Friday, 5 October 2007

Material writing

The Material Poem, an anthology of poetic artworks curated by UTS Masters student James Stuart, is available online:

His introduction describes these poems as the products of writers "engaged with writing as a material rather than purely literary practice." Many of the poems are accompanied by author's notes explaining their motivations. Although I'm not looking at poetry (you'd have to go into a great deal of historical grounding to understand how the poem has evolved as a visual-verbal form, and I'm more interested in experimental visual devices in prose - traditionally the domain of pure language), this is a great example of how visual rhetorical devices affect the reading experience.

Quoting Charles Bernstein: " All text is visual when read", Stuart elaborates "engaging with language necessarily entails engagement with its particular materiality." It is this consideration of form, of materiality (or modality?) that is fascinating to me, as a designer. The 'design' of literature shifts from a paratextual zone (the cover, the typesetting grid) to an intertextual zone (the visual elements affect communication/meaning).

The process of reading poetry is recognised by the likes of Michel Riffaterre as being inherently different than the process prose: you read a poem once to identify the semiotic structure, and then again to understand the structure. You necessarily re-read poetry. This is what George Alexander describes in his statement: 'meaning in poetry often seems to float just out of reach, like lost paper sail boats'.

Wayzgoose Press describes the motivation to typeset one of their poems in differing faces and weights: "to encourage a slower and more deliberate reading than the average reader is accustomed to with today's universal emphasis on speed."


cubby said...

This is a really interesting point.
I'd say everyone engages with writing as a material practice, it is just accorded more significance in some formats, such as poetry (and some kinds of poetry more than others obviously).
It's the context in which a piece of writing is received that casts its material nature into relief: handwritten ransom note, typed police brief, Times New Roman novel, novel with accompanying scribbles, Mause etc.
One well-worn take on postmodernity is that everything can be seen as a text, and the trend you have identified - the convention of integrating designerly elements into standard text in books - seems to coincide with that way of thinking. Authros seem to be experimenting in response to the other ways of perception and taxonomy brought about by postmodernism.

Zoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zoe said...

Hi Ben,
Have a scroll down to "the limits of images" post, I talk about this stuff in there and use an example or two.

What do you mean by 'Times New Roman Novel'? Do you just mean a book typeset conventionally? Times New Roman is a font developed for newspaper use (as the name suggests) - very few novels would be typeset in this font ... maybe you're referring to something I haven't heard of?

I'm also not sure what your last sentence means (you have absolutely adopted the language of a UTS communications tutor...been teaching a course on postmodernism lately?!). What new ways of perception are you referring to (a more visually sophisticated reader?)and I'm not sure what you mean by 'taxonomy' in this context ... taxonomies are systems of classification for specific content, I don't think you could argue that there is a single 'postmodern taxonomy'?

ben said...

Sorry if the the post was a bit difficult to understand. What i meant by the last sentence was that i think the trend you have identified is a symptom of writers experimenting with the new boundaries of classification (hence taxonomy) that are usually seen as one of the main, defining elements of postmodernism.
If a picture is a text, written text can include pictures etc, and the two might be seen as part of a continuum of understanding, rather than seperate fields of study.
The reckon the key point is the design-driven integration of image and conventional text, rather than just having the two coexist side-by-side. While this is arguable (ie, pictures and texts have been seen in relation to one another since the days of illuminated manuscripts etc), the difference now could be that authors seem to be aiming for a deliberate and self-conscious merger of these diffrent categories of meaning.
I can't see any compelling evidence for the existence of more visually-sophisticated readers nowadays - by new ways of perception, i was talking about the outcome of stylistic fusion/boundary blurring mentioned above.
And with the font, its was just meant to be one example in a list of different potential formats. So it's not something you haven't heard of (though someone sufficiently insane could probably dig a Times New Roman novel out from somewhere)

Zoe said...

You've made the point that you don't think there is evidence of a more visually-sophisticated reader a couple of times now, and I think you're overlooking an enormous area of current research about the development of visual literacy across a few disciplines. For many academics, this is taken as fact - there is a new reader-viewer emerging who is more skilled at 'reading' the visual than any reader we have seen (since perhaps the readers of illuminated manuscripts, but this is a whole other argument I'm making elsewhere). As a foundation, you should read Gunter Kress and Theo van Leeuwen's The Grammar of Visual Design. There are some really interesting conferences on this topic happening across the globe and journal articles a-plenty, if you are actually interested in finding out more, a basic google scholar search will throw up a lot of interesting material.

ben said...

That could be a good idea for your next post - explaining how the trend is real and what it means for your research. Ive got The Grammar of Visual Design on order andf i'll get back to you when ive read it.
And thanks for interoducing me to google scholar. i had never noticed the s-word at the end of the line before. It could change the way i spend my night shifts!

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