"Visual writing" as a cultural form combines the visual/graphic resources of typography, graphic design, and drawing with the verbal/linguistic resources of poetry or poetic prose. Variants have been called "pattern poetry," "concrete poetry," "artists' books," semiotic poetry," and "visual poetry," among others. The few general studies of the form have emphasized its strictly formal characteristics, offering either historical reviews or taxonomies based on the kinds of graphic elements included as well as uses of the page space.
Because visual writing calls for an approach that combines literary-critical and visual-arts modes of analysis, and because of a lack of wide distribution, this rich current of cultural production has been neglected by critics. Practiced throughout the world but with an efflorescence from the 1960s to the present, visual writing has nevertheless not been graced with a comprehensive, culturally sensitive theory. Because of its unusual physical properties, visual writing has run up against the negative consequences of not being fit for the normal channels of distribution. That is, the visual arts are distributed primarily through galleries and museums, and reviewed in magazines supported by galleries; literature, by contrast, is distributed in book form (through bookstores, book distributors, libraries). Visual writing falls in betweeen. Some is exhibited in galleries and alternative cultural spaces (it is then coded as visual art, eliciting problematic responses), whereas some is published in limited-edition formats (coded as writing, also eliciting problematic responses). These social conditions governing the distribution of visual writing have contributed to a poverty of criticism of the primary material. Most examples of such criticism face the same "distribution " difficulties that the works being reiewed have had to deal with.
What is lacking in those general treatments mentioned above is a convincing account of the politically challenging dimension of visual writing. In order to break out of this bind, one must complement formal analyses with attention to historical context as derived from a cross-cultural or comparatist methodology. Hence the importance of the international networks which have arisen for the circulation and review of the various forms of visual writing. My own international anthology of visual poetry (a special-focus issue of the journal Visible Language) includes works and critical apparatus from the U.S., Mexico, Cuba, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, and Uruguay. The visual examples make possible the kinds of comparisons called for above. Seeing Power: Politics of Visual Writing complements this anthology with a theoretical orientation towards visual writing that fills a gap in the existing literature.
Taking the Italian baroque as my starting point, I offer a reading of Bernini's Teresa (Cornaro Chapel). Of interest for a theory of visual writing is Bernini's use of negative space and his exploration of the psychological implications of "decentering." Blake's analysis of the relationships between positive and negative space (in his illuminated books as well as in his practices as a printer working with visual and verbal imageries) are then discussed and related to the invention and development of photography as a medium based on this same positive/negative dichotomy. The tension between these forces reflected the crisis for realism in European culture in the mid- to late-19th century. Ultimately, the collapse of realism in European models finds perhaps its most resonant manifestation in Freud's theorization of hysteria. The next section deals with Russian Cubo-Futurist book art which had a profound and formative impact upon Roman Jakobson's early formulations of structural linguistics. Thus concludes my treatment of the rich cultural and intellectual backgrounds of Euro-American visual writing as a cultural form. In order to account for more recent developments in visual writing, specifically in its relation to foundational notions of the avant-garde (which of course includes much visual writing), I discuss competing theories of the avant-garde. My argument is then broadened through looking at how the issues already mentioned have been seen in Latin America. Finally, I have included several treatments of invidual poet/artists and books related to visual writing.
In many ways, in spite of the fact that visual writing continues to be practiced throughout the world as a bold alternative to the more closely policed modes of cultural representation, for European and North American experimental poets it has already passed into history. This has happened under the complex impacts of electronic technology, which continue to revolutionize how we travel; consume; are entertained; communicate; store, retrieve, and process information; and make art. Not only is the notion of writing itself undergoing rapid change (hypertext, joint and indeterminate authorship), but the ratios between word and image which had been relatively stable in book culture are being subjected to all manner of alteration at all levels of the social formation.
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Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry