Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe


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In order to understand what sound-shape archetypes might become as they manifest in volumetric and programmed poetics, and the historical roots of living language, this chapter undertakes an overview of visual type up to contemporary (digital and programmatic) malleable typography. Linking Cabbalists, Marcel Duchamp, Mary Ellen Solt, J.A. Miller, Peter Cho, Ben Fry, Jenny Holzer and many others into a lineage of poetic-typographic revolutionaries, this overview reasserts a positive interpretation of opaque typography and offers insights into the new interpretive axes required to critique typography (and literature) that is tactile, dimensional and responsive.

Immersion is often conflated with suspended judgement, but it is possible to also perceive immersion as enhanced consciousness, and reconnection with empathic continuity. This brief set of examples will hopefully confirm the value of immersive (i.e. non-critical, direct) apprehension as a reading strategy. I have chosen to concentrate on key artists rather than attempting comprehensiveness; these focused examples complement the creative examples distributed elsewhere throughout the thesis.

2.1Visual Language

As a supplement to this section of the thesis, I created an online visual essay of typography and language art at

Visual language, in its broadest form as language on a page that is read, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only in the last 500 years have the majority of humans accessed and read language with their eyes.

2.1.1Pubs, Psychedelia and Illuminated Manuscripts

Before language was visual, it was oral0. Scholars, such as J. David Bolter and Walter Ong0, have documented how language remained primarily oral even after it was written. Only with the invention of the printing press did language begin to be read silently0. Specifically, the printing press and the introduction of spaces between words changed the legibility of language; it was now feasible to understand it without reading it out loud; western culture shifted from oral communities with specialized scribes to a literate society that placed great emphasis on books as repositories of learning, and libraries as repositories of books.

Before the birth of libraries, primarily in the Middle Ages (from 5th-15th century), illuminated manuscripts decorated and conferred on text the status of visual object. Monastic scribes adopted sensual visceral and visual cues in order to convey power via The Book. Many of these complex (formal and structural) works are akin to the psychedelic mysticism spawned on 60s record covers and recursive fractals0. Illuminated manuscripts form the first occidental example of a highly sophisticated integration of graphic into letterform; this is different than a graphic that is a letterform (as in hieroglyphs) or an ideogram (as in Chinese). Instead, both semantic and sculptural-visual meanings operate in the same figure, on the same level. It is the origin of image-text integration, the on-going assimilation of text by image (discussed in detail later in this thesis) which digital media accelerates.

Illuminated letters can be read as both sculpture and as texts. They impose this form of reading through opulent textures and surplus presence; when presence imposes itself on the eye, eye becomes visceral and absorptive. Interwoven recursive forms evoke ancient actualities: fire-smoke and cloud paths, intestinal entrails and molten lava. The letter is world made flesh; it becomes more than its semantic meaning, it is a composite hybrid perched between reading and witnessing. For this reason, illuminated manuscripts are the ancestors of 3D modelled typography, networked attention attenuation, motion graphics and visual language in poetry.

Figure : David Smith: A Sign Painter

It might seem heretical to put illuminated manuscripts into the same typographic box as glass-sign-painting in pubs and psychedelic record covers, but the aesthetic lineage is the same in each; and both reflect the urge to recursively decorate letterforms until they appear as entities or forces within foliage. Illuminated manuscripts are basically ads for an ideology (advanced inscription plumage in the ruthless hunt for souls); while pub-signs hunt buyers of stout. The significance of these practices is that they physically emulate forms of choreography, continue the bombast of the Baroque. The curlicue swirls that adorn these letterforms are the typographic-equivalent of the death flourishes of Sarah Bernhardt or the guitar licks of Jerry Garcia: torsional excess, magnetic vortices seeking to entice. It is easy to denigrate melodrama as trite from a distance, but everyone’s tragedy is someone else’s greeting card. What interests me about the ecstatic flourishes that are in typography from ancient times up until After Effects ribbons, is that there is something being expressed here that leverages archetypes: thirst, paths, labyrinths, forests, breast...

What is expressed in folding flowing illuminated scripts? I would guess that it is a complex knot of luxury (honey, melted gold), heraldry (status, shields), labyrinth (reading over and over until a message at the centre like a lure is taken or takes) and solidity (a sense of the letter as a thing that has weight, and by association its message is heavy and profound). What these features share is that they are all primarily attributes of matter. They reference the world directly in ways that do not require literacy; they are read by experienced embodied subjectivity. As humans, we have tasted honey, known or heard of gold, walked a labyrinth (or studied a curl of smoke), and held things in our hands. So the typography is speaking to the body at a lived level. It is engaging with the energy of our hands, muscles, and tongue.

      1. Visual Language in Poetry

The history of visual poetry has been extensively documented. Dick Higgins, Florian Cramer, Richard Kostelanetz and Johanna Drucker (eminent among others) have each independently contributed to the now widely recognized lineage running from petroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, picture poems, Dada, Lettrist, Fluxist, Concrete and book arts. The story often cites Sterne, Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Tristan Tzara, John Cage, and Jackson MacLow. It is a field of variations and intensely diverse styles. In the sections on visual language that follow I oscillate between tracing out arguments and introducing practitioners.

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