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Visible Writings

Cultures, Forms, Readings

Edited and with an introduction by Marija Dalbello and Mary Shaw

Publication Year: 2011

Exploring the concept and history of visual and graphic epistemologies, this engrossing collection of essays by artists, curators, and scholars provides keen insights into the many forms of connection between visibility and legibility. With more than 130 color and black-and-white photographs, Visible Writings sheds new light on the visual dimensions of writing as well as writing's interaction with images in ways that affect our experiences of reading and seeing.

Multicultural in character and historical in range, essays discuss pre-Colombian Mesoamerican scripts, inscriptions on ancient Greek vases, medieval illuminations, Renaissance prints, Enlightenment concepts of the legible, and the Western "reading" of Chinese ideograms. A rich array of modern forms, including comics, poster art, typographic signs, scribblings in writers' manuscripts, anthropomorphic statistical pictograms, the street writings of 9/11, intersections between poetry and painting, the use of color in literary texts, and the use of writing in visual art are also addressed.

Visible Writings reaches outside the traditional venues of literature and art history into topics that consider design, history of writing, philosophy of language, and the emerging area of visual studies. Marija Dalbello, Mary Shaw, and the other contributors offer both scholars and those with a more casual interest in literature and art the opportunity, simply stated, to see the writing on the wall.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Frontispiece

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-1

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p. 2-2

All writing is visible, but we don’t always see it. By contrast, the writings treated here become highly visible insofar as they draw the reader’s attention to their visual dimensions. Thus, as we enter into this collection, we ask you first to doubly focus your gaze, to look right and left, to mark that we, the editors, like our contributing...

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pp. 3-12

The immediacy of vision so pointedly evoked in this quotation suggests the irreducibility of vision to the sense of touch, or to the word. Seeing is an existential relation establishing what we know, but we cannot explain the world without the word, just as “words...

Buzz Spector, Encyclopaedia

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pp. 13-14

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Contours of Meaning in the Scripts of Ancient Mesoamerica: Western Epistemology and the Phonetic Issue

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pp. 15-36

The possible paradox in the term writing without letters has not overtroubled western epistemology. But if a script cannot be shown ultimately to depend on the spoken word, the logos both Greek and biblical, then does it really deserve the name? Although they may concede a certain space to semasiography (the phase in writing in which...

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Arts in Letters: The Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing

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pp. 37-54

When considering writing in ancient Greece, scholars from a variety of disciplines will recall Plato’s famous discomfort with the medium: it dulls a sharp memory; it easily deceives its audience, being the appearance of wisdom rather than true wisdom; and it is indiscriminately mobile, available even to those who cannot understand...

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Letter and Spirit: The Power of the Letter, the Enlivenment of the Word in Medieval Art

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pp. 55-76

In about 900 C.E. Asser, bishop of Sherbourne, wrote of an incident during the childhood of the English King Alfred: “One day, . . . showing him and his brothers a book of English poetry . . . [his mother] said: ‘I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest.’ Spurred on by these words, or rather by divine inspiration, and attracted by the beauty of the initial letter in the...

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Visible and Invisible Letters: Text versus Image in Renaissance England and Europe

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pp. 77-98

I used to think that I knew the story of the Fall in Genesis. It went something like this: Adam and Eve eat the forbidden apple, they become suddenly aware of their nakedness, and they try to hide their genitals with fig leaves. But God is not deceived and...

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Illegibility and Grammaphobia in Paul Et Virginie

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pp. 99-112

In the work of Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, we find a curious fascination with fetishized books—those that are rarely, if ever, read but instead take on a baroque usage centered on aesthetic perception and the symbolism of the object. Bernardin de Saint- Pierre’s conception of the book is distinguished by a penchant for...

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Written on the Page

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pp. 113-129

On each page of a manuscript, the writing goes in search of the work by orchestrating its space. Words seek out sentences; the path of creation is made visible in writing. The gestures of creation can be read; they expose the thought process venturing toward the text that will constitute the work. The order of the gestures and the way in...

Buzz Spector


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p. 130-130

Face to Face

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p. 131-131

As If

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p. 132-132

Sur-face Text-ure

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pp. 133-134

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Un coup de dés and La Prose du Transsibérien: A Study in Contraries

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pp. 135-150

“Visible writing,” as the present collection underscores, varies widely in different times and places. It is therefore tempting to simplify the notion by assuming that it corresponds to a single, homogeneous phenomenon within a given cultural framework. We...

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Mathematics for "Just Plain Folks": Allegories of Quantitative and Qualitative Information in the Habsburg Sphere

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pp. 151-176

This verbal calculus echoes a visual display that appears in the 1904 issue of an almanac published by the J. Steinbrener firm. The visual diagram (figure 9.1) and the accompanying text explore mathematical meanings, yet without mathematical symbols.2 Both are anchored in the social world of the central European readers of these almanacs...

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Beneath the Words: Visual Messages in French Fin-de-Siècle Posters

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pp. 177-194

In November 1894 art critic Arsène Alexandre and publisher Félix Juven founded Le Rire (Laughter), a humorous, fully illustrated journal. To announce this new weekly publication and its satirical premise Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) created a large black-and-white poster (figure 10.1) in the rich lithographic style...

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How Do You Pronounce a Pictogram?: On "Visible Writing" in Comics

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pp. 195-210

The art form known in English as comics and in French as bande dessinée typically features a peculiar interaction of text and image, of the visible and the legible.1 My purpose here is simply to highlight some of this interaction’s modalities and effects. Limiting myself to the French-speaking side, I will comment first on a few...

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Inviting Words into the Image: Multiple Meanings in Modern and Contemporary Art

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pp. 211-236

For centuries, art and informational pictures have served as a universal language that transcends nationality, chronological time, and geography. At key stages of early educational development, children learn to interpret illustrations in picture books before learning to read the accompanying words. Yet reading fiction and nonfiction texts and...

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Color Writings: On Three Polychrome Texts

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pp. 237-253

There is a form of visibility that relies not on images, nor on drawings, nor on illuminations in the strict sense, nor even on the layout of letters or typography, but on color. When we consider that all texts are visible, we might ask what particular kind of visibility they receive from the fact of being written, then printed...

Buzz Spector


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p. 254-254

A Rose Is...

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p. 255-255


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p. 256-256

Actual Words of Art

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pp. 257-258

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The Figurative and the Gestural: Chinese Writing According to Marcel Granet

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pp. 259-272

The first presentations of Chinese writing in Europe were the work of Jesuit missionaries, and they date from the end of the sixteenth century.1 Since then, Chinese writing has never ceased to fascinate westerners, generating multiple studies and controversies among sinologists of every caliber. Until recently, however, western...

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Michaux: To Be Read? To Be Seen?

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pp. 273-292

All writing is meant to be seen. Is this not a truism? Yet writing seems condemned to be merely traversed by the gaze. To write, in this sense, would be no more than to cross over—a barrier or a threshold?— into speech and thereby into meaning. Similarly, reading would always amount to speaking, either out loud or under one’s breath (as reading, it is said, was once done). Or rather, reading would be a practice...

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Reading the Alhambra

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pp. 293-304

The Alhambra has been described as a “stone book,” “an especially sumptuous book,” even an “inhabitable book.”1 If so, it is a book with most of its pages missing, and those that remain rebound in an order that reroutes the reader, just as the Patronato de la Alhambra sends modern-day tourists through the site by way of a path that is not only confounding but was impossible before the...

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Catastrophe Writings: In the Wake of September 11

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pp. 305-318

Armando Petrucci’s work on formal or monumental writing in Italian cities from the eleventh to the twentieth century formed a turning point for researchers whose work and reflection focus on urban writing. Not only does Petrucci, a historian and paleographer, provide rare, new knowledge on writings in cities, but he also acquaints us with...

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...visible, legible, illegible: around a limit...

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pp. 319-340

Many of Saul Steinberg’s drawings that play with illegible writings make us laugh or smile. They get our attention; they interrogate us. Funny or surprising, through the angle of the witty and the absurd, they manage to “speak” to us immediately. Paradoxical efficacy? These scribbles linked to the virtuosity of the stroke lead us...

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pp. 341-342

I reach visible writing by two means: through excision of existing texts and through occlusion of words I have written. In 1981, I began working with books, at first through the production of bound suites of drawings and subsequently through alterations of found printed books. The method of my alteration was to tear...

Buzz Spector

Colloquium #1 (Picture Puzzles)

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p. 343-343

Colloquium #2

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p. 344-344

Colloquium #3

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p. 345-345

Colloquium #4

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p. 346-346

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 347-350


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pp. 351-356

E-ISBN-13: 9780813554556
E-ISBN-10: 0813554551
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813548821

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 131 illustrations.
Publication Year: 2011