Help with a study abroad course: politics and type

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Fellow Typophiles, only you can help!

Teaching faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign can propose courses for study abroad. For a long time, I've wondered how to reconcile professionally my vocation as a political theorist with my avocation for type and typography, and I thought: this might finally be it.

I want to send our study abroad office a proposal for a three-week course in Europe on the politics of type/type design/typography, and/or the typography (etc.) of politics--something that might combine politics, history, graphic arts, industrial design, and so on. These short courses are available to all UIUC students, so there would likely be a mix of liberal arts and fine arts students taking part, most of them in their first or second years of school. The earliest this course could happen would be over winter break, from just after Christmas through the first couple weeks of the New Year. The office would like proposals by the 17th for consideration for the 06-07 session, but I'd rather not rush things for this year if it means sending a bad proposal. On the other hand, the proposal itself doesn't require a full itinerary and accounting of all the logistics and arrangements; that would happen over the next few months, assuming the proposal was accepted.

So, why am I asking for your help?

1. Obviously, in a three-week course, you can't tackle every possible aspect of this sprawling topic, so I have to narrow it down pretty severely. I am mining Stanley Morison's Politics and Script, Robin Kinross's Modern Typography, and the Triumvirate for ideas, but there's not a lot in print I've found so far that makes this topic its main focus. So, I wonder: have any Typophiles taken or taught courses on this topic? What did you read? What topics did you cover? What were some of the more successful units that might stand alone as a three-week experience for students? I have thought of things like the history of the Romain du Roi, the discussion on the list last year about totalitarian typography, the politics involved in creating and disseminating different typographic technologies, and so on--but I think hearing your experiences and ideas would help me to narrow something down.

2. Where should we go? Most of these courses visit one city, but I bet as many as two or three cities within a an easy day's rail trip of one another would be acceptable, depending on the topic up for study. I would like to take students to Germany (since I speak the language and know something about the country), but obviously Belgium and the Netherlands would be excellent candidates, too, given the history of European type design. Museums (like the Plantijn-Moretus) would be a big draw, as would chances to visit schools of design or foundries. The students will more than likely only speak English.

3. Would anyone like to help--by inviting students to your office or school or local museum, by giving a talk or lecture or tour, by acting as a liaison between us and people who could help, whatever? There is almost certainly no money involved, but on the other hand, this is your chance to warp impressionable minds in a good direction, and it might take no more than a day of your time.

This could either be the greatest idea of my teaching career (it's not a high hurdle), or far too much for me to handle. I'd love your help in finding out which. Any and all ideas, reactions, and offers would be a great help.

George Horton's picture

Sorry Tiffany! It'd be a pretty odd thing for a historian to be confused on, what with the thousand years involved.

hrant's picture

> this sort of caricature gets nowhere

What's nonsense is pretending they were the same, or that it doesn't matter.

Compare? Now we're getting somewhere. Let's compare the myth of the hero who defeated the three brothers by injuring them by different amounts, then running away, so they would catch up with him at different times, and he would have a chance to win by fighting them one at a time instead of all at once (and he succeeded). To the Greeks that was a brilliant idea, to the Romans, dishonorable. The Roman way would have been to fight all three at once (and die, no problem). The two cultures are repleat with telling "valorizations" such as this.

But exceptions? And variances? Well duh.

> look at Sparta

Sparta lost.

> Even in lettering, the Romans were perfectly pragmatic

Relative to who? Maybe the Bauhaus... Not relative to the Greeks, whose lettering was much more "loose" (and small) not least because they inscribed a lot more actual text: content, versus form. Greek lettering could even be called "sloppy"; as Catich points out a lot of times the strokes were single strikes of the chisel (and that's why they were more angular)! And take the famed Dipylon vase: is that ugly lettering or what?! Roman lettering is absolutist, Greek` pragmatic (that's a bit of Armenian punctuation there, sorry :-). And if you look at the example I posted, you can see the increase in severity, rigidity. This is exaclty absolutism at play. And OF COURSE I'm generalizing! Why? That's how the human brain works guys.


hrant's picture

Furthermore, it's comforting to see pragmatism alive and well in contemporary Greece. Take the drive between Halkidiki to Thessaloniki, and note how many lanes the highway has in each direction along most of its distance: one and a half ! And when you drive either a bit fast or a bit slow (something Greeks are liable to do) you realize the supreme pragmatic elegance of that solution. Can you imagine that in modern-day Ancient Rome, Western Europe?! They would simply keel over from the -human- complexity!


George Horton's picture

OK. And I agree on the latinizing of some Greek inscriptions; Greek was originally so different partly because it had no baseline or cap-height along which serifs would make sense. But for the Romans the severe and rigid style was just one option, and one much less commonly chosen than others like rustic caps, which were anything but severe. And Sparta won in Greece at least.

BradB's picture

chri1753: The ancient history here is not top quality.

BradB: The Romans pretty much copied everything Greek. I’m no historian, but wasn’t the common language Greek until about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, around which time Latin became the common language?

chri1753: Exactly the opposite is true. Latin was the language of the empire until the creation of the Roman Empire in the East, which we call Byzantine. ...

Latin may have been the official language of the Roman Empire, but it wasn't the language of the common people until the end of the Empire. Koine Greek was. I'm talking about the common language here, not the official language.

As I said, I'm no historian, so pardon the percieved inaccuracy.

The New Testament was written during the time of the Roman Empire (1st and 2nd century AD), and it was mostly (if not entirely) written in Greek. Sure, the Romans who occupied the Holy Lands at the time spoke Latin and Greek, but the people who actually lived there spoke Greek in business and Aramaic,at home. I suppose it's like now, in some places, in the US you have people who speak English at school or work and Spanish at home. That part of the world was and still is multilingual.

jlg4104's picture

While we're on the subject of history and language, one of my favorite words in grad school was "letteriturizazione," or "literaturization," referring to the transformation of rhetoric from an oral trade to a written discipline. Wonder how typography fits in there...?

Another fun word, and getting way off topic: "apocolocyntosis," or "pumpkinification." Title of a play by Seneca about the aftermath of Claudius' death.

hrant's picture

> Greek was originally so different

While I see the Roman as different, in effect breaking from the Ancient world.

And you've actually pointed out the most clear case of absolutism in the transition between the scripts: Everything Must Fit Between The Lines. The tail of the "Q"? Vestigal pragmatism; to be eventually dispensed with by the descendants of Rome.

> for the Romans the severe and rigid style was just one option

While tellingly the Ancient Greeks didn't even have that at all.

> Sparta won in Greece at least.

What? Athens survived Sparta. Sparta was felled by
disease (some say due to weakened genes resulting
from inbreeding) if I'm not mistaken.


BradB's picture

What's all this about absolutism and pragmatism?

hrant's picture

Yin/Yang, baby. Display/Text, Deliberation/Immersion,
Legibility/Readability, Expression/Servitude, Body/Mind,
Individual/Society, Fovea/Parafovea, Sans/Serif, ...
Two is everything is two.

You asked.


George Horton's picture

Kenneth Clarke got a sensational first by learning to automatically contrast by threes rather than twos, thus making his exam scripts 50% more complex than they would otherwise have been.

BradB's picture

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think there are only two kinds of people, and those who know there aren't.


Maurice Meilleur's picture


Thanks to all your suggestions, I got what I thought was a doable proposal in on time.

The proposal would take the students to Frankfurt for around three weeks, with side trips of one or a couple days to Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, and maybe other locations as well. The topic of the course will be the history of blackletter and German nationalism as a case study in constructing and projecting cultural identity in a multicultural world.

I want the typography to give students a window into the nature of cultural identity and nationalist (and eventually totalitarian) movements, how large political questions get fought out in venues that people (including direct participants) might not immediately identify as "political," and how our ideas about design, technology, and standards of clarity and communication are tangled up with political and cultural assumptions.

The committee reviewing the proposals will announce their decisions early next month. In the meantime, I'll be piecing together information about locations and resources to start a preliminary itinerary, in case my proposal is accepted.

In that case, I'll post the final proposal for your criticism and ideas. In the meantime, if you're within an easy day's journey of Frankfurt (we'd come to you) and would like to speak to these students about what you know: about the history of typography, about German nationalism, about any of the specific relevant periods of history mentioned in the discussion--or introduce them to resources to which you have access, or can put me in touch with such folks--as always, I'd appreciate hearing about it, on- or off-list.

dan_reynolds's picture

I didn't mention this in my e-mail to you, but depending on when your students will be in the area, announce your presence early enough and the Typostammtisch will schedule one of its meetings while you are in town.

jlg4104's picture

Good luck! I hope it passes. No matter how you slice it, it sounds like a great trip and a great opportunity for your students!

- Jay

Nick Shinn's picture

50% more complex

Surely, three times as complex?

George Horton's picture

Yes, if you allow for three generations of contrasts made.

hrant's picture

> Those who think there are only two kinds of people

Actually, I know that I don't know. :-)
I'm a Gorgias boy deep down.


Rob O. Font's picture

>so I have to narrow it down pretty severely.

Assuming that your course is tuned to the western hemisphere, I would choose the universal, cyclical and individually relevant topics: the struggle against religious monopoly, which you know about and can study at the Plantijn-Moretus; the struggle against political monopoly, I don't know what's at the Bauhaus, but there is certainly a wealth of written material about the Nazis and type; and the struggle against technological monopoly, which though considerably less dangerous to type folk than the previous two, is current and fresh enough to see wherever the court of the eternal Europe vs. Microsoft suit is being tried, and on any windows OS.

The interesting thing to me about this program is that if you want to move it around the world, from W. Europe, to what we call the Middle East, or to the the Far East, you can find the same three struggle topics, but the cast changes in the earliest two issues, religion and politics, while the third topic is of universal protagonists. There are not many books on these topics, but rather you have to find the nuggets where they've fallen in more general writings, and connect the dots yourself. There is, e.g. a single section in "Guns, Germs and Steel" that makes the point that a better title would be "Guns, Germs, Type and Steel" if he had time.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Well, after they waited far too long, I heard today from the powers that be that they aren't interested in this course. Bummer. Adding further to my displeasure is that in my positon here I don't have the resources or the institutional support to follow the idea up on my own.

Thanks to everyone who responded to my initial email and request. The discussion led me to some pretty good books I hadn't discovered yet, which is one the benefits of hanging out on sites like this one. You all were very helpful, and if I have the chance to retool the proposal in the future, you may hear from me again.

Why the rejection? The gist seems to be that the idea for the course was too advanced for the student audience, and not "multicultural" enough. I did try to argue in the proposal that one aspect of multiculturalism is how people try to resist it or transcend it, but no go.

jlg4104's picture

Ah, ya gotta love academe. Yes, I live there, too. The principles are often:

1. Assume the students are idiots, and treat them that way.

2. Cloak everything you do in the language of the latest pseudo-intellectual fad.

Could be you were just given a bogus rationale b/c somebody didn't want the money spent that way. Bogus rationales for short-sightedness and small-mindedness are what university administrations are all about!

Syndicate content Syndicate content