Academic journal article Visible Language

Surrogate Multiplicities: Typography in the Age of Invisibility

Academic journal article Visible Language

Surrogate Multiplicities: Typography in the Age of Invisibility

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Historically, much critical discussion, particularly among typographers, has centered on the role typographic form plays in conveying meaning. Beatrice Ward's image of the crystal goblet, evoked in a 1932 essay of the same name created a framework for considering the ways in which value and meaning are assigned to a text based not only on what is written, but how it was written. While Ward was primarily concerned with the dynamics of letterform and legibility, this essay attempts to extend her metaphor into the realm of social difference by exploring the myriad ways in which spaces of cultural inclusion and exclusion are mediated via typographic form. Within such an argument, qualities of transparency and lightness attributed to the crystal goblet operate as agents of invisibility for non-standard speakers, or a whole host of "others" that fall outside of the normal

izing boundaries of linguistic standardization supported by Ward's image of an undifferentiated typographic surface. The discussion begins by tracing historical precedents for the marking of social difference through distinctions in typographic form. Typefaces from Jim Crow to Tiki Magic demonstrate how the "display" of otherness relies on the historicizing mechanics of cultural standardization. Similarly, an analysis of pictorial trademarks developed in the mid

to late-nineteenth-century reveal how fractured letterforms served as the visual equivalent to the "broken" English of a growing immigrant population. Finally, a connection is made to the ways in which contemporary software, through specified feature sets and "default settings," supports a long traditionl of representational standardization.

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TRACING THE INVISIBLE

Beatrice Ward's 1932 incantation "The Crystal Gopblet" invokes the images of transparency and lightness as purveyors of an enlightened typographic project. Utilizing a form calculated to reveal rather than hide "the beautiful thing which it was meant to reveal the typographic crystal proposed by Ward was not only functional but virtuous as well, implying an inherent, althought hardly unproblematic connection between form and the moral sphere. Historically, much critical discussion, particularly among typographers, has centered on the typographic form plays in conveying meaning, as Ward's valorization of transparency as in means of semantic revelation no doubt demonstrates. Far less attention, however, has been given to an analysis of transparency and lightness as agents, of invisibility for non-standard speakers, or those who fall outside of the frame of "the beautiful thing" Ward's crystal goblet was meant to contain.

One way of thinking about this concept of invisibility is to consider the phenomena of the typographic visual "voice-over," which constitutes a national symbolic environment, as well as the organic process by which a standard "voice" is generalized across an entire range of cultural expression. [Template Gothic, Univers, Century Schoolbook] The standard typographic voices we are accustomed to are utopian, belonging nowhere, regionless, without accent. [Helvetica, Bell Gothic, Interstate] Seemingly transparent, these forms offer up representations of the generic, the symbolic, the superficial and the stereotypical. [Citizen, Democratica, Frathouse] In the case of the visual voice-over, language not only marks (or unmarks) identity, but functions as a kind of cultural border as well. As Dick Hebdige notes,"...there can no longer be any absolute distinction between these two terms (form and content) and the primary recognition that the ways in which things are said - the narrative structures employed - impose quite rigid limitations on what can be said.", Taking Hebdige's narrative structures to include both syntactic and semantic elements of the written word, an analysis of the systems of subjectivity at play within typographic discourse can reveal the myriad ways in which visual form supports structures of cultural standardization, marking exclusionary distinctions between standard and non-standard speakers. …

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