Emily McVarishFiguring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics
Johanna Drucker with an introduction by Charles Bernstein
Granary Books, 1998, 310 pages

by Emily McVarish


When I was ten, I made a fetish of my passion, carving into a tiny wood plaque a set of secret symbols derived from the first letters of these words: I Will Be An Author. In the memory of that gesture, I now find a sketch of the themes so elaborately staged and effectively lit in Johanna Drucker's Figuring the Word. Among them vie public and private language, materiality and meaning, writing and self... In my childhood episode, a self-proclaimed will to authorship guided my hand. In my reading of Drucker's magnificent collection of essays and experiments, I found this will to be the life-force behind and within a body of work, a host of ideas, of insights and formulations, so full as to give real shape to what in another's conception would remain skeletal abstractions.

To those interested in histories and theories of the alphabet, visual poetry, experimental typography, artists' books, materiality and information, Johanna Drucker, artist and critic, academic and popular theoretician, must sometimes seem omnipresent.  Such is her proliferation of books, talks, exhibitions, even institutional programs. But what is perhaps more astounding than this ubiquitous involvement in her field(s) is the way in which she manages to be present in her own writing, especially given the paradox that any such pretense of presence necessarily poses to her sophisticated grasp of the mechanics of signification. And yet present she is—in every phrase of the pieces selected for this latest publication: not just in the fascinating and topical interview with which the collection, significantly, begins, nor  simply in subsequent first-person accounts of her own lifelong experience with writing, books, and visual language, but in the very theoretical constructions which ground her massive historical perspectives, in her inimitable tendency to lend a concrete adjective, an animate quality, to the furthest metaphysical implication. Indeed, it is her unique combination of a capacity for summary—which seems to be infinitely elastic and always meaningful in its embrace of the longest histories and most general truths—and a seemingly irrepressible desire to give her subjects a face, a body, a character that makes Drucker's prose such a thrill to ingest.

It is a joy to partake of the confidence that drives her sweeping introductions: "In every era of human history," she writes at the start of the "The Art of the Written Image," "artists, poets, professional and amateur scribes have been sensitive to the visual properties of written forms."  And one is not just grateful for, but gratified by, her perfectly punctuated abbreviations—like that which, in just three paragraphs, takes the reader of this same essay on a logic and lineage tour from Mallarme's turn-of-the-century origin-piece of typographic innovation, “Un Coup de Des”, through Futurist, Dada, and Cubist experiments, to the mid-century elaborations of Concrete poets, and up to the threshold of present-day visual poetics in electronic media. The pleasure of such soaring perception is fully matched, moreover, by that of coming across the metaphoric gems that Drucker so generously scatters on the grounds of her reflections. These prizes are not always pretty, for she does not shy from the frankly fleshy in her close-up evocations of, say, a letter's behavior, a type line's influence, or a text's loud surplus of visual information lost in a digital exchange.

Still, these tropes never fail to seduce by their very proximity to the forces they represent, their intimacy with the secret life of language. In an analysis of one of her own books, Drucker writes, "If the form is content, does it have only one meaning? Carminum figuratum. One body one text? What transcendence? None. In “The Word Made Flesh” there is no possibility of obtaining an iconic reference from the format of the piece, nor of following a line of signification out through the chain of signifiers to some final logocentric 'being.' The text is grounded in its own vocabulary of tongue and gristle, meat and flesh and bone - raw, crude, wiggling, spasming in a nice neat letterpress order. Just try and keep your form in some neat order of content!" From "being" to "gristle" in twelve short words, from a conventional understanding (form = content) to a challenge whose imperative ("Just try!"), even as it points a finger at the reader, indicates the locus of the speaker, the author, Johanna.

In giving a name (and even this is enriched by a mirror image, for Drucker means Printer which Drucker has been), a personal history (the implicit anchor for Theory at every turn), and a personality (translate: idiosyncratic vocabulary) to the generation of these texts, Drucker lends her own figure to the Word, a self to the authority she so clearly achieves. And it is this particular authority—one which reveals the means to its power—that is the hallmark of Drucker's work. Whether she is tackling a history of visual poetics, a theory of artists' books, or a first go at a much needed discussion of what is at stake in the confrontation of language and "information," her authorial display of thought pulls the reader into its current. Her motivation—a vital need—is felt, her experience shared, her inspiration inspiring. Her work is utterly coherent: from example to theory, present to history, creation to criticism. And the superimposition of these layers of investigation, which is effected in Figuring the Word by the reproduction of multiple visual pieces and the republication of fifteen intensely active years' worth of articles covering centuries of the world's production and decades of her own, results in a rich experience of many related revelations. Not least of these is that there is no such thing as writing without desire nor reading without pleasure.

It would be impossible to maintain anything less than a manifesto of agreement with this lesson, at least in the face of Drucker's own oeuvre. And if her work is at every level exemplary of the tenets it posits, and if her energy is contagious, it is just as well. For Drucker's work though authoritative is never final. It does not so much conclude as inaugurate. Whole fields of inquiry are located by her ever-active index, and we are invited, with great generosity, to make use of her beginnings in our own further reading, writing, making, and thinking.

BIO: Emily McVarish is a book artist who lives and works in San Francisco. She is an instructor of Design at the California College of Arts and Crafts and, since 1990, has operated her presses, Axel & Otto, in both commercial and experimental ventures.



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