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Discourse: Ellen Lupton’s Deconstructivist Theory Essay

Key concepts from Ellen Lupton’s A Post-Mortem on Deconstruction? * Deconstruction is part of a broader field of criticism known as “post-structuralism,” whose theorist have included Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, among others. Each of these writers has looked at modes of representation – from alphabetic writing to photojournalism – as culturally powerful technologies that transform and construct “reality”. The phrase “deconstruction” quickly became a cliche in design journalism, where it usually has described a style featuring fragmented shapes, extreme angles, and aggressively asymmetrical arrangements. This collection of formal devices was easily transferred from architecture to graphic design, where it named existing tendencies and catalyzed new ones.

The labels “deconstructivism,” “deconstructionism,” and just plain “decon” have served to blanket the differences between a broad range of design practices and an equally broad range of theoretical ideas. Rather than viewing it as a style, you can view deconstructivism as a process – an act of questioning. In Derrida’s original theory, deconstruction asks a question: how does representation inhabit reality? How does the external appearance of a thing get inside its internal essence? How does the surface get under the skin? For example, the Western tradition has tended to value the internal mind as the sacred source of soul and intellect, while denouncing the body as an earthly, mechanical shell.

Countering this view is the understanding that the conditions of bodily experience temper the way we think and act. A parallel question for graphic design is this: how does visual from get inside the “content” of writing? How has typography refused to be a passive, transparent vessel for written texts, developing as a system with its own structures and devices? * The Western philosophical tradition has denigrated writing as an inferior, dead copy of the living, spoken word, when we speak, we draw on our inner consciousness, but when we write, our words are inert and abstract.

The written word loses its connection to our inner selves. Language is set adrift. * It has recently become unfashionable to compare language and design. In the fields of architecture and products, the paradigm of language is losing its luster as a theoretical model – we no longer think of buildings, tea pots, for fax machines as “communication” cultural messages, in the manner of post-Modern classicism or product semantics. For the design fields, “deconstruction” has been reduced to the name of a historical period rather than an ongoing way of approaching design. Derrida made a similar point in 1994, saying that deconstruction will never be over, because it describes a way of thinking about language that has always existed. For graphic design, deconstruction isn’t dead, either, because it’s not a style or movement, but a way of asking questions through our work. Critical form-making will always be part of design practice, whatever theoretical tools one might use to identify it.

Apollinaire’s Il Pleut is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of language and design – of typography and content. Like the other structural games calligrammes are often referred to, Il Pleut uses typography as an active picture rather than a passive frame, demonstrating only the beginning of the possibilities available for manipulating type to reflect language. Often graphic design can reveal cultural myths by using familiar symbols and styles in new ways, and Apollinaire does exactly that in this futurist, poetic, and exciting way.

Marinetti, another Futurist-classified poet, was a master in deconstruction — letting the words themselves build imagery both literally and figuratively; the letterforms and sentences themselves becoming the building blocks of his compositions. This 1913 work by Marinetti, Words of Liberty, is a perfect example of the theory of metalanguage, proposed by Roland Barthes. In his work, Elements of Semiology, he advanced the concept of the metalanguage — a systematized way of talking about concepts like meaning and grammar beyond the constraints of a traditional (first-order) language; in a metalanguage, symbols replace words and phrases.

Insofar as one metalanguage is required for one explanation of first-order language, another may be required, so metalanguages may actually replace first-order languages. Barthes exposes how this structuralist system is regressive; orders of language rely upon a metalanguage by which it is explained, and therefore deconstruction itself is in danger of becoming a metalanguage, thus exposing all languages and discourse to scrutiny.

A work of design can be called “deconstruction” when it exposes and transforms the established rules of writing, interrupting the sacred “inside” of content with the profane “outside” of form. Weingart is the perfect example of this, using not only letterforms themselves but also nonobjective elements within his composition to distort the typographic content. Yet, the link between language and typography is so close that typography is, essentially, the frontier between languages and objects; languages and images.

Typography turns language into a visible, tangible artifact, and in the process transforms it irrevocably. While researching the link between the “inside” and “outside” form of content, George Orwell seemed to hold very similar views in his The Politics of English Language, speaking not of the link between typography and language but instead the written and spoken versions of English itself. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble; and what trouble does this necessarily include?

Protecting one’s writing from staleness of imagery, and of course lack of precision. Both are marked by vague writing or perhaps, in some cases, sheer incompetence of modern English prose, as well as the use of dying metaphors. He concludes for us that verbal false limbs and pretentious diction are the downfall for our mangled language, and we, the ambitious struggling writers of the world, can unite against its seemingly inevitable destruction. But let us look closer at Orwell’s reasoning for a moment; that if thought corrupts language than surely language can also corrupt thought.

Although written nearly 60 years before our time, he shares this ideal with a modern behemoth of writing – Stephen King. King has already imparted a great secret to us about the nature of writing – that ideas come from nowhere, and that vocabulary is one of the first steps toward a novel which actually functions as it should. One should not begin writing from the abstract, trying to dictate with impressive words or alliterative sentences; one should have an idea in mind and then set about trying to convey that idea to an audience.

Vague writing only begets vague understanding, which is not the vehicle in which your novel should be riding. I personally feel that this is a powerful parallel to language and typography — that the designer should have in mind what exactly they are trying to communicate before beginning their design, instead of taking text copy and moving it around, trying to design without a firm message at hand. This eventually will end in a vague, incomprehensible and garbled communication, one which has no place in today’s world; unless of course you happen to be a self-proclaimed Dada-ist.

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