Material of Language (Schedule Spring 2021)

NOTE: Readings and topics are provisional and subject to change!

Syllabus here. Readings should be generally available on the web, unless otherwise indicated. Some readings will only be accessible when connected to an NYU network. Please contact me if you have trouble accessing any of the readings.

Please use this form to turn in your homework assignments.

Session 01: Digital writing from scratch

Date: 2021-01-29

Readings assigned

Pipkin gives a clear and friendly historical overview of character encoding. How might character encoding have turned out differently? Amiri Baraka and Ross Gay present different takes on writing interfaces. Consider the material of the tools you use for writing: where do those tools come from? What affordances do they have? What kinds of written artifacts do they produce? Scott Weingart talks in detail about digital materiality: how is text manipulated, contorted, reconstituted, constrained in the process of being digitized and transmitted electronically? Drucker gives an overview of different types of materiality on the page and argues that text is “an event, rather than an entity. The event is the entire system of reader, aesthetic object and interpretation – but in that set of relations, the ‘text’ is constituted anew each time.” Do you agree?


Session 02: Text encodings and glitch poetics

Date: 2021-02-05

Assignment #1

Due at the beginning of session 03.

Using the example code discussed in class, create a composition based on computational manipulation of data, either on a character-by-character or byte-by-byte basis.

Works and inspiration:

Session 03: Markup languages

Date: 2021-02-12

  • Homework presentations
  • History of computational layout (deck forthcoming)
  • Python: Interpolating strings

Readings assigned

To be discussed in session 04.

Beingessner’s article is an informative overview of the technology of text rendering, and how even the most straightforward kinds of text rendering are incredibly complicated. Can you think of kinds of text that would be impossible to render with a computer? Cearley claims that concrete poetry shows “where the words of the language fail.” Do you agree that “there are ideas which defy encapsulation in words”? What material aspects of concrete poetry can be deployed to carry out this encapsulation? Jhave’s article brings together a number of important image-oriented text works and argues that the synthesis of text and image into a new hybrid form is historically inevitable. Pick one of the works that Jhave cites and read about it in more detail. Do you agree with Jhave’s conclusions? Li writes extensively on his techninques for writing concrete poetry (in Chinese) and strategies that have been deployed to translate it (into English). Can you think of other kinds of text or particular examples of texts that similarly resist translation? Reed’s text explores Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet” as a limit case of concrete poetics, arguing that “in drawing attention to the ‘facticity’ of words” concrete poetry “suggests the possibilities of unsaying—speaking of the world and history without repeating the already said,” thereby enabling a unique form of witness.


Session 04: Programming concrete compositions

Date: 2021-02-19

Assignment #2

Due at the beginning of session 05.

R.P. Draper says that concrete poetry “is the creation of verbal artefacts which exploit the possibilities, not only of sound, sense and rhythm—the traditional fields of poetry—but also of … the two-dimensional space of letters on the printed page.” Imagine a concrete poetry that also exploits the possibilities of computation. Make use of the in-class example code or other computational tools.

Works and inspiration

Session 05: Writing as gesture and asemic writing

Date: 2021-02-26

Reading assigned

To be discussed in session 06.

Session 06: The computational asemic

Date: 2021-03-05

Assignment #3

Due at the beginning of session 07. Create a computer program that produces asemic writing. Your program should implement a system of rules that produce visual artifacts that imitate the motion of physical writing or suggest the appearance of written language.

More inspiration:

Session 07: Data-driven asemic writing

Date: 2021-03-12

Reading assigned

On fonts: what they are (Lehni), how they might come to be (Grießhammer), how they work (or don’t work; Nasser), how they’re designed (Shen).

Session 08: Fonts as data

Date: 2021-03-26.

Assignment #4

Due at the beginning of session 09. Extract shape information (or other information) from a font. Use this information to render text in an unexpected way.

Seesion 09: Machine learning and the letterform

Date: 2021-04-02.

Some works making use of typography and machine learning:

Reading assigned

Some works to know and think about:

Session 10: Language on the move and in response

Date: 2021-04-09.

Assignment #5

Due at the beginning of session 11. Take one of your previous assignments and make it interactive (with e.g. IPython widgets) and/or animated.

Session 11: Putting Python online

Date: 2021-04-16.

Session 12: Workshop

Date: 2021-04-23.

  • Clean-up day: anything we haven’t gone over yet or had to skip because of time limitations.
  • Final project workshop: Bring in a draft of your final project piece. We’ll workshop and review in groups.

Sessions 13 & 14: Final project presentations

Dates: 2021-04-30, 2021-05-07

  • Final project presentations.