01 Jul 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In her Book Art Theory blog post called “Aesthetics of Interference,” artist Emily Larned writes about sounds and images that display their medium, specifically recordings on vinyl, and half-toned or pixilated images. She starts to unpack how and why the “low quality” of the images/sounds becomes aestheticized (or fetishized). In that post she wrote the following (parenthetical) statement:

“As I write this, I can’t help but think that 'aesthetic of interference' also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance . . . perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.”

With Emily’s permission, I’d like to make an attempt at that post (or posts).


In the summers I teach an intro level book arts course called “Book Arts & Letterpress.” It ranges from the very small (close looking at individual typeforms) to the very large (what does it mean to publish handmade books in this contemporary world?). We start with an assignment adapted from Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type, where the students draw, to scale at 100 point size, an exact copy of several letters (a, t, A, a) of a typeface of their choosing. At the same time they read the first chapter of Lupton’s book, and an essay by A.D. Jameson about the work of the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. That essay talks about some of the most famous and important principles from Shklovsky’s work: the related concepts of “seeing” vs. “recognition,” and the device of “defamiliarization/enstrangement/making strange.”

In Shklovsky’s formulation (as explained by Jameson) “recognition” is that routine, automatic, disengaged perception of the world that is our default state. We see enough to get by. “Seeing” is an active, engaged looking, where the world can suddenly become a strange, wondrous, and infinitely complex thing. My first lucid encounter with this engaged seeing came to me through intense observational drawing and painting exercises when I was a student. We were ordered to “look hard” and draw the same still-life set-up over several six-hour studio classes. That phrase seems nonsensical at first: seeing is effortless, so how can I “look hard”? Through practice it becomes the first and most critical piece of being an artist and human. That phrase sticks with me to this day. The typeform drawing assignment is my attempt to get at the same practice (look hard) within the context of type and books. One assignment is never enough, of course, and we come back to the concept again and again.

The seed of the course’s expansion is also planted within that first reading. To quote Shklovsky directly:

“And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives [sic], and at our fear of war.”

Our automatic, disengaged perception, aided by the constant assault of spectacle-as-news/news-as-spectacle, is an insidious form of social control. Our “fear of war” is dulled and flattened. We draw inward. We forget about the humanity of those around us. It seems inevitable, natural. We are all, always and forever, susceptible and mostly complicit.

Shklovsky offers art as one tool to use in the never-ending-reconstruction-of-our-humanity:

“If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. . . . And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’”

That first reading becomes a challenge and focal point for the entire course (and hopefully beyond). It starts to get at the question, that all-important, impossible question that every student artist has to answer in their own way (and that all of us “professionals” are always answering too): what does art do, and why is it important?


Both Shklovsky quotes are from the chapter “Art as Device,” in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Normal, IL: Illinois State University, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 5–6.


  • 03 Jul 2017 7:52 PM | Rebecca Childers
    You illuminate the role of duration in reviving perception: "look hard." I think also of how the surface can be troubled to delay apprehension. Time + depth, the fourth + third dimensions. Instead of looking through to symbol, in art forms that "resists" we're asked to dwell on the contours, the skin, the nap and grain of the world. Wonderful post, Aaron!
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    • 02 Sep 2017 11:12 AM | Barb Tetenbaum
      I agree. Any time we activate another sense to the one that is doing most of the perceiving, we open up more neural pathways which create a deeper memory and possibly deeper connection to what we are perceiving. This resistance you write about is such a situation, adding other haptic levels.
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  • 03 Jul 2017 9:38 PM | Anonymous
    Your post resonates with Sight into Insight by Annie Dillard for me. I am particularly struck by the following passage: "We see enough to get by. “Seeing” is an active, engaged looking, where the world can suddenly become a strange, wondrous, and infinitely complex thing.
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