"Writing is a visual medium"

-- Johanna Drucker

Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics by Johnna Drucker is available from Granary Books

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A Review of Figuring the Word
by Johanna Drucker, Granary Books, 1998

by Ramez Qureshi

Even in our post-Un Coup de Des, post-Futurist, post-Dada, post-Lettrist, post-Concrete, post-Derridean, cyber-days, how often do we stop to notice how often the word actually appears on the page, appears, not being italicized accidentally, this case of graphemic visual self-consciousness a banal occurrence of what Johanna Drucker would call Figuring the Word, as the title of her recent collection of critical writing attests. But Drucker is not concerned with solely the banal, though she is attentive to it: she is, rather, attentive to the potentialities of the rhetorical manipulation of the material manifestation of the sign as art, and her work and criticism probes such possibilities unflaggingly, providing perspectives on the possibilities of an avant-garde project for the moment, the "now" always being the location in history the avant-garde aspires to live in.

"Writing is a visual medium," declares Drucker in "The Art of the Written Image," and understanding the plasticity of writing is the key to her work. There are certain artists who belong entirely to their age, and Drucker is such an artist. Clearly, her work arises from a Derridean climate, with the valorization of writing as a practice over speech and voice-based language art. She matured artistically in San Francisco during the 1970's with the Language Poets, working on similar grounds to foreground the materiality of the text and question, in her case, ignore, the voice. After attending graduate school, Drucker added theoretical perspectives to her work of artist's books, which all along, from 1972's The Real Story of the God-Thing, a calligraphied work handbound in green cotton, to 1976's breakthrough Twenty-Six '76 Let Hers: Not A Matter of Permission, to the well known 1984 and 1989 masterworks Against Fiction and The Word Made Flesh have represented an exemplary artistic practice.

Why did Drucker write in the first place? "I believed that writing would save me from being a woman." Born in 1952, her growth coincides with that of the Woman's movement, no accident, considering the importance of gender identity in her work and identity politics in her genre's postmodern status: the personal is a reflection of the historical. Drucker delineates an intimate portrait of a young female denied access to those rights to which males were allowed "coming to writing:" "I wrote in tiny notebooks, sheltering the text in the protective curve of my body." By the age of twelve, these notebooks had seen five full novels. It is the same love of writing that Cixous describes in "Coming to Writing:" "Writing: as if I had the urge to go on enjoying, to feel full, to push, to feel the force of my muscles, and my harmony..." The body is not unemphasized. "Writing is always with respect to gender" for Drucker; early in her grad school days she read Kristeva on erciture feminine, and writing for her became a self-conscious feminine one. Woman, as is well known, has been seen as the Other, the "second sex" as de Beauvoir put it, but rather than reject this notion, Drucker embraces it and works within it to subvert in order to form an avant-garde project based on gender identity: "the Otherness of woman's writing is already within language." "To deny this Other is to deny the fact that there is, has frequently if not always been, a place for women within language." The praxis of this is bold indeed. In essays such as "Other than Linear" and "Auto-Ecriture and the Polymorphous Text" Drucker shows the pragmatic effects of this otherness in her works: the breaking of linearity - the way words simply move in a line, substituted by all sorts of alternative arrangements in her work --, and polymorphousness, texts which visually take on "other" shapes. The writing becomes one of the Kristevan semiotic, pre-symbolic, "the resonant realm," in Drucker's words, "of all the rest of human meaning in sense sensation, signification." It promises Kristeva's final second stage of feminism in "Woman's Time", the universalism of the feminine in writing (indeed, Kristeva's paragon's of erciture feminine included Mallarme and Joyce), represented in the recent anthology Out of Everywhere. By moving to the Lacanian capital A, Drucker effects the semiotic through a genre based on gender identity that is avant-garde precisely because of gender.

Perloff writes that the postmodern genre "sounds like a contradiction in terms." Surely one characteristic of postmodernism is the blurring of genres after modernist Greenbergian purism. Hubert's and Davidson's essays in Perloff's anthology Postmodern Genres indicate Drucker's book, an artist's book of materialist visual poetry, as a quintessential postmodern genre. Drucker is fond of quipping that the artist's book is the art form of our time: "In many ways it could be argued that the artist's book is the quintessential 20th century artform." It isolates the book, that commodity whose rise accompanied modernity, with auratic visual art. Drucker speaks of "the book: its materials, its imagery, its literary substance, and most importantly, its function as the manifestation of a vision which could not take another form and still function as a fully self-reflexive, self-conscious art." The labor by which it is produced is non-alienated and involved:

    Once I had the typeface picked out I started playing with layout. This was already somewhat prescribed by the page size divisions. Because I am used to thinking in letterpress terms I thought that interlining two different "colors" of type should be done line by line. In fact, in Quark, the best thing to do is to overlay two different text boxes and then make sure that the point size and interline spacing in the two boxes are all multiples of each other (12 pt. type on 18 pt. spacing and 6 pt. on 24 for instance so that both end up as 30.)...

Drucker painstakingly describes love's labor of art. Drucker's project is postmodern in mixing "high" theory and "low" pulp elements, a Bakhtnian form of heteroglossia:

    ...The Rules had changed, she knew that, and the fierceness of the storm - her hair whipped violently across her face--was nothing to the force of vengeful anger she knew would be brought down upon her head for her transgressions. If only she could get back inside her narrative and stay there.

If Burger's theses of the avant-garde as questioning institution and questioning medium are to be taken for granted, then Drucker certainly fulfills expectations, and shows that the avant-garde did not die with high modernism, and can remain political. Drucker destroys any institutionalization of the routine mechanization of book production. And she tortures the very routine incarnation of the word, both paradigmatic and syntagmatic, both in appearance and in linearity. "Attention to the stuff in the medium is not the fetishization of some theory based supplement, but recognition of the fact of the matter," she writes in "Linguistic Authority and the Visual Text;" "Authority is construed to reside within power and that power in the gross concealment of its means. The laying bare of devices so dear to our forbearers was a means of deconstructing that very authority." These words are not written linearly, nor in the same font size, and show the functioning of Foucauldian micropower in language. The imaginary materiality of language is emphasized to defeat logocentrism and demystify ideology. The text opposes itself: art as anti-art. It is only natural that the twentieth century should turn to the material inscriber itself as part of its avant-garde project, given the discovery of language, and consciousness of visual culture. Take The Word Made Flesh, in which each page contains a letter which later becomes manifest as an acrostic text of the larger book. That this should manifest itself in the book form in which it does in Drucker is the result of larger social and economic forces compelling the book as focus to the foreground. Drucker's work is somewhat anarchic as it is feminist, showing that the phrase postmodern avant-garde genre, an avant-garde that is political, is not oxymoronic.

But Drucker, ever in step with the times, is now ready to move beyond the book, into cyber-space, and is currently working on a hypertext at www.VisCult.com. Drucker meditates considerably on the differences between the printed and the electronic text. "The [electronic] 'forms' which will emerge won't, I don't think, replace print media for a long time we're too attached to the intimacy and convenience of portable books and magazines," she suggests in an interview, focusing on the privacy of the bourgeois sphere that Benjamin dissects in his Arcades Project and on which Watt focuses in his Rise of the Novel (Indeed, this raises interesting genre questions: though read as a "poet," Drucker sees herself as a prose writer. This is not merely the issue of prose poetry, but rather one of cultural spherification versus essentialism, which is not to argue for an essentialist generic reading of Drucker, but rather for a generic reading). "I see hypermedia in terms of continuities and disruptions" she states, seeing both similarities and differences with the book, similar ways of exploiting fonts, different temporal experiences for instance. Clearly Drucker's electronic work will have continuities and disruptions with and from her earlier work: we will see the same stylization of the material, but in an entirely different setting.

Ramez Qureshi resides in Scarsdale, NY with his cat. He has degrees from The University of Pennsylvania and Bath Spa University College. He has published poetry and criticism in Read Me, Jacket, Rhizome, Lynx, and Cauldron & Net.

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