University of Illinois at Chicago
Masters Thesis
with expert advice from Philip Burton and Daniel Sauter.

Excerpts from this book were published in Data Flow.

co-ordinates of known copies:
JvE Library;
UIC School of Art and Design MFA archive;
1618 N Humboldt, Blvd, Chicago;
Philip Burton;
Daniel Sauter
image / text index

Reading Machine: a Crypto-typography

Hidden Letters, Abstract Machines

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I wonder whether I am the only person who has actually read this book.

Despite its once-upon-a-time popularity, despite its numerous reprintings and citations, it is difficult to imagine this "brilliant and influential textbook" ever being very widely read or seriously studied. Its real use in the forties and fifties, one might speculate, was as a coffee table book of modern art reproductions, and as a signifier, to those in the know, of a certain modernist visual sensibility. But trying to read the book today is a confounding and disorienting experience. Though this is the longest sentence in the book, it is typically and breathlessly circular:

One experiences space when looking at an articulated two dimensional surface mainly because one unconsciously attempts to organize and perceive the different sensations induced by the optical qualities and measures as a whole and in so doing is forced by the various qualities in their relationships to each other and to the picture surface to impute spatial meaning to these relationships [20].

In the face of this esoteric language, it might be concluded that the book, in the simultaneously deluxe and prosaic materiality of its cloth-bound 8.5 by 11 inch pages, functioned more as an artifact, as a coded cultural object, than as a text. Perhaps its foreign sound today reflects a historical change in the structure of our reading-attention; perhaps as the fortunes of modernism in design and the arts have wavered, so too has our ability to read its artifacts. But the book nonetheless persists, despite its difficulty and diminished popularity, its numerous copies lying dormant in libraries and used-book stores, as kinds of talismanic objects of that modernist cult of vision which engenders today such ambivalent responses.

I am trying, for reasons that are not altogether clear, to read this darkened artifact. It beckons, ghostly and authoritatively, from its heroic and interrupted modernist past. Compelled, I have exhumed the book and pass my eyes from page to page across its hermetic surface. Reading it is a powerfully dislocating experience. The ground of Kepes’s argument is ever shifting, becoming by turns impossibly precipitous, or roundabout and repetitive —mazelike, self-enclosing and then at once mystified, dissolved in its insistence on ever wider frames of reference. Words and phrases hypnotically repeat through the text, self-allusively. Some special vocabulary or code is being elaborated, an encryption is being performed, and yet the meaning of these repeating phrases —picture plane, plastic forces, potent device, sovereign automatism— seems always to slip through proverbial fingers, fugitive from a fixed or everyday reference.

The manner of the writing is surprisingly inept. Grammatical particles “the” and “a” are often forgotten, or else omitted in the urgency of delivering his newly researched visual theorems to a mass audience. Kepes’s book, in fact, often reads like a bad translation, though it was written in English (his first language was Hungarian). —Or like a hack-job, in the style of a hurried pot-boiler for the hypothetical masses, for that mass of new workers in the field of commercial design, which Walter Benjamin had foreseen and which the postwar economic boom was about to open. Yet what layman, let alone design specialist, from Dessau or Chicago, could grasp the esoteric content of this textbook, the language of this Language of Vision? Everything which makes this book a text —the style of writing, the typographic design, the structure of exposition— is seemingly neglected.

But the book, despite its resistance to reading, has stubbornly persisted, since 1995 in a super-cheap Dover republication which exactly and unabridgedly reproduces the original design of the 1944 Theobald edition. The book, interestingly, has also resisted a redesign; its clunky integration of image and text would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to redraw. Dover is bound for this reason to exactly reproduce the book, and to petrify the awkward look of its original. But in a larger historical sense, this formal preservation of the book has failed to canonize its discourse. The text has not come to define the terms of a knowledge or practice —a discipline or discourse in Foucault’s sense— as has, say, Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture. Despite Kepes’s academic entrenchments, at the Institute of Design and later at MIT, the book has not attracted to itself any substantial scholarly or critical apparatus, though significant academic references to it continue to be made.4 But it remains in print, an artifact repeated and repeatable in an inalterable format —ambivalently seminal, a void or cipher in the path of the contemporary designer, its distant, postmodern offspring.

Language of Vision is at once both a popular and hermetic artifact, and it might be in this apparent contradiction that its peculiar significance resides. Its highly circulated mystifications speak most clearly, from our postmodern perspective, as a symptom. That is, the apparent communication failure of this belated and transplanted Bauhausian document could be read as rigorously symptomatic of that commonplace of the postmodern art historian: it is precisely the text which is lost in, excluded or nullified by, the formal enclosures of modernism’s visual universe. Language of Vision then is an enduring example of what happens when the inherently non-verbal and foundational “language” of modernism tries to convert itself to a text. Indeed we might further theorize that it is by means of this exclusion that the margins of Kepes’s picture plane are etched. And it is here that a psychoanalytic detour could open: the field of Kepes’s vision can be read as structured like the unconscious, in which “an absurd rationality,” that modernist authoritarian logic of the visual, prohibits but cannot completely contain the exigencies and heterogeneities of its other, its unconscious, which for Kepes as Lacan turns out to be language, or textuality. Indeed this is a post-structuralist path, already blazed,6 which this reading may follow —or a depth (taking up the Freudian figure), a hidden content of the text, which a contemporary reading might seek to excavate.

But while the book’s textual opacity may enact the well-documented modernist gap between the visual and the linguistic, it nonetheless demands a closer reading, an intervention in its hermetic field. Reading it today, in Chicago, mere miles from its literal origin, yet at some vast and unspecifiable distance from its modernist Gestaltung, the book issues an undeniable challenge. It asks, if not to be read in the usual sense, then somehow unlocked, decoded and put into play, made intelligible, resuscitated from its mystifying sleep.

But to answer, some new reading practice must be devised, the tactics of close reading somehow transfigured. How? To begin, this text must become electronic, inputted from page to screen, letter by letter (—arduously, despite the efforts of Google and the utopian claims of Kevin Kelly.) With all the search and computation tools uniquely available to this newly remade electronic text, I can begin to analyze it, and lay bare its secret structure. From its beginning to end, I annotate in its margins every sub-chapter in an attempt to map its flat and twisting argument. I underline words; I build lists and compile the data of their recurrences. I want to see the repetitions of the text’s insistent metaphors (the military, the biological, the linguistic), to chart their frequencies and hidden contiguities. As the words and the data accrue, I begin to feel the anxiety of the librarian in Borges’s Babel, hunting vainly for that crystalline algorithm, for that vindication of my searching and counting, among a seeming infinity of patterns of word recurrences and combinations.

And this is the critical point, the impasse at which my reading becomes graphic, and my exegesis must become visual. This text requires a new hermeneutics, a new line of reading, the apparatus for which is not conventionally available. I am called to devise a new reading-writing apparatus for visualizing meaning; I am constituted as a typographic subject by the text’s mysterious conflation of the verbal and visual. It is the point of this project, this speculative reading-through-typography, to electronically construct exactly (wildly, difficulty) such a machine.

The more I read through the book’s repetitions and obstructions, trying to get a handle on its argument and style —the more I begin to delineate the invisible extensions running through its self-allusive verbal structure— the more nearly I begin to develop a visual sense of its own oblique thematic rhythm. An experience of meaning detectably takes shape in my attention as a living fiber of unconscious response [209] or, even, as a concrete image of the surrounding event [210] of the research and reading I am doing around it, the books and electronic pages I am collecting and arranging in relation to this concrete artifact.

Moving through the text, marking its every impasse and cross-reference, coaxed further by the intermittent brilliance of its aphorisms —the picture plane became like a stretched membrane [121]; the machine [which] man operates adds its own demand for a new way of seeing [176] —the sense of a deeper theme of struggle begins to materialize, of some sub-rational battle of form in which the very life of the human organism is at stake. The contours of this reading elliptically form as hints or indexical traces, implicit: as a meaning-form produced by some mysterious mechanism, by something like that machine, perhaps, beloved and feared by the avant-garde, which, as Kepes wrote, could not be figured in the old manner and demanded a new mode of representation. —The machine which could only leave the trace of its process on the art which took it for its subject. The machine is the fountain of inspiration, not only in its surface qualities and exterior shapes but also in its principle of construction. Lines, planes, and forms are combined in a new, dynamic interconnection, transparent and interpenetrable [115]. This text, Kepes’s, is like that machine, perhaps; but a linguistic machine, which he was unable to acknowledge or theorize. To track its procedures, to map its mechanism and grasp its meaning, requires that I somehow learn to operate it.

I am called, again. I am compelled to intervene in this machinery, to short-circuit its placid textual surface and atomize its discourse, so that Language of Vision might be reconstituted itself as a plastic image, at once visual and discursive. Taking that fundamental optical unit as a tool, what new impact of the line might be possible in this operation, what page or what book —in which textuality, as typography and data, electronically breaks the static surface of its printed artifact to crystallize as a new figure of literary meaning?


I draw, first, a series of lines. Making notational incisions in the screens and pages of Language of Vision, I bring to the surface those words which appear to bear some special weight of the text’s peculiar thematic code. In the identification of this vocabulary a second typographic surface is articulated, which warps against the first passive and opaque surface of the text.

The lines, as I begin, are underlines. As marks for rereading, they are meant as signposts of paths not yet foreseen in their extent, as rudimentary notations of some as yet unspecifiable meaning —as the just detectable shadow, perhaps, of that hidden depth or basis of signification which I am trying to locate within the text. I am trying, that is, to make a reading of Language of Vision, and the line beneath the word is the first mark of orientation for a reader adrift in the uniform sheets of the book’s cascade of cryptic sentences.

But making the lines, in advance of what is ordinarily called understanding, a new and radically visual mode of reading begins to formalize. As my eye and hand scan the text to delineate patterns of repetition and modulations of vocabulary, wild and eccentric visual structures advance from the rectangular blocks of text. As these reader’s lines intersect and develop an increasing density, they begin to form unique surfaces. Some new structure of meaning, some new complicating horizon, develops through the lines in the electronic plane of the page, exactly in the place of that discursive exchange which is ordinarily the constitutive promise of any text meant for reading. This exchange of communication had been curiously and rigorously short-circuited in my reading of Language of Vision. And the almost biologically diverse typographic surfaces which bend and grow in the place of this failure begin, remarkably, to exhibit the formal behaviors which Kepes had described (redundantly, precisely, esoterically) on the non-linguistic surface: forms of integration and relation, of interruption and difference, of equivocation, contradiction, and, above all, in the accrual of the process, enclosure and opening.

The points of vocabulary which have structured these linear surfaces register the submerged thematic struggle which seems to be at the heart of Kepes’s text: the coercion and resistance, the formal and figuratively biological drama of a force and counterforce being enacted within the two dimensions of the picture field. Words like order, control, dictate, compel, law, and chain appear to unconsciously proliferate through the book’s description of the modalities of optical experience. (I discover these words in my own speech. I am compelled to repeat them and this writing, too, finds itself subject to their power.) This vocabulary imparts to Kepes’s argument an often uneasy authoritarian resonance, but one that is mitigated in the nearly equal repetitions of oppose, resist, liberate, and break. Somewhere, I guess, in the dialectic of this equivocal vocabulary lies the elusive ideological content of the modernist language of vision: the mortal struggle in the optical unit —the line, the point, the plane —between a forced compliance with, and its individual aggression against, an ever-widening frame of reference.

This is the contradiction which Kepes narrates over and over again throughout the 228 pages of his book, the anxious prisoner of its logic. It is born in that revolutionary moment of the avant-garde, in which the frame of reference is elevated to the surface of the optical units which are its contents, and in which the frame thereby becomes itself a figure, thus creating a visual logic which is emphatically non-empirical or referential. Its abstract terrain is inscribed, as Kepes tells the story, from Mondrian’s canvases to Paul Rand’s advertisements. And it is in this formalizing moment that the picture plane or surface is transformed, in the startlingly apt words of Rosalind Krauss, into a map of the logic of relations and a topology of self-containment.8 This is the flattened and tautological field which Kepes bewilderingly elucidates. And it is within this field —the synoptic order of modernist vision— that my conjectural typography seeks to discover a latent depth, to excavate and to open to the text, to a literal language of vision.

Other words, too, in intuitive thematic consonances, seem to belong to this language and begin to come to the surface in my experiment. I devise a list of all the words which echo at that depth of metaphor or code which I still am not able to fully fathom. I cannot say precisely why I am compelled to mark the words I mark. Words which appear to carry the text’s implicit narrative of control and command, but also words which, self-consciously or not, imply a hidden linguistic structure for optical form —especially those words like articulate, condense, reference, and contradiction, whose extension so naturally moves past the margins of the linguistic as such. The more I follow this process, bound to its logic, etching lines which dance and march through the text, building and erasing the textual horizon, the more words I begin to read as belonging to the code I am delineating. —Words, especially, which seem to name or imply my own developing graphic reading process: line, surface, research, path, apparatus, technique. —Words in Language Of Vision strangely prescient of the intervention I have been brought to perform. The vocabulary which is thus being assembled appears indeed to be a family of some sort, but the resemblances between the words do not straighten themselves to yield a hierarchy or class of definitions. From this widening set, intuitively marked, I narrow the words down to those whose signification in the field of the text have sufficient force, i.e. those words which are repeated at least once.

This vocabulary, condensed from all the words my experimental line has located and in the order the words appear in the text, is printed below.


This is the list, the beginnings of the index from which I will deduce or invent, from which I will rewrite the book within this book, the visually coherent meaning or graphic which subsists in implicit systems between the lines of this unfathomable text —the hidden letter, so to speak, in the Language of Vision.

It is the dream, or the insistent demand, of this typographic reading that in the course of its transformations, the deepest thematic undercurrents of Kepes’s text might begin to find a legible surface and become reconstituted as typographic form. —That the agon of repressions and eccentricities which obliquely structure Kepes’s modernist discourse might somehow emerge and crystallize as pure cartographic coordinates. But this highly symptomatic demand (from where does it spring?) that the formal operation mirror the text’s discursive content, that the lines of the typographic surface referentially connect to some deeper thematic or ideological stratum, goes largely unanswered. Rather, meaning is a surplus which obliquely accrues in this typographically articulated field. And, in the most significant inference of this investigation, it is the resignation of this dream of transparent reference which in turn conditions a second dream: of a formal automatization of meaning, of an opening of a further and lateral field of signification. It is in this second field that these hypothetical screens and pages begin to find their curves and angles, their intersections, depth and weight.


What has been thus far overlooked in Kepes’s text is its eventual insistence on the social meaning of the plastic image. —Or, more profoundly and problematically, on the plastic character of social meaning. This last frame of reference, which is the subject of the third and final section of Language of Vision, is the ultimate defining limitation for those formal orders which until now have taken place within the narrower limits of the two-dimensional picture-plane. Society, history, culture —these larger, more chaotic domains of experience— must, according to Kepes, be somehow reformulated as “concrete fields” of social forces, as social fields constructed, by analogy, in the terms of the language of vision. The heterogeneities of social and cultural meaning thus become, in this evocative dilation, the final context and content of Kepes’s super-rational and nonlinguistic topology.

And it is in this spirit, along this widening and difficult trajectory, that we move from a typographic inscription of the self-allusive and self-enclosed depth of Kepes’s text, outwards —towards a second text beyond it. The typographic experiment this essay has imagined will thus open its own frame of reference, to finally include a text which is outside of the literal margin of Language of Vision, but to which that text is linked in the larger contingent formation of history.

In July 1945, less than a year after the publication of Language of Vision, Vannevar Bush published “As We May Think” in the Atlantic Monthly, a groundbreaking article that imagined what he called the memex (short for “memory extender”). The memex, in his formulation, is an information retrieval machine made up of linking mechanisms, which would help scholars and researchers organize by cross-references what was already perceived as an overwhelming abundance of information. The historical coincidence of this publication with Language of Vision provides a basis from which to speculate on the vision of language, on the possibilities of discursive formalization, which they share.

First it should be stated how remarkably prescient of hypertext and of the world wide web was Bush’s theorization of the memex machine. He was able somehow to conceive the multiple path structure of linked texts before the advent of digital technology and hypertext transfer protocol. His speculative memex is built, incredibly, from machine parts and microfilm. It is a photographic machine, manipulated by levers and housed in a giant desk. Walter Benjamin observed that in every art form’s history there are critical periods in which that art aspires to effects which can be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard.9 Whether or not this observation is true for the history of science in the same way as art, Bush’s memex is a singular example of this technical over-reaching, precisely in that hybrid domain of art and science that is design (and to which, to strengthen our comparison, the discourse of Language of Vision also belongs. Indeed, it is in his merging of the figures of the artist and scientist that Kepes remains such an interesting exemplar.)

In the light the memex casts, of the precipitating relation of forms of art and design to changing technical standards (one which inverts the ordinary conception), the larger question can be raised of the extent to which Kepes’s language of vision, his theorization of plastic experience, is dependent upon technologies of printing and of the book. If we acknowledge, as Kepes himself did, the close, formative relationship of aesthetic and formal categories to their specific technological conditions, we might begin to see differently Kepes’s machine-age formalism. We might, that is, begin to see the partiality, the technological specificity, of those Gestaltian totalizations which continue, though faintly, to make their demands. And we might, in a more profound inference, begin to imagine what new world of form (a world with new laws formed out of the new relations [19]) is coming into clarity in the contemporary technological conditions of electronic textuality. The citation in the last sentence, from Language of Vision, to elucidate the digital and electronic technologies with which we have been obsessed for the last ten or more years, adds a further wrinkle, which Benjamin had recognized, to the historical lines which are being traced here. We might wonder that is: In what sense does Kepes’s text unconsciously anticipate that structure of textuality through which today we read and experience texts in the world wide web?

What is imagined at the close of this exegetical and typographic experiment, is the literal discovery, within the text of Language of Vision, of every word of Vannevar Bush’s theorization of the memex. And what this discovery reveals is that the memex’s incipient hypertextuality is already embedded within Kepes’s discursive universe. This is the fact which this formal cryptography demonstrates, though equivocally —there are words like memex which cannot be found anywhere in Kepes’s text, and these gaps in translation make their own signification.

In what sense is ontological hypertext precisely that occluded, unconscious interior which garbles and mystifies Kepes’s discourse? Indeed the transcoding project which this essay finally proposes is an attempt to dislodge and entangle the historical unities of the “language of vision” and hypertext. In retrofitting Kepes’s text to a form of textuality composed of blocks and links that permits multilinear reading paths,10 we might discover —again— an abstract “language”, a distinctive set of formalizations, with which to map a correspondence that is in no sense intentional. —A congruency which subsists beyond the domain of the authoring subject Gyorgy Kepes, and which belongs rather to that deeper structure of history and technology which thereby becomes the true subject of this experiment. Kepes wrote that the crystal-clear formulation of plastic order serves as a mirror [122] of larger social realities, and it is the wager of this essay that, in the clarity and complication of the typographic orders which intricate the memex within Kepes’s book, a trans-technical and trans-historical structure of meaning is visually indexed. —A language of form, an abstract machine, which swallows historical realities and transforms them into networks, lines, diagrams.11

The formats and formal actions —the typography— which could hypothetically be written as a mark-up script can, in this experiment, subsist non-linguistically as a set of markers, i.e. as a visual structure. Here, in brief, is the program:

—Search all of Language of Vision (a) for the words of “As We May Think” (b), excluding pronouns, relative pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, and the verb to be, unless those words form part of a multi-word group which occurs in a.
—If a word or word group from b is found in a, annotate each, beginning with the number one.
—If a word in b is not being searched for in a (according to criteria above), set in grey.
—If a multiple word group from b is found in a, underline that word group.
—If a word in b is not found in a, italicize that word.
—Incrementally erase a to reveal per screen the paragraph, sentence, and phrase to which the annotated word belongs. Lines stand in place of erased text.
—Erase these surrogate lines according to the edge of the annotation in a.

Following from this typographic program, the event of each word-search is the formation of a linear network, of lines which bind and link the words which the two texts share, constantly seeking connections but always without crossing. In this formal play of annotated linking —the constitutive function of hypertext— unique visual structures emerge on every page, as provisional indexical tracings of the hidden correspondences between the two historically coincident landmark design texts. I have seen these structures: they cannot be quite put into words.

Throughout this essay the ideal of an autonomous formalization, or what I have called the second dream of typographic discursivity, has been imagined —tested and intimated, but never fully materialized. The ineluctable reverberation of this ideal provides the most fundamental theoretical ground for Kepes’s text —the non-linguistic rationalist basis of visual meaning— as well as one of the most prescient, forward looking aspects of Vannevar Bush’s memex speculations: that the chains or trails of linked materials (texts, images, whatever) can themselves constitute the order, the semantic definitiveness, of scholarly writing. Writing in this sense becomes a formalization whose structure is essentially visual; and we are returned perhaps to that very modernist abstraction or reconstitution of the linguistic in the visual which Kepes’s title has so authoritatively phrased.

At the finish it is clear that this speculation has in fact simply intimated a system, marked its shadow or revealed its possibility. It makes its final reference (endlessly) in a call for an edition in which to materialize it.