Modernism/Modernity 2.3 (1995) 173-175

Book Review

The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923

The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923. Johanna Drucker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. 298. $35.00.

There are two domains of poetry too little attended: the sound and the look. That is to say, poetry is too little attended: sounds too quickly converted to words or images, the material space of the page too quickly supplanted by the ideational space of the text (as if MLA really meant "muted language association"). Too often, reading habits enforce a kind of blindness to the particular graphic choices of type, leading, page dimension, and paper, under the regime of a lexical transcendentalism that accords no semantic value to the visual representation of language.

One poetic response to this derealization of poetry has to insist, against all odds, that a work can be composed whose semantic inhabitations are, if not "all" visual, then inescapably visual. Foregrounding the visual dimension of the verbal domain--sounds like some sort of tap-dance number by a performance artist called "The Wasted Apollinaires." The visibility of the text thwarts the New Critical-cum-deconstructive sense of the linguistic idea of the text: disrupting the idea of meaning as being hypermaterial (beyond its material embodiments). As such, renewed critical and hermeneutical attention to textual visibility is allied to the resurgence of bibliographic and sociohistorical approaches in grounding poetry in its materially and socially contexts, in and of the world. Two recent works exemplify this movement: Jerome McGann's Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (1993) and Johanna Drucker's The Visible Word.

The Visible Word is a breakthrough study of the materiality of the visual representation of language. Johanna Drucker makes a fundamental contribution to aesthetics and the philosophy of language as well as providing a cogent application of her theoretical investigations to the visual and verbal arts of the modernist period.

Drucker provides a powerful critique of repression of the semantic contribution of the visible forms of writing, particularly typography, in the French philosophical and linguistic tradition from the structuralism inaugurated by Ferdinand de Saussure through such poststructuralist philosophers as Jacques Derrida. She forces us to rethink a basic repression of the materiality of language (sight and sound) that had gone unchallenged not only within the French traditions and their American counterparts, but also within the separate literary traditions of New Criticism (and their successors) and the formalism of such art critics as [End Page 173] Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. No one before Drucker has made such a comprehensive statement on this issue, although her study follows in the wake of significant work in this area by Gerald Janacek, Marjorie Perloff, Mary Ann Caws, Willard Bohn, and Dick Higgins.

After its opening sallies against the windmills of linguistic dematerialization, The Visible Word settles into a more practical task: proving models for "close lookings" at the visual text of poems. As a preface to this task, Drucker presents an illuminating reading/looking at the interplay between the verbal and figural/visual elements of the inaugural work for modernist visual poetry: Stéphane Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés. In what proves to be a keynote of her antireductive interpretive style, Drucker notes:

Mallarmé's concept of the figure is itself so abstract that his engagement with the manipulation of material to figurative ends increases that antimimetic ordering. It is in part for this reason that the work is so resistant to interpretive closure. The "figures" refuse to be read in terms which might reduce them to an equivalent either named or sketched. The textural elements forge links of meaning in their visual and verbal relations but those relations function as their own gestalt, not as the trace or image of some other figurative form. [55]

This resistance to interpretive closure, however, is not just a feature of Un Coup de dés but, Drucker argues, a feature of the destabilization inherent in visual-verbal interactions of the radical modernist typographic works that are the focus of her study.

With Mallarmé as the starting point, Drucker proceeds to reintegrate the common aesthetic and procedural approaches to materiality in modernist visual and literary art in order to establish "experimental typography as a modern art practice." At the same time, Drucker aims to reverse the separation of the "purely visual" from the literary, which, she notes, becomes a foundational idea in much modernist criticism. In so doing, she charts how this highly problematic separation has played itself out in terms of representation versus presence, faktura versus autonomy. Drucker's revisionist history also questions the common misconception that radical modernist art has a primary "concern for formal values for their own sake" (67). By "debunking" such generalizations, she shifts the terms of discussion onto "the structure of relations among elements of signification" (67).

In laying down the groundwork for interpreting typographic works, Drucker stresses the distinction, already present in Gutenberg's printing, between marked and unmarked texts:

[Gutenberg's] bibles, with their perfectly uniform grey pages, their uninterrupted blocks of text, without headings of subheading . . . are the archetype of the unmarked text, the text in which the words on the page "appear to speak themselves" . . . Such a text appears to possess an authority which transcends the mere material presence of words on a page . . . [95].

Drucker's book is a brief for the poetics of the marked text. To make her case, she presents extended interpretations of the work of four representative modernist figures, each of whom used typography in strikingly innovative, but nonetheless dissimilar, ways. Her account moves from the militant Italian Futurism of Filippo Tomasso Marinetti to the vernacular lyricism of Guillaume Apollinaire and from the "hermetic esotericism" of Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd), a Russian zaum poet who emigrated to Paris, to the highly rhetorical Dada subversions of Tristan Tzara.

Drucker traces the origins of modernist typographic experimentation, as represented by Marinetti, Zdanevich, Apollinaire, and Tzara, not only to Mallarmé but also both to the print [End Page 174] advertising of the late nineteenth century and to the typographic self-consciousness of, for example, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Despite the sharp aesthetic, social, and political differences among these typographic practices, Drucker sees their use of marked texts as "aggressively situat[ing] the reader in relation to the various levels of enunciation in the text--reader, speaker, subject, author--though with manipulative utilization of the strategies of graphic design. Such inscription, obvious marking, of the assumed reader, forces language into the public domain" (97).

The Visible Word closes with a discussion of the demise of typographic experimentation, as the unruly incursions of language into public domain are transformed by the "efficient" and "modern," which is to say uniformist, principles of graphic design into contained, unified markers of corporate identity and packaging.

The devices so conspicuously laid bare in the experimental work of the (albeit politically disparate) early twentieth-century artists became, within two decades, the most efficient means of concealing not only the marks of artistic and literary enunciation, but of the structures of economic power in corporate, state, and military production as well . . . [245].

Drucker's passionate presentation of work too often overlooked and her brilliant critique of the critical domestication of modernist practice make The Visible Word crucial not just for our understanding of the historical avant-garde but also for understanding what poetry is and how it means.

Charles Bernstein
State University of New York, Buffalo