Fonts and Phrasing
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
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
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
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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