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Tag Archives: Lindisfarne

The Ubiquity of the Clear, the Human, the Humane: Helvetica

Many thumbs up for the documentary Helvetica (2007), that happens to be on Netflix Instant Play. I just love the uncovering of these kinds of things, pointing out the omnipresence and therefore degreed omnipotence of something we regularly fail to see. (And since Hofstadtler wrote on fonts in Metamagical Themas, I have to say I have retained a fascination over their incredible expressivity.

The film follows the literal and cultural history of the font Helvetica, up to present day, a font whose ubiquitousness is compared by some interviewees, to air and gravity or at least off-white paint…its just there. Is it a McDonalds of mal-nutricious typeface, ready at every corner, or an elegant expression of what IS? For instance Massimo Vignelli, a “high priest” of design modernism, compares the life work of a designer to the work of a doctor. Whereas physicians fight against disease, designers fight against visual disease, ugliness, which he finds all around us. Typography, we are told, isn’t even the art of black and white, but really the art of the white, the space between the black, like music which is the art of the space between the notes. And Massimo generously numbers the quantity of quality typefaces at barely a dozen, using himself only three.

Driven by legibility, Helvetica is the model modern typeface, carrying the right connotations, perhaps the very “clear and distinct” yet embodied idea of Descartes. Codifed high modernism. Described as “doing away with the manual details” of the 19th century typeface, it achieved a certain gridlike “neutrality” that was and is perceived as “meaningless,” non-occluding.

As one admiring explicator tells it “Its not a letter that’s bent into shape. Its a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space…the figure-ground relationship properly executed”.

But it is not only clear and distinct, but also commanding or unquestioning in its clarity. Paradoxically, still, a commanding quality that is not authoritarian, rather rounded, softly exact, an accessible humanity-clarity. It seems to hold a power beyond even our familiarity with it, our cultural, historically contingent associations. It practically speaks “man” in the blankest of senses.

This kind of beautiful expressiveness of typeface has a power beneath message of course. As one designer speaks of typeface choice: one might not be conscious of a typeface, but one will be affected, in the way that an actor miscast in a role will affect the believability of a story, while not impairing the ability of an audience to follow the plot. The choice of typeface is that of a casting director.

And then in the film is the marvelous, self-confessed typo-maniac Mark Spiekermann (above), who practically spits out in disgust in description of Helvetica: “The guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same. He-llooo. That’s called an army, that’s not people. That’s people having the same fucking helmet on”

His engaging, typographical driven English blog is here  – he has a German blog as well. And I must say that I feel compelled to type in his FF Meta typeface. Practically on principle, but also out of aesthetic embrace. (I wish I knew how to download and default typefaces.)

Another designer commenting on it being the urban signification system beautifully calls Helvetica the perfume of the city. Something we would miss if it were not there. And we must wonder if that is not true.

We follow the anti-Helvetica warning “Don’t confuse legibility with communication,” and muse about its radical dominance for half a century while nearly everything else has changed, if “it contains s certain design program” or how a typeface can become an “unfixable” typeface.

These thoughts bring me to a past contemplation of mine, on perhaps the very first anti-Helvetical font, centuries before printed type: Lindisfarne: The Rise of Illuminative Script

Personally I am conflicted about Helvetica, for I cannot deny that profound and fundamental effect the typeface has on me, in particular in commercial circumstances (though surely in government and legal contexts as well). It is indeed reassuring in a kind of subtly rich, nurturing fashion, denying me my status in the revolutionary aesthetic guard, no doubt. But when I think about the things and passions spoken by the Anti-Helveticans, I am also stirred, finding my way, conceptually, somewhere close to the want for an aboriginal deviation that I have not quite found. Helvetica is never sufficient for any personal communications. (I’ve changed my email default many times, and seem to enjoy the serif Sylfaen.) The wish is for a kind of doctrinal handwriting of a typeface, if there were such a thing as a personal typeface (how one would tire of that in a way that one does not tire of one’s handwriting).

In any case, the font we use becomes politicized, aestheticized, in such very important and beautiful ways. Typo-philes are a kind of literal philosopher who gazes at the actual frame in which messages appear. Perhaps we should choose and read more carefully.


“Talk to me about the Ontology of Commentary” (Illumined)

Some Thoughts on the Glossator Roundtable

If any of you have simply put the radio on in order to structure the aural world about you, I suggest listening instead to this roundtable at the Glossator conference from this past April, hosted by Nicola over at The Whim. Each of three speakers was a favorite voice , and only one person seemed to be disappointingly repeating well-rehearsed positions from their past, not actively thinking with the possibility of learning something from those they spoke with or the subject matter itself. As such the genuine aura of the conference discussion really brought home how nice it is to have creative, bright minds come together. And playing at least the first hour of the discussion where voices rhythm with more alternation and variety, simply burgeons.

The speakers are: Ulrich Gumbrecht, David Greetham, Jesús Velasco, and Avital Ronell, and they loosely organize their comments upon Nicola’s questions on the Future of Commentary, of which there are five:

1. What is the sense of asking the question of the future of commentary?

2. What are the hermeneutics of commentary?

3. What is the ethical potentiality of Commentary?

4. What is the ontology of commentary?

5. What is the pleasure (ludi) and pain (labor) of commentary?

Aside from the almost certain conflict of interest in four professional Commentators discussing the importance and (ontological, political) necessity of commentary, there is a pleasure in hearing these perspectives. (I most enjoyed the reference to slides which illustrated different marginal or commentary spaces, forcing me to imagine my way through.)

The Mp3 file of the roundtable is here, originally found over at wrætlic: the notebooks of egil on the trammes of tresoun where Dan offers a paper from the conference “Affects and Their Gravities: Commentary as a Capacity of Care”

In addition, as a modest though not inconsiderable sidenote, it was so pleasant to hear an erudite voice – I think it was David Greetham’s – say the line: “”…,or to turn it around….I don’t say ‘dialectically’ because I don’t ever know what that means…”.  Thank God someone can disrobe such an abused and mystifying word in a conference context in such a light manner, and without commentary.

Too Much Binary, Not Enough World

As to commentary itself, I could not help but think as I listened to these compelling speakers, that they had a wrong, or let us say, over-determined sense of what Commentary was. Focused on the primary binary of Text/gloss, and no doubt filled with their decades of bodily engagement with commentary and text, eyes moving backward and forth, commentary quite often took on the graft of the Being/non-Being, Presence/Absence, Text/Margin dynamic, in which we struggle to “sharpen” just what the relationship between that which fills the empty space and that which dominates the centrality of vision, seemingly so we can escort it successfully into the future (where it can be maintained as an object for our disciplined and professional examination).

What came to mind as each thinker sought to corral commentary was the defiant example of Lindisfarne Illuminative Manuscript, which I have written upon here.

The illuminative script of the anonymous monk seems to have fulfilled yet exceed nearly all of the provisos and descriptions offered by the various thinkers (or at least presents an adjunct exemplification which complexifies their categories). This immanent scripting, which lay not in the margins, but is woven of semiotic, iconographic, syntactic, conceptual and historic elements in commentary, directs our vision to an underpinning of what commentary COULD be. That is, commentary, aside from the binaries of Presence/Absence (fill), may be best seen as out-growth, or over-growth, or even a seeding. It flows out from the text, from its very form and reproduction. And then, is it not, that commentary cannot be severed from its text, any more than the scholia of Spinoza’s Ethics can be cut off from the propositions and proofs, without a certain amputation?

When you look at the Lindisfarne illuminations and view them as commentary, perhaps even taking them as models of what commentary is, I think we come up with a different sense of both the great wealth of possible commentary forms, but also its coming future. One should not think of  or look to the blank space (which invites the binary), but to the nexus shore, the touching ground where text and gloss brush up onto each other, making any strict delineation between the two impossible, or unwanted. To read the commentary is to feel the affective connection, the unfolding of the truth of a practiced mutuality. The very materiality of a text, its re/production, already presumes a certain thickness of continuity, even to a word scribbled in the margin.

I would go a bit further, if we are to insist that there is a binary operant here. At most, text works as mimetic (objective) product, and what we read as commentary as deitic screen, to the degree that we experience a certain sourcing of the former to the latter, a causal effect to which we too can be joined. In this sense, the object and the ostensive finger are always intimate to each other, and cannot be divorced. 


Alternately, think of a text as a garden, and its commentary the diversity of weeds, border bushes, pollinators both organized and summoned by the plot of land. Flora and fauna and realm both support and direct our vision to the effect.