Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of the Dynamic Page

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of the Dynamic Page

Article excerpt

As the visual has come to dominate contemporary culture, the spatial design of both the printed and electronic page has become a more important element of all the reading that we do. Richard Lanham notes that visual design appears "all over the print landscape, and not only in ads but in workaday prose as well." He associates the explosion of interest in the visual design of text as a competition for attention: "What does such an outburst of shaped prose tell us about the current environment for text? Clearly, a new pattern of attention is being elicited from the reader [...]. Shaped prose deliberately cultivates a competitive market economy in which words and images, and the different worlds they represent, compete for our attention" (86). Others have described the increasingly visual design of contemporary information as part of a "pictorial turn," a culture of spectatorship and surveillance, and the global circulation of images (see Mitchell). Literary writing has anticipated this interest in the visual element of our experience of reading. From Mallarme's Un coup de des and Apollinaire's Calligrammes through the Noigrandes group of concrete poets in Brazil in the 1950s and the founding of Dick Higgins's Something Else Press in the U.S. in 1963, writers have recognized the shift toward visual frameworks for reading.

Unfortunately, our critical models for understanding such visually-designed "concrete" literary works are limited by a general emphasis on the static visual icon, which applies particularly poorly to the dynamic, interactive pages we encounter in a computing environment. (1) The simplest and most common example of such concrete or pattern poetry is a work designed to embody its subject pictorially, like George Herbert's commonly-anthologized "Easter Wings." Of course, not all contemporary writing concerned with visual design is simply pictorial; Johanna Drucker notes, for example, that in Eugen Gomringer's work "it is the structural relation of the words, rather than any particular image suggested by them, which gives their visual presentation value" (Figuring 111). Gomringer's "Silencio"--a block of text repeating the word with a central blank space--does not "look like" silence, but instead uses the relation between the presence and absence of the word to describe the concept of silence. Even in Drucker's more nuanced understanding of the visual quality of the work, however, emphasis is placed on the formal quality of the page image; as she says, such concrete works generally "attempt to make poetic meaning isomorphic with its visual structure" (118). This focus on structure tends to apply best to short, single-page items and poorly to extended narratives. (2) This is unfortunate in part because some of the most typographically innovative writing--especially in the U.S.--seems to be more a variety of narrative than of poetry. We might think of Ronald Sukenick's The Endless Short Story, Raymond Federman's Take it or Leave It, William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, Steve Katz's The Exaggerations of Peter Prince, Guy Davenport's "Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier," and even Drucker's own Against Fiction. (3)

By drawing our attention to the action that occurs on and across the page, such narrative visual texts reveal the weakness of our theories of the visual in writing. Often images in books have been treated as a supplement to the text, correcting the natural limitations of language and providing guidance for readers in interpreting the story. (4) But critics have long recognized that the line between text and image is deeply conflicted. Illustrations frequently take on a life of their own; J. Hillis Miller has argued that for many contemporary readers, Dickens's characters "live even more in Cruikshank's etchings than in Dickens's words" (qtd. in Golden 118). And, as W.J.T. Mitchell has shown, "the place of visuality in language" is an old and problematic question, involving issues from ekphrasis to description as a spatial "interlude" in the story (109). …

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