The Significance of Marked Texts, pt 1

Over recent weeks, I have been reading up on work by and about Johanna Drucker and Susan Howe. Drucker, whose Figuring the Word book has become a bible to me, has an interest in what she sees as an inseparable association between the word's semantics and its physical qualities, the two combining to create a meaning, rather than either quality being merely supplemental to the other.

Drucker's own work showcases her regard for the importance of the physical in her work, creating dense, beautiful and thought-proviking work. The Word Made Flesh (pictured) is an example of her work with typesetting:

Image comes from BOOK/ENDS page

Here, letters being are into sizes which allow them to span more than one phrasal unit. The reader of the work must abandon most traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading in order to navigate the text, and the work exposes how the spatial arrangement of the text can force associative links from one side of the page to another.

Along with other poets such as Tina Darragh, Joan Retallack and Susan Howe (among others!),, Drucker's work often bears the mark of her process, urging the reader to decipher the modes of interpretation possible in the text, and be rewarded by partaking in the interpretive process, which becomes an active inquiry.

MARK is an important word here; it is used by Drucker - highlighted in Rachel Tzvia Back's Led by Language book on Susan Howe - to describe a text whose physical traits bear the mark not necessarily of the author's ego, but of the intervention of the author in the inscription process. This is as opposed to the unmarked text, which obviously bears little evidence of the authorial intervention from the source.

This got me thinking (a rare occurance indeed), since, especially in the cut/copy-and-paste world of digitised typing and editing, it is equally possible to duplicate content and its style, and to remove style. This sense of the marked / unmarked text perhaps extends to a sort of 'anti-formatted' text, or uniformed text, in which source texts are collated, edited or manipulated, and are transformed in a way which seeks to remove the original context. Instead, the new texts would then demand a new hollistic interpretation in terms of themselves, or their new aesthetic identity, due to stylistic consistency.

Consider, for example, the clairvoyant work of Hannah Weiner, whose texts are typewritten, but interrupted / augmented by handwritten words which Weiner has 'seen'. The psychic intervention, a voice which, although Weiner's, implicitly throws a notion of "I" truly into question, is scrawled in as a definitely marked text, where Weiner has allowed the words to speak on the same canvas, but distinct from the rest of the text.

From another angle, Robert Smithson's Heap of Language:

which uses a variety of source texts, represents them, literally as a heap, in one hand-written aesthetic, placing the focus on the interrelation of the words in the heap, unusually and unnaturally juxtaposed. I suppose there is an artifice of the natural here, the uniformity of handwriting, which commands the assumption that words were written chronologically and therefore possess a flow of meaning.

Lyn Hejinian's My Life might be another example of such a text. The passages of the text, coming from various voices, shifting "I"s, come together on the page in a relatively conventional form (save for the square of text around which the rest wraps). No one phrase therefore commands attention over another. This furthers the text's ambiguities of meaning, a mixture of clarity and vagueness which has the balance needed to be enterable at any point, and promote the reader to introduce personal experience to fill in the final experiential touches to the text. The uniformity of formatting in the piece allows such an interaction with the text to take place.

Either tomorrow or Sunday - whenever I can next get on the internet - I'd like to try to give a few examples of some interesting multimedia works which take this in other interesting directions....

If anyone's out there, have a nice weekend!



  1. Is the primary goal for Drucker, then, to encourage critical thought (re: 'active inquiry')? Or do you think she has a more determinate result in mind? Too, I'd also love to hear your thoughts on Susan Howe's work, since she's basically two buildings over from me. Thanks!

  2. a/n/i/shall/h/a/g/w/e/n/t/c/penis/h/returned

  3. I think that an overarching concern of Drucker’s practice is the active inquiry of language in relation to its physical qualities, and I think this results in a reading based on inquiry through multiple reading possibilities as opposed a more passive, singly-directed reading. As a reader, looking at Drucker’s texts entails developing a reading strategy centred on this physical / semantic relationship.

    Re Susan Howe: It’s interested how her texts often recreate the process of editing / erasure which is responsible for the omission of voices from history. What originally got me interested in her work were the striking texts from Non-Conformist’s Memorial. In a similar way to Drucker, there’s a tendency to move these texts, turned them round, read in an alternative way to achieve one of many open readings. Her ‘stuttering’ (sometimes literally, due to her editing process of the source texts) of texts makes for interesting reading, and the interrupted, incomplete texts merged together introduce new collage texts which, taken holistically, present unique readings from these new collisions. I guess, from what I have been reading recently, that Howe’s work tends to present a practice which exposes the editing procedure of history, rather than trying to work in opposition to it, and this makes sense, reading her work.

    As it happens I just picked up the audio version of Thorow which she produced with David Grubbs. On paper this seemed like an odd combination, but it really works – interesting use of voice manipulation and overlap (I’m assuming this is Grubbs’?) Certainly an interesting version of the work. There’s a Howe conference in Southampton, England, which I will be in the country for. I intend to go, as I find Howe’s work fascinating but never feel like I know enough about it…

    Thank you for your interest! Sorry about the waffle.