The Metaphysics of Fonts
My last post on the documentary Helvetica (2007) had me musing deeply today. Not only does one suddenly begin to notice fonts used in public signage, in omnipresent fashion that invokes thoughts of Ideology (a cultural perspective taken that must be taken for things to be seen clearly, coherently) – “No Parking” and “Please Clean Up After Your Dog” are two interpellative Helvetica commands I pleasingly read today, but one begins to think about metaphysics itself, the way in which metaphysics attempts lay hold of the very invisible, or largely unseen normative rules and restrictions which essentially condition our capacity to make sense of the world and others, as they are. In distinction from Ideology, Metaphysics is trans-historic, or aims to be. Can Helvetica and its largely ubiquitous, in-visible presence in Western Cultural centers of political command and commercial invitation, give us some clue or evidence towards bothMetaphysical aims, and Ideological functioning (with the understanding that Metaphysics and Ideology bear some relationship to each other)? And, in looking at the dominance of Helvetica, is there a metaphysical/epistemological position that may more coherently than others help us make sense just what is going on in Political imperative and Commercial invitation?
Now surely many others have written on Helvetica with far more erudition and historical knowledge, as the profound thoughts offered on the font by various designer/philosophers in the documentary reveal. These are merely the application of other thoughts I have thought in other contexts to the phenomena of Helvetica as social phenomena, as a point of musing. I have no special insight here, and would enjoy others bringing to my attention any studies/theories that would collaborate or counter my line of thinking.
What comes to mind though when one gazes at the clean, tailless, space-embraced lettering of Helvetica that in the 1950’s swept away so many inconcordant typefaces in both advertisements and eventually government documentation, is the fundamental distinction between the Marked and the Un-marked. An Un-marked element is one whose input or information passes relatively cleanly through it. It stands as clean of any distinction that would draw undue attention to its form (any sub-element that would be read as “marked” would direct the mind at least in part to the consideration of the making of the form itself, a looking into its own history which may or may not comment upon the substance of its report…to use an obvious example, drunken scrawl left from the night before might markedly direct one’s attention to suspicion about the accuracy (or alternately, inspiration) of the content.
The Marked and Un-Marked: Turning One’s Gaze
The concept of Marked and Un-Marked goes a very long way of giving us an epistemic, though non-essential, binary which may help explain why in Western Culture things like White and Non-White, or Male and Non-male, or Citizen and Non-citizen have such wide-spread and organizing determinations. The Un-marked allows information/content to pass rather cleanly through. The Marked causes us to pause, inspect and ultimately judge the worth of value of the report (and this rather inevitably seems to direct us to the bodily, affective realities of the Marked thing, ultimately viewing the report under an affective, imaginary register). Helvetica, as it’s cultural place has come to evolve and entrench itself in many modern, Political/Commercial, Western contexts, has become a near definitive Un-marked font.
Now let me deviate for a moment so to pass back into metaphysics and an interesting disagreement that arose in succeeding generations in the mid 17th century, newly modern Dutch Republic. Descartes was all the rage, presenting to forward thinking persons of nearly every ilk, a remarkably clean, efficient, and decidedly mechanistic view of the world. As we all well know as inheritors of the Cartesian mindframe, the world was made up of two Substances, one of which was that of Extension, by which we could view everything as operating as a kind of machine of causes. The other was that of Soul, and the problem was in articulating how the one connected to the other. For Descartes, imbued with a Christian view of the world, a most required connective part was the Will (voluntas), a faculty of judgment with operated upon passive and effortless human perception and its ideas, actively assessing out from neutrality both those which were true, and those which were false. (In this neutrality, perhaps you get the first glimpse of where I am going as per the neutrality of Helvetica as a font.)
Descartes on the basic distinction between comprehension and assessment:
“All that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive, without affirming or denying anything, the ideas which are subjects for possible judgments”
“That we have power.., to give or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us”
But, perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the next generation, the outcast Jew and microscope maker Baruch Spinoza, had a radically different correction to offer to Descartes’ idea of judgment.
The Elder, Truth
Though Truth and Falsehood bee Neare twins, yet Truth a little elder is.
Spinoza denied altogether the basic distinction between acts of comprehension and assessement, denying in fact the Cartesian freedom of Will. This is more than simply a perverse or subversive denial of free volitions as they seem to be to us most obviously. Rather it is part of a very different conception of Mind, and how it operates:
E2p49 – In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea.
Or, as James later will sum of Spinoza:
All propositions whether attributive or existential, are believed through the very fact of being conceived.
The above citations and framing of the question is drawn from one of the more interesting Spinoza-influenced articles I have read in my now growing years of reading Spinoza literature: “How Mental Systems Believe,” by Daniel T. Gilbert (Feb 1991, American Psychologist). [Click Here for Download]. The article covers the consequences of an elementary disagreement between Descartes and Spinoza, a forgotten disagreement. Gilbert argues that the loss of the disagreement has lead AI designers, who have largely inherited the Cartesian view of mind, to build cognitive models (at least up to the ’90s) on an unquestioned comprehension/assess distinction. This is how the author opens the essay, in the broadest of terms:
Everyone knows that understanding is one thing and believing is another, that people can consider ideas without considering them so, and that one must have an idea before one can determine its merit. “Everyone knows the difference… between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (James, 1890, p. 283). Nonetheless, this article suggests that what everyone knows may be, at least in part, wrong. It will be argued that the comprehension and acceptance of ideas are not clearly separable psychological acts, but rather that comprehension includes acceptance of that which is comprehended.
The psychological tests the author appeals to in support of a Spinoza epistemology may very well have been superceded by others after it. I have not seen the direction of research that has followed. What is memorable about the article, and why I strongly recommend it, is that it helps to concretely explain a very fundamental difference in theory that may have quite lasting and rippling effects, not only across cognitive science, but also perhaps within social criticism, as I am attempting to draw forth in the example of the Helvetica font. It gives a sense how a rather arcane sounding distinction made in the 1600s may have a lasting effect on the powers of our present day descriptions.
The Library of Knowledges: Fiction and Non-Fiction
But let me press on. Gilbert by way of an expert analogy shows us just what the difference between a Cartesian and a Spinozist cognitive system is. He asks us to imagine a vast library into which new books are continually being introduced (generally, in the human mind perceptions and ideas). There are two main ways new books can be coded as fiction or non-fiction (true or false ideas), what he calls the “tagging system” of each…
Imagine a library of a few million volumes, of which only a small number are fiction. There are (at least) two reasonable methods by which one could tag the spines of books so that fiction could be distinguished from nonfiction at a glance. One method would be to paste a red tag on each volume of fiction and a blue tag on each volume of nonfiction. Another method would be to tag the fiction and leave the nonfiction untagged. Either of these systems would accomplish the goal of allowing a librarian to distinguish fiction from nonfiction without necessitating that he or she actually reread the book each time such a discrimination needed to be made.
It is only a mild oversimplification to say that Descartes considered the mind to be a library of ideas that used something akin to the red-blue tag system. A new book (new information) appeared in the library (was represented in the mind), its contents were read (assessed), and the book was then tagged (recoded or rerepresented)as either fiction (false) or nonfiction (true). New books unassessed ideas) lacked a tag, of course, and thus were not identifiable as either fiction or nonfiction until they had been read. Such new and unread books were “merely” represented in the library.
Spinoza, however, argued that the mind was more like a library that used a tagged-untagged system. In Spinoza’s view, books were represented before they were assessed; but because of the particular tagging system that was used to denote the outcome of that assessment, a new book that appeared without a tag looked exactly like a work of nonfiction. In a Spinozan library, a book’s spine always announced its contents; no book could be “merely” represented in the library, because the absence of a tag was itself informative (or misinformative) about the content of the book. Analogously, ideas whose truth had been ascertained through a rational assessment process were represented in the mind in precisely the same way as were ideas that had simply been comprehended; only ideas that were judged to be false were unaccepted, or given a special tag.
The author passes through a variety of comprehensive though anecdotal evidence that the Spinozistview is correct, credulity, initial correspondence of belief withcomprehension is supported by a child’s gullibility, which only latter grows discerning with experience and the suseptability to suggestion when persons are fatigued or purposivelytortured. (In fact it is with a view towards an economy of processing powers that Gilbert argues that the human mind evolved to believe first, and deny later.) Of interest for our examination of the font Helvetica is his solitation of marked and un-marked words, how the Un-marked term is conceptually more basic than its marked counterpart:
Unmarked terms are thought to describe operations that are more conceptually basic than their marked counterparts. The Spinozan hypothesis states that unacceptance is a more complex operation than is acceptance and, interestingly enough, the English words that indicate the acceptance of ideas are generally unmarked with respect to their antonyms. Thus, people speak of propositions as acceptable and unacceptable, but (unless one is a neologizing psychologist) not as rejectable and unrejectable. One’s statements may be true or untrue, but they may not be false and unfalse. People hope their ideas are correct, accurate, and credible rather than incorrect, inaccurate, and incredible, but they cannot grammatically wish to be unwrong. Indeed, people even speak of belief and disbelief more naturally than they speak of doubt and undoubt. To the extent that one’s words for mental processes do reveal something about the processes themselves, the structure of the English lexicon suggests (as did Spinoza, who wrote in Latin) that the rejection of false ideas is more complex than the acceptance of true ones.
For Gilbert, and I may well agree, there is an essential and operative binary here, in which initial embrace, belief-as-comprehension precedes the counterpart of negation. This allows him the conclusion that all sentences are coded as true until further critique is to be done on them. It is here that I want to depart from Gilbert’s paper which goes on to speak of experimental evidence for the Spinoza hypothesis (again, evidence that science may or may not have suprassed at this time). I want to turn to, in fact involve, this essential dichotomy of marked and unmarked to consider again the powers of the Helvetica font in our society.
The Powers of Helvetica
As I pointed out in my last post, there is much mystery about the lasting power of Helvetica, not to mention its strongly persuasive effects in both the political and the commercial realms. From the above description I feel it is safe to say that the sans-serif font Helvetica has come to be the Un-Marked font of both of these domains. And while it seems most likely that it would have been a sans-serif font that would become the un-marked term, there does seem something quite gridlike and balanced in the Helvetica that further enforces its unmarked status.
If we grasp Spinoza’s assertion plainly, we understand that the unmarked term/idea/concept/sentence is the one already believed in its very comprehension, a belief that might be equated to the powers or failings of children. When we read Helvetica, we partake not only in a certain kind of neutrality, but it is a neutrality of affirmation. What is printed in Helvetica by its very form is already a form of belief, we can say. And certainly there are other fonts in other conditions which are the unmarked form, for instance the serif Times New Roman is the glassy clear in textbooks or newspaper publications. Yet, Helvetica, as it stands towards all other fonts which we experience, perhaps because of its dominance of the most significant organizing spheres of our persons (political and commercial power), is Un-marked beyond all.
So, is Helveticaa kind of metaphysical font, a communication of the very weft and woof of perceptions, beliefs and truths? I think we can contingently go in this direction. Wittgenstein in his rejection of metaphysical speculation wanted to turn the most mysterious seeming statements like “All rods have a length” (withsome reference to Kant), into simple grammatical statements. The great truths of philosophy are just sentences which show how we use words, with nothing profound beneath them. For instance “All rods have length” just shows us how we use the words “rod” and “length” and no amount of experience withrods and length will give us evidence to falsify the claim. Grammatical statements are those which cannot be negated, not for mysterious reasons, but because negating them would end up producing nonsense.
As an appreciator of Spinoza you can tell that I cannot fully embrace Wittgenstein’s position, but it does do something to reveal the nature of Helvetica commands or invitations for purchase. In a sense, Helvetica has become the aesthetic manifestation of something close to the Grammatical Statement. Not only as an Un-marked form of a dominant sphere of social organization, and as such by default believed, the form itself induces a Grammatical Statement like bind wherein one can only deny the truth of the belief at some cost of coherence. The truth of the Helvetica-expressed idea, at least at this point in time, has a lasting, affective ballast, which I believe remains even after its negation or disbelief. Contingently a Helvetica expression may be false, but coherently it is true. In our society this is the two pronged force of the Law, and I believe it is Spinoza’s Marked and Un-marked conception of the Mind that points us to this realization.
It remains to be decided just how ideological and how metaphysical these effects are. That is to say, Do the powers of Helvetica participate in, not just historically contingent hegemonic organizations of persons and affects, but also within a more profound potentia of belief? When Spinoza laid out his claim against the foremost philosopher of his Age, denying a fundamental freedom of the Will, grounding comprehension and perception itself in belief itself, he saw all belief to be an activity, an affirmation of one’s body in a very real and concrete sense. When we perceive we affirm our flesh under a certain degree of power. And we are only made more free through making more powerful affirmations of ourselves. If this is so, the very Un-marked clarity of Helvetica points a kind of absolute relation, a stream of power unto which we are forever orienting ourselves. And it is up to us to separate out our imaginary relations that for instance impell us to buy The Gap clothing out of its very Helvetic form, and the absolute value of the Un-marked itself. Or, to put it another way, we must see that Un-marked categories/terms/concepts/forms are not just devices of control, but also powers that derive their potency from a greater univocality. And it is the Marked term, in all of its developmental and expressive quality, that causes us to realize this.
What we recall is that these issues and determinations are not those of armchair philosophies, of rare disciplines or their categories, but the very lived realities of experiential Marked and Un-marked Reals. Helvetica speaks metaphysical truths. And we daily read it. This makes room for both the grasp of and resisitance to, Helvetica.