Letters, images and things

David Bartoň - 23.08.2007 - Typo_14

Letters as things, or as images of things?

“Letters are things, not pictures of things” — gnomon attributed to Eric Gill provokes, perhaps not only in Robert Bringhurst, interest in the deeper bonds between typography and the surrounding world. If our reflection about type is not to remain on the level of the wonderful craft of type setters and type founders, but if it is to contemplate the very essence of type and thus the connection between typography and other parts of our perception of the surrounding world, we must do one thing — awaken from the naturalness and ease with which we have been, for ages, writing and reading. Apart from the denoted naturalness on the personal level we possess one other, perhaps even more natural phantom, which it might be useful to abandon. That is, the false confidence that in our culture, the solid form of the written word has always been considered much more important that somehow liquid thinking and speech. It has been this very culture of ours which gave birth to the criterion of all cultures, dividing them to linear and pre-linear, mature and unadvanced. Our interest will focus on the knots of the fabric which our language truly resembles and whose surface and depth, the silhouette of a single letter and the meaning of the most complicated texts, together create the complex of recorded sound and of intermediated meaning. Let us proceed from the Bringhurst’s thought that in front of the eyes of an experienced reader, the resemblance between the silhouettes of words and the shapes of the things they denote disappears completely. Not only in the Greco-Roman cultural context, but also, and in the same scope, in Chinese (for example). However, the high level of abstraction of type is not obvious. This must be clear to everyone who has ever seen a Latin sign and a hieroglyph next to each other. Maybe we may better understand in which sense “the letters are things and not images of things”, if we contemplate in depth Bringhurst’s seemingly marginal statement about the level of abstraction in individual sign systems. For a start, let us state that it is not so unambiguous to equal the abstract morphology of Greek and Chinese alphabets. The writing systems of individual languages are rooted in the relationship of the given culture to language. Then, the character of this relationship is manifested in almost instinctive choice of the form of writing, which has inner affinity with the given language — the genesis of alphabet, of sign. To most Greeks, Chinese, or Egyptian priests, this relationship probably never occurred, just as most Europeans never consider the uniqueness of Latin script, lancet, or Corinthian capital, until they encounter architecture built in entirely different context and with different key elements. Today, with the help of technology, the form taken on by the word communicates in the widest context, much more so than any other product of human spirit. Comparison of sign systems used for recording language is therefore pretty obvious.

A venture almost archaeologic, or: where to start?
Precisely because we read and write almost all the time, but we almost never reflect on both, explaining the varying level of abstraction present in the alphabet of the given (but, in the first instance, of our) culture will take us on an archaeological journey. It will lead us back to the times when the written language did not perk over the spoken word, but, on the contrary, it was looked at with distrust. Coincidentally, it was pretty much at the same time when the sign system settled down, the choice of characters was complete, the number and appearance of glyphs had stabilized, etc. For Greek, which is the basis of our culture, it is the beginning of the peak of the classical time (that is, the akme of Socrates’ life in the second third of the fifth century BC). We do not refer to archaeology in the conventional sense, but more in the ethymologic sense — to speak (logos) about the origin (arché), which determines the future state of affairs. It has a parallel in the life of each individual, who is born without the ability to speak, write and read. We are dealing with history which is highly actual. Surprisingly, it was understood in the same way by Plato himself, who referred to ancient Egypt (similarly as we refer to him today). In this concept, archaeology does not have to and perhaps it cannot use the language of science, because it speaks about the premises of the science per se — the enigmatic bond of type and the thought, or, better, the uttered word. It is apt to consider it rather in the language of Plato’s or Jung’s “logical myths”. With reference to what we stated above, we will not consider whether most of those who speak or write share such reflection, since it is a well known fact that most do not reflect at all.

Promethean gift, or the invention of speech?
First reflection on thought and language, apparent to our archaeologist’s eyes in relative fullness, is the language of Plato’s dialogues. Their message did not become popular; the reason was probably the same as why the lecture of their author on the good as a number, or, few thousand years later, the lecture of Martin Heidegger on the day when the hominid uttered the first word, did not acquire such popularity. However, especially the Socrates’ discourse on the gift of understanding and on the device of speech from Plato’s dialogue Philebos is worth our attention. First, we will attempt to interpret the commentary on how this was meant to happen, and we will consider the arguments offered by the oldest integral text on speech in our culture. The axis of Socrates’ commentary is the idea that by thinking and speaking, we seek the unity of both — thinking is speech uttered silently, but it also speaks about ourselves. This is suspiciously close to thoughts of typographer Bringhurst (“Language is what speaks us as well as what we speak”). If Plato’s Socrates further speaks about the gift from the gods which preceded thought and speech, and only after that about the “device of speech”, he points at our inability to reach the point in history which is the origin of thought. That is, to reach the fixed point through which it would be possible to inspect our ability to think, which is, perhaps surprisingly, of the same nature as the inclination of human mind to divide the whole into parts and to reunite these again. At the same time, he points to the fact that the device of language depends on this very ability. The Promethean act of inventing “the device of speech” will only cultivate this ability. However, to understand a gift from gods is never easy. The ability of thought is based on the oscillation between unity and plurality. Dividing what we want to understand into parts, and, at the same time, uniting parts into whole, is the essence of all mental operations. Even of those which, at first, seem to be a continuous stream of images without such divisions. Even imagery has its focal point — part, and the surrounding — the whole. Speech, in which the thought resides, thus employs the same division of unity and plurality, being singular, although plural. It consists of many concepts, and these have the same character. Both thus points to the gift from gods.

Thinking and speech as an art, not as a practice.
We may appreciate the adequacy of the expression “gift from gods” only when we start exploring the realm of the sensual, in order to understand the origin of the concept of unity and plurality. We are unable to find perfect unity in the world that surrounds us — nothing which could not be divided infinitely, and no plurality which we would not feel the need to unite in order to understand it. Where does the ever-present criterion of total unity and plurality come from? How better express its origin than with the phrase “a gift from gods”? Human voice is also single, if we understand it as a stream of sound coming through the throat of the speaker, and plural, if we divide it into the endless types of sounds we may produce — the sounds almost never repeat perfectly. This play with voice is accessible to anyone and, strictly speaking, it is not speech yet. The art of speech, according to Plato’s Socrates, is born only after someone chooses a certain number of sounds from the infinite amount of them (for example, 24 vowels and consonants as in Greek), and he declares these to bear meaning, while the rest remains to be just sounds. The art of speech thus lies in finding the right balance between the unity of voice and the plurality of sounds. If the number of consonants and vowels were too small, it would limit the possible combinations of them. This would lead to speech too poor, too general, with fewer words denoting loose concepts and with little content. In contrast, too great number of consonants and vowels would complicate the process of mastering the whole system, and it would place excessive demands on the clarity of articulation. Searching for and finding the perfect number of consonants and vowels is essential, as we may see in the effectivity of the varying language systems. Here lies the greatest difference between our Greco Roman tradition and the tradition of systems with disproportionately greater number of meaningbearing sounds. The abstact criterion of unity and plurality then lies at the origin of the art of speech as its beginning. Reversely, finding certain balance between the two antipodes obviously influences speech and thinking itself in their indivisible unity. To understand the statement “letters are things, not pictures of things”, we need to reunite what was said above. In the context of European culture, the letters are symbols of approximately twenty-five sounds, not images which evoke the shapes of the denoted things from memory. Although we perceive letters mostly through our eyes, they are, in fact, a proof of the dominance of the acoustic above all other senses. Somewhere, Plato’s Socrates says that man speaks only to teach others or to learn. For the same motives he is driven to write. Here, to teach means to pass on a message about anything to anyone — the meaning ranges from giving a simple information to offering a complicated commentary. In a similar sense, Aristotle in Metaphysics comes to the conclusion that a bee cannot learn, because it lacks the sense of hearing.

Abstract character of type
The unique extent of abstraction of European alphabet systems does not simply mean that to chosen sounds, arbitrary symbols are assigned and thus, logically, words are not images of things. However, more than about this fact, we should wonder about the speculations on inner connections of sounds, letters and numerals in the time when aversions and doubts about recording thoughts by writing were still common. Especially in Academia, the relationship between sounds, letters and numerals was considered not an imitation of things from the realm of the sensual, but it was derived directly from the relationship of the two antipodes — unity and plurality, which are apparent only to the inner eyes of our mind. The abstract character of vowels and consonants, letters and numerals is supported by the fact that letters are, at the same time, numbers, and numbers are geometrically constructible entities; one-dot, two-line, three-surface etc. Line of numbers stretched, in regular intervals, between the starting point and the infinity is another variation on the theme of unity and plurality. In this concept, the geometric objects do not originate in the sensual world. That is why the number as an object of geometry strongly supports the abstract character of the letters. All these facts in return support the idea conveyed by Plato’s Socrates — the idea that already the sounds are abstract, not only the letters or numbers. It is apparent that this idea grows from the concept of the world as a cosmos, a beautifully constructed gem. Here, each irregular and sensual object is constructed from perfectly geometric shapes. Human art of writing thus weaves into the Promethean art of speech and extracts its destination from it. From this point of view, we may see type as an attempt to imitate not things, but the models of things, an attempt to create a cosmos parallel to the unity of things we call physis, the nature.[Ler mais...] > TYPO