Looking and reading are not the same thing. Are they?
If every cultural artifact functions like a text, if buildings, fashion, and photographs operate with syntax and signs, where does language end and the non-lexical text begin?
The textual model originates in words. It is native to language. Our analyses of ubiquitous, trans-media texts begin in words. This at least should give us pause. To apply the model of text to something not made of words is to make an analogy.
Analogy itself, the thought-act, does not seem to depend on language. A certain butterfly is like a flower. Death is like sleep. It’s possible to imagine making these comparisons without having words, just experiential references.
Let’s try to find the line between an experiential reference and a word. There is water in this valley but not that one. The sun is hot and the shade is cool. Acts of comparison build vocabularies. References. Signifieds. Are tactile and kinesthetic perceptions also categories of signifiers, like words? If we learn the feeling hot and learn to avoid the situation associated with the uncomfortable sensation of hot, is the memory or imagination of the sensation hot a symbol of the experience of hot? Is that kinesthetic memory a word?
* * *
And on the other hand. Once one has learned to read, what does it take to unlearn? Is it possible to see letterforms as other than encoded lexical meaning? Is text always an imperative to read?
A reader’s ability to decode letterforms is so reliable, so measurable, that decoding mangled text has become the ubiquitous security test for online logins. The CAPTCHA tests (Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) we all wade through to get to our protected accounts depend on the human ability to decode blurred, cross-out or twisted letters in just the right way. Machines measure our answers against the one right answer, and admit us to the next level of access in the machine-scape.
Machines can’t (yet) decode the distorted text themselves. And machines can’t measure our capacity to see in the distorted text something beyond the strict lexical signs of the glyphs. Beyond reading, in the CAPTCHA universe, is the non-human. That space, it seems, is visual poetry.
* * *
Textuality spills beyond the frame of lexical glyphs to engulf, maybe, all the structures and sequences and comparative conditions of our being. Lexical glyphs fall out of the ordered sequences of texts into uncontainable forms, and only
a machine would insist that the text
has only one possible reading.
The tumbling together of mimesis-diegesis-exegesis that happens in readinglooking doesn’t give a clear entry point or path. Some forms look like letters. (Letters look like letters, that is their obligation.) Some forms look less like letters. Some are entirely not letters, but are like letters somehow. By adjacency, sequentiality? By holding some trace of having been attached to meaning, having been recycled from some pre-existing code?
The Last Vispo Anthology will help you find and lose your way in this.