For Plato, dialectic was about a back and forth argument which whittled down an idea to the truth. Attributed to Hegel is the idea of thesis plus its antithesis producing a synthesis. More recently, and derived from Jean Piaget, Richards’ & Commons’ dialectic involves “organizing components into combinations”, first by negating the original thesis, choosing an alternative, alternating between the two, attempting to “smash” them together, and finally forming a “non-arbitrary coordination” between them, one example being Maxwell’s coordination of magnetism and electricity to create the paradigm of electromagnetism. Schwitters and Kanno provided two examples of negation by removing semantic meaning from written and spoken words and from written word-like forms, respectively. Might there be another example, whereby written word-like forms do in fact carry semantic meaning, but have no associated phonetic value?* Each of these examples would just be a first step, the negation – how might we then attempt to “smash” the associated ideas together and then eventually coordinate them?

* I did think of an example of a nearly unpronounceable, or at least painful to pronounce, word-like form that conveys semantic meaning: a machine instruction itself. In the open source RISC V processor architecture, the binary sequence 00000000101101010000010100110011 has very specific meaning, assuming I haven’t transcribed it incorrectly. It could be pronounced as “Zero, zero, …, one, zero, …, one, one” but that would be as bad as Moholy ordering paintings over the phone. It could also be pronounced “Add the integer value in register 10 to the integer value in register 11 and place the result back into register 10”, or even simply “add x10, x10, x11”, but the meaning of the sequences of ones and zeros would be a terrible thing to have to remember, especially when considering all the other instructions necessary for even the simplest program.

Algorithmic Drawing

Although I’ve never used Processing myself, its popularity seems very much deserved. Something like this would’ve made Moholy’s task far easier, but then his telephone paintings might have been less impactful. And yet, is this enjoyable to look at, code of this nature? Or this? It is arguably far better than the mountains of tedious code necessary to program directly to OpenGL or other graphics environments, and yet, might we not ask something more of our programming languages? Might we not ask that our code itself be artistic or at least esthetic in nature, not just something we hack together (even though with great care) to produce the final output of the program, only then to sequester that code away on our hard drives or GitHub? The code is a fundamental piece of the artwork itself, and yet how often is it displayed in a gallery or a museum?

Some might see poetry in code, but I do not. I think code is perhaps the hieroglyphics of our time – reserved for the priestly elite willing to put up with its arcane rules and verbosity. It can be used to produce amazing beauty and meaning, to be sure, but at what cost? Programming languages aren’t even particularly well adapted to computers themselves – compilers are astoundingly complex pieces of software, so we as programmers end up performing great mental contortions to write code which must then be further twisted, mangled, and reinterpreted in order to actually run on the computer itself. Could there be a more direct way of communicating with the computer? And to communicate with each other about what we actually meant to tell the computer to do? What kinds of transformations might language, either natural or programming, undergo in the next decades and centuries in order that, like the ancient Greek alphabet, it is finally better adapted to being a foundation for a proliferation of technological art and literature?

Telephone Paintings

“But Herr Moholy, can you not please a drawing to us send?” If László Moholy-Nagy had in fact fully specified this series of paintings over the telephone as he claimed, would that not in some ways be the opposite of his friend Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate or So Kanno’s Asemic Languages? In those latter cases meaning was removed, but in Moholy’s embellished case, specific, geometrically and colorimetrically correct meaning would have been conveyed. However, via the telephone, visual information with no real meaning itself (except for its esthetic value) would have been communicated by sound only, and extremely inefficiently at that.

Asemic Languages

Already discussed in class, So Kanno’s Asemic Languages focuses purely on the visual aspects of written language. Asemic means “having no specific semantic contents”. If a phonetic written language can be thought of as an abstract visual representation of sound patterns that themselves carry semantic meaning, then by discarding any possible phonetic interpretation perhaps Kanno’s work is the other half of Schwitters’ Ursonate – by removing fundamental components of the whole which is the idea of “written language”, both works allow space in which to reassess just what “language” even means.



Kurt Schwitters used many ideas from the Dada movement in his work, including in his most famous poem An Anna Blume, but also in his Ursonate sound poem. Although perhaps not as famous as Hugo Ball’s Gadji Beri Bimba which the Talking Heads later adapted into the song I Zimbra, the Ursonate was nevertheless featured in Brian Eno’s song Kurt’s Rejoinder. Like many other sound poems, Ursonate discards semantic meaning and relies solely on the phonetic qualities of written and spoken words.

The Gutenberg Galaxy

In his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan argued that the printing press solidified and promoted an already growing linear, visual, “diachronic” (across time) perspective in humans, as opposed to the earlier simultaneous, acoustic, “synchronic” (existing at one single point in time) nature of oral culture. Years before the internet even existed, McLuhan predicted an “electronic age” when humanity would renounce its linear, visual culture in favor of an interdependent oral/aural culture in which individualism will be replaced by a collective identity with a “tribal base”, the so-called Global Village.

From Hieroglyphics to Alphabets

“[The] Greek alphabet was initially used for more literary purposes. Writing became not simply a means of recording events, but also an art form in itself.” Somehow in the process of adding vowels to the already largely phonetic Phoenician alphabet, the ancient Greeks were able to create a system of writing that was well adapted to art and literature, in a way that hieroglyphics or cuneiform apparently were not. Was the key factor in some way that the visual symbols represented sounds, not physical objects directly, as was originally the case with hieroglyphics?