Thursday, May 12, 2005

Derrida and Blog Design

deconstruct blog design to open text energy flow Posted by Hello

For deconstructive purposes, I present my commentary first, and the text upon which I'm commenting next, reversing the order due to the perpetual instability of text.

STREIGHT commentary:

Blog Design According to Derrida Deconstruction:


Use images (art, photography, illustrations, cartoons) in unexpected ways. This must be done with extreme caution: do not distract the information foraging eyes with irrelevant impediments.


Use the styles and strategies of other visual arts and practices, customized to your blog.


Emphasize aspects, features, functions, design elements that other blogs include randomly, by chance, hurriedly, grudgingly, less thoughtfully, unartistically, non-strategically.


Experiment with syntax, test neo-grammatical constructions, unfix lexicons, coin neologisms, liberate punctuation, assign spacing according to communicative needs and not "essay composition rules".


Find the height of the stars of your concept constellation, by subjecting them to the measurement of negative user-posted comments, RSS feed unsubscribes, gossip at other blogs, and flaming emails. Engage in blogo-combat as well as blogo-collab.


I will now quote a remarks discovered in "Deconstruction and Graphic Design: History Meets Theory" by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, as published in special issue of Visible Language on graphic design history, edited by Andrew Blauvelt (1994), an earlier version of the essay “Deconstruction and Graphic Design,” published in the book Design Writing Research.

[QUOTE by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller]

Since the surfacing of the term “deconstruction” in design journalism in the mid-1980s, the word has served to label architecture, graphic design, products, and fashion featuring

chopped up,


and fragmented forms

imbued with ambiguous futuristic overtones.


Deconstruction rejected the project of modern criticism: to uncover the meaning of a literary work by studying the way its form and content communicate essential humanistic messages.

Deconstruction, like critical strategies based on Marxism, feminism, semiotics, and anthropology, focuses not on the themes and imagery of its objects

but rather on the

linguistic and institutional

systems that frame

the production of texts.

In Derrida's theory, deconstruction asks how representation inhabits reality.


In the realm of aesthetics, the original work of art traditionally has carried an aura of authenticity that its copy lacks, and the telling of a story or the taking of a photograph is viewed as a passive record of events.

"Deconstruction" takes apart such oppositions by showing how the devalued, empty concept lives inside the valued, positive one. The outside inhabits the inside.


A crucial opposition for deconstruction is speech/writing.

The Western philosophical tradition has denigrated writing as an inferior copy of the spoken word.

Speech draws on interior consciousness, but writing is dead and abstract. The written word loses its connection to the inner self.

Language is set adrift, untethered from the speaking subject. In the process of embodying language, writing steals its soul.

Deconstruction views writing as an active rather than passive form of representation.

Writing is not merely a bad copy, a faulty transcription, of the spoken word; writing, in fact, invades thought and speech, transforming the sacred realms of memory, knowledge, and spirit. Any memory system, in fact, is a form of writing, since it records thought for the purpose of future transmissions.


Derrida's critique of the speech/writing opposition locates the concerns of deconstruction in the field of graphic design.

We will return to the speech/writing problem in more detail later, but first, we will look at the life of deconstruction in recent design culture.


"Deconstructivism" catapulted into the mainstream design press with MoMA's 1988 exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture, curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley.

The curators used the term "deconstructivism" to link certain contemporary architectural practices to Russian Constructivism, whose early years were marked by an imperfect vision of form and technology.

The MoMA exhibition located a similarly skewed interpretation of modernism in the work of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, and others.

Wigley wrote in his catalogue essay: "A deconstructive architect is...not one who dismantles buildings, but one who locates the inherent dilemmas within buildings.

The deconstructive architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and violent torture: the form is interrogated" (11).

In Wigley's view, deconstruction in architecture asks questions about modernism by re-examining its own language, materials, and processes.

By framing their exhibition around a new "ism," Wigley and Johnson helped to canonize the elements of a period style, marked by twisted geometries, centerless plans, and shards of glass and metal.

This cluster of stylistic features quickly emigrated from architecture to graphic design, just as the icons and colors of neo-classical post-modernism had traveled there shortly before.

While a more critical approach to deconstruction had been routed to graphic designers through the fields of photography and the fine arts, architecture provided a ready-to-use formal vocabulary that could be broadly adopted.

"Deconstruction," "deconstructivism," and just plain "decon" became design-world clichés, where they named existing tendencies and catalyzed new ones in the fields of furniture and fashion as well as graphic design.

In 1990 Philip Meggs published a how-to guide for would-be deconstructivists in the magazine Step-by-Step Graphics.

His essay, which includes a journalistic account of how the term "deconstruction" entered the field of graphic design, focuses on style and works back to theory.

Following the logic of the MoMA project, his story begins with Constructivism and ends with its "deconstruction" in contemporary design; unlike Wigley, however, Meggs's story depicts early modernism as a purely rational enterprise.

Chuck Byrne and Martha Witte¹s more analytical piece for Print (1990) describes deconstruction as a "zeitgeist," a philosophical germ circulating in contemporary culture that influences graphic designers even though they might not know it.

Their view corresponds roughly to McCoy's sense of post-structuralism as a general "attitude" or "filtration process" responding to the "intellectual culture" of the time.

Byrne and Witte's article identifies examples of deconstruction across the ideological map of contemporary design, ranging from the work of Paula Scher and Stephen Doyle to Lucille Tenazas and Lorraine Wild.

Today, in the mid-90s, the term "deconstruction" is used casually to label any work that favors complexity over simplicity and dramatizes the formal possibilities of digital production--the term is commonly used to invoke a generic allegiance with "Cranbrook" or "CalArts," a gesture which reduces both schools to flat symbols by blanketing a variety of distinct practices.

Our view of deconstruction in graphic design is at once narrower and broader in its scope than the view evolving from the current discourse.

Rather than look at deconstruction as a historical style or period, we see deconstruction as a critical activity--an act of questioning.

The visual resources of typography help demarcate Derrida's ideological map of the biases governing Western art and philosophy. Having looked at deconstruction's life in recent design culture, we will now locate design within the theory of deconstruction.

Design in Deconstruction

Derrida's critique of the speech/writing opposition developed out of his reading of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, a foundational text for modern linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology.

Saussure asserted that the meaning of signs does not reside in the signs themselves: there is no natural bond between the signifier (the sign's material aspect) and the signified (its referent).

Instead, the meaning of a sign comes only from its relationship to other signs in a system.

This principle is the basis of structuralism, an approach to language which focuses on the patterns or structures that generate meaning rather than on the "content" of a given code or custom.

Saussure revealed that because the sign has no inherent meaning, it is, taken by itself, empty, void, absent.

The sign has no life apart from the system or "structure" of language. Saussure revealed that language is not a transparent window onto pre-existing concepts, but that language actively forms the realm of ideas.

The base, material body of the signifier is not a secondary copy of the elevated, lofty realm of concepts: both are formless masses before the articulating work of language has sliced it into distinct pieces.

Instead of thinking of language as a code for passively representing "thoughts," Saussure showed that "thoughts" take shape out of the material body of language.

Derrida's Of Grammatology points out that although Saussure was willing to reveal the emptiness at the heart of language, he became infuriated when he saw the same principle at work in writing, the system of signs created to represent speech.

Saussure's text views writing as a copy of speech, an artificial technology for reproducing language.

While the alphabet claims to be a phonetic transcription of spoken sounds, codes such as written English are full of irrational spellings: for example, words that sound the same but are spelled differently (meet/meat), and letter combinations with unexpected pronunciations (th-, sh-, -ght).

The tone of Saussure's critique escalates from mild irritation at the beginning of his presentation to impassioned condemnation of the alphabet's violation of an innocent, natural speech: "writing obscures language; it is not a guise for language but a disguise."

The "tyranny of writing" distorts its pristine referent through "orthographic monstrosities" and "phonic deformations" (30-2).

Saussure specifically concerned himself with phonetic writing, the paradigmatic medium of Western culture, which translates the diverse sounds of a language into a set of repeatable graphic marks.

He explicitly excluded pictographic and ideographic scripts from his attack on writing; Chinese ideograms have fewer "annoying consequences" than the alphabet, because their users clearly understand their role as secondary signs for spoken words (26).

The power (and seductiveness) of phonetic writing lies in its economy: a small number of characters can represent an ever-expanding quantity of words.

Unlike pictographic or ideographic scripts, phonetic writing represents the signifier of language (its material sound) rather than the signified (its conceptual meaning or "idea").

Whereas an ideogram represents the concept of a word, phonetic characters merely represent its sounds.

The alphabet thus embraces the arbitrariness of the sign by considering the signifier independently of its meaning.

As an intellectual technology, alphabetic writing can be compared to photography: it is an automatic record of the surface of language.

The alphabet cleaved language into an inside and an outside: the destiny of phonetic writing is to occupy the outside, to be a mechanical copy of the signifier, leaving intact a sacred interior.

The belief in the interiority, the fullness, of speech depends on the existence of an exterior, empty representation--the alphabet. Similarly, the notion of "nature," as an ideal realm separate from human production, emerged as "civilization" was despoiling the broader ecological systems in which culture participates.

To "deconstruct" the relationship between speech and writing is to reverse the status of the two terms, but not just to replace one with the other, but rather to show that speech was always already characterized by the same failure to transparently reflect reality. There is no innocent speech.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida asserted that an intellectual culture (or episteme) built on the opposition between reality and representation has, in fact, depended on representations to construct itself: "External/internal, image/reality, representation/presence, such is the old grid to which is given the task of outlining the domain of a science.


Phonetic writing, because it makes use of the gap between signifier and signified, is not simply a secondary reflection of language, but is a symptom of language's lack of presence, its lack of interior self-completeness.

Derrida's final attack on the notion of writing as a secondary copy of speech is to make the claim that "phonetic writing does not exist" (39).

Not only does writing inhabit speech, transforming its grammar and sound, and not only does phonetic writing exist as language's "own other," an "outside" manufactured to affirm its own complete "insidedness," but this model of the "outside" continually fails to behave in the manner expected of it.

Thus where Saussure had claimed that there are only two kinds of writing--phonetic and ideographic--Derrida found the frontiers between them to fluctuate.

Phonetic writing is full of non-phonetic elements and functions. Some signs used in conjunction with the alphabet are ideographic, including numbers and mathematical symbols.

Other graphic marks cannot be called signs at all, because they do not represent distinct "signifieds" or concepts: for example, punctuation, flourishes, deletions, and patterns of difference such as roman/italic and uppercase/lowercase.

What "idea" does the space between two words or a dingbat at the end of a line represent?

Key among these marks, which Derrida has called "graphemes," are various forms of spacing--negative gaps between the positive symbols of the alphabet.

Spacing cannot be dismissed as a "simple accessory" of writing: "That a speech supposedly alive can lend itself to spacing in its own writing is what relates to its own death" (39).

The alphabet has come to rely on silent graphic servants such as spacing and punctuation, which, like the frame of a picture, seem safely "outside" the proper content and internal structure of a work and yet are necessary conditions for making and reading.

Derrida's book The Truth in Painting unfolds the logic of framing as a crucial component of works of art.

In the Enlightenment aesthetics of Kant, which form the basis for modern art theory and criticism, the frame of a picture belongs to a class of elements called parerga, meaning "about the work," or outside/around the work.

Kant's parerga include the columns on buildings, the draperies on statues, and the frames on pictures.

A frame is an ornamental appendix to a work of art, whose "quasi-detachment" serves not only to hide but also to reveal the emptiness at the core of the seemingly self-complete object of aesthetic pleasure.

In Derrida's words, "The parergon is a form that has, as its traditonal determination, not that it stands out but that it disappears, buries itself, effaces itself, melts away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy. The frame is in no way a background....but neither is its thickness as margin a figure. Or at least it is a figure which comes away of its own accord" (61).

Like the non-phonetic supplements to the alphabet, the borders around pictures or texts occupy an ambiguous place between figure and ground, positive element and negative gap.

Spacing and punctuation, borders and frames: these are the territory of graphic design and typography, those marginal arts which articulate the conditions that make texts and images readable.

The substance of typography lies not in the alphabet per se--the generic forms of characters and their conventionalized uses--but rather in the visual framework and specific graphic forms which materialize the system of writing.

Design and typography work at the edges of writing, determining the shape and style of letters, the spaces between them, and their positions on the page. Typography, from its position in the margins of communication, has moved writing away from speech.

Design as Deconstruction

The history of typography and writing could be written as the development of formal structures which have articulated and explored the border between the inside and the outside of the text.

To compile a catalogue of the micro-mechanics of publishing--indexes and title pages, captions and colophons, folios and footnotes, leading and line lengths, margins and marginalia, spacing and punctuation--would contribute to the field which Derrida has called grammatology, or the study of writing as a distinctive mode of representation.

This word, grammatology, serves to title the book whose more infamous legacy is deconstruction.

Such a history could position various typographic techniques in relation to the split between form and content, inside and outside. Some typographic conventions have served to rationalize the delivery of information by erecting transparent "crystal goblets" around a seemingly independent, neutral body of "content."

Some structures or approaches invade the sacred interior so deeply as to turn the text inside out, while others deliberately ignore or contradict the internal organization of a text in response to external pressures imposed by technology, aesthetics, corporate interests, social propriety, production conveniences, etc.


The seeds of modernization were present in Gutenberg's first proofs; their fruits are born in the self-conscious methodologies, professionalized practices, and standardized visual forms of printers and typographers, which, beginning in the late seventeenth century, replaced an older notion of printing as a hermetic art of "black magic," its methods jealously guarded by a caste of craftsmen.

...the frontiers between interior and exterior, figure and ground, reader and writer, are securely defined...


Early English newspapers based their structure on the classical book, whose consistently formatted text block was designed to be read from beginning to end.


The modern illustrated newspaper of the twentieth century is a patchwork of competing elements, whose juxtaposition responds not to rational hierarchies of content but to the struggle between editorial, advertising, and production interests.

While the structure of the classical news journal aspired to the status of a coherent, complete object, the appearance of the popular paper results from frantic compromises and arbitrary conditions; typographic design serves to distract and seduce as well as to clarify and explain.


A history of typography informed by deconstruction would show how graphic design has revealed, challenged, or transformed the accepted rules of communication.

Such interventions can represent either deliberate confrontations or haphazard encounters with the social, technological, and aesthetic pressures that shape the making of texts.


The manipulation of existing media imagery is one activity in contemporary design that can be described as deconstruction; another is the exploration of the visual grammar of communication, from print to the electronic interface.

Designers working in hypermedia are developing new ways to generate, distribute, and use information--they are reinventing the language of graphic design today, just as typographers reacted to the changing technologies and social functions of printed media in the past.

A leading pioneer of this research was Muriel Cooper, who founded the Visible Language Workshop at MIT in 197X. In the wake of her death in the spring of 1994, her students are continuing to build a concrete grammar of three-dimensional, dynamic typography.

Cooper called the basic elements of this language "geometric primitives," defined by relationships of size, brightness, color, transparency, and location in 3-D space, variables which can shift in response to the user¹s position in a document.

Cooper and her students have worked to restructure the internal language of typography in four dimensions.

Spacing, framing, punctuation, type style, layout, and other nonphonetic marks of difference constitute the material interface of writing.

Traditional literary and linguistic research overlook such graphic structures, focusing instead on the Word as the center of communication.

According to Derrida, the functions of repetition, quotation, and fragmentation that characterize writing are conditions endemic to all human expression--even the seemingly spontaneous, self-present utterances of speech or the smooth, naturalistic surfaces of painting and photography.

Design can critically engage the mechanics of representation, exposing and revising its ideological biases; design also can remake the grammar of communication by discovering structures and patterns within the material media of visual and verbal writing.

[END QUOTE by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller]

STREIGHT replies:

The challenge is to retain clarity, usability, and beauty...

...while performing deconstructive operations upon the design of your blog.


...what do YOU think?

What blogs do you think have innovative, effective design?

Do you have "ordinary template" blog design?

Do you expect the blogger to make his or her blog look credible, different, exciting, inviting, friendly, artistically expressive, or soberly professional?

Post a comment or email me YOUR opinion.



[signed] Steven Streight aka Vaspers the Grate aka Leopold the Told

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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Regards, YL