[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure pt. 5

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 pt. 4

Moreover, we can see in McCloud’s twelve axes of revolution in Reinventing Comics, whether cognizant or not, the same separation of concerns that Dijkstra valorizes as a more proper mode of scientific thinking. Each axis in McCloud’s text is developed at great length in isolation and the inter-relations are more alluded to than explicated. What is more, even the degree to which those inter-relations are explained, only productive interactions are allowed for and destructive interactions are entirely ignored, coinciding nicely with McCloud’s assertion that the future cannot possibly be overhyped—things can only get better and better (!), according to this ideology, even as the reality principle asserts precisely the opposite or, typically, something far more ambivalent. McCloud’s recourse, in such instances, like Dijkstra’s, is to simply assert the error or impropriety of such messy facts as the pre-existing inter-relations between digital and print texts (re: Tycho and Gitelman above), in both foundational and practical terms, or that developments even in “scientific” fields might be motivated by unexamined forces—all along, not just at the point of inception—rather than manifest a natural outgrowth of plans set in motion long ago.

Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics, p. 23: It's worth noting that in Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion mythos, a similiar device is the symbol for chaos.

Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics, p. 23: It is worth noting that in Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, a similiar device is the symbol for chaos.

Our other accidental antagonist, Donald Knuth, perhaps most famous for his massive, (currently) four volume The Art of Computer Programming (though seven are planned), has been responsible for the creation and ongoing development of another markup language, TEX (pronounced “tech” with the X functioning as an uppercase χ rather than an x), that, unlike HTML, was never intended to create an entirely “new” kind of document/text—as I have tried to show, the newness of hypertext documents and of the language used to encode them is a matter of debate in itself—but rather which sought to make the connections between emerging computer typographies and pre-existing printing methods both apparent and seamless. The purpose of TEX was not to reinvent textuality in accordance with some wild presumption as to the fundamental nature of computers and their affordances but rather to find a way to recreate (and thereby perpetuate) what Knuth considered to be the best in seemingly outmoded methods.

Why did I start working on TEX in1977? The whole thing actually began long before, in connection with my books on The Art of Computer Programming. I had prepared a second edition of Volume 2, but when I received galley proofs they looked awful—because printing technology had changed drastically since the first edition had been published. The books were now done with phototypesetting, instead of hot lead Monotype machines; and (alas!) they were being done with the help of computers instead of by hand. The result was poor spacing, especially in the math, and the fonts of type were terrible by comparison with the originals. (Donald Knuth, “Computers and Typesetting” in Digital Typography, pp. 557-8)

What is most remarkable here is that Knuth’s personal motivations for creating TEX had less to do with matters of accuracy and error (re: Dijkstra above) but rather aesthetic concerns, more precisely, concerns that his own books were insufficiently beautiful—a problem one rarely associates with technical manuals—when compared with older printing methods. In fact, the desire to create “beautiful books” is made quite clear in the first TEX manual, The TEXbook of 1984:

If you merely want to produce a passably good document—something acceptable and basically readable but not beautiful—a simple system will usually suffice. With TEX the goal is to produce the finest quality; this requires more attention to detail, but you will not find it much harder to go the extra distance, and you’ll be able to take special pride in the finished product. (1)

In his 1986 “Computers and Typesetting” talk at the Computer Museum in Boston (quoted above), Knuth begins with an anecdote concerning the actual manufacture of Babbage’s “difference engine” in the 19th century by Per Georg Schuetz to demonstrate, perhaps implicitly, that his own interest in the overlap between traditional printing and computer science is latent in the very history of the field, at least as commonly understood from Charles Babbage onward. “And the most interesting thing, to me at least, was that the output of the Scheutz machine was not punched cards or anything like that; their machine actually produced stereotype molds from which books could be printed!” (“Computers and Typesetting,” p. 555) To drive the point home and to perhaps avoid the likely critique that this inter-relation was a mere historical accident, Knuth adds in a footnote, “Babbage had been planning all along to typeset the output of his Difference Engine; for this purpose he had experimented with movable type, stereotyping, and copper punches, but he never exhibited the results of those experiments.” (ibid., n1)

Though Knuth would likely never consider himself opposed to Dijkstra—in fact, his own thinking, at least on particular subjects, was greatly influenced by Dijkstra—nevertheless, his anecdote and what he chooses to emphasize within it demonstrates a degree of discord between these two theorists of what computer programming ought to be. First, what computers were, as both hypothetical (Babbage) and real (Scheutz) constructs, was inextricably linked to a broader material culture and was, therefore, bound up with pre-existing concerns over the nature of texutality in print, even if Knuth does not put it quite this way. Even computer programming and the machines that realized it mechanically were not regarded as separate concerns and, as Knuth seems to imply, ought not be regarded as separate going forward. While Knuth and Dijkstra may have historically agreed with regard to a great number of particular, practical issues, their ideologies are very different, and they reflect very different ideologies in the broader culture. The key takeaway for my larger argument here is that Knuth seems more aware of this reflection and what its ramifications for his own discipline are.

In addition to his awareness of structural relations, very much akin to Althusser’s, even if in the finer points they might differ, Knuth’s critique of contemporary developments in printing and his valorization of older book aesthetics fall neatly in line with another major force in the history of print’s material/visual base, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.

I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty [!], while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters. I have always been a great admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages, and of the earlier printing which took its place. As to the fifteenth-century books, I had noticed they were always beautiful by force of the mere typography, even without the added ornament, with which many of them are so lavishly supplied. (A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, p. 1)

In addition to the desire to produce “beauty” in books, we see in both Morris’s and Knuth’s claims the desire to wed the aesthetic with the practical: the book which first incited Knuth’s disgust with contemporary developments in printing was an arcane technical manual renowned in computer science for its complexity, and Morris clearly wished to produce books that could be read easily as texts in addition to being admired for the beauty of their presentation and ornament. Morris also demonstrates an awareness that seemingly divisible concerns must be treated in concert if the total effect is to be a desirable one.

I have always tried to keep in mind the necessity for making my decoration a part of the page of type. I may add that in designing the magnificent and inimitable woodcuts which have adorned several of my books… my friend Sir Edward Burne-Jones has never lost sight of this important point, so that his work will not only give us a series of most beautiful and imaginative pictures, but form the most harmonious decoration possible to the printed book. (ibid., p. 5-6)

One might be tempted to regard both Morris’s and Knuth’s interest in typography as a relatively limited concerns, but as their attendant assumptions and subsequent practices show, their analogous ideologies of type play into assumptions about what books should be and therefore how an entire institutional practice ought to be arranged. Type and typography, then, function as a base, not in the simplistic sense of a material basis from which other forms are abstracted, but rather, as above with regard to the historical development of HTML, one which, though we might be able readily to identify a variety of structural effects, be they [comic] strips or “beauty,” nevertheless is responsive to ideological preconditioning. Though in both cases McCloud and Dijkstra believe themselves to be reading conditions “as they are” and deriving practices therefrom, what Knuth’s approach to software development shows is how their respective readings pre-condition their bases, [comics] form and programming methodology respectively, to be in a particular way.

Typographies digital and otherwise are also conveniently symptomatic of a structural continuum in textual form that futurethinkers so often go out of their way, for whatever reason, to deny, to declare, along with the great Dr. Egon Spengler, that “print is dead.” The problem, of course, is that digital texts, hypertexts—futuretext of whatever sort has to emerge and develop within the context of and alongside the textual mode[s] it presumes to supplant, just as early print developed within the context of and alongside pre-existing modes of manuscript book production. This means that even new (limited) modes of production that emerge within this context are made amenable, due almost entirely to practical concerns, to both the older and newer forms. The typographer Matthew Carter, in his 1990 talk before the Royal Society of Arts, elucidates why this admixture of motivations, from both analog and digital domains, represents a more ideal approach than the kind of progressivism futurethinkers carry a banner for.

[I]n a world of multiple, coexisting, technologies we can no longer design type for a particular technology, even if we wanted to. Now, today, the life-expectancy of a decent typeface is longer than that of the technology that reproduces it. A type design dedicated to a particular technology is a self-obsoleting typeface… If you buy a font of Charter, I cannot predict how you will use it – on a laser printer at 300, 400 or 600 dots per inch, typesetter at 1200 or 2000 dpi, on a screen display, film recorder, broadcast video system, architectural sign-making system. But I have to assume that sooner or later it will be used on all of those things, and probably more, as yet uninvented. (“Now We Have Mutable Type” in Typographers on Type, p. 185)

As Carter shows, typography represents a fundamental axis of inter-relation between technologies and their formal outputs that might be treated, according to other schools of thought in the seemingly distinct fields that make primary use of those technologies, as isolatable if not isolated concerns.

In drawing together early debates in the history of [webcomics] with early developments in HTML, as well as with ideological-as-methodological orientations in typography and computer programming, I have tried to show how, contra the isolating tendencies of book- and future-think, beginning from an assumption of widespread interconnection and articulation between seemingly disparate forms, we might account for certain observable textual phenomena for which both future- and book-think are wholly ill-equipped and which, as a result, both forms of thinking tend to dismiss or address only in passing. Moreover, because of these inter-relations, certain structural effects, as a result of a broadly based unconscious-as-textual-infrastructure, manifest within the particular works or theorists, artists, practitioners, etc. regardless of whether they acknowledge the manifestation. Yet, contra Jameson, these very ideologies-as-methodologies can refashion the very structure that manifests itself, again either consciously or unconsciously, in a manner analogous to Freud’s secondary process, the subtle effect of culture.

In the final section of this chapter, as a way to both conclude the present discussion and reopen it after having arrived at a rather too tidy point concerning structural effects, I return to the particulars of [webcomics] in order to address a concern that so far has remained implicit yet palpably present in my own grand argument—in this entire “book”—as to diverse effects of the widespread media of what I have come to call alter-textuality, namely a fundamental non-distinction between social and material forms.

NEXT: Chapter 4 pt. 6



  1. Hiya! I’m looking for Anime and Manga writers which lead me to your blog. I couldn’t find your contact details, could you please send me an e-mail: alysonburston[at]live.com — It’s regarding writing about Anime & Manga type of offer. This isn’t spam by the way. Cheers.

    1. Um, my contact info is in the “About/Contact Info.” link in the sidebar, but I’ll email you as well. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Wow, this is meaty! one thing that is probably peripheral to your investigations, but is central to what I remember as text on computers evolved: The need for “prestige output”. The beautiful well-designed typography of letter-press and all the rest was the “official”, “respectable” and “commercial” look to them by the 1970’s and 80’s. If your organization and or business has it, you were trustworthy and deserved money and your opinion counted. If it looked like printout, it was somebody’s fanzine or samizdat, an eccentric, untrustworthy document.

    The Mac Plus and the Apple Laserwriter might have run $9K (and the printer was a more powerful computer than the mac) but one could FORCE (and oh yes, it was a battle) “respectable” looking output from them. Along the way one learned, down to a board and drum level how the beasties worked. Ten, perhaps 20 years were spent with small/ personal computers trying to get them to lay down pretty letters, and then graphics and finally pictures on paper in a way that looked respectable. And the bar kept rising, as historical design notes were assimilated as the tech got better. In a way, by the time the web hit in 1995, putting something that displayed at 600×800 and worked was almost a repeat in fast motion of the long struggle to put words from a computer onto a piece of paper, with a pee-cee or mac, on your kitchen table. Personally I couldn’t stand Aldus and loved Ventura. Later came Quark and now Adobe rules all. But I used copy cameras, film typesetters with 8″ floppies and cut and paste-ups with glue and blades (lotsa folks did – does anyone remember line-tape? Paying for fonts? ) and remember.

    What I missed, what flew by ghostlike as we were all trying to make the page look pretty for the printers, (and later for the browser) was that the iron on the desk could do other things. I watch from the sidelines as angry young advocates for text games/visual novels – who miss hypercard – expound on the virtues of Twine, an open source html thingy that to me looks like Powerpoint built to loop. It can present images too, so who knows if it can change comics? Would you put up with re-reading the same panel over and over again to increment a counter so you could try the next narrative fork? Would you notice if the text in the word balloons changed in subtle ways on your 5th or 21st re-reading? If the panel read order swapped from L->R to R->L (read too much grey sourced manga, mess up your expectations.) Oh well, comics are formally a conservative medium. Good that you explore the fence-boards on our kiddy park. Cheers and thanks /M

    1. The point I come around to in both the two posts after this and will explore differently in the final chapter is that 1) you can’t escape conceptual forces already in play, and 2) that those conceptual forces are far broader and much darker than anyone would ever admit to.

      More to your point, though, the whole mixed history of digital typography, which is hard enough to research since so much of what you actually want to know is practical knowledge that never got written down, rather than the meaningless write-ups of “best practices” one finds in trade publications. Because the truth is, that there never was and still isn’t a distinct thing known as “digital typography,” that it always was and still is yoked to expectations attendant to other media. I can only scratch the surface of that here, but it’s something that needs to be said, since it runs against the grain of so much tech b.s. about the end of print and “old” media, which, unfortunately has taken hold in the academy as well, as they try to chase after those ever plentiful and stupidly administered tech dollars.

      I like the point about “prestige;” it explains more than you might even realize. First, one of the primary outlets for the earliest manifestations of computer typography was newspapers, for which they needed to develop and manufacture special mainframes specifically dedicated to producing offsets, since the personal computers of the era (from the late ’70s through the ’90s) were simply not powerful enough to work the software through the shell OS’s common at the time. Newspapers needed daily, high quality output, and desktop publishing options simply did not cut it. The same “prestige” principle, oddly holds true with blogs and online journals, which are regularly viewed as inferior, especially in the Humanities, to established journals appearing in print, even when nowadays they are primarily accessed online. This despite the fact that what you see on the Web is not any less rigorous or interesting.

      The typography angled needs to be more thoroughly realized, but, as I said, it’s hard to get into without almost immediately finding yourself in the weeds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: