Spiraling into control

The military postcard from World War I is completely covered with preprinted words. In nine of the languages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Slovenian, Croatian and Romanian – the words warn a sender not to blemish the mosaic of themselves by adding even one word more.

The mosaic’s surface is perfect in the grammatical sense of the perfect tenses, which get their name from the Latin word perfectus, meaning “completed.” If we could see through the surface into a space not yet perfected, we might be tempted to top it up with words expressing completion in a future – for instance, “By the time you read these words, I may still be alive.” But a sentence like that would be nonsense. In the aftermath of the card’s preprinted now-and-forever Ich bin gesund, it would be like Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: grammatical but meaningless. It would depend for its significance on the logically incoherent idea of a history with a future.

Therefore a military censor put a stop to the nonsense. In advance of whatever future is rationally conceivable, he ordered the postcard’s printer to fill in every unfilled space more than one character wide. His chosen blackout medium, too, was not mere amorphous ink, the raw material of writing, but a pair of already finished dingbats. The dingbats are spirals: one turning to the left in its line of text, the other to the right. They belong to all of the card’s nine alphabets but to none of its nine languages. All they do is execute self-canceling semicircles, clockwise and then counterclockwise. Pure wordless form, they communicate their one-letter Archimedean meaning only to themselves. But as they execute their pivot left and right, tessera by tessera, they assemble themselves into a sequence, deploy across the card’s surface, and join into a mosaic entanglement. To write past or around or through that, a soldier would have to cut through as if it were barbed wire and his only cutting tool were a scraper for clearing space on a palimpsest.

Mobilized line by line and made into a text which says nothing and enforces the saying of nothing, the meaningless little letters have spiraled into control of the card.

Source: http://historicaltimes.tumblr.com/post/140789125122/slovenska-zgodovina-during-the-first-world-war. Translation of the central and peripheral blocks: “I am in good health and doing fine” and “No other communication may be made on this card.”

The way of the monitor and the way of the stylus

According to Christopher Busta-Peck’s blog about the history of Cleveland, this photograph depicts the moment on March 25, 1913, when flood currents drove the ship William Henry Mack into the swing bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River at West Third Street, demolishing it.

12011uaiC cut

Like the prose you’re now reading, Mr. Busta-Peck’s blog is set in the font called Georgia. According to the Wikipedia article “Georgia (typeface),” this font belongs very much to the history of the computer. Its date of origin is 1993, and it was originated specifically to fill a need for legibility on low-resolution monitors. There it is read by default in monitor mode, the mode of prose: transparently, offering access to language’s content (what freshmen call “the message”) while making only the necessary minimum of contact with language’s form.

Mr. Busta-Peck’s Georgia-inflected words about the flood are readable at http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html, in a post dated December 26, 2009. They manifest themselves onscreen in a monitor alphabet that was deliberately intended only to be looked through, not seen in itself. But to Ernest Fenollosa, a contemporary of the flood, it seemed desirable to write a story like flood’s not transparently but in flood’s own mud-opaque alphabet, as “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”

To Fenollosa, vivid shorthand meant specifically the ideographs of Chinese, where in principle a word is a thing. To Ezra Pound, who completed Fenollosa’s unfinished essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” after Fenollosa’s death, this meant writing poetry with a specifically poetic language technology. Pound’s preferred medium for that was the typewriter, and he famously subdued the apparatus to his poet’s will by means of James Whitcomb Riley dialect spellin’, the alienation effect of text incorporated from other languages, and the other alienation effect of isolating his verse’s signifying units from contact with one another by means of two hard hits on the spacebar after every word. But at almost exactly the moment Pound was making those small modifications in the machinery, some nameless scribes employed by the Bain News Service were composing their own “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” directly upon records transcribed by nature itself.

They had the records, thanks to the operation of certain photochemical processes. They needed to write their shorthand picture. They could have done that the way Pound did, with a typewriter slightly modified to emit the look of bardic chant. But they did something more radical. Laying hands directly upon the negative that just a moment earlier had been flooded by reality, they inscribed. If the inscription didn’t look quite like any other human alphabet, that was because its mediation into language was incomplete. Some of its form remained untranslated, still in the language of nature. The scribes weren’t fully in command of that language because some of it remained in the state of nature: the state of things — that is, scratches in gelatin — which still resisted their reduction to mere words. No matter how they were written, the photographers’ words about the flood remained partly flood, partly inarticulate.


Still, look at the verb above: swept away. Trying to articulate a language of deluge, it has inscribed itself in a font that could have been named Debris. The instrument that carved it there was a stylus scratching letters onto a 5-by-7 inch glass plate named Negative. Because the letters have to be scratched onto the sensitive side of the negative, they have to be scratched in reverse. That’s why they look that way. They are morphemes of a language newly emerging onto a flood plain and teaching itself to write itself.

Think of a Chinese connoisseur writing a poem on a picture. If he does it right, the words he has sown with his inkbrush will take root in the picture and make its nature blossom into verbal meaning. That’s how the process works on dry land. But think of somebody stepping for the first time onto the mud deposited by the subsidence of the Black Sea, picking up a handful, molding it into a tablet, picking up a twig, and beginning to write on the wet new surface in his hand the story of Gilgamesh.


Christopher Busta-Peck, “The floods of 1913 in the Flats,” 26 December 2009. http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html

“Bridge being swept away by flood — Cleveland.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005011625/. Adjusted for contrast and detail in Photoshop.

Ernest Fenollosa, ed. Ezra Pound, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” 1918. Excerpted in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973. 13-35.

Two purities

On September 27, 1901, the New-York Tribune’s front page headlines opened themselves to readers chastely, in a font that seemed to connote a paired purity of sight and thought. If this above-the-fold item, for instance, had been mediated for reading by a didactic font like Comic Sans, it might feel unfinished in the absence of a terminating exclamation mark. The readers on whom Comic Sans has its designs are the kind of readers who need to be guided toward what they ought to feel.Castro To Declare WarBut as of 1901 the Tribune’s headlines were in a neoclassicizing font designed in 1798 by Giambattista Bodoni, and when the muse of journalism displayed herself garbed in Bodoni’s upright verticals and delicate serifs, she became a Canova nymph, all whiteness and purity around armatures of the cleanest black.

On this particular page, another pure Bodoni headline is accompanied by an equally pure photograph of the two yachts then racing for the America’s Cup. The photograph, however, derives its form from a different geometry. There, set off by Bodoni’s contrasting orthogonals, the British Shamrock and the American Columbia curve along diagonals laid out for them not by the logics of grammar or the copybooks of typography but by a wordless wind.

In the event which Bodoni proceeded to enter in the historical record on September 27, the wind died and the race ended without a winner. But after the wind revived, one more photograph signifying velocity by means of curvature was published in a different, Bodoni-free medium. It looked like this.

On behalf of the record book, the caption in the photograph’s lower margin carries out language’s task of exposition and explanation. It is printed a little crooked, but here that doesn’t matter. Even if it were straight, sight and understanding wouldn’t want to remain within its bounds for an instant longer than the necessary minimum. Along the margin, sight and understanding and all the rest of our powers come together, wanting in unison to stop reading, look back upward, and resume their flight toward seeing. There, waiting in the upward to be seen, is what we think we are beginning to love: this curved body in intimate contact with the water and the sky of our world, our own answering body.

The body’s image is black and white, but it evokes a content we understand to be in color. Forty-six years before the photograph was taken, Walt Whitman explained to us why that is. Look how motion travels through time and then comes to rest as color, said Whitman.

The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in.

In a new, permanent, Bodoni black and white, the maroon bar in its spread of purity has returned. It stands as an exception to the rule of body’s death. In the archive of words printed in black on white, its tint lives ever after.

Columbia was the property of J. P. Morgan, a pragmatically imaginative man who is alleged to have said about the cost of owning a yacht, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Walt Whitman, who was poor all his life, couldn’t afford it. But in 1855 he did give this form from 1901 one of the names through which we can come to understand it: the name purity. There in the photograph are Whitman’s cloud and pure light. There too, in the bronze hull conceived and formed by the naval architect Nathanael Herreshoff, one curve at the bow poses the idea of forward in the infinitesimal just before motion begins, while at the stern another curve mimes a girl throwing her legs backward behind her as she runs.

Of course this large-crewed sailing craft and its governing geometries of wave and sky and running are obsolete now, and of course time has updated them. In 2015, for example, another New York headline gave warning of changing weather over the yacht harbor. “Volatility Is Prompting Hedge Funds To Close,” said the bulletin. The body of the story then went into barometric detail about a special and beautiful sense of the verb close. Within the curved hull of the hedgy episteme, as it turns out, close no longer has to mean end or die. Closed, the hedge funds will merely ascend in their function from serving investors to serving the money that the now vanished investors have left behind. What gives the closed funds their newly perennial life is a preparation of the if-you-have-to-ask that has been reacted all the way to fully theoretical completion. J. P. Morgan, in his youth an excellent mathematician who could extract cube roots in his head, would entirely have approved the change from the impurity of life in the world of men to the purity of death in the idea of money.

In sunset-colored Bodoni, then, let us pay homage to those in the yacht harbor who have been changed. Speaking through the mouth of one of its hedgy oracles, change now teaches us this about its purpose in the universe.

Purity, say transformation’s pink words to themselves. Whitman’s cloud and Nathanael Herreshoff’s hull geometry weren’t pure enough. They were accessible only by means of the senses, of the changing, dying body. By contrast, the hedge fund’s one-man contemplative order subserves nothing that is not unchanging. In that sense of the term classical, it is as classical as Bodoni’s font, or as the Grecian urn which once explained to Keats, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” If we’re to admit the imperfect to our own contemplation, we’ll have to notice at first that the pink hedgewords floating above these black words of my own do seem to look ugly. But looks are precisely what purity is not about. The purity of speculative contemplation is a purity which has transcended the bodily function of seeing. It is a pink idea that has gone fully and perfectly invisible. It will never again have to tint the vapor of a mere physical cloud at sunset.


The page from the New-York Tribune is online in the Library of Congress’s archive of historic American newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/. Whitman’s poem is “There Was a Child Went Forth.” The photograph of Columbia has been photoshopped from the image in the Library of Congress at www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001160/PP/.

The newspaper article from 2015 is Alexandra Stevenson, “Volatility Is Prompting Hedge Funds to Close,” New York Times 18 May 2015: B1-2 (print). The name of the hedge-fund contemplative is Gideon King.

As from a voyage, rich with merchandise

Nestled in words, a tiny bicycle waits for you to approach it with a brush and deliver it into its color.

A translation would say:

Trade SK Mark
Established 1884

Bicycle Paint

Manufacturer of English Lacquers and Paints

S. King

12 Ekaterinoslavskaya Ulitsa
Store, 92 Nevsky Prospect
St. Petersburg

Branch in Moscow

The words are a Fabergé grass nestling an Easter egg. They are the velvet lining of a jewelbox. They are a chorion. They hold a realized desire now taking form as a loved body. The swashes and flourishes with which the words shape the air enclosing the incipient bicycle are a pavane danced for the mating season now nearing its end. The pavements of St. Petersburg will soon be littered with proto-bicycle exuviae, molted shells of what will have become frames and fenders. As the consummated form prepares to roll free of S. King’s words and be seen for itself, the memory of S. King wraps it in receiving color.

Source: Green Type blog via Slapdashing.net, http://slapdashing.net/post/85106820984/photo-green-type-blog