Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play

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In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, Jennifer DeVere Brody places punctuation at center stage. She illuminates the performative aspects of dots, ellipses, hyphens, quotation marks, semicolons, colons, and exclamation points by considering them in relation to aesthetics and experimental art. Through her readings of texts and symbols ranging from style guides to digital art, from emoticons to dance pieces, Brody suggests that instead of always clarifying meaning, punctuation can sometimes open up space for interpretation, enabling writers and visual artists to interrogate and reformulate notions of life, death, art, and identity politics.

About the Author:
Jennifer DeVere Brody is Associate Professor of English, African American Studies, and Performance Studies at Northwestern University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822342359
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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By Jennifer DeVere Brody


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4235-9

Chapter One

Smutty Daubings

It is customary for books on punctuation to begin with what many perceive to be punctuation's most elemental form: the dot. This chapter, while starting with the dot, departs rather quickly from traditional primers and follows the dot as it travels in different directions and dimensions-especially that of dimensional typography. "From early carved inscriptions to neon signs, numerous experiments in the history of typography and signage have interpreted letters as physical, spatial entities. With the advent of motion pictures, animation and movie titles have explored the temporal possibilities of letters moving through space and time. By now, the spectacle of the dancing, decorated, and three-dimensional letterform is common in both print and electronic media." Here, we will look at some earlier examples of dimensional typography and other graphic "period" formations.

Discontinuity and disjuncture "structure" this chapter, which pays homage to a singular yet plural pattern known as the polka dot. While technically not punctuation marks, polka dots nevertheless can help us see punctuation marks as extending beyond the stage of the page as they perform in arenas in which various dimensional properties are expanded. Polka dots display a resistance to congealing; we cannot hold them readily as they are held together by empty space that they also delimit. Though made of circular forms polka dots are not circular; rather, they circulate like circumlocutions that both cover and expose. We recognize polka dots ironically as they are both discrete and indiscrete, closed and open, singular and collective. Polka dots textured nonnarrative, nonnormative, and inconclusive patterning and their paradoxical representation of deep surfaces and still movements complicate simple sentencing. Thus, we might say that the polka dot resembles yet reassembles the period that has come to conclude many a thought as well as a sentence.

Polka dots have been characterized as relatively useless and certainly excessive things. We think of them, superficially, as decoration-as belonging to a feminized world of frivolity. For example, lunares (the Spanish word for polka dots related to the moon) festoon flamenco dancers' costumes-appearing on earrings, shoes, and dress flounces. While we may be accustomed to thinking of polka dots (like punctuation) as confined and bound to two-dimensional surfaces, in this chapter I unleash an army of polka dots allowing them to act up, take to the streets, take on bodies both human and celestial, travel the globe, and transform our understanding of their potential power.

Let us open with a few questions. What kind of political move would it be to adorn/obliterate the world with polka dots? The works of the experimental Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) will help us answer this question as we follow her life-long obsession with this motif, which she makes into a motive for her political performance art. While drawing on the work of others, in this chapter I am also concerned with drawing (perhaps more than writing) in a literal sense. As such, I desire to see writing as drawing-as dots on a page that call to if not correspond (both senses of the term) with and to our minds and bodies. I will focus on several visionary experiments that resulted in radical transformations of the dot. How did these experiments give the dot new dimensions? To answer this query, I start with a brief detour through a point in seventeenth-century England, then turn abruptly to the theory of polka dots deployed by Kusama, and finally I take a third turn to Wall Street to make a dot posit computer style. A detour, a theory, a turn ... three sides of the same point.

* * *

Juliet Fleming's book on graffiti and the writing arts in the early modern era analyzes inscribed objects (such as pots) as literary works. Fleming argues that "writing so displayed has at its disposal a particular set of physical properties, the most obvious of which is its existence in three dimensions." 3 Her discussion of the early modern penchant for penning on such multiple, dimensional surfaces (e.g., cloth, clay, casements, and cornices) allows us to rethink the distinctions between "writing and drawing, utility and art, literacy and knowledge" (136) that came to characterize (through characters) logocentricism in the West. She explains that such writing should be thought of as "forever in the act of vanishing, or re-appearing, around a curve," and she adds that "such writing makes explicit the role of the materiality of space within the act of understanding" (111). Her remarks about "graffiti" cast it as a substance that "even where accorded special privilege as the speaking writing of the past ... [it] remains something spectral" (41). Thus her project, pace Jacques Derrida and Jonathan Goldberg, sees writing not as an expression of "consciousness unbound by the text ... but rather as a space where matter appears to bind thought" (13). Fleming's thinking about the "material supports" (10) for the economy of writing in the period resurfaces in the late-twentieth-century body works (and body of work) produced by the multimedia artist Yayoi Kusama whom I read, à la Fleming, as a type of graffiti artist. What I hope to suggest in this study is that Kusama's visual work-her drawings, paintings, and impromptu danced demonstrations-are akin to writing and especially to graffiti with its visible scrawl, its public display, and its performance of anti-establishment, illicit, and even illegal (if legible) activity.

Attending to the physical properties and multidimensionality of such writing/drawing or drawing/writing, along with the surfaces upon which such (im)material events occur, is a move that has been incorporated in certain forms of body art that reproduce "writing" as such on living surfaces. Kusama works in an expanded field of writing; her hand-painted polka dots appear on a vast array of material supports including canvas, cotton, horse hair, cat fur, bark, clocks, stocks, genitals, concrete, porcelain teapots, the Holy Bible, dollar bills, draft cards, Nixon posters, bread, and human epidermis. Her obsession with body painting and dotting diverse surfaces with her handmade polka dots is another example of the incursion of such points into and onto three-dimensional space. I see Kusama's colorful kinetic conceptual polka dots dancing a dance of deconstruction, taking the previous points made about punctuation at least one step or stop farther ... beyond a beginning point whose origin is impossible. In this chapter I drive toward the contemplation of text as a template for understanding Kusama's serious play with polka dots while circumventing conventional readings of historical development. Here we will dance with the dots and let them lead us beyond strict teleological parameters that are out of line with our rhizomatic, performative logic that permits us to play-to catch the point with a wide net in an open field. You can see, then, how the end point of the chapter is to connect, temporarily, the temporally and spatially discontinuous dots between earlier periods and Kusama's polka [??],

Let us now attend to the mark in the accompanying illustration.

This is an experiment. You are being put on the spot. What do you see? A blotchy black dot? Is it a spore or a medieval weapon? A blind spot? Perhaps it is a kind of "broken circle"-something whose surface once was as smooth and simple as a perfect point but now appears ruptured, imperfect, displaying a monstrous roughly textured skin. This experiment catches your eye in the ambiguous space of the "so-called size-distance relationship" that necessarily constricts your reading/knowledge. The point of this experiment is to illustrate the illusion of depth (perception) created by a representation made by the pen of Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the English scientist, surveyor, inventor, and member of the famed Royal Society. Hooke, a rival of Sir Isaac Newton and a friend of the famous English printer Joseph Moxon (who wrote the first guide for printers that stressed proper pointing), sketched this dot for his lavishly produced Renaissance text Micrographia: or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses. With Observations and Inquiries thereupon (1665). Hooke's text holds value for historians both of science and of the book itself because it was one of the very first volumes on the then new topic of miscroscopy. Although naturally some of its scientific claims proved untenable, the book has been remembered for Hooke's stunning illustrations. Hooke provides us not only with our first punctuation mark, but also with the title of this chapter, "smutty daubing"-a felicitous phrase given that there is more smut to follow when we return, to 1960s New York, to attend to one of Kusama's nude "body festivals."

As the inaugural curator of experiments for the Royal Society, Hooke sought to show the inaccuracies inherent in understanding the natural world. He undertook different experiments with a microscope in order to show the vagaries as well as the vagueness of perception. With the assistance of his magnifier, which made much of seemingly insignificant things, Hooke was able to use "a sincere Hand and a faithful eye" (429) to represent a period such that its "true nature" (428) was revealed to be not a precise dot, but rather a "smutty daubing on a matt or uneven floor made with a blunt extinguist brand or stick's end" (431). Hooke's experiment underscores the materiality (in both senses of the term) of punctuation and helps us to see the conjunction or interplay of technology, perception, and punctuation that I discuss in the introduction to (and generally throughout) this study. Writing in the 1990s, the typographer Robert Bringhurst characterized punctuation marks as "microscopic works of art" connecting again the links between punctuation, art, and microscopy. Like Hooke, in this chapter I put a fundamental mark of punctuation, the dot, under the microscope to examine its properties-to reveal the substance and significance of what many perceive as an unimportant mark on a page, a mere speck of dirt rather than a substantive matter and a matter of substance.

Why did Hooke decide to open his text by magnifying a mere spot of ink? Adrian Johns explains that Hooke wanted to imitate "classical conventions, [and therefore] began [the book] as if it were a work of geometry. Instead of a mathematical point, though-the classic starting element of that science-Hooke began with its physical equivalent, the tip of a pin." Hooke's "close-up" of the point transformed a mere speck into a monumental form. Like the close-up in film, or the pixel in digitized works of art, this isolated point interrupted narrative flow and became, for a moment, a whole world unto itself and not just a part of a given world. Hooke created a new context for the point that resulted in the founding of the smutty daubing. "Under [Hooke's] microscope the sharpest of magnified points was revealed to be blunt and pitted, Natural points such as an insect's sting displayed no such imperfections, and Hooke took this to be powerful evidence of a Creator." But Hooke then turned the microscope onto "a point commonly so call'd: that is, the mark of full stop, or period." Through the microscope, any such character, printed or written-and Hooke examined "multitudes" of each-appeared like "smutty daubings" or "great splotches of London dirt thanks to a combination of irregularity of type, uneven cloth-based paper, and the rough use of ink." Hooke's description of the "smutty daubings" or "splotches" conveys, almost as if by onomatopoeia, the impasto made by the unnatural mixture of elements noted above-the combination of India ink, a quill or the nib of a pen, rag paper, and pressure from the palm of a human hand.

The microscope revealed some much-vaunted tiny writing as barely readable without "a good fantsy well preposest to help one through," and in fact a good fancy was needed for all reading. Since the "imaginations" we had of objects were not decided by "the nature of the things themselves" so much as by the "peculiar Organs, by which they are made sensible to the Understanding," different organs would have produced different perceptions. Hooke now points out a still-greater implication of the corporeality of reading practices. His experiment with the microscope revealed the importance of seeing beyond the so-called naked eye.

The point that Hooke and his microscope help us to see is that dots are uneven, multidimensional, indiscrete, and irregular. He shows how even two-dimensional dots can be seen as complex material. "The microscopic observations published during the 1660s and early 1670s are deeply concerned with the issues raised by the corpuscular philosophy and Cartesian-inspired physiology. They also reveal a deep commitment to the experimental method on the part of the investigators. The beginning of the heyday of microscopy in the seventeenth century was therefore the result of a combination of the novel seventeenth century conception of nature with the experimental method." We see now how the dot played an important role in new conceptions of perception. Hooke, hooked neither on phonics nor phonemes but rather on a punctuation mark, proved a point about the physiology and psychology of reading-which is to say the embodied practices that were to become normalized with the spread of literacy. Such insights may founder, as does much writing about writing, on the (im)possibility of moving beyond movable type. This is a point that we should remember as we read the printed pages that follow. The abbreviated discussion of Micrographia provides a transitional hook, or perhaps a flashpoint that transports us some three hundred years over and through multiple global representations via circular, "dotological" reasoning-we move from 1660s London to 1960s New York, from one set of dotty experiments to another.

Spotty Evidence [??]

"My love is like mixed media, mixing you and me." -Yayoi Kusama, "Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art"

The prolific and multitalented Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama paints, writes poetry, lyrics, and novels, and she was a fashion designer, an installation artist, and a performance artist before the term had any currency (pun intended). Her engagement with both the "feminine" (read excessive, crafty) and the "masculine" (read minimalist, designed) was part of her feminist strategy to both occupy and complicate the rules of "high art." Kusama circulated in the same 1960s downtown New York art circles as her coevals Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, Fluxus, Judson Dancers, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Agnes Martin, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Bontecou, Roy Lichtenstein, and numerous other avant-garde artists and collectives, many of whom were associated with new forms of interaction such as Happenings, events, and performances that championed improvisation, presence, and being in the moment. Specifically, Kusama spent the years 1957-1973 living and working in New York City. Although she was a regular participant in the downtown scene, she is mentioned only rarely in the overviews of the period. I contend, however, that her art can be read, retrospectively, as a vital element in the period's crucible of happenings, collaborations, and other experimental art works. Sharing a building on East Nineteenth Street with well-known artists such as Donald Judd, among others, Kusama covered the vast majority of her work with various kinds of polka dots. For a time at the height of her fame one New York newspaper named her "Dotty" and another the "Princess of Polka Dots." She dubbed herself "Queen of Love and Polka Dots," and "High Priestess of Polka Dots," when appearing at her Church of Self-Obliteration.

Yayoi Kusama, perhaps no less than Robert Hooke, had a hand to play in the reformation of the dot. Like her coevals, she participated in transforming her everyday environment with her embodied artistic practice of polka dotting virtually everything with which she came into contact or confrontation. Imparting the design (the sign of the polka dot) was part of a larger cultural and artistic transformation in the field of design that encompassed changes in letterforms and fonts. "A range of display fonts produced in the 1960s and 1970s exhibit cartoon-like forms that bear the influence of the Pop appreciation of toys, kitsch, and vernacular objects. Pop art directly engaged letterforms and numbers as part of its inventory of everyday life. The soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, which presented letters and numbers as soft, pillow-like constructions, have directly and indirectly informed the sensibility of 1960's and 1970's novelty lettering." Kusama's polka dots can be read in this context as another formation of novelty lettering with the difference that the polka dots, like graffiti, perform more as litter than letters.


Excerpted from Punctuation by Jennifer DeVere Brody Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
For(e)thought: Pre/Script: gesturestyluspunctum     1
Smutty Daubings     27
Belaboring the Point ...     62
Hyphen-Nations     85
"Queer" Quotation Marks     108
Sem;erot;cs; Colon:zat:ons: Exclamat!ons!     134
Post/Script: Cyberpunktuations?     156
Notes     169
Bibliography     191
Index     207
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