Het Nieuwe Instituut Fellow Chris Lee’s project “Immutable: A Mineral History of Currency and Typography” researches how standards and documents function as instruments of state-making and colonial/ity/ism. In this essay he aims to make a case for admitting the document into the practical and theoretical imaginary of graphic design. Lee also presented his project at the Thursday Night Live event on 28 June 2018.
The document is a genre of graphic design that has largely escaped critical scrutiny by graphic designers despite its ubiquity and the profound consequentiality of its forms.
One of the aims of my research and work is to admit the document into the practical, theoretical and pedagogical imaginary of graphic design. It derives from “Immutable: A Mineral History of Currency and Typography,” a research project that I have undertaken that considers how documentary forms and standards operate as instruments of statecraft and colonialism. It ponders the mineral as a symbol and material, of power. This text’s aim is to help furnish graphic design discourse with concepts, language, formal and material references from which some design principles of immutability might be derived, and lead to the admission and understanding of the document more meaningfully as a critical genre of the discipline. Altogether, what is at stake is the recognition of the role played by documents—and the way that they are designed—in the negotiation and management of political relationships, as a means to charge graphic design with a political dimension.
Some background on my interest in documents:
My interest in documents began with a query into what makes money work. Framing my question through the lens of graphic design, I asked, What makes these bills in my wallet function as money? But not these pieces of paper upon which I have written exactly the same information? What constitutes the gap between an “official” (money) document, and my manual inscription (my documentary claim)? How does one entitle me to an amount of whatever is in the market, and not the other? Is this gap graphical? If so, what does it say about what graphic design is or does? Although it may be a naïve question, it continues to be a generative one.
Above a screenshot from a video that I refer to often to charge my question about the significance of documents. It went viral a few years ago and I think of it as a precursor to this emergent genre of YouTube videos that get people riled up about the violence of gentrification. In it, a group of 'tech bros' confront a group of youth in San Francisco’s Mission District over who is entitled to use a public soccer field. There is a moment in which one of the tech bros produces a document, presumably a permit from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, rendering to its holder the exclusive use of the park for an allotted period of time. However, this entitlement is illegitimate in the eyes of the local youth, who assert that in the local practice, players can use the field according to the local custom of pick-up games. This usually means something to the effect of: “we have seven players, you have seven players, winner stays on the field.”
Being from Canada, one of the discourses and political projects I was able to tune into was that of decolonization. What this means in my work and thinking hinges on the work of indigenous studies scholar Glen Coulthard (who is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation) and his book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (University of Minnesota Press).
The crux of my interest in Coulthard’s work lies in his analysis of Indigenous land claims politics. To paraphrase, he argues that among a more radical element of the Indigenous land claims struggle, land is understood ontologically as a reciprocal medium—as something that is fundamentally incompatible with the Canadian settler-state’s understanding of land as a commodity, or property. Property, as the landscape architect and theorist James Corner notes is a “...phenomena that can only achieve visibility through representation rather than through direct experience.” James Corner, "The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention," The Map Reader: Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation, eds. Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, Chris Perkins, (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2011), 255. This is to say that it has a reality premised on documentary artifacts like maps, property titles, and treaties, etc., which are in turned legitimized (when advantageous) and their claims enforced by agents of the colonial state.
I ask then, what is the formal gap between documents that reinforce the claim that where I live sits in the borderlands between two colonial settler states (Canada and USA), and other claims that where this text is being written sits on Haudenosaunee land?
Although border injustices are not a new thing, and have been persistent on Turtle Island with the projection of settler-state power across the landscape, the current spectacular crisis around separated families in the US brings a glaring new light to it. The incarceration of migrants is premised on the possibility—enabled by documents, and the bureaucratic gaze of the settler-state—of reducing a human being to their status as legal or illegal—it is a picture in which there are those with, and those without documents (that correspond to some database in which they are, or are not documented). For those without documents, the carceral settler state makes a negative claim that supersedes all other possible claims of status as migrant, refugee, asylum-seeker, parent, child. It is unable to see anything beyond what is legible to its bureaucratic-legal gaze. To the state, documentary legibility is the necessary precondition of fact (and what is considered knowable and valid). This limited vision gives a different charge to terms that are familiar to designers—there are those that are legible, and those that are illegible to the state in ways that render them legal or illegal. This begins to suggest that legibility and design can be thought of as matters of the violent ordering of space.See, James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, London: Yale University Press).
I would like to point out my repeated use of the word “claim.” In my usage I think of Johanna Drucker’s reminder that:
“Most information visualizations are acts of interpretation masquerading as presentation. In other words, they are images that act as if they are just showing us what is, but in actuality, they are arguments made in graphical form.”
However, I adapt this insight and replace “information visualizations” with “documents” to render the formulation: “Documents are acts of interpellation masquerading as presentation. In other words, they are images that act as if they are just showing us what is, but in actuality, they are arguments made in (banal) graphical form.”Johanna, Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), xi.
Documents make disputable claims. When this position is read alongside Lisa Gitelman’s insight that “...Documents triangulate the relationship between the individual and authority,”Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Towards a Media History of Documents (Durham, London: Duke University Press), 49.we ought to take that as a reminder that we’re talking about power, hierarchy, and relations of domination and subordination—someone attempting to impose their will, their point of view, on another.
My research tries to account for a number of graphic techniques aimed at the protection of documentary forms (claims) against time/space and politics (dispute). It tells this story in broad strokes by pointing to a series of documenting artifacts, which are themselves the material basis of institutionally sanctioned historical knowledge.
I look at artifacts that span the range of recorded history—indeed one might say that there is no history before writingJames Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (New York, New York, Toronto: Random House), 37.—or perhaps that history is constructed, perhaps even designed by writing, as historiography. The artifacts that I’m interested in unpacking can be read as part of both the history of typography and money. They are things that index time, and as such possess an ontological duality as artifact/moment. At first, it may seem counterintuitive to imbricate these categories of graphic form, typography and money, but this has yielded insights that have been productive towards articulating principles of immutability in graphic design. The collection of artifact/moments I deal with range from ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets to cryptocurrencies (and the blockchains upon which they are inscribed). And although they are presented below chronologically, their discursive unitySee, Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977 (New York: Pantheon Books).is premised not on a teleological narrative of progress, but rather the various ways that they embody disputable claims, that for political reasons are rendered as (mobile) immutable records.
What I would like to unpack is what it looks like when immutability is cast as a design imperative. To make sense of this inquiry by way of comparison, imagine what techniques, methods, tools, and technologies a designer uses when legibility (for road signage) is a design imperative? It’s also a similar set of questions that designers often un-self-consciously take on when, say, logistical efficiency is a design imperative, scalability, or commercial appeal are design imperatives. In other words, the question of immutability in graphic design asks: What are the principles of graphic form when an authoritative entity wants a political relationship to remain stable?
The significance of this connection hinges on a contention from the historian of print Sigrid H. Steinberg. He argues that the more profound consequence of Gutenberg’s development of the moveable typography printing press was not so much the alleged democratization of book publishing and expansion of literacy, but rather the more banal commercial job-printing activity to which it was applied—the printing of papal indulgences—blank-form documents that could be bought from the church to certify the performance of a good deed, or to purchase forgiveness for some sin. If this development was not a direct precursor to the development of the stock certificate and paper money, it at least manifested the same documentary problems of immutability that these genres of graphic artifact would have. Although stocks and paper money are powerful financial artifacts, their value is vulnerable to the possibility of too much printing (especially through counterfeiting). The design of these paper documents suggest that the securitization of documents was imperative at the very beginning of the modern European printing press.
Now, with the potential of producing infinite claims of value, and with paper and ink lacking the security advantages of mineral substrates like clay and metal, the problem of protecting the value of the paper money inscription fell on the capacity of state power to enforce the integrity of the document. Johan Palmstruch, a Dutch-Latvian entrepreneur and financier, developed the first central bank issued paper money in Europe for the Stockholm Bank, but was imprisoned (having been spared a death sentence) after inflating the money supply by printing too many banknotes and causing the bank to collapse.
A most poignant demonstration of the relationship between state power and the protection of inscriptions can be found among examples of American Revolutionary era paper money, which sometimes included an inscription that read something to the effect of “To Counterfeit is Death.”
This is the second oldest extant example of a stock certificate. On one side is a printed form, filled in with the details of an individual to whom dividends will be paid. The industrialization of the production of these claims, enabled by the printing press, in turn enabled the creation of the world’s first stock exchange and the world’s first multinational corporation, The Dutch East India Company (De Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC). And when we’re talking about the VOC and their financial innovations, we’re also talking about the acceleration of European colonialism—minerality here is not so much directly embodied by the documentary artifact, but in the weapons with which documentary claims, whether these be money or maps of colonial territory, are protected through the law, the police, prisons, etc. (the violence of state power).
This story jumps now along the lines of an infrastructural trajectory: The most prolific of the European colonial powers, Great Britain, is responsible for the construction of the so-called “All Red Line.” This was a telegraph cable network that facilitated command and communication across an empire upon which the “sun never set.” To make sense of how this relates to documents and immutability, I suggest considering the following three elements:
The first is Benedict Anderson’s insight that standardized national languages coalesced in proximity to the loci of state administrations, and this standardization accelerates with the advent of the moveable typography printing press. Further afield, the languages spoken (by colonial) and adopted (by colonized) administrators, as well as the subjects upon whom their bureaucratic gaze was cast, follows a similar pattern: State power compels those that are subject to its gaze to adopt its language of administration. As a generality, it was not the British (nor the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, etc.) who were compelled to adopt the various languages of their colonies in order to govern them, but it was incumbent on the colonized to learn English in order to access the potential benefits and deflect the various penalties of their subjugation. It is what I would call an imposition of bureaucratic power.
The second element is Walter Mignolo’s and Madina Tlostanova’s recognition of the managerial coordinates and epistemology of the imperial languages, which are:
“...[G]rounded in Greek and Latin categories of thought that informed modern epistemology (since the Renaissance) in the six European imperial languages (Italian, Spanish and Portuguese for the Renaissance; French, English and German for the Enlightenment), but [not in] ... languages and categories that modern epistemology ruled out as epistemically non-sustainable (e.g. Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, Hindi, Urdu, Aymara, Nahuatl, Wolof, Arabic, etc.). The epistemology of the zero point is ‘managerial’ and it is today common to business, natural sciences, professional schools, and the social sciences.”
In other words, the “epistemically sustainable” claims being given some documentary form (think again to the clay tablet, the colonial map, the soccer pitch reservation, etc.) ought to be regarded as artifacts of management and administration. Broadly speaking, the imperial languages, and the physical infrastructures upon which they circulate, and in which they are housed (from networks of cables to filing cabinets), mark up the world as something to be known as a matter of administration and governance. ¿What is oil until it is mapped and entitled to someone for extraction? Here bureaucratic power renders the claim that liquid hydrocarbon (dead organic matter) is a valuable commodity, over which wars happen to be fought.
If immutability is in some sense about designing a document so that it stands up against dispute (i.e. Indigenous land claims against colonial epistemologies of land as property), then imperial administrations, as institutions of knowledge production (for instance, the knowledge that so-and-so is entitled to extract this oil from this-and-that land), and the force of colonial state power that backs them are the design technologies that renders its documents immutable.
The third element that ties this all together is Lisa Gitelman’s observation that documents and bureaucracies are in fact coextensive. That is, that bureaucratic power is quite hollow without the documents that circulate within them, and that documents have little to guarantee their meaning as such without the bureaucratic institutions in which they circulate. Similarly, the All Red Line is the globalized extension of British imperial bureaucracy, circulating the kinds of signals and documentary trail proper to the management of empire, not the least of which would entail the transmission of financial information.
Indeed, if one were to graphically superimpose a map of this cable network with a map of the cable network that constitutes the physical infrastructure of internet today (both rendered on the Mercator projection [Incidentally, Mercator is Latin for merchant]), the All Red Line seems to figure as scaffolding for the physical infrastructure of the internet. Even in the formal decline of the old European empires, this cable network becomes the backbone of an emergent global financial system. In the wake of the Second World War, it emerges as an infrastructure facilitating the rise of the modern multinational corporation, making persistent the flows of wealth from the former colonies to the former metropoles. It maintains structures of global inequality, and financial and military imperialism, exemplified, for instance, by the oil wars of the past three decades.
These were the conditions in which the Second Iraq War erupts, bringing into the picture Wikileaks and the leaking by Chelsea Manning, of the video “Collateral Murder,” showing the perverse and heinous commission of war crimes by the U.S. military. The ensuing scandal and attention brought to Wikileaks lead to the imposition of an embargo of the whistleblower website by the major credit card companies, preventing it from receiving donations to support the continuation of its work. This in turn leads to the popularization of Bitcoin as a vehicle for circumventing the financial embargo. Touted as a “trustless” money system, Bitcoin represents a capacity to produce and circulate immutable documents (money), while avoiding a reliance on the corroboration of trusted institutions to guarantee their legitimacy and meaning. The cyber-libertarian imagination and enthusiasm invested in Bitcoin and blockchain technology is premised on the possibility that it might render redundant the bureaucratic power (which is in turn backed by state power) to legitimize documentary claims.
In this story, Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and the blockchain in general, thus represent the current morphology of the mineral in this “mineral history of currency and typography.” Except, typography’s ontological status here is as code. Cryptographically generated hashes represents another kind of typographic manifestation. This typography does not hold the aural or semantic value of human language. The claims “inscribed” upon the blockchain are beyond the domain of political speech, and foreclose on the capacity of an individual ([individuals > 51%] on a blockchain network) to dispute claims inscribed therein. Notwithstanding the possibility of generating a political schism by creating competing cryptocurrencies (though you would still be creating a cryptocurrency), there is no bank to topple, no state to smash, there are no records to be burned. Indeed, the immutability of claims are vested in the impersonal, depoliticized network—the distributed ledger.
What ties these artifact/moments together is not a progressive, teleological chronology that celebrates Bitcoin as the apex of what started with the clay tablet. Rather the concatenation of these documentary forms figures a discursive unity along the lines of immutability, and puts into relief the way that these documents function to “...triangulate the relationship between the individual and authority,” and attempt to “set in stone,” or “get on paper,” “put in black and white” otherwise contingent political arrangements.
This project thus explores what graphic design’s capacities as a discipline could be, and speculates on the ways in which its history, centering the document, might shape its disciplinary identity, and its capacity to think and act politically against the managerial and colonial “zero point.” This would be not only a matter of dissolving its disciplinary coordinates with a fervent exploration of new forms, but an undoing of the limited scope imagined for it by its historiography. What this may open up is some space for an understanding of graphic design’s capacity for structural agency and critique by looking to the ways in which it has, through the document, been an instrument of the political.