Pet-Book Post no. 4 (Higginson’s Field Book)

I am particularly interested Juliet Fleming’s argument, concerning the relationship between printed letters and other mechanically printed images. Fleming argues in particular that “Patterns that comprised printers’ flowers represent one of the first sites at which the Renaissance cult of beauty opened to admit the claims of an art that could have, as Kant put it, ‘no significance … and yet please’” (187). For Fleming, the importance of printers’ flowers is that do not signify (they do not prompt a reader to think of external objects or concepts), and yet are produced by the same processes as printed type.

The presence of printed flowers beside printed text changes our experience of reading so that we see “the printed page as visual field without semantic content,” and the printed words in particular not as signs, but rather “under the aspect of appearance” (171). Importantly, the printed flowers prompt us to focus on the “appearance” rather than the “semantics” of printed language as a result of the formal and media properties they share with that language: both printed language and printed flowers are set and printed using the press, and on the page they both present visual patterns, which “[combine] regularity and recurrence with a commitment to systemic local variance” (171).  I think the central claim here that the flowers affect the experience of the language in part because they share properties with it is important.

For Fleming, when readers focus on the appearance of print and the page, they can then “engage in the production of their own perceptual and conceptual analogies between the two visual systems” (171). In practice this engagement is an alternative to reading the (potential) meanings of a text and even stands in opposition to it. That is, as Fleming goes on to claim, the shift towards “appearance” facilitates “projective – that is, subjective and imaginative behaviour …[which]breaks the stranglehold, that the semantic function otherwise exerts over writing” (171). I’m not convinced that a reader’s subjective or imaginative experience is suppressed or restricted by the semantic capacity of language, nor that it is exactly a liberatory experience not to think about meanings. However Fleming’s claim that the printers’ flowers change our attitude towards the materiality of writing because of the production parallels and “resemblances” between the two systems (172) I’ve found useful in my readings of my pet-book.

Higginson’s Field-Book is hand-written (not printed), and is visually interesting in that it deploys a variety of different formats (including prose paragraphs, lists and tables), but it doesn’t exactly contain anything visual marks that function like or resemble Renaissance printers’ flowers. There is, however, a drawing of Higginson’s which I want to focus on, which significantly resembles Higginson’s writing. In his entry for September 20th 1861, Higginson describes a trip by river he took with some friends, mentioning location-names and describing his botanical observations in details. For example, he begins by writing “Spent the day in going down to New England Village by water with Blake + Brom Willy + Charlie. Left bridge at 11 + reached the second dam where we †disembarked†” (93). He goes on to describe his search for the “water lilies + other things” and then the “beauty” of the water,

purple in the shallows with the floating blossoms of the bladderwort, utricularia purpurea, which I never saw before. The yellow was occasional but the purple universal + there is something fascinating in it’s drifting unattached. (93)

The account continues, as he describes the subsequent parts of the journey down river. At the bottom of the first page, Higginson has sketched out a map of the route, identifying the different locations along it. In the same the way that the printed flowers and text depend on the same production process (the printing press) in Fleming’s argument, so in Higginson account the text and the map are both drawn (with same pen, pencil and hand); the drawing of the river is made of one main pen-line, with several smaller pen and pencil lines added to indicate dams and other pieces of water. It is tempting to see the drawing as a combination of central body and a variety of serifs. Added to this the drawing in occurring at the bottom of the page actually breaks up a sentence (which continues on the next page). The effect of this close relationship between the map and the handwriting is not to refocus our reading away from the semantic function of language; but it does alter how we interpret the entry as a whole. The text focuses on scientific detail and aesthetic reflections (what he finds and how beautiful the river was). In contrast, the map-drawing reorders the objects as an itinerary, compressing the details of the experiences after the first dam into a single identifier – “Lily Pond” – and more importantly converting it into a location, semantically equivalent to other locations on the map – “bridge,” “dam,” “great dam” and “Flint’s Pond.” I don’t want to suggest that the Lily only appears as a location because of the map – in other words, it is not that the map is a less real or true representation of the external world because it is compressed or because it is stylized. Rather, it functions with the text, and is indicative of the multiple modes in which the Field-Book aims to configure the world it records (as a network of sites), and as a series of micro-level observations and reflections of objects. Fleming argues

printers’ lace can resist the signifying function of language, not only by suggesting that this function could briefly be forgotten, but also by asserting that writing is embedded in the material of the world, where it is governed, even its representative functions, by the play of resemblance. (181)

On Higginson’s page, the fact that the map and text resemble one another visually, share the page and depend upon the same production tools, reminds us that both are modes of mediating the “Field” which the book is trying to record, and that the detail-rich descriptive passages are not somehow ‘closer’ to the external world than the stylized map.

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