Professor, Information Studies, UCLA
Johanna Drucker is the inaugural Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She has published extensively on the history of written forms, typography, design, and visual poetics within the 20th century avant garde. In addition to her scholarly work, Drucker is internationally known as a book artist and experimental, visual poet. Her book, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2009.
Research Sample: Excerpt from “Nano-Graphology and Models of Digital Writing as Notation, Inscription, Trace, Code, and Attitude :(”
Underlying my discussion of writing is a long history of debates about the nature of knowledge. Conceived as a form of notation, a stable, formal system of repeatable signs governed by a stable set of syntactic laws, writing aligns with a belief in certainty. This belief underpins much empirical science dedicated to uncovering universal laws that govern the natural world. Notation, particularly mathematical notation, is seen as an equally reliable and universal system — that is, a system that remains the same under all conditions of use. Gottfried Leibniz, seduced by the lure of principles of mathesis, echoed RenÃ© Descartes belief that the primitives of human thought could be assigned numerical values and operated upon with the same degree of certainty as other aspects of the world. Certainty is the touchstone of mechanistic approaches to knowledge, an epistemology founded on principles of universal laws. The concept of writing as notation, a stable code, suits this approach, so long as notation is abstracted from conditions of use in which it is inflected by virtue of its relation to circumstances, variations, individuation, and all that inheres in the making of marks of any kind in a material substrate.
In the countertradition to mechanistic determinism, probabilistic approaches factor the incomplete and variant aspects of knowledge. In the worlds of particule physics, as well as human sciences like medicine, the realization that specific instances and individual phenomena could not be fully described in mechanistic terms raised the stakes. Indeterminism does not embrace chance as a form of luck, but as a realization that knowledge is necessarily incomplete, and rules inadequate to the full explanation of natural and social phenomena. Indeterminism was championed by philosophers Charles Peirce and William James, who subscribed to a probabilistic approach to knowledge.
This opposition between mechanistic certainty and probabilistic indeterminism can be aligned to the common distinction between notation as a formal system and inscription as an inflected, informal one. Undoing this opposition by demonstrating the embeddedness of one within the other is the goal of this paper.
The intellectual foundations on which digital writing is understood as code have their roots in formal logic, and, to some extent, structuralist principles. These put a high value on the characteristics of repeatability, stability, self-identicality. In that role it is integral to the operation of cultural authority and administrative activity in nearly every facet of contemporary life. These could be usefully challenged without setting up the bad object of a formal system as a straw figure to mutate in a weird coupling with the wild wantonness of informality. And the code model has to be challenged, if our current approach to digital writing isn’t going to get stuck in a completely reductive instrumental model. Instrumentality may be useful, but it is limiting because of its reliance on formal means.
But if we revisit the distinction of notation and inscription, pay some attention to the difference Nelson Goodman made between allographic and autographic systems, see what Matt Kirschenbaum’s ideas of forensic and formal materiality can offer, review very briefly certain fashions in graphology, and then we may come back to the way inflection and affect (attitude :( ) might play a role in refining our model of digital writing with a very different model indeed. At the end, I’ll come back to the term nano-graphology by way of a weird tale and the strange promise it holds to provide a suggestive, if perverse, concrete example.