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Nick Thurston

The thought figure of the “illegible” binds a funny paradox. To be present, it has to register in some way(s) as the opposite of its conceptual identity – it has to work against its own negational value to work at all. For some, that is how sublation works; for others, it is a more negative dialectical resolution. Either way, if we do put it to work with and against itself, the concept of illegibility can allow us to organise modes and experiences of – plus experiments and performances with – acts of paying attention to things in the world that would likely otherwise go unread.

That was the broad impetus of this special issue: To imagine, in a scholarly or para-scholarly fashion, what we could explore, as writers and artists, if we took seriously the potential poetics of illegibility as a weird sub-category of the legible. With equal interest in technical and theoretical innovations, the following articles address issues of translation, transformation, feeling and “storying” the reading experience; of new and renewed trajectories in essayism, conceptualism, collaboration and the evaluation of style; and of redaction, glitches, automation and inattention. They do so with a reflexive willingness to read too closely, against norms, in a range of projects that are suggestive of ambitious new literacies.

With the title and intent of his 2003 monograph, American poet-critic Craig Dworkin staked the proposition that the present collection extends: “In short, the basic thesis of this book is ██████████.” Following his lead, in different ways, the contributors have been willing to invert the hierarchy of responsibility we normally assume when we dismiss things in the world as “illegible.” Their work deftly shows that the limits of legibility at any one time in human history are adduced from the horizons of our abilities and willingness to read, not from any fault, block, or lack on the part of worldly stuff.


Poésie de Mots Inconnus, 1949, Paris, Edités par Le Degré 41

Johanna Drucker

Poèsie des Mots Inconnus (1949) was an anthology of early 20th century experimental visual and sound poetry. Edited by the poet-printer-artist Ilia Zdanevich, (a.k.a. Iliazd), the anthology may be the first compendium of 20th-century radical avant-garde work. Produced in response to a challenge by the founder of Lettrisme, Isidore Isou, the book demonstrated the range, richness, and variety of work done by pioneering figures in Dada, Futurism, and Modern poetics. The book is an artist’s publication, with typographic and graphic virtuosity in every contribution, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Velimir Khlebnikov, Raoul Hausmann and more than a dozen other prominent figures.


Translation, Multilingualism, and the New Regimes of Attention

Michael Cronin

Attention is now the most valuable economic commodity in the digital age. Capturing people’s attention in a crowded media space has become more and more problematic. In a multilingual world an economics of attention is confronted with the necessity of translation in order to gain people’s attention in different languages which is precisely the rationale of the worldwide localization industry. But is a notion of attention without value sustainable? In this article we will argue that attention is inextricably bound up with value and that formulating a new ecology of attention in a multilingual world means looking again the ethical orientation of translation in a globalized world.


André Hodeir and the Music Essay

John Mowitt

Illegibility would appear to restrict its practical and theoretical challenges to objects typically approached through the work of reading, for example, texts. But with the expansion of textuality since the 1960s the challenge of illegibility has likewise intensified. This study of the “music essay” of André Hodeir responds by attempting to think carefully about what is legible in the essay: a life, an encounter between a person and a public, the technical mediation of this encounter? Drawing on Gilbert Simondon’s concept of the “technical object,” especially as it bears on the passage of the essay from image (print) to sound (phonography), this study brings the concept of improvisation into intimate contact with a generically illegible account of the essay form.


Photogram, Phoneme, Ph. . .ontology

Garrett Stewart

In reading as well as film viewing, the illegible is not so much the cancellation as the constitution of the legible, where the rudimentary element is the time-based increment. Just as phonemes, in the “exposure time” of reading, disappear into morphemes, so photograms on the film strip disappear in projection to generate pictured movement out of mechanical motion. Halting this latter process is the conceptual premise of French artist Eric Rondepierre, one logic of whose photo/filmic work culminates in his turn-of-the-millennium Livre series, superimposing streaks of micrographic text onto magnified images of film strips held up against out-of-focus photographs related to those illegible textual striations that hover above them.


Diana Hamilton

This article focuses on the move between William Burroughs' two trilogies, in order to argue that we can read the stylistic effects of the cut-up method even where it's not actually implemented. Reading this shift against similar movements in the work of John Ashbery and Robert Rauschenberg, it opens a broader argument for the need to read for "style" – and for the micro and macro-level phenomena that help make it up – even in works that seem designed to eschew style's coherence. Ultimately, it considers the way style functions almost mechanically, operating on a text without the author's instruction. 


A Project

Kate Briggs

“Story the Story in It” tells the story of an ongoing reading, writing and research project which uses eye-tracking technology to record the first-time reading of a short story by Henry James, titled “The Story in It” (1902). The visual records this produced serve as the starting point for a series of reflections on the story itself, the difficulty of James’s sentences, the physiology of reading and the idiosyncratic paths we make through texts, as well as materials to generate further writing. The story told is one of reading, of trying to catch hold of reading, and then reading the record of reading in order to make something new – in an effort to locate the place where the actions of reading become (or are already) writing.


Rèading †ex† and Codè as a Plaÿ of $pacés

Matt Applegate

This article interrogates both visual and linguistic functions of text-based glitch art. It offers a brief history of aesthetic forms that precede text-based glitch art (art-typing and ASCII art), the coding scheme that manifests it (Unicode), and theorizes glitch art's irruptive power as a novel language of digital design.


Stephen Voyce

Reading the Redacted examines the prevalence of redaction in twenty-first-century art, literature, and popular culture. Artists and writers such as Jenny Holzer, Mariam Ghani, Trevor Paglen, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and Philip Metres work to disrupt and trouble these markings, specifically where one finds them in the State’s official history of records. In so doing, this paper argues that redaction shares a complex symbolic economy of meaning with black ops, black sites, and black budgets, terms that name acts of unacknowledged violence by state and corporate actors exercising undo power over the management, economy, and representation of war.


On (Post-)Conceptual Writing

Luke Skrebowski

Can we speak of “contemporary literature” in an emphatic sense of both terms? In order to frame this question developments in recent art theory are discussed since it is here that the issue of “the contemporary” has been staged most insightfully. The broader problematic of “contemporary literature” is subsequently approached by means of a close consideration of conceptual writing which claims to have updated literature by integrating a series of conceptualist artistic strategies into it. As such, it stands as a particularly appropriate site for a reckoning of the relations between the arts after the opening of the expanded field in the later twentieth century.