The form of discourse in typography and photography

by Retna

This is more of a thought experiment, sort of analysis that compares and contrasts typography and photography (in the case of the “story without words,” illustration) and how their form predetermines the content. Bear with me, I’m in a Marshall McLuhan mood. Yes, form of discourse does regulate and dictate the kind of content to be issued. For example, smoke signals couldn’t possibly express philosophical argument. The puffs are not sufficiently complex to express ideas on, say, the nature of existence. Even if they were, the Cherokee philosopher would run out of wood or blankets long before he arrived at his second axiom. That’s why you can’t use smoke to do philosophy, for its form excludes the content. (More likelihood why I’m skeptical of ASL as a formal language)

The content of writing is semantic, paraphrasable and propositional. When typography is the principal medium of communication, especially language under the yoke of the rigors of print, an idea, a fact, a claim is the result. It could be a boring idea, the fact irrelevant, or the claim false, but if language is the instrument, meaning is inescapable.

When discourse was centered in typography, as it was in 18th and 19th century America, it was content laden and serious. Telegrams eroded this in mid-19th century, and photography furthered this erosion until television radically transformed public discourse. But that’s another point.

Meaning is the demand to be understood. The writing forces the author to say something, and the reader to know the import of what is said. When both author n reader struggle with the semantic meaning, they are engaged in a serious challenge to the intellect. In the act of reading, it is a rational activity.

Reading is a process that encourages rationality to our habits of mind, because of its sequential, propositional character. To engage in writing is to follow a line of thought, which involves the ability to classify, make inferences and reasoning. Ideas are weighed and compared, assertions are contrasted, and generalization connect to another generalization. That explains why the age of reason coexisted with the emergence of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.

Boulevard du Temple, by Louis Daguerre, 1838

Photography, coined by the astronomer Sir John Hershel, literally means “writing with light.” To speak of photography as language is a risky metaphor because it also obscures the fundamental difference between photography and typography. First of all, the language of photography articulates only in particularities. Its vocabulary of images consists of concrete representation alone. As opposed to words and sentences, the photograph doesn’t present an idea or concept about the world, other than us employing language in order to transform the image into an idea. That is why the photo cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract. it can never speak of “man” but only A man; not of “tree,” but only of A tree.

We can’t photograph “nature,” because we can only capture a particular fragment of the here and now, a cliff of a certain mountainside, under a certain climate, all from a particular point of view. Just as “nature” cannot be photographed, the larger abstractions like truth, honor, love, falsehood cannot be talked about in the lexicon of pictures. To talk about and to show are 2 different sort of processes. Salomon said that “Pictures need to be recognized, words need to be understood.” While the photograph presents the world as object, the language presents the world as an idea.

There’s no such thing in nature as “man” or “tree” because the universe does not offer categories or simplifications for our convenience, for it is flux in its infinite variety. Language makes them comprehensible.

Also, photos lack syntax, where’s there’s no way to argue with the world. It is an objective slice of space time that testifies someone was there or something happened. Sure, it contains very powerful testimony, but there are no opinions. No “shoulda” no “coulda.” The lack of words does predetermine the content, because form limits content, and only with words can a story utilize abstraction.

But none of this count against comic books where the forms of typography and photography maintain a precarious balance!

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.