Joshua Unikel

There’s often a silence set between essayists and designers. The same goes for essayists and visual artists, even those working in text art. It’s an ironic lack of communication between people who work with language. The essayist and designer, for example, so often remain specialists set apart from one other instead of in dialogue. It’s a curious silence to me, as someone who writes essays, works in design, and makes work that’s inextricably both. I understand the invisible hand of history at work: scribes typically didn’t generate the content they transcribed onto papyrus or illuminated manuscripts, just as fewer and fewer “graphic designers” wrote what they were designing after the field was officially established by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy toward the end of the Bauhaus. I also understand that in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—around the same time that graphic design established itself—something curious was happening in the discussions had by historians and critics of writing and art. “In its critical reinvestigation of the terms of modern art practice, modernism invested seriously and intractably in the distinction between literary and visual arts practice,” Johanna Drucker writes in The Visible Word, referring to New Critics on the literary side and Formalists for art. “By inscribing each realm in the specificity of its own medium as the basis of its essential identity, the visual and the verbal necessarily excluded each other in all and every possible manner in order to assure the pure definition of their own activity.” Which Drucker points out is particularly odd given that most Modernists (in the art historic sense) didn’t see such a clear distinction between writing and visual art (in part because typography was such a rich, emerging field that was intractably stuck between writing and art). So it’s not that I can’t historicize the silence between “essayists” and “designers” or “artists;” it’s that I’ve never felt it was particularly helpful for me as a maker. And when I think about that silence more closely, I recall that there’s also been a long-standing, concurrent dialogue happening, a fused practice between literary and visual art, between the essay and design, typography, book art, and other visual arts, a practice that’s neither new nor exhausted in its potential.

One of the earlier examples of this sort of work is Stephane Mallarme’s A Roll of the Dice from 1914. In A Roll of the Dice, we find that essaying can occur in the exchange between the content of writing and its visual presentation as design. Mallarme makes a complex, ambivalent attempt or experiment, discovery or argument about image and language and the power of books as art objects. Writing and design, typography, and bookmaking aren’t so easily separated. Semantically, the book is deeply Symbolist in the literary sense, focusing on a loose series of images (a shipwreck, a feather, an abyss) over any sort of narrative or even narrator. Language, in other words, is being used for its ability to be seen through as a “window” to access meaning. To this end, Mallarme demanded that his book be typeset in Didot because it looked purely machine-made, untouched by the human hand and therefore transparent. With Didot, the reader wouldn’t be obstructed in accessing Mallarme’s transcendent series of images. Except that Didot—while being angular, sharp, and machined—also has high-contrast strokes and a range of sizes, italics, and bolding, which makes it conspicuous, material. So is A Roll of The Dice generally. It can be read by page, by verso/recto spread, by type size, according to bolding or italics, or any combination of these. The affect of this sort of openness is that A Roll Of The Dice has a meandering, circuitous visual logic that more closely resembles how a drawing or painting is read than a book. Yet A Roll Of The Dice is very much a book, composed in the limited visibility of page spreads, playing into and against the expectations we have as literary readers. Readers who are being asked to read poetic language and designed language at the same time, processing Mallarme’s lyric imagery as well as his visual logic. It’s worth noting too that the design of A Roll of The Dice isn’t concrete, or mimetic, or even lyric. He doesn’t use Didot letterforms to make concrete representations of his images as Fortunato Depero or Guillaume Apollinaire, Francesco Cangiullo or Richard Kostelanetz might’ve in their worthy projects. Like a shrewd designer, Mallarme doesn’t attempt mimesis either; he doesn’t choose a typeface or visual hierarchy or page layouts with the kind of easiness that his language carries; though the pages feel vast with their whitespaces, the Didot is sharp, puncturing and the visual hierarchy is often stark and abrupt. Finally, there’s a lyric ambivalence in A Roll of The Dice. The language is lyric in its grave tone, venerating imagery, and intricate euphony, but the design of the book is noticeably un-lyrical (in the visual sense); it’s rather stark and linear. This nuanced rapport between the language and design of A Roll of the Dice is what makes it compelling as an essay for me. It isn’t mimetic, and it isn’t anti-mimetic. It’s ambivalent in that it contains multiple valences or trajectories, stances and moods that interact and essay between what’s said semantically and how it looks visually.

Essaying can happen collaboratively between a writer and designer. Likewise, for a writer and bookmaker or visual artist. In Mary Ruefle’s Beyond Sunset, a recent chapbook that Mary wrote and I designed, the book’s content is a series of gorgeous prose poems or lyric essays about an intricate spectrum of sadnesses. Sadness is articulated according to color—red sadness, green sadness, black sadness, blue sadness, and so on. There’s sadness in the design, perhaps, but there’s much more uncertainty, longing, and even coldness. The book is printed at 5.5 x 7” on nearly cardstock-thick crème-colored paper, with a single prose poem of Mary’s appearing below a purely abstract, Modernist line-drawing of mine. The book has no binding other than a vellum bellyband, which has to be discarded in order to read the pages. With the bellyband gone, the title, Mary’s name, my name, and all of the boilerplate information gets separated if not discarded. The reader is left to long for information that normally grounds them to a book. The pages are unbound and have no page numbers. Without the bellyband, the constitution of the poem cycle becomes stressed yet open, like a series of drawings. The book is left in a state of uncertainty, as if it wants to be bound (a book) but can’t quite be situated unbound (as drawings). The thick, archival paper as well as its dimensions (scaled down from 11 x 14”, a typical size in drawing) adds to the design’s overall state of being uncertain or stuck. Similarly, Mary’s poems have an unclear relationship to the line-drawings they appear with. The drawings correspond to each of Mary’s poems in color only. They don’t illustrate any of her literary images, and they don’t even match her poems’ moods exactly. Instead, they articulate their own accretion as Modernist forms struggling through coldness and fragility, structure and collapse. Of course, when you read Beyond Sunset, you read all of this—Mary’s poems, the line-drawings, the spacing and paper and bellyband—you read all of this at once or as part of the same thing. The moods and trajectories of each become polyphony, and for me it’s in that interaction—and not in what Mary’s made or what I’ve made—that the essaying of Beyond Sunset happens.

Essays as print media are easy to mobilize as meditations about objects and ideas. Steve Bowden and Carl Haas’ Broadsheet series brings together makers across the arts to contribute photographs or typography, written essays or whatever form they chose relating to the issue’s topic, which is always a mundane physical object. There’s an issue about the paper cup and one about the cement block, one about the flexible straw and another that never came together about the traffic cone. The second issue is about the folding chair. It’s tall page size draws attention to the magazine or book as a folded object. The contents include everything from a written personal essay to numerous inserts folded into the magazine, such as a silkscreen insert printed with a pattern of Charles and Ray Eames and the pieces of an Eames chair laser-cut into it, ready for the reader to pop out and construct. When taken as a whole, “Folding Chair” engages the reader in a noticeably physical, modular meditation about the folding chair, the rapport our bodies have with made objects, and how ideas become built things. “For us it was about making an object that forced the viewer to deal with it as an object,” Bowden explained. “In the process, you’re given the chance to reconsider banal objects that we all take for granted.”

Essays like these also have the ability to use the visual and material potential of language. It’s partly out of this ability that language operates as it does in Hextych I, an essay that I published in TriQuarterly Online in 2011. The essay is eight pages long, with each page as a kind of digital photomontage fusing prose and photographs. Taking cues from Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, the writing’s content is a banal experience I had abroad rewritten according to eight obstructions: metaphor, retrograde, synchesis, and so on. The photographs are a series about surfaces (two graffitied walls, a store window, mannequins); they relate to the text but don’t illustrate it. Formally, the writing is left in fairly typical manuscript formatting. When forced to share a visual frame with photographs, writing has to be read semantically as well as visually. Depending on how your eye is focused, the pages looks like sentences or words set against vague color or like photographs set against blurred dark gray lines. It’s an optical trick I borrowed from Isidor Isou’s Self-Portrait, which essays similarly and frankly more masterfully than my piece does. This optical effect; the theme of surfaces in the photograph’s content; and the iterative, Formalist prose together form an argument about, among other things, the visual and material presence of all language, even manuscripts. This is also essayed in the page size and paper type. I designed the essay for 8.5 x 11”, a typically literary (“text”) size, but one that’s close to 8 x 10”, a standard size for photographs (“images”). Instead of printing the essay on forty-pound printer paper, I used glossy, archival photographic paper cut to size. The paper type calls for them to be read as photographs while the paper size suggests them as pages. Ultimately they have to be read as both, arguing as they do that the distinction between text and image, between writing and photography or writing and design or writing and book art, isn’t always so clear, and there’s compelling essayistic work that can happen in the elision or even confusion of the two.

Essays like these often aren’t so obviously announced. They’re “arguments by way of being” to borrow an idea from essayist and poet Steve Kuusisto. It’s an attempt by way enacting, by demonstration. Along with the importantly typographic Trench Town Rock by Kamau Brathwaite, Mallarme’s A Roll of the Dice is anthologized in The Lost Origins of The Essay. In “The Designed Essay (Design As Essay),” Ander Monson highlights the role that visuality, typography, and design can have in the essaying. Monson’s essay was first given as a lecture in 2007; D’Agata’s anthology came out in 2009. In 2016, it still feels worth highlighting that essays of this sort—tricky and troublesome as they can be—are still a part of our origins as well as our contemporary practices. Essays like Mallarme’s A Roll of the Dice and Marcel Broodthaer’s A Roll of the Dice; Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Jenny Holzer’s Dust Paintings; Richard Kostelanetz’s Autobiographies and Francesco Cangiullo’s Caffe Concerto; Ander Monson’s Letters to a Future Lover and Susan Howe’s Kidnapped; El Lissitzky & Vladimir Mayakovsky’s For the voice and Raoul Hausmann’s kp’erioum; FT Marinetti’s Le soir,… and Theo van Doesburg & Cornelis van Eesteren’s Contra-constructions; Wolfgang Weingart’s NR. 4 and Joseph Kosuth’s Art; Wladyslaw Strzeminski & Julian Przybos’ From above; Kamau Brathwaite’s Trench Town Rock and Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down; Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Amelia Bird’s Walden Marginalia; WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Mel Bochner’s Misunderstandings; Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrams and Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box; Jenny Boully’s The Body and Jen Bervin’s Dickinson Composite Series; Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Lala Essaydi’s Converging Territories series; Glenn Ligon’s Invisible Man (Two Views) and Hannah Hoch’s Pretty Girl; Johannes Itten & Friedl Dicker’s Utopia: Documents of Reality and Blaise Cendrars & Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s La prose transsiberien; Isidor Isou’s Self-Portrait and Ben Van Dyke’s Untangle Me; Helen Rubinstein’s “Are You My Mother?” and Emily Rials’ “Sic Ait;” Tricia Treacy, Ashley John Pigford, et. al.’s ghost and Joan Linder’s Project Sunshine; Aaron Flint Jameson’s Veneer Magazine and Rudy VanderLans & Zuzana Licko’s Émigré; Anne Carson, Bianca Stone, & Robert Currie’s Antigonick and Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen to make a partial list.

Essays like these pose a unique set of issues. One glaring issue is publication. It’s difficult to publish essays like these in literary journals or presses because the visual and material choices (page size, font style, paper, and coloration) of journals and presses are often predetermined. Though, there are a growing number of literary journals that will consider them and publish them, placing them online if need be. A related issue is “aura.” Essays like these are often printed in closed editions, if not existent as the only copy. Which means it can be difficult to access them; more expensive to purchase them; and somewhat disappointing to reproduce them in journals or anthologies. In other words, they suffer the same ills as many paintings, sculptures, and installations. Though, with a little effort, essays like these can often be tracked down in a special collections library or book arts center, an art gallery or a museum. In a number of cases, worthwhile, affordable, and faithful reproductions exist. To make them more tenable in academic dialogues, the writing workshop model can be fused with the model of art-studio critique and vice-versa. In other words, their auras make things difficult, annoying even, but not impossible. One final issue worth pointing out is skillset. Essays like these call for the craft of literary and visual art, which are usually done by two different people. Collaboration between writers and designers or book-makers or installation artists is one possibility. Another is for the essayist or designer/bookmaker/artist to tackle both on her own, a cross-training or fused practice that’s becoming more and more common. On the writing side, design is more possible than ever. “…if we have the tools—and we do have the tools, even in lowly overdetermined Word or more powerful software like InDesign—why not wield them ourselves?” Ander Monson rightfully pointed out in his “The Designed Essay” back in 2007, and I’d add that in the 2010s, it’s easier than ever on the production side to make letterpressed, archival prints or digital, perfect-bound books, oversized broadsheets or large-format prints, 3-D-printed sculptures or whatever form an essayist might conceive of.

This is surprisingly conventional, Montaignean even. Whenever I think about essays like these, I think about Montaigne and that question he kept asked, “Que-sais je? It’s a question that Montaigne’s essays ask again and again about their particular subject matter (thumbs, cannibals, monstrous children), but his essays also asked that question—“What do I know?”—of the essay itself. In Montaigne’s own case, the boundary between literary and philosophic writing, between his essais and the work of other Early Modern philosophers like Descartes and, later, John Locke and George Berkeley. It’s Montaigne’s attempting to see the breadth of how essaying can be done that I think of when considering essays like those mentioned above. I take his questioning as instructive in my approach to the genre and my approach to distinctions between the essay and design; creative writing and visual art; text and image. In my grappling to figure the essay out, I find myself not wanting to define or at least not wanting to define it fully because it’s that edge of uncertainty—it’s that question, Que-sais je?—that keeps the essay from becoming too unified or homogeneous or still, helping it remain in what, for me as a maker, is the essay’s natural state: a state of attempting and motion, questioning and discovery, experiment and flux.


Joshua Unikel is the co-editor of Beyond Category: A Hybrid Forms Special Issue of Seneca Review and the assistant editor of Seneca Review. His work has appeared in The Journal, TriQuarterly Online, Fugue, Sonora Review, The Normal School, [PANK], kill author, and other journals and has been shown in the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Griffith University Art Gallery: Brisbane, DesignPhiladelphia, and elsewhere. He has lectured on literary and visual art at Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Oregon, Michigan State University, Stony Brook Manhattan, The Open Book Workshop, AWP 2014, and NonfictioNow 2015. He has an MFA in creative writing from The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and an MFA in visual art from The University of Buffalo’s Department of Art.

Note: This essay is adapted from a lecture given as part of the panel “Of Visual Essayistics” at NonfictioNow 2015 in Flagstaff, AZ.