31 May 2008

More beautiful alphabets

I stumbled across this beautiful illustrated alphabet today, from an Italian incunabulum by rhetorician Jacobus Publicius:

[From Artes orandi, epistolandi, memorandi, by Jacobus Publicius, published 1485; image from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.]

As Suzanne Karr Schmidt explains in a great little article on moveable parts in Renaissance and Baroque books:
The 1482 work [Artes orandi, epistolandi, memorandi] included the first printed artificial memory, though it depends heavily on antique sources. This form of meditation related loosely to Llull's method for remembering the truth, as both his divine and Publicius's figural alphabet could be used to construct mnemonic concepts. Llull's letters were meaningful in themselves, whereas it was the act of rotating Publicius's dial to connect characters from his visual alphabet that produced memorable patterns. His serpent-shaped pointer is the first of many diagrams that reinforced the significance of their calculations by furnishing the moving parts with their own visual connotations. The snake pictured [below] comes from the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress.

I'm having trouble finding more easily accessible information on this book online; any leads would be appreciated.

25 May 2008

TyPoGraPhic I N S A N I T Y in early modern title-pages

Ever wondered by the title pages of early 18th-century books are so f'n crazy? Probably not. But..they are. I'm not talking about emblematic frontispieces or fancy engravings, but all-out typographic insanity. Check it out:

Gothic typeface, RANDOM CAPS, Then Some Italicized Words just for EMPHASIS -- before BAM! S O M E H U G E T E X T W I T H W E I R D S P A C I N G!!

I've been trying to track down research on this typographic insanity, but unfortunately books on early 18th-century title-page design are not high-priority acquisitions for most libraries, and definitely not for MIT. The few works I've found -- Margaret Smith's The Title-page, It's Early Development and Margery Corbett and Ronald Lightbown's The Comely Frontispiece -- are not accessible, and may not even be of much help, since they look at periods before 1700. I'm also not as interested in specific arguments about the layout of title-pages, emblems, compositors marks, the use of long titles in the early modern period, why printers capitalized nouns, the development of certain standards, or how these pages protected printers and authors from piracy, although it's all incredibly fascinating, and I recommend both Ceri Sullivan's and Mark Bland's articles, linked above, for anyone interested in the visual rhetoric of early modern books. What I'm most curious about is how these title pages reflect certain beliefs about language from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Here's a page from an English spelling book, published in 1700:

Same typographic chaos as the title-pages -- gothic and italic faces, capitalization, punctuation marks peppered liberally over the page. It looks very strange to a twenty-first century reader, drawing attention to its medium, its use of the printed page, to the point that it's almost illegible (although it's good to remember that we have our own weirdnesses that seem "natural"). This same chaotic design crops up over and over again in grammar books, lexicons and universal language projects of the period -- much more than in other types of books. I'm wondering if there's a link here to changes in linguistic philosophy between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Seventeenth century linguists and grammarians were obsessed with letters -- how they represent sound, how they look on the page, how they combine to form words. Most universal language projects of the period, like John Wilkins's famous philosophical language, use the alphabet to replicate the natural order of the universe, seeing letters as the building blocks of thought in much the same way corpuscles were seen as the building blocks of matter. By changing typefaces, then, one could inscribe all the nuances of speech -- sarcasm, prosody, gesture -- onto the very look of the letter, thereby naturalizing print as a gestalt communication technology encompassing orthography, orthoepy, and the natural order of the universe.

So what if these crazy title-pages reflect this belief? That is to say, the typographic design doesn't just separate out certain words or phrases for emphasis, but is operating under the materialistic, object-oriented philosophy of late seventeenth-century linguistics. To make this argument, one has to accept that there's an intimate connection between communication technologies and the cultures they circulate in, and that underlying beliefs about language are going to show up on the page. That sounds obvious, but it's a slightly different direction from which to approach the layout of early modern books -- bottom up, instead of top-down, focusing on foundational beliefs instead of conscious decisions printers made to, for instance, combat piracy. In a provocative sentence which deserves an essay all its own, Murray Cohen, who I mentioned yesterday, says:
The crucial point these crowded, confused pages reveal is the complexity of the relationship between differently stressed parts [of sentences]. (from Sensible Words, page 53)
Here, typography is not just used for stylistic emphasis but becomes a kind of syntax reflecting linguistic beliefs. Perhaps as language begins to be seen less as an aggregation of letters and more as the product of logical thought and the rational operations of the mind, typography, too, reflects those changes. I don't know. It seems a difficult, but interesting, idea.

Narrative, database and media history

Last week, a post at we make money not art described Aaron Koblin's talk on data visualization at OFFF in Lisbon. During the discussion, Aaron quoted the following from Lev Manovich:
Narrative made sense for cultures based on tradition and a small amount of information circulating in a culture -- it was a way to make sense of this information and to tie it together (for instance, Greek mythology). Database can be thought of as a new cultural form in a society where a subject deals with huge amounts of information, which constantly keep changing.
This quote has been rattling around my skull ever since. I've tracked down the original interview in which Manovich made the comment, which, in its entirety, reads (new parts bold):
The shift to the database can be understood as part of the larger shift from a traditional “information-poor” society to our own “information-rich” society. Narrative made sense for cultures based on tradition and a small amount of information circulating in a culture – it was a way to make sense of this information and to tie it together (for instance, Greek mythology). Database can be thought of as a new cultural form in a society where a subject deals with huge amounts of information, which constantly keep changing. It may be impossible to tie all together in a single (or a set of) narrative but you can put it in a database and use a search engine to find what you are looking for, to find information which you are not aware of but which matches your interests and finally to even discover new categories. In short, a narrative is replaced by a directory/index.
(Manovich builds out this argument more fully in The Language of New Media around page 228, where he argues that "database and narrative do not have the same status in computer culture.")

Now, if the database -- which Manovich himself defines as "a structured collection of data" -- is "new," what about these weird contraptions?:

The first image is from Georg Philip Harsdörffer's Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache, or the Five-fold Thought-ring of the German Language, described in his Philosophische und Mathematische Erquickstunden (1651). It stores different units of language, similar to morphemes, on five different nesting wheels, which then can be spun to quickly generate words, many of which didn't actually exist but, because they were morphologically correct, could exist in German (or so Harsdörffer thought). It was also used to generate poetry, since the user could easily find rhymes by keeping the last syllables of a word stable while moving the first few rings. If my calculations are correct (and I admit to not having taken math since high school), the Denckring allows 97, 209, 600 permutations -- 300 times as many words as the Oxford English Dictionary, which took over seventy-five years to produce the first edition.

The second image is from Ramon Llull's Ars magna. Llull is a pretty famous guy in the history of computing, and justifiably so. In the thirteenth century, he developed a system of nesting wheels that 1) stores the nine divine dignities in different variables (shown in the image above), 2) could quickly combine those dignities to construct premises, then 3) combines those premises to construct logical syllogisms that argue for the existence and indeed greatness of the one and only Christian God. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco counts 1,680 arguments in Llull's system -- that's 1,680 theodicies, 1,680 proofs, 1,680 treatises on God.

The third image is from Johannes Trithemius's work on cryptography, described in his Polygraphiae (1518) and Steganographia (1531). This is only one example out of dozens of books on cryptography that use volvelles, wooden slats, tables and other devices for encrypting messages in secret codes. While not databases in the same way as the Denckring or Lullian circles, cryptographic systems and polygraphy were designed to manipulate large chunks of data that would be difficult to encrypt by hand. Instead of performing a complicated act of encryption on every single letter (add six letters, subtract five, spin it around a few times), the volvelle performs the encryption for the user, effectively translating text into coded text.

It seems databases -- structured collections of data used to manipulate, analyze and generate huge amounts of information -- have been around for a long time. And I didn't even go back to Porphyry's tree, from the third century, or taxonomic systems developed by Aristotle, since taxonomies and hierarchies often involve classifying any amount of information, rather than organizing large chunks of data.

Of course, the fact that humans have been structuring data for a long time doesn't refute Manovich's main point: that the database has taken on a new significance in contemporary culture, in a way that Lullian circles never did for late medieval or early modern Europe . My issue isn't with the comment as much as it is the attitude, the tone of the argument, which seeks to identify the present against the past. That is: we're information-rich, "they" were information-poor; we've got database, "they've" got narrative. Not only do these relativist claims not hold up to scrutiny, they ironically end up obscuring Manovich's (important and interesting) point by locking media into time periods narrowly defined by one over-arching principle.

This approach tries to make media history safe, simple, explainable. One the one hand, it seeks evidence of already-formed beliefs about the past, merely confirming a history that's already been written; on the other, it seeks obvious differences, drawing a line in the sand between the past and the present. In both cases, what is truly significant about the database, or any media practice -- the failed experiments, the crazy plans, artifacts like Lullian circles that don't quite fit into the narrative we want to find -- all that gets lost. And what we're left with is a pretty boring picture of both the past and the present.

I'm reading a great little book right now by Murray Cohen, Sensible Words. Published in 1977, it digs up a ton of interesting universal language projects and grammar books from the 17th through 19th centuries, advocating an approach that honors the diversity of thought that existed at the time. Cohen writes:
Our methods of historical analysis, our selection of terms, figures, and sights (or cites), speak who we are by showing how we think and, even, what we do not know we believe. If we do not resist the blinders that the conventions of our own discourse put on us, we succumb to histories that put a premium on a continuous track (which may have some hurdles or some well-marked, gracefully curving detours) that finally includes us along the Way.
Yes, Cohen is very clearly influenced by Hayden White, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, and other thinkers challenging the dominant narratives of history. What's been so surprising, as I read this book published over thirty years ago, is how relevant his critique of historical methods remains today, especially in media and literary scholarship. I'm staring at a stack of books on 17th-century poetry that don't cite Harsdörffer once. It took me a week, and several random emails, to track down a copy of Leibniz's dissertation (untranslated, a scanned copy of an 18th-century edition). What little I have found on proteic poetry contains blatant contradictions of fact (does Kuhlmann's sonnet have 152, or 169 permutable parts? didn't anyone count them before writing their essay?).

So when, after spending hours researching Lull and Harsdörffer and Kuhlmann, I read this distinction between database and narrative -- an admittedly small point, made seven years ago by a thinker whose work I deeply respect, and who's more historically sensitive than most -- I really start to question every narrative I've absorbed, every survey course, every canon. If Kuhlmann's proteic poetry didn't make it into the historical record, what else are we missing because of a still-prevalent Whiggish historiography? What are we losing right now because Google Books doesn't deem it significant enough to digitize? And what insights have we missed about our contemporary media culture because we haven't taken the time to significantly understand the past?

24 May 2008

"The Library in the New Age," by Robert Darnton

There's an article by Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books this morning: "The Library in the New Age." Although there isn't much new here, Darnton writes a very careful and thoughtful overview of the topic, and isn't afraid to call out Google for its quixotic efforts to digitize all knowledge.

Two great points he makes: 1. What is being digitized might not be the most interesting for future scholars (what of our telephone books, computer manuals and other ephemera?); and 2. Google's book division doesn't employ one book historian.

22 May 2008

Open Source Embroidery: an interview with Ele Carpenter

The Open Source Embroidery project makes me ridiculously excited. Run by Ele Carpenter, it (in her own words):

brings together programming for embroidery and computing. It's based on the common characteristics of needlework crafts and open source computer programming: gendered obsessive attention to detail; shared social process of development; and a transparency of process and product.

I craft -- obsessively. And compulsively. I lurk in the back of thrift stores, looking for sequined belts, and troll junk shops for VHS tapes to eviscerate and make into purses. While crafting lets me create and construct in a way I often can't as a student, it's more than that: it's a political act, a way to take back what's been stolen from us by gendered stereotypes, corporatized youth fashion and a political culture that thinks we really are that stupid. In crafting, there's never been a line between producers and consumers, the makers and the buyers, because it's a community endeavor, with ideas and patterns and stitches collectively owned and freely shared -- the gift economy at its best.

If you're crafty, you know. This is never just about tying knots in yarn.

Ele, who was an artist-in-residence at Access Space in Sheffield while running Open Source Embroidery, makes makes the brilliant move of linking the collaborative, open nature of needlework to the open source software movements. She writes:

Embroidery is constructed (mostly by women) in hundreds of tiny stitches which are visible on the front of the fabric. The system of the stitches is revealed on the back of the material. Some embrioderers seal the back of the fabric, preventing others from seeing the underlying structure of the pattern. Others leave the back open for those who want to take a peek. A few integrate the backend process into the front of the fabric. The patterns are shared amongst friends in knitting and embroidery 'ciricles'.

Software is constructed (mostly by men) in hundreds of tiny pieces of code, which form the hidden structure of the programme or interface. Open Source software allows you to look at the back of the fabric, and understand the structure of your software, modify it and distribute it. The code is shared amongst friends through online networks. However the stitches or code only make sense to those who are familiar with the language or patterns.

The connection is rich, and worth exploring in more detail. I've been exchanging emails with Ele to talk about Open Source Embroidery, HTML patchwork and the connections between so-called "new media" and embroidery. My questions are italicized below. If you're in London, check out the project, on display now at the HTTP gallery, running until June 15th.

Do you think embroidery, like coding (or perhaps I should say coding, like embroidery) can be done elegantly? That is, if examining two different methods of producing the same design (or program), can one be done more beautifully than the other?

EC: I'm not a programmer or an embroiderer, but I have a rudimentary knowledge of both. From my basic level of HTML, reading about code, and talking with programmers, I think there is a link. There is such a thing as 'sloppy code'. This occurs when the programmer leaves odd bits of code lying around on the page which are not active parts of the programme, but can be left over bits of text. There's also long-winded ways of coding something that could have been written in a simple way. Even the way that code is laid out on the page can be elegant or sloppy. Elegant code is clean, neatly laid out, and can include poetic references in its structure or arrangement. I am sure that Amy Alexander could describe this more precisely.

Embroidery can certainly be sloppy: stitches are not properly secured, the fabric tension can be uneven, the wrong needle can create large holes or tugs in the fabric. The back can be a mess of knots or a neat mapping of the pattern on the front. The biggest problem is uneven tension in the actual stitches. Also some kinds of stitch are more appropriate for certain fabrics or designs. However, like code, thread can be used purposely to create poetic scrunches, and a different kind of aesthetic, breaking the design formal rules.

Have you ever encountered what you might call "obfuscated embroidery" -- where expert embroiderers intentionally use a difficult stitch as a means of obfuscating their methods, or perhaps commenting on the process of embroidery?

EC: I'm not sure that actual stitches are used to be obfuscatory on the surface. But certainly the back of the fabric can be treated in a number of ways. One of the embroiderers in the Html Patchwork has sewn an extra fabric swatch to the back of her patch to hide her stitches. Most people have left the stitches exposed. I have deliberately left the back of the patchwork exposed so that people can see how the patchwork has been constructed.

I recently interviewed Jenny Hart, who identifies as both an artist and a crafter, with her embroidery often being shown in galleries. Do you think embroidery has become more acceptable as art (or gallery art)?

In the late 1990's several painters started to use embroidery in their work. Artists such as Grayson Perry use ceramics pots to communicate their ideas. There are many examples of conceptual use of craft, where the domestic and materiality of the work is part of the context. This is quite different from the more formal approach to craft, placing it within a neutral aesthetic space.

How did you line up fabric colors for your Html Patchwork?

EC: The Html Patchwork is based on the design of a mouse-mat which illustrates 216 websafe colours. It took several months to find the different colours in plain fabric. I worked with patchworkers in different cities to get free fabric swatches from shops and theatre costume departments in Sheffield and Banff, Canada.

You also mention the gendering of both code and embroidery. Could you elaborate?

EC: They are both quite obsessive mathematical processes. I have discovered that women collect fabric, not always in an organised way. They may not be collectors exactly, but they keep fabric just in case it might come in useful to repair something, make a pillow case, or even a patchwork. In a similar way men seem to collect electrical cable, just in case it might be handy for something. It could be used to wire a network or fix a lightbulb. Both men a and women keep their stashes under the stairs, in boxes, in the shed, in the spare room. Women are more likely to keep fabric in the bedroom, whilst they draw the line at keeping electrical cable on top of the wardrobe or under the bed!

Has the web changed the nature of crafting communities?

EC: They seem to be more networked internationally. The Knitted Blog is a good example of linking international users of the Knitty Board website. But the reality is that people meet locally all the time, and the web connects many small groups to each other. However, there are many people, especially women who find it harder to leave the home, usually because they are looking after other people (children, sick or elderly), and the web is a great way for them to connect with other knitters and share their work.

For more about Ele, check out her website, or visit the Open Source Embroidery show at the HTTP gallery, running until June 15th.

18 May 2008


I've seen so many web-collaborative-tool-browsing-do-das lately that I'm getting pretty jaded. I've already got a bunch of plug-ins and software and sites and whatevs installed/bookmarked/tagged to help me "do my research" and "share my ideas." I don't think I use.. well.. any of them. At least not regularly.

But I have to admit:

Twiddla sure will be very helpful when I start working on designs for the new Cost of Freedom magazine.

If you haven't seen ShiftSpace yet, it's kind of similar, but with much higher goals: basically, these guys want to open up the web. In addition to the usual annotation tool, ShiftSpace's image swaps and source code tweaks let users alter the image of websites, creating a second layer on top of any page that could present a radically different message than the controlled design. Neat idea. I'm really curious to see where it all goes.


Why haven't I heard of this before now?! LOLmanuscripts. You know, like -- well, okay, you get it.

As the site acknowledges, all these images are pulled from printed books, and therefore are not script done by manu. Maybe "LOL Early English Books" didn't have enough zip. Still cute.

12 May 2008

Lex, Rex, Grex, Res, Spes

A proteic poem by Thomas Lansius (1626):

Les, Rex, Grex, Res, Spes, Jus, Tus, Sal, Sol, (bona) Lux, Laus:
Mars, Mors, Sors, LIs Vis, Styx, Pus, Nox, Fex, (mala) Crux, Fraus.

Of this, the single verses, by the preceding rule, since they have 11 monosyllabic words (the two-syllable words bona and mala always fixed in the fifth foot), can be varied in 39,916 ways while preserving the meter. And although it happens in other cases that several variations disturb the meter, not to mention the fact that many anagrams are menaingless or ungrammatical, nevertheless it is, for the most part, an easy job to separate the useful from the useless variations and to arrive at the number of them if you observe some order in investigating them.
// Jacob Bernoulli, Ars conjectandi, 1713; translation by Edith Dudley Sylla

10 May 2008

Tough enough for timber, petite enough for a purse.

The already confused Zoyd, whose survival instincts may not have been working all the way up to spec, decided to produce the chain saw from his bag. "Buster," he called plaintively to the owner behind the bar, "where's the media?" The implement attracted immediate attention from everyone in the room, not all of it technical curiosity. It was a tailor-made lady's chain saw, "tough enough for timber," as the commercials said, "but petite enough for a purse." The guide bar, handle grips, and housing were faced in genuine mother-of-pearl, and spelled out in rhinestones on the bar, surrounded by sawteeth ready to buzz, was the name of the young woman he'd borrowed it from, which onlookers took to be Zoyd's drag name, CHERYL.
// Thomas Pynchon, Vineland

// images from "The Revolution will be Fabulous," Paul Gronquist latest show at Galley 1988 in Los Angeles. Via Eyeteeth.

06 May 2008

Fun is a medicinal bath.

There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at. Laughter, whether conciliatory or terrible, always occurs when some fear passes. It indicates liberation either from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Conciliatory laughter is heard as the echo of power as something inescapable. Fun is a medicinal bath.
//Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic who is incapable of doing anything with his free time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously.
//Adorno, from The Culture Industry

05 May 2008

Nietzsche's Lovesong to his Typewriter

-Friedrich Nietzsche's Malling Hansen poem, February-March 1882
As so it was a rain in Genoa that started and stopped modern writing -- a writing that is solely the materiality of its medium. "A letter, a litter," a piece of writing, a piece of dirt, Joyce mocked. Nietzsche's typewriter, or the dream of fusing literary production with literary reproduction, instead fused again with blindness, invisibility, and random noise, the irreducible background of technological media. Finally, letters on the page looked like the ones on the right retina.

-Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriters (208)

03 May 2008

"There is no Safety but by Flight" in points, lines and shapes

John Wilkins was a guy who worried about the stability of language -- its orthography, its pronunciation. In 1668, he designed an a priori universal language which tied both spelling and speech to a taxonomy of ideas, building upon his earlier work in secret writing systems, begun in 1641's Mercury, or, the Secret and Swift Messenger.

I would argue his concern over stabilizing language was less real than strategic -- a way of getting his work known amongst the aristocratic intellectuals of his day, who were increasingly obsessed with purifying the "national tongue." Regardless, he thought about it. A lot. I've been exploring his work for about a year now, and continue to unearth the most delightful, curious and inventive ideas about the relationship between sound and image in alphabetic writing systems. This morning I found another gem in Mercury: Wilkins's translation of the statement "There is no Safety but by Flight" into systems of writing using points, lines, shapes, and a mix of all three.

(A scan of Mercury in its entirety can be found here.)

02 May 2008

Shower Vispo . .

. . from the couple with no time to communicate in person. Pretty disgusting, huh.

01 May 2008

Happy May Day

May 1st has a strange history. With roots in pagan celebrations, such as the Celtic Beltane festivals, it later became Christianized as a celebration of the Virgin Mary during which children decorated images of Mary with flowers and ribbons. As you might expect, the pagan celebrations of May Day -- dancing around a Maypole, wearing animal masks, trading "May baskets" of candies and flowers, crowning a May Queen -- were absorbed into the Christian celebrations, although outlying villages still celebrated in much the same way they had for centuries, causing the Brits to ban May Day in the 1600s. Many places in the UK still hold May Day celebrations that include some combination of the pagan, Catholic and secular traditions. (For more, see this great post at La Revue Gauche.)

The second meaning of May Day has little to do with its pagan origins. On May 1, 1886, as workers across the Western world for striking for an eight-hour day, the Haymarket riots shook Chicago, where police attacked and brutalized the strikers, eventually killing six of them. As the workers continued their strike into the next day, a bomb exploded in the crowd, killing eight demonstrators. Eight of the anarchists organizing the strikes were arrested and charged with throwing the bomb, marking the beginning of one of America's most infamous trials.

In honor the Haymarket Martyrs, the International Working Men's Association declared May 1st a working class holiday in 1889, raising a red May Day flag in honor of their spilled blood. Today, much of the world still celebrates May 1st as International Workers' Day, recognizing the acheivements and sacrifices of the labor movement, whom you can thank for your eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, the two-day weekend, and paid holidays.

Of course, the U.S. wasn't having that for long -- leading to the third, and least known, meaning of May Day. In 1958, Congress declared May 1 as Loyalty Day, during which Americans are (supposed to) reaffirm their loyalty to the U.S. government. Really, it was done just to show up the Soviets. A kind of international raspberry on International Worker's Day.

Whatever aspect of it you celebrate, Happy May Day.