoken Chinese. In this respect, the comparison between Chinese writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs, which has regularly shown up in the work...

  22. MICHAUX: To Be Read? To Be Seen?
    (pp. 273-292)
    Claude Mouchard

    All writing is meant to be seen. Is this not a truism? Yet writing seems condemned to be merely traversed by the gaze. To write, in this sense, would be no more than to cross over—a barrier or a threshold?—into speech and thereby into meaning. Similarly, reading would always amount to speaking, either out loud or under one’s breath (as reading, it is said, was once done). Or rather, reading would be a practice of virtualized utterance that each of us accomplishes without needing to give it our full attention in order to immediately comprehend what we read....

    (pp. 293-304)
    Richard Serrano

    The Alhambra has been described as a “stone book,” “an especially sumptuous book,” even an “inhabitable book.”¹ If so, it is a book with most of its pages missing, and those that remain rebound in an order that reroutes the reader, just as the Patronato de la Alhambra sends modern-day tourists through the site by way of a path that is not only confounding but was impossible before the twentieth century. It is a book without a table of contents or any other prefatory or explicatory material to help us understand how it should be read. It is a book...

  24. CATASTROPHE WRITINGS: In the Wake of September 11
    (pp. 305-318)
    Béatrice Fraenkel

    Armando Petrucci’s work on formal or monumental writing in Italian cities from the eleventh to the twentieth century formed a turning point for researchers whose work and reflection focus on urban writing. Not only does Petrucci, a historian and paleographer, provide rare, new knowledge on writings in cities, but he also acquaints us with his methodological choices and his unique manner of studying writing—one that combines the careful analysis of graphic forms and texts with the reconstitution of the political and cultural contexts in which the inscriptions were commissioned, executed, and published. The description at the beginning ofLa...

  25. … visible, legible, illegible : around a limit …
    (pp. 319-340)
    Roxane Jubert

    Many of Saul Steinberg’s drawings that play with illegible writings make us laugh or smile. They get our attention; they interrogate us. Funny or surprising, through the angle of the witty and the absurd, they manage to “speak” to us immediately. Paradoxical efficacy? These scribbles linked to the virtuosity of the stroke lead us to the heart of our subject (figure 18.1). Countless artists have taken up the letter and the sign, creating a myriad of unexpected written forms. This laboratory of visual trials and experiments, as immense as it is impressive, operates at the margins of accepted conventions and...

  26. STTMNT
    (pp. 341-341)
    Buzz Spector

    I reach visible writing by two means: through excision of existing texts and through occlusion of words I have written. In 1981, I began working with books, at first through the production of bound suites of drawings and subsequently through alterations of found printed books. The method of my alteration was to tear away portions of pages from the text block, in successively decreasing increments, so as to create a wedge-shaped cross-section. The fragmentary letterforms visible across the field of torn edges are still organized like a page, but this text is now unreadable. In some altered books I placed...

  27. Buzz Spector
    (pp. 342-346)

    The 2006 “Visible Writings” colloquium culminated in the presentation of Buzz Spector’s studio works, nine of which have been featured previously in this volume. Spector also commemorated the event with the creation of a new work (a found printed book,Picture Puzzles, from which he systematically tore away pages) and the creation of three collages using the excised portions of pages. This suite of works forms a fitting conclusion to theVisible Writingscollection....

    (pp. 347-350)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 351-356)