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Date Published: 12/12/1996
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Fonts and Phrasing

Alexander Galloway

The story goes that new media, new technologies, new and faster methods of transferring information, democratization of technological luxuries, diversification of access to digital networks, the standardization of data formats, the proliferation of networked relations - the story goes that these advances will help usher in a new era marked by greater personal freedom, heightened interpersonal communication, ease from the burden of representation, new perspectives on the problem of the body, greater choice in consumer society, unprecedented opportunities for free expression, and above all, that they will give us speed.

Where are those points in society today where complicity is not read as such, where decisions are not seen as being either political or apolitical but just a choice? Where are those points where a utopian sense of technological progress comes to us uninterrogated? Surely these are points worthy of greater attention. And surely these points overlap with those above.

With the advent of computers comes the phrase "real time." This phrase is used when a digitized event (such as an online interactive broadcast) proceeds as if it were in a non-virtual setting. An event happens in "real time" if it prints, broadcasts, displays, animates, plays using the same timing and event-durations as the non-virtual world. Computational rhythms (be they too short or too long) are masked or subordinated to the duration of events in the "real" world. Real time, therefore, indicates that there has emerged concurrent with computers some sort of digital time or compressed time not parallel with traditional concepts of time. What is the nature of this temporality?

Even if new technological advances do not give us sheer speed, I venture to say that they are indicative of a new form of temporality, a contemporary sense of timing. As a product of the electro-digital transfer of textual information, this contemporary temporality is a twofold sense of time as read through registration, tracking, recording, documentation, playback, scanning, connection, and protocol. Once, it is a sense of timing, like a playing, a sculpted inflection, or a phrasing of notes; it is a phrasing. And twice, it is no time, a singularity, a zero-wait, the utter collapse of temporal distance; it is an instancy.

I argue here that this timing is a product of two general phenomena: a split in the nature of the signifier caused by fonts and the electro-digital transfer of textual information, and the phrasing of certain elements of popular society through cultural slogans and corporate trademarks. These two senses of time must be regarded as concurrent systems that emerge "at once," so to speak, and are by no means mutually pre-emptive.

The manipulation of textual information over computer networks in contexts such as email and the internet, and specifically their mark-up in design layouts and computer fonts tells us something about the nature of contemporary culture. The nature of computer fonts, network structures, and the interpretation of digital information is one that evaporates traditional notions of temporal and corporal sizings. Consequently, the incorporation of the electronic text has been divorced from any notion of activities requiring actual labor time: texts are loaded (derived from a pre-existing copy), displayed, saved, and erased with no connection to their traditional labor and time intensive counterpart procedures of researching, printing, copying, and archiving. To this extent, computer fonts are connected to our contemporary, electronic sense of time. It is not a continuum. The temporal difference separating fonts and texts is a no-time, a singularity.

A font is not analogous to a signifier. Rather it renders the signifier itself internally complex. It is a sub-element of the signifier. A computer font cannot be thought of, therefore, as a genetic element of the sign. In text for example, a font must be thought of independently from content, written markings, etc. Fonts are indicative of what is known in the digital text as a protocol. They regulate representation.

The concept of zero-wait transfer governs contemporary ideas regarding textuality. In a digital network, much like previous types of value economies, information is produced in order to be exchanged or transferred. However, under digital transfer texts are exchanged according to an atemporal logic and through digital means. (Digital texts are those whose very content has been quantized. So-called analog texts are those whose value alone has been quantized.)

As one contemporary critic has noted, this transfer of textual information occurs through a process of "immediation." Immediation means both immediate and mediated. Texts are therefore both instantaneous and second-order. They are heard with both static and clarity. In Baudrillardian fashion, each digital text is derived and yet also real. Time is seemingly no longer a textual component.

Fonts mediate and incorporate (put-into-a-body) zero-wait transferred texts. Virtuality is that state where texts or discourses are no longer bound by traditional space/time laws. As Paul Virilio has recently noted, it is time itself that is rendered instantaneous by virtuality. And thus, at this turn, computer fonts illustrate a break in traditional notions surrounding temporality, and representation.

Font faces appear at the intersection. They are the veneer of representation. The font is always the first thing you read and the last thing you write. Fonts have no body. They buffer the act of reading. They protect the reader from the shock of virtual transfer. And fonts are those elements that are so commonly not read.

Fonts are closely connected to textual standardization and thus the very nature of the internet. The standardization of data formats as a result of hegemony or negotiated dominance (i.e. GIF format for images, character-based formats for text, dominance of English over other natural languages, etc.) is the conceptual framework behind HTML, or Hypertext Mark-up Language.

What are the constraints of HTML? By far still the fundamental computer language used on the internet, HTML and the browsers that interpret it constitute a quantitative structure of exchange that both directs textual or discursive flow, and regulates its dissemination - if that indeed is the manner in which it is distributed. This dynamic constitutes a true information (or textual), economy. Ebb and flow are governed by specific protocols. Connection is established according to certain hierarchies. And like the logic of traditional political economy all elements conform to formal standardization. Computer networks are not a heterogeneity.

Computer fonts are an indication of a type of technological complexity that allows for wide varieties of font faces, sizes, shapes, distortions, and types of mark-up. However, this type of quantitative diversity is not equivalent to a real diversification of the conditions of digital texts, including distribution networks, virtuation apparatuses (browsers, VR hardware, and other interfaces), and mediative machinery (routers, dial-up protocols, displays).

By way of illustration, allow me to compare these two elements. Computer fonts do the same work in the digito-semiotic world that HTML does in the virtual world. They both are a set of instructions for the compilation of contents. Fonts compile and represent digitized texts, while HTML compiles and displays hypertextual elements. Like HTML, a computer font displays textual information "all at once," and virtually. On load a derivative of each element is placed. On unload that copy is discarded. However, computer fonts are not representation per se. They are governing principles for representation. They are at once totally crucial in the transfer of textual information and yet they are completely disposable, contingent and atemporal. They are a readable example of protocol.

Fonts, trademarks, and misspellings - ground zero for contemporary negotiations concerning textuality. Today, language is negotiated and marked through complex protocols that govern one's ideological relationship to digital texts. We recognize Netscape, but do we recognize their encryption protocol licensed from RSA? (Althusser rolls in his grave.)

It is on the corporate stage where font faces, a method of visually representing language, are regulated as an element of corporate trademarks an symbols. They are patented, trademarked, controlled, owned, regulated, as the way that words are formulated as readable. It is important to note that historically this was not always the case.

Equally responsible therefore for the constitution of temporality today is what I term the "phrasing" of certain elements of popular society through cultural slogans and corporate trademarks. Phrasing here should be taken quite literally, to the extent that it refers to a constructive aestheticization, or textualization, of everyday life. An action is "phrased" - like a trumpet solo is phrased. It is translated into articulated gestures; it is conducted. Phrasing also means to articulate into language. This therefore refers to a more gestural temporality, one with a certain influence over the "tempo of life." It is not instantaneous or singular, but complex and multiple. It is a non-linear affect, a systemic influence that controls both action and discourse.

As it happens, a coincidence of current modes of gestural phrasing takes the form of a sort of lowest possible denominator for ontological claims. Take for example GE's "We bring good things to life," Coke's "Coke is it," Nike's "Just do it," and Calvin Klein's brilliantly simple "Be." These ideological campaigns share a confluence of strategy within which certain social relationships are naturalized. The primary tactics here are content-evacuation and the simplification of complex social relationships.

Similar to the collapsing of temporal distances as seen in electronic transfer of information, there is a collapsing of conceptual distances through the mating of the nostalgic or familiar with the futuristic or alien. This is an example of the top-down phrasing or aestheticization of everyday life. Technologico-corporate progress (a fetishization of time) is naturalized through the phrasing of language, especially the juxtaposition of disparate elements in slogan-type phrases. Here, the familiar and the techno-alien are phrased, they are lyricized into a gestural subject fabric. The phrase is sentimentalized, it is repeated, it is printed on children's pyjamas.

We remember "A long time ago/in a galaxy far, far away." It is a perfect example of this ideological mating of the alien and the familiar. This type of phrasing is a real example of "repetition with a difference." It creates a spooky epilogue to Benjamin's "Storyteller."

The story goes that theory knows the power of slogans. We have Althusser's "hey you there!" or "I've strangled my wife," and Derrida's "I've forgotten my umbrella." ...The story goes that theory can use slogans. But we have "E.T./phone home," and "Beam me up, Scotty" - both examples of the equating of dissimilar semantic elements as part of a definite strategy. These are our political slogans. This type of gestural language is ideologically constitutive.

The electro-digital transfer of textual information coupled with a general multiplication of media sources changes the manner in which we conceive of temporality, itself a social discourse. This new discourse relating to time is marked by new protocols, and as articulated above these protocols may be understood through a reading of digital texts.

Alexander Galloway is Director of presse media, and editorial assistant at RHIZOME INTERNET. He has written on Tel Quel and the French avant-garde.
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