If you are not a stranger to the dreams realm, and if you have often found yourself reading the nocturnal stories of other onironauts, you surely won’t have missed a recurring constant that almost all dreamers agree on: reading during a dream is far from simple. Approach a paragraph in Morpheus' kingdom and you will see the sentences as nothing more than a series of confused symbols, metamorphosing as many times as your gaze turns away from them. At night, through the prism of our unconscious, when the letters are no longer choreographed by Shadow and Light, the text cannot help but slip away; as if embarrassed, it no longer knows what to do with itself.
We could continue this analysis with what neuroscience says: certain areas of the brain dedicated to language are less active during our sleep than when we are awake, making any form of verbal or written communication difficult. The thinking / fiction engaged here, however, proposes to explore this curiosity from another angle and sets the following scenario: what if we were simply conditioned to think of writing in a concrete, material and technical way, but rarely in an abstract way, making writing incapable of letting itself go freely to the dancing game of recompositions of the unknown and thus preventing dreamers from conceiving our writing paradigms differently
In order to see more clearly in the handling of abstract notions, I sometimes explore this kind of problem by anthropomorphizing them as a dream would. Writing refuse so much to play the game of introspection inherent to dreams leads me to imagine it as a being tormented by the accumulation of century-old denials. In a corner of my mind, I improvise myself as a therapist and, making it lie down on a couch, I ask it: how far, Writing, are you ready to accept what is expected of you without saying anything? How do you balance your desires against those imposed on you? And if you were to overcome the pressure of your superego, what would you like to be that you are not at the moment?
For the past few years, these thought experiments have made me particularly curious about the place of the imaginary in typographic production, and more specifically about the role it has in it. There is a constant gap in my mind between the reality of a market, of a history, of needs, and the fantasy of typefaces that are beyond description. More than once, dreams have led me to think that this tension between possible type and impossible type, could find today in a production context that is new in the history of our writing a lively ground for its development.
At times, I find myself staring into a night sky whose darkness and immensity leaves me no choice but to step back from all the things I take for granted, and the contemporary business of typography seems both incredible and absurd. Every day we’re marketing the solid art of language, an invention that is at least 6,000 years old, so over-present and anchored in our lives that it is inseparable from the over-powerful development of our current civilizations. However, these ".otf" incarnations of our writings, each of which exerts a tiny pressure on the evolution that will follow the forms of tomorrow's alphabets, are for the overwhelming majority thought, conceived, sold and used as lambda consumer products.
In the Sefer Yetzirah, the cosmogonic narrative of Jewish mysticism, a deity creates the entire world by secret combinations of sacred letters, hurled through the infinite non-being. Kabbalists perceive the alphabet as a metaphysical object whose abysses could barely be scratched by whole generations of occultists. Faced with these stories, I can't help but let my certainties falter. Is there nothing more to wish for our alphabets than the practical field in which we park them today? As I listen, I seem to hear them murmuring a prayer to Thoth, imploring that the merchants be driven from the temple.
From our birth to our death, we are bathed in writing as we are in the atmosphere. The pleasant warmth of letters envelops us and reading, like breathing, flows through us in a way that is so obvious and grounded in ourselves that it is invisible. While reading, the meaning of the text is so blinding that it prevents us from perceiving the play of signs necessary to the operation. The form fades into the background like a crystalline lake where fauna and flora seem to levitate.
Our letters, accepting the roles of words and sentences, serve us as much to orient ourselves through our labyrinthine cities as in the immensity of the internet. They are the fractal keys to an infinite number of stories, from the most technical to the most fantastic, sometimes carrying their messages over thousands of years. They inform us as much about the components of toilet paper as they order the most complex mathematical formulas and abstract physical laws at the source of the very functioning of our reality.
Yet their qualities are far from being recognized, to the point that we associate indiscriminately form and content with the text, to the point that we have been taught not to be aware of how they work, and even to the point of carrying as a standard the idea that it could be normal to privilege what a sentence tells rather than how it tells it. Yet, if our characters were actors in a play, we would never imagine sweeping aside all the possibilities of acting, conceived or improvised, over thousands of years, nor the unique alchemy of a troupe, under the pretext that it is necessary to be as invisible as possible in order to leave the spotlight on the text of the play itself.
A dream begins... let's leave room for another part of reality.
We are in a large theatre whose stage is carefully constructed and decorated by an expert. A troupe of actors is setting up. Some nights they come dressed neutrally, in jeans and a t-shirt, but today they have decided to go all out and dress up. People have often accused theatre of being boring, so through their costumes they hope to create an atmosphere by playing on common cultural codes between themselves and the audience. They are meticulously placed according to an arrangement thought out by the director, who uses a method that his predecessors have perpetuated for hundreds of years: the hierarchization of roles. Some are placed at the front of the stage and others at the back, thus highlighting the importance of the characters in the act. After they have settled down, the play begins while the room remains lit. For three hours the actors in disguise recite their texts in a clear voice while remaining motionless. From time to time a voice-over, called an italic voice, gives some indications through the fourth wall, such as the characters' inner monologues, descriptions or contexts, or the translation of tirades performed in a foreign language. It is said that there is no better way than these two mechanisms to show the deep intentions of the playwright and nobody in the audience seems to doubt it.
After the play, it is difficult to say whether the audience was convinced by the production or not, but most agree that the text was excellent. Some theatre experts agree on the apparently well-sewn costumes, and one even ventures to say that the mastery with which the outfits played with contemporary codes while remaining in a logical continuity of the history of the theatre was of rare intelligence. The voice of the italic, however, is not unanimous, judged absurd and in total disagreement with the rest. Some also did not understand why the director used so many actors, when he could have simply limited himself to one dressed in a variable costume, an American invention that allows a person to take on several roles in a row, morphing his clothes as needed. It became clear to them that this was a standard for the future, because by keeping the same character for all the roles to be played, the play became more logical, harmonious and understandable. The few non-specialists who still hang around nod in agreement, even if they don't understand much. Who are they to give their opinion on how a play should be staged? If they can't see why the staging was great, at least they liked the text...
The dream fades... a piece of consciousness brings us back to the side of the mirror where we are aware of the real richness of theatre, which this slightly dusty dystopia helps to bring out: what makes theatre a unique art is not its costumes or its sets, but its own inventions that cannot be played out in other disciplines: the work of a place, a time, an act and an audience. To speak the language of creation in theatre is to have an idea in the very matter of what makes it unique and to give it life by all the means at our disposal. There is an act of theatrical creation when costumes, sets, actors, lights and music are not seen as ends in themselves, but by their alchemy, give birth to something that could not have taken shape in another discipline.
What we expect from theatre, and what we may expect from the forms of our writing, is that, like theatre, it uniquely transcends its purpose, not simply through a certain aesthetic, but through inventions of mechanisms that are its own. These typographic ideas could not take shape in any other discipline because they are created at the very heart of what makes writing writing as a system. They would not make the form of letters, the construction of families or their historical references ends in themselves, but would aim, through their symbiosis, to create new reading performances. Secondly, if these acts of typographic creation were to affect people to the point that they were replicated, then the text standards that would be imposed would respond to an entirely different logic than that directed by today's markets.
The aesthetics and technicality of type design cannot be ends, only means. A typeface is meant to be read, just as a film is meant to be seen or music is meant to be heard. We rarely expect these experiences to simply show something in the most neutral way, to communicate. All these experiences amplify what they tell precisely because they go beyond communication. Cinema may be at least as technically complex as typography, but what makes it a living discipline is not its technical advances, but its authors, who are constantly inventing new ways of performing it.
We could imagine that the specificity of the typographic discipline is to create "system-forms" for reading, objects that are both drawings and interfaces. I find the word interface enlightening because it makes it obvious that the design of letters, beyond their aesthetics, activates different faculties during reading.
Today, there are three main functions:
Even more discreet than the appearance of our letters themselves, it seems to me that it is these capacities, the system-forms in action, that are at the very core of what only typography is capable of: performing a reading. Today, it is more than rare to find typefaces in our daily lives that perform nothing more than the three functions mentioned above. Only a few students and designers release typefaces from time to time that open up new questions but whose echoes never go beyond the tiny circle of a small fraction of interested people, ending up drowned in a tsunami of typeface production with standardized functions, occupying almost all reading spaces.
Since we are used to considering typefaces as primarily aesthetic and communicative objects, it seems natural to orient ourselves in this jungle of fonts by their graphic style, or by their capacity to be readable in this or that medium. We are not aware that a typeface can perform reading by other methods than evoking style, hierarchizing information or calling on an outsider to the text. We are so absorbed by the illusion that a typeface must above all communicate the text it performs without hindrance that we no longer even ask ourselves the question: "Does this typeface accomplish anything other than what all other typefaces have already accomplished so many times?”
Let's just project ourselves into the fantasy of a world where each typeface explores a new way of embodying a text. We could use, for example, a typeface working on the problem of speed. A family that by its "system form" could invoke different kinetics, and not weight, width or italics, using variations of Lento, Adagio, Moderato, Allegro, Prestissimo. If we gave them room to develop and be used, wouldn't one of these characters set in motion the way we have always used text?
We could just as easily imagine a typeface that would work on the notion of truth in a text, showing more or less honest sentences and interpolate it into a "lies by omission" variation. We could rethink the coupling of two letters within ligatures under the angle of consent and work on a font where each letter is free or not to unite with its neighbors. We could compose symphonic texts thanks to super-families where each font would increase by a tone or a semitone, staging the text according to major or minor modulations.
Of these powers of action — the author and his story, the researcher and his equations, the philosopher and his concepts — all could certainly make different applications. Nevertheless, it would be dishonest to say that in the history of typography, no type designer has ever proposed new ways of conceiving "form-systems." However, there are very few of them. Unusual typefaces appear from time to time and build a body of alternative text faculties, but they all end up as unused, unpromoted and unproven. The narrative usually held against experimental typefaces is that writing, in a Darwinian dance of death, makes the ideas of writing accepted by the majority. This narrative survives and finds its limit here. How can we believe that small experimental typefaces have the marketing power of Helvetica New? These strange typefaces occupy an infinitesimal place on the great stage of typographic play, even though they operate precisely as an act of creation, a possibility for the form of the text to become something other than what it already is while pretending not to see their ostracization.
If one agrees with Zuzanna Licko's We read best what we read most, one could issue the corollary, And what we read most is the production of a few, brutally marketed typefaces, mostly responding to communication briefs, fashions, historical traditions, and sometimes even self-induced apriorisms.
The conception of the forms of writing is an elementary discipline in the same way as is its twin sister, mathematics. Yet it is an understatement to say that since 4000 BC in Uruk, where they were both born, the paths taken by each have been very different. The construction of the field of mathematics has exploded exponentially thanks to the invention and opposition of theories and abstract research, and the field has constantly sought to push its limits in a frantic race towards the unknown. Writing, on the other hand, has relied on a solid and reassuring tradition, whose dogmas are becoming more and more indestructible day after day, so much so that they end up appearing natural, and can only boast of a few earth-shattering inventions.
The form of writing is not a technique: it is an art that is six thousand years old. It is irreducible to any logic, to any rule, to any classification. It is the inevitable stage of crystallization of the states of being of a text without which no incarnation is possible. Actresses of a discrete play in progress, even in the most forgotten corners, the letters play in secret. Their incantations reach us, but are we really able to understand the mystery cult they serve?
At the break of dawn, in the hollow of a clear dream characteristic of the morning, I observe a typographic discipline responsible for the proliferation of the reading process itself. Inventing new ways of activating a text in a constant flow, it gives back to reading a popularity that has nothing to envy of cinema, music or video games. Thanks to a panoply of inventions that a lifetime is not enough to cover, each paragraph read is a unique interactive performance. Classifications no longer amuse more than a few passionate historians, and Monotype survives painfully on the few royalties received for the last revivals of human history. In the background, a man with a baboon head is chanting a passage from Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire:
We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs capable of containing immortal imagery, [...] And what if one day we were to wake up, all of us, and find ourselves in the absolute impossibility of reading?
Sitting with her feet on the desk, Josy is pensive. Staring at the spirulina plasterboard ceiling, her gaze wanders in circles trying to detect a hidden logic in the hieratic shape of the asperities. On her paper screen, four hours have passed since she created a new document, still empty, in the type design software.
She had been staring at that blank page since this morning when, through her self-managed foundry, a group of writers had triggered a crowdfunding request to pay for an order they wanted to send her. In less than a few hours, they had reached the sum required to release the order: 5000€. This collective sought to rehabilitate certain 20th and 21st century thinkers by publishing texts in their original form. They wanted Josy to draw a contemporary version of a typeface from the 2000s. The designer had been trying for four hours to remember her typography classes, where she had last heard about the now-forgotten practice of revival, which consisted of transposing typefaces from the past into contemporary paradigms.
To be completely honest, she didn't see how she could. 150 years separated her from the year 2000, and since then it was an understatement to say that the form of writing had evolved. The Latin alphabet might still be used, but people were now more used to talking about a "post-Latin" or Hautin alphabet. The latter term, of Vietnamese origin, had become so popular because designers from the East Asian peninsula had been involved in a thousand new directions in typography.
What bothered Josy in the first place was that she would have to draw letters without icards. These complexly symmetrical endings had replaced serifs for at least 70 years, in 95% of contemporary production. They had not only doubled legibility, but also allowed, with an ease that everyone had found unsettling, to modulate the writing in subtle variations of time. To imagine a text without them was clearly to say to the readers: "Work out by yourself how each sentence fits into the temporality of thought", and the last thing the designer wanted was to find herself making something unreadable. Three comments had already highlighted her non-conformist attitude in previous commissions. If it went on like this, she would end up not getting any more commissions. She'd tried a middle ground, trying to keep her icards to a minimum, but the letters looked more like a line of crazy grass than anything credible.
Make a family that diversifies only through fat and italicity, at the very least, she could conceive of it. Most people on the internet would find it austere, but put into context, she would be forgiven. She'd just have to do what one would normally expect of a designer when producing a font, write a short essay explaining her approach to this fabricated problem.
The designer quickly typed a query on her terminal to the PES, the Planetary Encyclopedia of Scripture. This wiki had been set up when all production related to writing had been declared public domain by the UN. Any student in writing design was expected to know how to use it. The encyclopedia could switch between several modes, reorganize itself on the fly according to the criteria entered, and could display a very linear history, as well as sort fonts according to the schools of thought of the many theories in vogue.
Josy first explored the "specimen" mode for thirty minutes and surfed through images of the 104 million forms of writing produced since the beginning of human history. She hoped to find examples of transitional characters between the 20th century and the new forms of writing, but she didn't count on the fact that this period was precisely the time when the principle of hybridization of styles had been abandoned without really knowing why.
She continues with the "theories" mode, which gives access to the writings associated with each character. She reviews as many whimsical proposals as functional ones, then reorganizes the ideas into geographical zones to move on to the latest characters of a group of Russian artist-researchers. Josy has been following them assiduously since they published a family that had prevented a war between two communes in the Kostroma region. But despite re-reading some of the ideas she had already put in their articles, there was nothing new under the sun. She was no further ahead than she had been four hours before.
After a while, Josy finally let the screen go blank. Perhaps it was already a bit late to get into such considerations. Tomorrow there would be a group exchange with an associated collective, and together they would surely come up with something. A new type designer, Cassandre, had arrived a month before and the brainstorming methods she had invented had more than once unstuck the group. Brainstorming in a hypnotic state, for example, had allowed one of the members to find a way for two letters several pages apart to be linked. We weren't quite sure what it would be used for yet, but Hélène, the designer behind the invention, said that he had seen a post on the network by Colombian poets who had used it in a more than promising way. In her bed, Josy looked at the dial of her alarm clock before letting sleep take her away. The icards of the numbers were all vertical, underlining a short temporality. She knew she only had five hours of sleep left before she had to get up.