UNEQUIVOCALLY AND WITHOUT COMPROMISE

November 19, 2018 at 5:11pm

TOWARD A RATIONAL WRITING

In 1966, the French author Hervé Bazin published a small treatise on reforming the French language. Like his modernist literary peer Borges, he wrote from the point of view of a mere messenger—relaying his “discovery” of documents created by his fictional stand-in character (named Alexis Patagos) in order to play with ideas about language. Bazin was interested in reimagining the French orthography, or the system which describes relationships between phonemes and graphemes in French. An orthography lays out rules for how sounds correspond to graphical marks; in other words, how to write a language. Of Patagos, he wrote:

il s'était très tôt voué à la recherche de cette « ortografie lojike », simple, rapide, absolument exacte, assurant enfin l'accord de l'oreille et de l'œil

he was very early devoted to the search for this "logical orthography", simple, fast, absolutely accurate, finally ensuring the agreement of the ear and the eye

Through the idea of logical orthography, he made the case for rational writing. His main concern: why shouldn’t the French language be spelled like it sounds?

Along the way, Bazin spent a few pages on a proposal for « points d’intonation », or intonation points. These were marks of punctuation that inflect tone on the words around them. They were meant to bring a new expressive range to written language.

Bazin’s intonation points—arguably a secondary element of his essay—have repeatedly captured people’s imaginations. In a time when misinterpreting the tone of a tweet or text message is a common social faux-pas, one often wishes that the written word could indicate nuances like sarcasm, or humor, or affection. Bazin’s marks all but prefigured the emoji.

THE ESSENCE OF THE NEW TYPOGRAPHY

A few decades prior, Jan Tschichold had called for the rationalization of typography. He and his peers Kurt Schwitters and Herbert Bayer each designed proposals for a “universal typeface,” which would not only simplify the alphabet toward a more logical orthography, but also rationalize letterforms to be logical in shape. Reform in writing is impossible without reform of what is written—the typographic signs integrating word and image. In The Principles of the New Typography, Tschichold wrote:

German orthography if it is to be truly contemporary must see changes, which will undoubtedly influence typeface design. Above all we must lose the burden of too much heavy philology in linguistics, and provide ourselves with self-explanatory signs for sch, ch, dg, drop the unnecessary letters (z, q, c) and aim at the rule “Write as you speak!” and its counterpart “Speak as you write!” On this basis a new and more practical orthography could be achieved, without which literature cannot succeed.

Tschichold would have found the form of Bazin’s intonation points too decorative and irrational. But Bazin’s attention to intonation—or, generally, that which lies outside of the “write as you speak” paradigm—is essential to the relevance of his work. Even as he sought to rationalize language, he understood that there was something about the continuity of speaking that could not be discretized neatly into symbols for phonemes.

ALGORITHM AND HERMENEUTICS

In the paragraph before his critique of German orthography, Tschichold turned his attention to the present letterforms:

But whether roman and also modern sans serif lower case can continue to express the opinions and claims of the present is open to doubt. Their form has always too much of writing and too little of type, and the efforts of the future will be directed towards suppressing their written character and bringing them closer to true print form.

In our time, the conflict between writing and type—between written character and true print form—has decidedly been won by type. People less often write handwritten notes, and without practice handwriting gradually becomes more illegible. But handwriting is also highly individually expressive, and handwritten notes feel personal. Writing online, any words will be forced to take the intonation of whatever common system typeface is enabled—Arial, Times, Courier.

Bazin’s points remain relevant today because they straddle the boundary between expressiveness and formalization. There is a tension across this boundary that reverberates across society as systems increasingly rely on discrete, digital measurements to apprehend the analog world. Data inherently formalizes reality into discrete marks, discarding what exists outside its ontology. Bazin’s marks are formalized in that they are discrete glyphs in a character set, but expressive in their ability to retain higher order information about the emotional tone of a sentence.

TO WRITE WHAT IS UNDERSTOOD

There are many possible reasons why Bazin’s signs never took off, but I suspect the primary is: they are impossible to set on a typewriter.

Designing communication signs must also mean bridging the gap between algorithm and hermeneutics. Within this conflict, even design (and especially the design of the privileged point of exchange between man and technology which is interface) is a meeting ground between two levels of communication, the necessary power of formalization and the infinite evocativity of the sign.

Typewriters provide an interface between the regimes of handwriting and digital type—a hinge between the most expressive and most formalized poles of writing, thinking, and signifying. Typewriters are formal and mechanical, converting the motion of the hand into a standardized mark. However, they are not quite digital. Each mark made by a typewriter is an imprint of a metal prototype of the letterform, whereas digital letters have no original and are perfect reproductions of each other. Typewritten letters bear the imperfect traces of the analog hands that made them—variations in pressure, ink level, wear and tear on the metal type, all visually suggest their materiality.

Now that we live firmly in the digital side of history, common forms of writing lack the expressiveness of the hand. In my final year in the Visual Arts department at Princeton, I designed Biometric Sans—an experimental typography system which elongates letterforms in response to the typing speed of the individual. It is a gesture toward the re-embodiment of typography, the re-introduction of the hand in digital writing. I call its online instantiation a digital typewriter.

Reflecting on the interests that led me to create that type system, I started to look at a project from a long time ago with fresh eyes. Freshman year I created a typeface simply called Bazin, which implements his intonation points in the TrueType file format. My intent back then, as I understand it now through the lens of Biometric Sans, was to make Bazin’s signs algorithmically recognizable—legible to operating systems as renderable marks. This my attempt to metaphorically cast Bazin’s points into metal typewriter keys, and in the process further articulate what we should expect from an irrational writing. Or, a writing that is natively digital, but synthesizes rather than antithesizes the analog.

Introducing the writings of his fictional Patagos, Bazin wrote:

Ces extraits ne constituent ni un évangile ni même un corps de doctrine, mais demeurent la base la plus sûre d'un programme qui se résume du reste en une phrase : écrire ce qui s'entend, sans équivoque et sans compromission.

These excerpts do not constitute a gospel or even a body of doctrine, but remain the surest basis of a program which can be summed up in one sentence: to write what is understood, unequivocally and without compromise.

This post is adapted from its print form, which is distributed along with copies of the Bazin font file through printjob.press.