The question is almost too nebulous to ask, and so grows muted in critical consciousness: How does a book’s typography—abstracted as a representative component of its materiality—affect, or effect, anything in the text? What role does a given embodiment of language’s physical aspects (letters, punctuation marks, tildes, page presentation, symbols, etc.) play in the determination of its meaning? Too often the landscape seen through glass is taken to be the landscape itself, though we should know that some of the spectrum gets filtered out in the process. Typographical presentation is neglected in critical conversation for reasons of semantics but also, thereby, at the expense of those semantics; it wouldn’t be any more plausible to say that Van Gogh’s self-portrait “is” a depiction of a man’s face than to relegate a text to what we distill as its “meaning,” sans aesthetics. All this presupposes that the project of divorcing semantics from aesthetics, signified entities from their signifiers, is an achievable one to begin with—and, as a matter of ethics or practicality, that we should divorce them. It might seem to some like I’m setting up a straw man here, but consider how reliably a poem’s physical manifestation might influence its interpretation. Several months ago I wrote about the new editions of Larry Eigner’s work that preserve much of the corporeality of the drafts that underwrite it: his poems are printed on pages the same size of those on which they were composed, and in a similar typeset. His poems resist the gravity of the left margin as much as they do a host of other formal impulses; why should they be subjected to the impudence of the six- by nine-inch page? (As though “Guernica” would be the same painting were it spread across bathroom tiles and not a singular panel.)
And why should typography, any more than some other component of a text’s manifestation in the world, fall victim to a hierarchy that places more emphasis on projected image (Mt. Tacoma in Moore’s “The Octopus”) than on the light and lens from which that image emerges (Moore’s mechanisms, which are the physical objects of language and their appearances, font, indentations, and size in relationship to the page)? On its face, this notion seems absurd: we don’t scour the theater for its best seats to turn around and watch the bright bulb in the wall. But if it cracks, so does what we see; there’s no sufficiently rigorous procedure, if rigor is what we’re after, to flay the packaging from the “content” and get at that meaning as though it were a person standing naked and alone in a room. The adoption, whether passive or active, of the troublesome assumption that the rhetorical tenor and vehicle can have separable characteristics sets the question of physical text-aspects like typography squarely in the territory of so-called minor concerns. And to these, equally troublesome opinions are applied: that these points of discussion are secondary or tertiary ones; that they are consequentially of little import to the so-called primary concerns of poetry—like what a poem “means” or what it is “about”; that a poem’s “meaning” or “about”-ness is not tied to its visual presentation; that altering a poem’s font or relationship to the page should have no bearing on its importance nor produce something that should significantly remove it from the original. These ideas persist despite their being demonstrably false, and this falsity is made apparent often only via the ridiculous, as anyone who’s seen the thumbnail-sized book in the Library of Congress can tell you. Materiality, though absent from the convocation of go-to interpretative devices, still holds the reins. And tightly.
When talking about A Humument my first impulse is to start with what Phillips has layered over Mallock’s novel—the portraits, the self-portraits, the collages, and so on. These affective devices are only slightly more obvious versions of what goes into how a contemporary poem looks on the page; in Phillips’s case, the topmost, filtering layer has been made purposefully apparent, while in the visual drama of printed poetry layers are made in the manner of stage lights—not too soft; not too bright; something enough to color the mood without announcing itself. These spots and shadows are inducted into normativity and, like most other norms, take up lives in the woodwork. And not just any woodwork, either: the scaffolding that holds up the edifice of the conventional contemporary poem. These chameleon-like shapes don’t invite questioning; they want to be taken for granted—seen as part of the structure. Phillips’s project gives us declarations that pull out the nails from these beams, not the quietly-hewn illusions that hold them in. Even in Phillips’s case, though, at their best these declarations also seem native and necessarily emergent from the text “behind” them. “Behind”: but here I’ve turned again to the common hierarchy of sight. A Humument enters the world-world from the art-world without peeling back its layers; by the time its pages reach reading eyes, any attempt to parse Phillips from Mallock—who put what where, or even who came first—is already so deprived of evidence that it marks itself a flawed undertaking from the start.
What does it mean to be in possession of such a hierarchy? For one, it means communicability: that which is subjected to categories takes on some kind of rigor, even if it’s only ephemeral. That which is present in an art object in terms of its categories is then able to be articulated by the languages of those categories. The logic here is precarious, but not so precarious as to be convoluted: it makes sense when we hear someone begin to speak of facets of an artwork as interacting with each other in a predictable, traceable manner. These systems of interpretation make sense given the tenets on which they ride; set up a few premises, and you’re off. But this is only its aesthetic angle; the historical hierarchy of seeing is just as strong. With A Humument, the conversation seems to have revolved around the notions of the project’s creation (which is interminably ongoing), its creator, and the objects “from which” or “out of which” it was made. In my previous blog, I mentioned that it makes sense to see A Humument in terms of what one might call its vocationality—to understand it not as an object, even, or series of finished objects, but to take the continued act of its creation to be its essence. The published versions of the project, under such an interpretation, become windows into the lifelong pursuit Phillips has made for himself. This understanding demands that we obey a hierarchy of seeing: first there was Mallock, then a series of fortuitous events involving Phillips and a copy of Mallock’s A Human Document sold for threepence, and then the constant act of editing and modifying Mallock’s work by Phillips. But we can only call it an editing if we insist on the historical—for without prefacing an understanding of A Humument in terms of its historicity, we’re confronted with a project that only appears to be in communication with the past. It might be the case, rather, that it is us who bring our historical lenses and foist them upon the work without its permission; but this is also difficult, because part of Phillips’s project seems to want to be involved in a give-and-take with Mallock and his era. The other part wants to alter him out—to repurpose and pun until the physical items of text in the project are seized from Mallock and made new.
And these might not be such divergent aims. Is A Humument—or any work of art, really—a building from or upon something, or a whole new object? The only acceptable answer is that it must be both: a recycling and a forging anew. To say otherwise requires an insistence on the absurd. There’d be no point to the act of smelting the available resources (mental, physical, historical, geographical, social, political, factual, non-factual, and so on) into new conglomerations if those assemblages couldn’t be recognized even by the willing as new works of art. And likewise there exists no work of art in this day and age that doesn’t in some way conscript previously-invented motifs into its service; the vast majorities of written text appropriate words from the past or if not words, their letters. And newly-engineered languages—such as Marc Okrand’s Klingon—can’t help but adopt syntactical or stylistic similarities to “other” language systems. What changes, in looking at a work like A Humument, isn’t any fact about the project itself, which is essentially already set. What changes is what hierarchy of seeing we adopt: it is this that colors the project’s entire aura.
I mean to discuss the typography of Phillips’s project here largely because of the fact (again, only of interest historically) that Mallock’s novel is what provides the basis for it, and therefore the atavisms of the novel that show up in that subsequent project are textual in nature. Because of this, I’ve only discussed the aesthetics of presentation in terms of the visual, but the auditory has its own quirks and laws as well. To consider the ways in which A Humument calls out words as both semantic vessels and textual sculptures is to take on a dual understanding of both the historical and a-historical senses: we must move out of an understanding of these as being either—positions we must choose between—and into one in which they are symbiotically conjoined with and. One page of the fourth edition features the letters x, c, and v printed across the text of Mallock’s novel, none of which is called out via highlighting or selective painting; the historical and the aesthetical are both there, wrestling. “The theatre / never again” is the only legible text on another, where the white spaces between sentences are left blank; all else is painted over. Still another leaves the words “seven times / seventy times seven—,” an equation that amounts to 3430; 3437, however, is painted on the page in orange—interrogating the authority of both Phillips and Mallock. Phillips’s project is of interest here because it so directly appears to challenge textual convention, because it sees its materiality not as a hindrance but as an integral aspect of its being. And it facilitates this Eliot-esque fluctuation in which the historical is both a combined sense of temporality, a-temporality, and both together: clusters of text are placed in strategic interaction with the paintings that “overwrite” (if we want to take on one hierarchy) them, and there is just as strong a case to be made that these interactions move the text of Mallock’s novel into the present moment of interpretation as that they leave it in the past—where it is no longer an object being created but one that has already been created and, therefore, is dead.
To see words in A Humument as entities untethered from any sort of formal meaning means we must break from the historical, because the historical—and the legacy (or burden) of norms and conventions it bears—is what imbues these recognizable ink marks with meaning. But to make the case for discarding the historical sense of interpreting A Humument only means that another hierarchy will subsume it, even if the logic of that hierarchy is unconscious and its phenomenology is perhaps freeform. The hierarchies of seeing surrounding visual art are just as particular, if not more, and these might be taken on instead. Perhaps what saves Phillips’s project from crumpling into a bait-and-switch of aesthetic preferences is that it orchestrates a collision of two hierarchies: those of visual and textual convention, respectively. In doing so, it refrains from pledging allegiance to either, though it does succeed in unnerving the categories and principles of each. As if by some sad necessity, this free space—this space of flux—tends toward resolution in order to be spoken of; the easiest frameworks are those hierarchies already in place, which allow sense to be made out of the wild maps of A Humument’s pages. But the question of how meaningful such a sense is still remains. In the volley of wartime rhetoric and blows that constitutes Blake’s “America a Prophecy,” the visual and textual likewise disturb each other: Phillips’s marriages of words with images that trouble them brings to mind a confused Orc or Urizen presiding in illustration over each other’s monologues. The list of possible questions for Blake might not be all that dissimilar—Who’s really speaking here? Why?—but “America a Prophecy” also resists these binaries, these equations of interpretation: it renders impossible the very questions it provokes.
The project to parse meaning from aesthetics is itself another hierarchy of seeing—one that can be flipped on either end, true, but a hierarchy nonetheless. Meaning can sit in service of aesthetics, in which case aesthetic evidence dictates what meanings may or may not be mined from a work; preemptive judgments about meaning, too, can govern the way aesthetics are dovetailed into an interpretation. The latter sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy because it is—but it is no less so than the former, which assumes a relationship between aesthetics and meaning that rides on its own suite of assumptions. In both cases, these hierarchies of sight preserve the tyranny of the “whole” work: the idea that there exists, somehow, a singular edifice to be carved out of the marble of a raw project. In A Humument, the typographical portions serve both as historical artifacts and as renewed objects; deciding precisely which each text is doing and at what location necessitates, it is true, another format, but the stage between moving from an established interpretative mechanism and into another is where possibility (perhaps not un-tampered with, but as free and associative as we might ever see it) lies. Text becomes non-text; paintings and collages take on the declarative force of words. What changes is not the specimen but the analytic treatment it receives: our kingdoms and phyla are let loose from their reductive cages, our measuring sticks broken and set aflame. Typography becomes both material and meaning, which compete for attention and privileged placement in theories—any operation to extract one from the other inevitably produces either a corpse or a farce. A Humument is not a series of paintings nor is it a book, but it is not not-paintings or a not-book, at least while it disarms the Cartesian planes and dualities imposed on it. A picture of a sunset is not a diminished version of a sunset, but neither is it of the sunset; it is its own entity, of its own material, constantly breaking and being broken by the meaning yoked to it.