Language Is Hell

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Interested parties usually characterize asemic art and calligraphy by their use of abstract, letter-like forms, and this boilerplate applies quite well to asemic artworks like Cy Twombly's Roman Notes and the abstract calligraphy of Jean Degottex. A text like Nico Vassilakis' Language Is Hell (2009), however, suggests critics and practitioners may have unintentionally imposed unwanted boundaries on the genre. A sort of corrective, Vassilakis' text encourages us to reconsider these limitations, and nothing, in fact, could be more valuable to this vibrant, emergent, and uniquely nimble discourse lest it risk an entirely preventable form of etiolation by restriction.

On each of Language Is Hell 's fourteen pages, Vassilakis breaks with canonical forms of asemic writing by using recognizable Latin glyphs. But he arranges these letters into smoldering layers that effectively cancel out individual letters and create abstract lines and black abysses from the residual angles and colors. The letters that remain recognizable -- a few vowels and consonants here and there -- assert themselves from chaos, without organizing it, and form stacks and chains that don't create much, if any, semantic meaning. Language Is Hell, therefore, presents a sort of asemic art by way of layered abstraction, and this technique complicates and expands the core paradigm of asemic art: Instead of arranging abstract forms in such a way that they imply handwriting and alphabets, Vassilakis uses arrangement to render "real" Latin letters abstract.

Integrating recognizable alphabet forms into the practice of asemic writing is a large part of Vassilakis' vision and technique:

To me, asemic writing facilitates the endless creation of new alphabets. It's the creation of the pre- or post-word, never the word itself, the ascent toward the physical formulation of a word or the disintegration of its parts after achieving "wordness." It's the constant rebirthing of new alphabets and the place where alphabets remain drawn and not written.

To me, understanding a text requires an understanding of the pre-meaning that creates a text event, that is, the sequence by which we create textual meaning. This involves: (a) thinking about and drawing letters, (b) sequencing those letters into words as written objects, and finally (c) assigning meaning to those words and word sequences. Every step of the way, we're faced with decisions that can alter the final result. The instincts we internalize for written communication cause us to complete this process with a speed that eventually distances us from any conscious decision-making. That's why I begin most of my work by staring at words and slowing this process down. Doing so reveals the activity going on inside a word's construction.

As I've discussed elsewhere, we're surrounded by text, by these products of our own creation. And if we're to make valuable asemic art, we need to develop a periodic table of speech and isolate elemental letters that have been imprisoned inside words for far too long.

In addition to its meta-concerns, Language Is Hell plays with an enduring binary matrix: [ { heaven-hell } { order-chaos } ]. As such, the text can be read as a molten mass of letters rising from, or perhaps descending to, the underworld or, equally, as a representation of the nebulous early days of the (linguistic) universe before Logos organized itself into the Word. Vassilakis's text, though, could just as well be read as a portrait of in nihilum destruction as ex nihilo creation, that is, as a representation of the universe's end and Logos' final defeat by infernal entropy or -- expressed in slightly more modern terms -- the violent fission of la langue and parole and language's resulting explosion into radioactive gibberish.

The color difference in the title "Language Is Hell" suggests "e Hell " can stand alone as a meaningful title fragment. ("Languag Is," of course, reads less like a meaningful cipher and more like a typo or, at most, a preview of Vassilakis' concern with textual disorder.) A common enough expression in the twenty-first century, "e" added to almost any noun signifies a digital, usually internet-based analogue to a material object (e.g., eText, eVite, eMail, &tc.). In this case, Vassilakis' text represents a textual "eHell" that dramatizes the effect modern computer technology has had, and continues to have, on traditional forms of textual expression.

Language Is Hell uses a monospaced, slab serif typeface -- e.g., Courier, Rockwell, and Clarendon -- which typographers originally designed for strike-on typewriters, Linotypes, and other hot metal printing devices. In the computer age, these fonts function as homage, resembling the output of these now archaic machines. Using this sort of typeface instead of a computer-age sans-serif like Myriad, Trebuchet, or Tahoma allows Vassilakis' text to make a profound, nuanced statement about the computer-driven world's relationship to these retreating, once dominant forms of printing technology and the publications they created, namely, printed materials like typescripts, folios, newspapers, and even printed books.

Appropriately enough, Vassilakis composed Language Is Hell entirely on an iPod touch. And while typography is a major aspect of modern computing at-large, no company has facilitated the shift from hot type to digital word processing more effectively or consciously than Apple. As co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs explained in 2005,

[In the early 1970s when I attended,] Reed College ... offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. ... I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. ...

... [T]en years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never ... dropped in on this calligraphy class, ... personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.1

Never one to understate his role in the development of modern technology, Jobs nevertheless makes a fair point about the role Apple played in humanity's transition from letterpress to digital word processing and desktop publishing. But while the original Mac honored centuries of post-Gutenberg typography, publication, and printing and facilitated the mass consumption, use, and understanding of all three, it also helped set in motion events that are steadily extinguishing these technologies and turning their foxing produce into the world's second generation of incunabula. It seems almost fated, then, that Vassilakis would compose Language Is Hell on one of the '84 Mac's great-grandchildren, and this technological association, coupled with the use of a traditional typesetter's font, lends Vassilakis' text an ironic, metaphorical quality.

While the iPod -- "touch" model or otherwise -- serves a primarily musical role, it nevertheless owes its existence to similar cultural tensions, carries the genetic imprint of the '84 Mac, and shares that machine's obsession with "radiant" typography (as Jerome McGann might label it). And like the '84 Mac and its progeny, Language Is Hell serves as both tribute to and Shiva-like destroyer of traditional type forms. The hot type analogues melting inside the iPod mirror the material annihilation going on outside it, and Vassilakis text, therefore, can be read as a metaphor for the destruction of printing technologies in the interest of progress, the very progress, in fact, that created Vassilakis' "brush" and that this device's parent company actively enabled.

Vassilakis' Language Is Hell concerns itself with tectonic cultural forces and can be read as a dramatization of someone like Aldus Manutius tilting his type cases, composing sticks, and galleys into a hot, alchemical caldron where the lead-antimony letters change, as if by "magick," from material type to digital byte. While radically changing forms, these bits of type approach asemic writing, and this chaotic transformation seems adequate enough representation of the anxiety many of us experience as we resist, begin, or continue coming to terms with the death of centuries-old material technologies and the transformation of their burnt residue into new digital forms.

Like brain trauma victims learning to read again, these new textual forms may indeed seem impenetrable, exotic, and even asemic, but only until we unshackle ourselves from the past and develop normalized means of consuming, analyzing, and marketing these forms. We've done it before, in moments of great cultural advance, and there's no reason we can do it again.

Editor's Note

All quotes from Nico Vassilakis were collected by Q.M. via email.

  1. Jobs' speech (Commencement Address, Stanford U, 12 June 2005) can be read in its entirety here (14 March 2010. Stanford Report, 14 June 2005) and watched in its entirety here (14 March 2010. Google Video Search Result: "Steve Jobs Stanford Speech").

Citation: Vassilakis, Nico and Quimby Melton. 24 March 2013. "Language Is Hell." (accessed [PDT / -7:00]).

Updated: March 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm (PDT / -7:00)

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