An Unbroken Surface

An Unbroken Surface

The primacy of the written word explains the twin presence of two forms which, despite their apparent antagonism are indissociable in sixteenth-century knowledge. The first of these is a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the constitution of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity. And the second, the inverse of the first, is an immediate disassociation of all language, duplicated without any assignable term, by the constant reiteration of commentary. (OT 39)

The renaissance epistemé marked by the proliferation of resemblances without end gave way, in Foucault’s schema, to a classical epistemé marked by taxonomia. The surface he attributes to sixteenth-century consciousness was ruptured, segmented, and classified. This project gave way to the modern epistemé of hermeneutics. Criticism and commentary became the driving forces of the nineteenth century. This is a convenient structure to hang things in, but there are a prodigious amount of cracks.

In classical rhetoric, the sort of “non-distinction between what is seen and what is read” is simulated by the figure of ecphrasis. The urge to blur the distinction between experience and figuration was hardly displaced by the ensuing twists of culture. It is a recurrent theme.

Richard Lanham observed in The Electronic Word:

The struggle between icon and alphabet is not, to be sure, anything new, as the history of illuminated manuscripts attests, This complex interaction of word and image never actually vanished; it only fell out of fashion. The tradition of mixing transparent alphabetic information with opaque pictures formed by the letters goes back at least to Simias, a Greek poet of the fourth century B.C. It was revived by Marinetti and then by the Dadaists, with a specifically aggressive purpose. And, to some degree, it lurks in any calligraphic tradition. Electronic display both invites manipulating the icon/alphabet mixture and makes it easier to write. (34)

Lanham uses the example of the Futurists and the Dadaists as an attempt to destroy concepts of the codex-book by the use of typography which forces the reader to confront the “text” as an unbroken surface that is not transparent. It disrupts the level at which we read “through” texts to the meanings behind them. The more restricted second sense of ecphrasis suggests that the classificatory system in the second century B.C, heralded as an eighteenth-century invention by Foucault, had already begun to move vivid description from its place as a transitional device from oral to written culture into a more stultified position as a rhetorical mode of describing art. Lanham’s book suggests that the oscillation between the “unbroken surface” and the meaning underneath generates new levels of meaning which are superadditive. I agree.

The confrontation and tension between written characters and images was a profound feature of early twentieth century book design. I think that the real area which should be studied is not the “death of the codex-book” but rather the attempt to extend its range through the addition of iconic content. The presence of photographs on a page attests to an “assignable term” that was not available to medieval discourse. The problem of resemblance has resurfaced. Though it may fade in and out of fashion, resemblance must be dealt with on entirely new levels in the arena of electronic design. It cannot merely be dismissed as pass&eacute. Web pages are not windows or mirrors, and neither are books.