Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art.
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. 298 pp. $35.00 cloth. (VW)
Johanna Drucker, The Alphabet Labyrinth. The Letters in History and Imagination.
London: Thames and Hudson, 1995. 320 pp. $45.00cloth. (AL)
Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artist’s Books.
New York City: Granary Books, 1995. 377 pp. $35.00. (CAB)
Johanna Drucker, ThroughLight and the Alphabet. Druckwerk, 1986.
Johanna Drucker, Narratology. Druckwerk, 1994.
Available through Granary Books, New York.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Textual Practice, Volume 11, Issue 1 Spring 1997 , pages 133 – 142.

In 1986, the year she received her PhD in Visual Studies from Berkeley, Johanna Drucker produced a letterpress book, in an edition of fifty copies, called Through Light and the Alphabet. In her recent Century of Artist’s Books, she recalls:

I was intent on using contrasts in scale as a way of introducing hierarches of meaning and forms of movement into the printed text. [The book] disintegrates linear reading by the addition of a new typographic element on each successive opening. Once a typographic theme is introduced, it is sustained, so that by the time the book is finished, there is a complex multilinear text on the page. The differences in typographic scale allow these to be read at different rates but prohibit their ever being read all at once. (CAB 251).

The main such device, one Drucker discusses vis-à-vis Modernist experimental typography in The Visible Word, is paragonnage– ‘the incorporation of several different typefaces and/or sizes within a single line or word’ (VW 96). Thus the first two pages Through Light and the Alphabet look like this: (Figures 1 and 2)


The first page looks normal enough until we stop to take note of the repeated phrases in this ‘from A to A’ text. ‘A’s and ‘O’s (alpha and omega) predominate, and the visual field includes pairs like ‘conversations / conventions’, ‘amorphous’ / ‘various’, ‘according’ / ‘accounts’, ‘with’ / ‘wild’, ‘articulation’ / ‘imagination’. Visual and sound repetition thus serve to enact what the page ‘says’: this particular ‘conversation’ uses ‘conventions the others could be party to’, but takes off ‘on its own trajectory to mind the business being left out of the accounts.’ The new poetic world, Drucker suggests, is ‘too amorphous for repose inside of sweet articulation’; the material signifier is not just a transparent conduit to some ‘meaning’ above and outside it, but a ‘figure’ in its own right, whose various intensities haunt the retina. Inevitably, then, (page 2), paragonnage sets in, the isolated letters creating their own configurations– ‘NO’–’NO man’– map’–’manage’–’age’– ‘tO’ and, most interesting, ‘mage’, which calls upon us to hunt for the missing initial ‘I’— of ‘Image’, an ‘i’, in fact, available right above the ‘mage’ constellation in ‘na ming’. which also gives us ‘ming’. At the same time, the targeted words — ‘beguN’, ‘escaped’, ‘sle ep’, etc. –lose their identity; ‘begu’, ‘escaed’, ‘slep’: these have now become one-dimensional, there being no way to render them ‘meaningful’ except by restoring the original. But given the urge to take on the ‘business being left out’, typographical deformations become more and more marked until we come to the last page where ‘the’ provides its ‘e’ to produce ‘expEriEncE’ and simultaneously modifes the words ‘ sitE’ and ‘ReSPOnSE’. Experience–site–response: the reader is left to construe the relationship of these nouns in this particular narrative.

Of the many visual poets and book artists now working in the U.S. Johanna Drucker may well be the most important, especially given her range, from ‘letter’ texts like Through Light and the Alphabet and The Word Made Flesh (1989) to the complex ‘illustrated’ narratives like The History of the/ my Wor(l)d (1994) and the computer manipulated, ‘quarked’ and hand-painted Narratology (1994), whose ‘True Romance’ and science fiction stories and multiplex images are those, Drucker tells us, ‘acccording to which I thought my life would be lived, which shaped my expectations, the psychic disposition according to which the narrative of experience took its responsive form, in synthetic dialogue getting at the peculiar, particular condition of the imaginary in which living one’s life was in/through writing/ representation, not outside it, inside it, or in opposition, but in something which was a version of the real as the represented.’ [1]

But what makes Drucker even more remarkable is that she is also a scholar-critic-theorist, a Yale art history professor who has produced the three books under review here as well as Theorizing Modernism: Visual Art and the Critical Tradition (New York: Columbia, 1994)–all of them published by major presses within the two-year span 1994-95, although, as Drucker points out, The Visible Word was originally written some ten years earlier as an outgrowth of her Berkeley dissertation. Considering that Drucker also edits (with Brad Freeman) the Journal of Artist’s Books, continues to publish her own artist’s books (the most recent I have seen is The Current Line of 1996), and writes frequently for various art publications on visual poetics and related topics, she might be considered a one-woman growth industry: the verbal / visual text of the nineties: c’est elle.

Such staggering industry (one wonders how Drucker managed so much as to proofread her four scholarly books, let alone write them, in such a short period!) is not without its risks. As a theorist, Drucker is, by her own account, derivative. The Visible Word, the earliest of the three books to be discussed here, tries to ground avant-garde visual poetics in post-structuralist theory, tracing the line from Saussure and Jakobson to Derrida and Kristeva. Central as Derrida is for the theory of signification, Drucker argues, his notion of trace structure as différance leaves no room ‘for the apprehension of materiality’ (VW 39). Kristeva’s distinction between the symbolic and the semiotic, on the other hand, allowing as it does for the extralinguistic, ‘reincorporates into the system of signification elements which had been eliminated or neglected by classical semiotics’ (VW 42). But Kristeva was thinking of the extralinguistic within language rather than of the insertion of visual elements into the intermedia text, and the fact is, that when Drucker turns to the discussion of specific avant-garde texts, she relies less on Kristeva (or any other theorist) than on the theories and manifestos of the poets themselves.

Chapter 1 might thus be skipped: the real argument begins in Chapter 2, in which Drucker outlines the history of experimental typography, its origins in late nineteenth-century poster design, advertising graphics, and lithography, coupled with such ‘high art’ forerunners as William Blake’s illuminated plates and William Morris’s Kelmscott Press book designs. The ‘visible word’, Drucker argues, was part of the larger subversive attack on art as representation of external reality; by the end of the century, she suggests, the technology of letterpress typography had produced a distinction between two kinds of texts, ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’– a distinction that roughly corresponds to the split between commercial and literary uses of typography. The ‘unmarked’ text is the normal ‘undisturbed block’ of uniform print, the text as vehicle for the straightforward conveyance of meaning. ‘All interference, resistance, must be minimized in order to allow the reader a smooth reading of the unfolding linear sequence’ (VW 95). The ‘marked’ text, on the other hand, uses varieties of type faces, ‘the breakup of the page into various zones of activity,’ the use of diagonal and vertical lines, and so on, to call attention to its materiality; it the text one cannot ‘read through’.

This is a useful distinction because even today, when advertising relies on increasingly sophisticated use of ‘marked’ texts, discussion of ‘serious’ literature rarely pays attention to the ‘look’ of the page rather than what that page ‘says’. But it is also a simplification: the marked / unmarked distinction could just as well apply to purely linguistic texts: George Eliot, say, versus Gertrude Stein, whose print blocks, uniform as they may look, can hardly be ‘read through’. Still, if we give Drucker her donnée here, we need not worry the case, for her real concern, which she now goes on to detail, is the development of experimental typography and layout from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés to the Dada configurations of Tristan Tzara, and beyond. Her discussion of Marinetti’s parole in libertà (pp. 105-40) is perhaps the best analysis of these controversial works we have to date. Admiring Italian Futurist technique, its inventiveness, its genuine breakthrough, Drucker nevertheless recognizes the limitations of what she refers to as Marinetti’s ‘linguistic mimesis’, its faith in the visual representation of specific referents, as in Marinetti’s rollcalls of nouns connected by mathematical symbols (e.g., ‘baisers + – x + + caresses + fraicheur’) in Chair, or in his onomatopoeic sound effects (‘Karazouc-zouc-zouc / nadI-nadI AAAAaaaaaa’) in Dunes (VW 121-22). Marinetti’s poetics, she suggests, ‘was predicated on a faith in the capacity of typography to produce adequate analogies’ (VW 117), a ‘mechanistic insistence on the rapport between the look of a page with the sensation it recorded’ (VW 140).

Apollinaire’s experiments are judged to be less literal, less iconic: among the Calligrammes, often criticized for their obvious mimesis as in the figuration of words as raindrops in ‘Pluie’, there are collages like ‘Lettre-Océan’ and ‘Visées’ that create a highly complex visual / verbal field that requires complex deciphering. And in Ilia Zdanevich’s hermetic cycle of plays called Ledentu (1923), avant-garde typography, here based on the concept of the letter rather than the onomatopoeic word or the visualized referent, creates a ‘performance on the page’ even more striking. Zhdanevich’s astonishing zaum texts, Drucker suggests, defy all attempts at linear reading; morphemes and words interact in intricate patterns. Although Drucker relies on others for the meaning of the Russian words and phrases, her readings of Zdanevich strike me as more valuable than those of a more conventional art historian like Susan Compton (see Worldbackwards: Russian Futurist Books [British Museum, 1978]), who writes well on Russian avant-garde visual forms but slights their linguistic play.

Drucker next turns to Tzara’s particular incorporation of public discourse into Dada typography (the beginning of the rapprochement between ‘high’ and ‘low’), and she concludes with what she takes to be the end of first-stage avant-garde visual poetics that occurred with the coming of Surrealism, and its ‘repression of typographic enunciation.’ (VW 225). André Breton ‘feared the material pollution of writing, fearing that its voluptuous appeal might interfere with the purity of language’. His own poems and fictions marked a return ‘to the authority of logocentric discourse’ (VW 225). I find the suggestion that there is something ‘retro’ about Surrealism very provocative and fruitful and wish Drucker had developed it more fully. Strictly speaking, however, the notion that the non-visualized verbal text is necessarily logocentric is one that few critics would accept. Was Rimbaud, whose typography is fairly conventional, less ‘innovative’ than Mallarmé? Kafka, whose texts are visually ‘unmarked’ less revolutionary than Marinetti? Or can, as in the case of Beckett, language itself embody the ‘making strange’ Drucker takes to be the property of the verbal / visual text? [2]

Related questions may arise from a reading of The Century of Artist’s Books. As the history and anthropology of an important modern and especially postmodern genre, this beautifully produced book could hardly be improved upon. In the Introduction, Drucker carefully distinguishes the twentieth-century genre from its forerunners, from the ‘editorially controlled’ deluxe livre d’artiste, often the commissioned collaboration between an artist and a writer who have little in common, and from the book made by an artist that is still not quite an ‘artist’s book’, its ‘bookness’ not being of primary concern. ‘Artists’ books are almost always self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form’ (CAB 29). In subsequent chapters, Drucker studies, in minute and telling detail, the subgenres of artist’s books: the ‘democratic multiple’ (as in Isidore Isou and Ed Ruscha), the ‘rare and/or auratic object’ (Marcel Duchamp, Christian Boltanski), the Codex (Michael Snow, Lucas Samaras), the ‘self-reflexive’ book (Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Michael Goodman), the book as ‘visual form’ (Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt), as ‘verbal exploration’ (Steve McCaffery, Madeline Gins, Bernard Heidsieck), as ‘sequence, narrative and non-narrative’ (Janet Zweig, Holly Anderson, Ida Appelbroog), as ‘agent of social change’ (Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, Suzanne Lacy), and finally as ‘conceptual space’ (Bill Tuttle, Lawrence Weiner) and as ‘document’ (Daniel Buren, Alison Knowles, Bill Burke). Drucker admits that these are not hard and fast categories: indeed, her own work is discussed under the rubric of Codex (Bookscape), self-reflexive book (From A to Z), and book as verbal exploration (The Word Made Flesh and Through Light and the Alphabet). Similarly, the Ed Ruscha artist’s book, a primary exemplar of the ‘democratic multiple’, also figures prominently as ‘narrative’ and, in the case of Stains, as ‘document’.

Given this fluidity, the concluding chapter, ‘Metaphor and Form’ may strike us as slightly over the top. The artist’s book, Drucker twice claims, no doubt theorizing her own brilliant art practice, is ‘the quintessential 20th-century artform’ (CAB 1, 362). The ‘critical tension between the apparent conventionality of the book and its capacity to be reinvented anew through creative practice’ is unique, as is the ‘tension between the seeming simplicity of [its] conventional form and the unlimited complexity produced through the relation of elements to each other in a finite arrangement’ (CAB 359). The artist’s book, Drucker concludes ‘is unparalleled for its richness of detail, variety, and repleteness’.

Such specific characterization of a genre seems out of sync with the very postmodern spirit that produced the books in question, including Drucker’s own. Unlike such basic modes as painting and sculpture, the ‘artist’s book’ is a hybrid, a genre largely used by artists and poets as ancillary to their other work–witness Duchamp and Boltanski, Max Ernst and Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt. Dick Higgins’ Of Celebration of Morning (1980), for example, (see CAB 271) is one of a series of the artist’s Fluxus works, perhaps more appropriately grouped with other Fluxus works–postcards, installations, manifestos, broadsides– than with, say, the feminist political artists’ books of Suzanne Lacy or Martha Rosler. Genre, in such instances, may well be subordinate to larger stylistic and ideological choices.

What artists’ books do share–and more might have been said about this aspect of book production –is an economic imperative. The artist’s book can be (though it isn’t always) inexpensive to make, it can be produced from limited materials, it does not depend on the dealer-system and gallery system as do other kinds of art and so it is especially appealing in today’s harsh market environment where dissemination of an artist’s work becomes ever more problematic. Artists’ books can be made in multiples, they can be owned by more than one museum; yet they retain the aura of the unique art object. And certainly Drucker’s superb descriptions of actual printing and computer techniques, materials and bindings, make The Century of Books a reference book anyone interested in contemporary art practices must read. Indeed, the author’s knowledge and expertise are dazzling: she seems to have personally examined every significant artist’s book made over the last few decades and is able describe the minutiae of their respective modes of production.

Considerations of production brings me finally to The Alphabetic Labyrinth, which is my favorite of Drucker’s scholarly books. Beautifully produced by Thames and Hudson and lavishly illustrated, The Alphabetic Labyrinth is a pure pleasure. It takes the most familiar of materials, the alphabet we use every day, and traces its 4,000-year history as a set of visual symbols that have been ‘construed as indices of the most profound mysteries of the universe’ (AL12). The all but universal drive to visualize the alphabet is especially startling given the fact that the alphabet is, by definition, a phonetic series: each letter represents a single sound of a spoken language. Further, ‘in spite of the vast variety in contemporary visual appearance which is the result of centuries of specialized adaptation, all alphabetic forms share the same origin and possess structural properties: they consist of about twenty-four to thirty signs used to represent the sounds of spoken language’ (AL 13). All the more fascinating, then, the elaborate encoding of cosmological and philosophical truths attributed to these basic signs.

The Alphabetical Labyrinth makes no claim to being a work of original scholarship; it is dependent on the researches of archeologists, paleontologists, sinologists, as well as Hebrew, Classical and Renaissance scholars. But Drucker uses her eagle artist’s eye to rethink the findings of these scholars on everything from Pythagorean assimilations of letter-forms to number theories, to Gnostic doctrines of the word as emanation of the Divine Light, to the Runic alphabet of the Anglo-Saxons and the Merovignian miniscules of the eight century, right down to the typography of advertising and various alphabet myths in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Since I cannot possibly do justice to the wealth of material in The Alphabetic Labyrinth, let me give just one example, the discussion of the Kabbalah in Chapter VI. The last few decades have seen countless treatments of Kabbalistic mysteries, doctrines, symbolisms, and yet Drucker’s treatment is remarkably fresh. ‘In the Kabbalah,’ she reminds us, ‘the contemplation and manipulation of the letters is considered a means of approaching God through meditation and esoteric interpretation; the alphabet is granted a high degree of sanctity since the twenty-two letters are considered to be the very elements by which God brings the world into being’ (129). A discussion of various Sephirotic trees from various sixteenth and seventeenth century sources (gorgeously illustrated) is followed by a detailed account of the esoteric alphabet symbolism of the Sefir Yetzirah or Book of Creation, adding, where relevant, the more common, exoteric meanings ascribed to each letter by later Kabbalistic writers like Aryeh Kaplan, Perle Epstein, Johann Reuchlin and Carlo Suares. Here is Vau ( ):

Vau is associated with Taurus, with thought, the right kidney, property, and the tribe of Simeon. Exoterically, Vau represents a nail, which reflects the light from its polished head. Nailheads were used as a system of divination in which the figures made in these reflections of light were interpreted. Vau can also signify a doorknob, thus a means of opening a door of understanding or insight. In its visual form it resembles an impregnating, fertilizing agent. (AL 149)

A seemingly simple ideogram with complex symbolic possibilities. Drucker now studies these in relation to the gematria (the numerical values of the letters assigned to the alphabet according to their sequence) and then to the making of the golem.

Like the Kabbalistic letters, The Alphabetical Labyrinth participates in more than one sequence. As an accessible, marvelously illustrated history of the alphabet’s visual symbolism and a compendium of hermetic and esoteric lore, it should have enormous appeal for the lay reader. But for artists, poets, and students of postmodern culture, the book has a rather different interest. Read against Johanna Drucker’s own artists’ books, particularly the ‘lettrist’ books like Through Light and the Alphabet, as well as her critical studies, it shows us how powerful the tradition of the ‘visible word’ really is and how great a potential it has for poetics today. Although Drucker never says so (and she may not even have been aware of it when she began work on The Visible Word some ten years ago), it now appears that it is the ‘unmarked’ text– the standard novel, critical essay, biography, autobiography, and so on– that is exceptional. The visualization of the letter and the word, the reliance on the page rather than the line or stanza or the gray block of text with justified margins as unit, this ‘new’ phenomenon, still treated with enormous suspicion in the discourses of literary and cultural criticism, is really quite ancient. One needn’t mount elaborate semiotic theories of verbal / visual relationships to conclude that the materiality of language–the way a given text looks on the page or, more recently, on the computer screen– should be, as it was for many centuries, intrinsic to its meaning. As these ‘Druckwerks’ compellingly show, not word and image but word is image.

From a pamphlet Johanna Drucker attached to Narratology (Druckwerk, 1994). For a discussion of The Word Made Flesh, see my Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 120-33; For a discussion of The History of the/my Worl(d), see ‘Johanna Drucker’s Herstory’, Harvard Library Bulletin: Special Issue on Artist’s Books, ed. Roland Greene (Fall 1992), unpaginated. The book is available in a trade edition from Granary Books, New York for $50.00.

I discuss this question in Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).