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Between Verbi Voco and Visual, Some Precursors of Grammatology Scriptio Continua, Mercurius van Helmont, Joshua Steele, Peter Walkden Fogg, and That Precarious Binary of Speech/ Writing

Between Verbi Voco and Visual, Some Precursors of Grammatology Scriptio Continua, Mercurius van Helmont, Joshua Steele, Peter Walkden Fogg, and That Precarious Binary of Speech/ Writing

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Without historic black-out

they cannot maintain perpetual wars.

Taney (’) showed an increase

in all branches of revenue

Benton b. , d. .

‘‘How often had they been told trade was paralyzed

& ships idle?

‘‘Hid the books but cd/ not hide weekly statements.’’

‘‘In specie and without interest.

Against which such a bank is a nuisance.’’

 to  for above  years in the Spanish dominions.

Against Biddle one million and some chicken feed

for which no vouchers are found.

Levari facias. Louis Philippe suggested that

Jackson stand firm

and not sugar his language.

Public debt was extinguished.


Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02

Figure 1. Ezra Pound, from ‘‘Canto 89,’’ showing western system of numerical




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Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02

ance—in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Steele’s earlier rational prosody,

to be examined later in this chapter.

Despite Derrida’s avowal that Of Grammatology ‘‘is a historical book

through and through’’ (, ), it fails to supply even an adequate ancestral series back to Plato. The history of logocentrism is portrayed as basically three leaps: from Plato and Aristotle through Rousseau to Saussure

and Lévi-Strauss (cf. Derrida a, ) an axis that’s partial, to say the

least. Where does the Middle Ages (a vast stretch of cultural time from the

seventh to the fifteenth century) figure in Derrida’s thinking? Apart from a

few brief quotes from Ernst Curtius, it’s egregiously absent from his argument. Grammatological evidence from this period seriously compromises

Derrida’s historic focal points of logocentrism, for the Middle Ages is essentially a memorial culture in which epistemic profit derives from a third modality distinct from speech and writing: that of memory. Writing throughout this time is valorized for its visuality and its optical power to trigger

mental recall and meditative practice, not for its promise of reconversion

into ‘‘full’’ speech.1 Similarly Agamben, in his reenvisioning of grammatology as ‘‘fundamentology’’ (, –) calls into doubt the metaphysics

of presence, arguing that Greek metaphysics ‘‘thought of language from the

outset from the point of view of the ‘letter’ ’’ (b, ). In the examples

presented in this chapter, I hope to adumbrate this lineage and complicate

any claims to a logocentric subservience of writing to speech in Western

thinking, arguing that the science of grammatology—as it now stands—

less represents than suppresses several earlier scriptive conjectures.

Derrida’s legacy manifests in two precipitations, one a science of writing

based on novel insights into the significance and effects of temporal difference, the other a critical-philosophical methodology. It’s safe to claim that

grammatology and deconstruction have enjoyed a linked but uneven development within cultural capitalism.2 Largely ignored and undeveloped,

grammatology’s fate is to be left as the crippled sister huddled around the

fireside in poststructuralism’s institutional cottage. By contrast, deconstruction, as a fashionable metatextual practice, triumphantly entered the North

American academy with a speed and insurmountability that might best be

compared to Atilla the Hun’s entry into Rome.3 Bernasconi and Critchley,

in their introduction to Re-Reading Levinas, delineate the formulaic and deterministic disposition at the root of deconstructive practice: ‘‘[W]hat distinguishes deconstruction as a textual practice lies in double reading, that is,

a reading that interlaces at least two motifs, most often first by following or

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repeating the intention of a text, in the manner of a commentary, and second, within and through this repetition, leaving the order of commentary

and opening up the blind spots or ellipses within the text’s intentionality’’

(, xii).

The ecumenical range of deconstructive readings is daunting. To mention Herman Rapaport’s analysis of Milton (), Leigh Deneef ’s of

Thomas Traherne (), William Dowling’s Derridean approach to Boswell’s Life of Johnson (), and Steven Lynn’s study of Johnson’s Rambler

() touches merely the tip of an academic iceberg. When adding to this

the plethora of deconstructive readings handed in each year as graduate

papers, the fact still remains that deconstruction has restricted itself to—

indeed, can only operate within—the confines of normative typography.

Where, for instance, are the deconstructive readings of Marinetti’s parole

in libertà, Apollinaire’s calligrammes, or Iliazd’s Easter Island ? The palpable

blind spot in deconstruction is its inability to engage the visible materiality of textual formats owing to the temporal and semiotic basis of deconstruction’s presidential concepts. Johanna Drucker perceptively comments on this ineluctable abdication of the material base of the signifying

forms. A problematic hiatus in Derrida’s position obtains, Drucker says,

‘‘because the concept of écriture, of writing as trace . . . does not contain

a condition for the apprehension of materiality’’ (, ). Indeed, the

very ground of signification in Derrida’s thinking is inveterately antagonistic to the grapheme’s stubborn materiality. The Derridean concept of

signification, understood as deferral and difference, ‘‘cancels the possibility

of ever apprehending substance. The metaphysical basis for presuming the

existence of material substance is dissolved, in Derrida’s analysis, into the

continual play of difference’’ (Drucker , ).

My intention is not to excavate this blind spot but rather suggest how

some of the shortcomings in deconstruction can be rectified by a considered

engagement with grammatological evidence (not supplied by Derrida) in

emergent, dominant, and residual writing systems. I take two examples of

differential play from paleography (the syntactic practice of scriptio continua

and the spatial practice of per cola et commata) and three obscure contributions to grammatology: Mercurius van Helmont’s  Alphabeti vere naturalis hebraici brevissima delineato, Joshua Steele’s  Prosodia Rationalis,

and Peter Walkden Fogg’s Elementa Anglicana of –. These works

might be thought of as representing grammatology’s clinamens—those

eventist swerves from the laminar, conventional flow that complicate both

accuracy in nomenclature and periodicity in general. My hope in this chap


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ter is to show this material as collectively supplying poststructuralism with

its own precessional catastrophe.

Scriptio Continua

The ancient scribal form of scriptio continua, by which a text was copied

without separating words or indicating pauses, was common scribal practice

through ancient Greece, surviving until the fourth century, at which time

the use of punctuation to indicate pauses had been sufficiently adopted so as

to generate a new scriptoral category: the codices distincti (Parkes , ).4

In Rome, however, interpunctual writing was replaced by the earlier Greek

model of scriptio continua, which became established as standard practice

among Roman scribes by the end of the first century (Parkes , ). The

method continued until the late seventh century, when Irish scribes began

to separate words in both Latin and vernacular texts. Like Joyce’s famous

one-hundred-letter thunderclap words in Finnegans Wake and Kenneth Patchen’s multiverbal compactions in Sleepers Awake, the deliberate absence

of verbal distinctness requires detailed punctuational preparation by the

reader.5 ‘‘Rendering a text in scriptio continua proceeded from identification of the different elements—letters, syllables, words—through further

stages to comprehension of the whole work’’ (Parkes , ). A major

consequence of this initial lack of separation is a shift in bias from author

to reader around the key issue of semantic determination. ‘‘The merit of

the scriptio continua was that it presented the reader with a neutral text.

To introduce graded pauses while reading involved an interpretation of the

text, an activity requiring literary judgement and therefore one properly

reserved for the reader’’ (Parkes , ). Writing in continua, then, required a supplemental intervention to create through spacing morphological distinctions.

There are several historical examples illustrating the psychological effects

of reading continua. Quintilian, for example, stressed the need to divide attention ‘‘ ‘so that the eyes are occupied in one way and the voice another.’

. . . The eyes had to be kept on what followed while the voice read out

. . . what preceded’’ (in Parkes , ). A frequent issue was homophonic ambiguity. The fourth-century grammarian Servius censors Donatus

for reading Virgil’s ‘‘exilio’’ (exile) as ‘‘ex Ilio’’ (out of Troy). Pompeius, in

the fifth century, mentions a similar ambiguity in book  of the Aeneid,

‘‘where the words can be separated either as consipit ursus (‘a bear espies’)

or conspicutur sus (‘a sow is espied’) (in Parkes , ). ‘‘The marking of

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pauses in a copy of a text was normally left to the initiative of the individual

reader who would insert them or not according to the degree of difficulty

presented by the text, or the extent of his comprehension’’ ().

The centrality of the homophone to Roussel’s narrative method, Brisset’s myth of the origin of man from frogs, and Bentley’s editorial method

have already been discussed in chapters  and . Suffice to add that Joyce,

the exemplary homophonist of modernism, seemingly refers to scriptio continua in the mamafesto section of Finnegans Wake: ‘‘The original document

was in what is known as Hanno O’Nonhanno’s unbrookable script, that

is to say, it showed no signs of punctuation of any sort’’ (, ). Scriptio continua puts language into both graphic and semantic indeterminancy,

resolved only by a reader’s active intervention as the producer of periodicity and differentiation. A censura caesura, or prohibition upon pause, takes

effect in which particles in void transform into a plenum. Language tropes

itself as a sheet folded into nonarticulation.6

By confusing secondary articulation, and thus rendering the discretions

of the very articuli indeterminate, scriptio continua creates a syrrhesitic

movement of the text—a flowing together of verbal discretions precipitating a more intense, libidinal encounter with the written. In passing, one

might note that Lecercle demonstrates how logophiliac délire—that confluence of language, nonsense, and desire—is experienced as a kind of scriptio

continua; as a process not of separation but of segmentive erasure (, ,

–). Because semantic clarity is dissolved, words in continua are initially

encountered as letters-becoming-words, presignificatory instabilities and

uncertainties in a protosemantic continuum. Punctuation and spacing—as

well as its complicated conceptual incarnation as Derridean differance—can

be thought of as severing activities that slice a continuum into culturally

recognizable sequences but may also be seen as clinamens.

Now experience the foregoing paragraph in scriptio continua. It’s a settled, entropic, undifferentiated unit—a text in equilibrium.

Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02










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‘‘Articulated languages are parasited breaths’’ (Serres a, ). And it’s

useful to regard punctuation as a ‘‘phrasal parasite’’ that produces equilibrium in message. By the routine clinamens of spacing, a turbulence and

discontinuity is introduced into the writing and from this flux another textual equilibrium emerges. To read the current of the prototext divides a

laminar flow into smaller particles. From the continuum emerges distinction, clarity, and thereby words. A Lucretius versed in French might name

this movement the ‘‘breeze’’ of reading, remarking both the sonic and etymological connection of ‘‘breeze’’ to briser (the French verb ‘‘to break’’).

Although scriptio continua is an ignored item in grammatology’s archive,

the hortation to readerly production and its profound implications on the

sociology of readership—most especially the radical empowering of the

traditionally inferior term in the writer-reader binary—has witnessed important revivification in recent decades. If projective verse offered a poetics

of parousial impact grounded in the transit of the syllable-as-energy, then

Language writing responded with a disjunctive poetics anchored in the preeminence of readerly semantic production. If a slogan can encapsulate the

spirit of Language writing in its formative years (–), it would read

    . Antony Easthope describes succinctly this

‘‘socialism of the text’’ which by ‘‘asking the reader to work through linguistic details that give the text its effect it has aimed to expropriate the poem

from its supposed ‘owner,’ the represented speaker or narrator, and put it

back into the hands of the reader who produces it’’ (, ).

The application of this sociological clinamen in agency reappears, of

course, in reader response theory. Iser’s own phenomenology of reader perception makes use of a virtual work, marked by gaps and indeterminacies,

and an ideal reader whose function is to fill in these aporia (cf. Iser ).

In granting to the reader central semantic productivity reader response

theory, Language writing and scriptio continua run in concerted opposition

to Deleuze’s categorical assertion that ‘‘there’s never anything like enough

consumption’’ (, ). Earlier, in chapter , I presented evidence to historically relativize the novelty of Olson’s indisputably important notions

about breath, syllable, and energy. A similar point is offered here, for in

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its least impact, an awareness of scriptio continua and its productive assignments to the reader-function seriously challenges the way the psychology of

classical reading has been bracketed out of consideration. An evolutionary

narrative from primitive to civilized is seen to be untenable as an argument

for change, for scriptio continua was established as common scribal practice from the first century throughout the Roman Empire as a system derived from earlier Greek practice and actually used to replace interpunctual


Per Cola et Commata

In its simplest description, per cola et commata is a system of line breaks

installed into prose. The practice involves laying out each constituent element of a period on a separate line, flush left to the margin. This line then

accommodates a complete unit of sense, and any such unit running over a

line length is indented. The Amiatino manuscript, a vulgate Bible now in

the Bibiloteca Medicea Laurenziana but copied by scribes at Wearmouth

Jarrow in Northumbria no later than  .. uses this method. The following translation of fol.  (a part of one of the Psalms) preserves the cola

and commata format.

Blessed is the man who hath not walked in

the counsel of the ungodly

and hath stood in the way of sinners

and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful

But his will is in the law of the Lord

and in His law shall he meditate

day and night

And he shall be like a tree transplanted

close by the streams of water

that will bring forth its fruit

in due season

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Saint Jerome encountered the system in copies of speeches by Demosthenes and Cicero (Parkes , ; Martin , ) and uses it in his own

translations of Isaiah and Ezekiel. It was subsequently adopted by other

scribes between the fifth and ninth centuries for copying biblical books

and passages. Jerome locates the value of the system in its punctuational

clarity by visual separation and spacing rather than graphic marking. In

his prologue to Ezekiel, he refers to the method as a ‘‘new kind of writing



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[explaining] that which is written per cola et commata conveys more obvious sense to the reader’’ (in Parkes , ). This particular form of transcription—in broken phrases that nonetheless contain a complete idea—

facilitates instant optic comprehension and thereby effective retention in

the memory.8 It’s to such mnemonic ends that Quintilian recommends that

colas be ‘‘numeris conclusis,’’ that is, rhythmically complete (quoted in Carruthers , ). Although its purpose is to visually isolate a complete

unit of sense and to render such units as single lines, this early scribal practice is clearly an important, unacknowledged precursor of free verse. It does

not attain, however, the quintessential balance of blank space and isolated

word that is associated with the heirs of Mallarmé. Indeed, the word-free

spaces left by the system are frequently filled with decorative motifs, a horror of vacuum—perhaps symptomatic of a desire for a lost continuum—

that resurfaces in Blake’s illuminated prophecies.

Nonetheless, in the light of per cola et commata, it seems impossible to

base any definitive distinction between prose and poetry on a motivated

deployment of line breaks. To merely admit that early Bibles take on the appearance of free verse effects relativizes any late-nineteenth-century claims

to origin. This fundamental inapplicability of the binary of prose and verse

at this period once more anticipates the more recent attempts by Ron Silliman (in his Ketjak and Tjanting, for instance) to inscribe a poetics within

a prosaics by way of the new sentence (see chapter ). Or should due credit

for the invention of free verse be given through the words of Saint Jerome

to Demosthenes?

Mercurius van Helmont

Ask yourself: ‘‘What would it be like if human beings never found the word

that was on the tip of their tongue?’’

—Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 219e

Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02

Mercurius van Helmont designed his Alphabete vere naturalis hebraici

brevissima delineato () as a practical and easy method by which deafmutes might learn to speak. Helmont arrives at the Hebrew alphabet

through a sort of back-formation from the initial premise that there must be

a primitive language that is easy to learn. Concluding that Hebrew is such

a language, he proceeds to demonstrate that the sounds of Hebrew characters are the most easily pronounced owing to the supposed fact that these

characters mimic the shape of the vocal organs. It’s a curious, Baroque curBetween Verbi Voco and Visual, Some Precursors of Grammatology


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Figure 2. Mercurius van Helmont, Alphabete vere naturalis hebraici brevissima delineato,

pronunciation plates of Hebrew characters

Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02

vature back from speech through the written to the body, supplemented in

the book with pronunciation plates depicting a dissected mouth and throat

in utterance. (See illustration .) These diagrams supplement an amazing

claim: that the holy script of Hebrew actually graphs the shape and movement of the vocal organs in utterance.

Gérard Genette places Helmont’s ‘‘true natural Hebrew alphabet’’ in the

class of graphical cratylism as a ‘‘mimetic interpretation of existing writing

systems’’ (, ). Helmont hoped to prove the originary status of Hebrew as the true language of Adam, and both writing and speech as gifts

of divine revelation. And while this mystical speculation can now be written off as whimsical nonsense, the actual system holds a contemporary attraction through its remarkable anticipation of biopoesis.9 If nothing else,

Helmont’s theory profoundly unsettles the relationship of body coordinates advanced in Derrida’s tenet that ‘‘[t]he history of writing is erected

on the base of the history of the grammè as an adventure of relationships

between the face and the hand’’ (, ). Helmont’s alphabet documents

a profound instability in the frontiers between speech and writing. Is the



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Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02

letter presented as a latent force awaiting written activation in speech? Or

does writing record in its tracings of letters the ephemeral movements of the

tongue, throat, and larynx? For Helmont, these questions are shibboleths

obfuscating a conspiratorial entanglement of speech and writing. In fact, he

conflates the two, assigning priority to neither, situating the origins of both

speech and writing in a mutual mimology through which the contortions of

the human mouth in phonation actually ‘‘write’’ a letter as well as ‘‘voice’’ a

sound. The Hebrew grapheme is simultaneously written and carnalized; its

inscription does not record a speaking but exists as an invisible production

folded within that speaking. Figured as fundamentally somatic, the onomatopoeic template of a momentary musculature; the Hebrew letter is a

natural, corporeal, and performative hieroglyph.

Ferenczi speaks of amphimixis—that interplay or commingling of organs, producing in language the pun, deployed so effectively by Brisset and

Roussel and appearing in Joyce as the portmanteau word. In Helmont it

manifests as a fold of utterance into the written. Resisting any logocentric

reduction of voice to itself in a phonetism, Helmont’s system causes voice

to repeat a writing in a style of proprioceptive dictation. In a thorough repudiation of the Aristotelian legacy, Helmont offers an image of speech as

being itself a system of writing. If we recall Olson’s famous pronouncement

on the physiological source of the poem as ‘‘down through the workings of

[the poet’s] throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has

its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where the coincidence is,

all act springs’’ (see chapter ), then it clearly emerges how Helmont’s ‘‘true

alphabet,’’ transfixing, as it does, the configured movements of chords and

muscles in action, both supplements and departs from Olson’s biopoetics.10

It’s hard not to recall Barthes’s rhapsodies on the paralinguistic effects

of the grain of the voice—an amorous entwining of timbre and language

whose aim ‘‘is not the clarity of messages, [but a blissful search for] pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the

grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue,

not that of meaning, of language’’ (, –). Despite the unmistakable echoes of Helmont, there is no evidence that Barthes knew of his work

when consecrating the body inside the written. ‘‘Writing is not speech . . .

but neither is writing the written . . . to write is not to transcribe. In writing, what is too present in speech . . . and too absent from transcription,

namely the body, returns . . . through pleasure and not through the Imaginary (the image)’’ (Barthes , ). It’s hard to deny also that Helmont’s

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conclusion—that phonic utterance already arrives sedimented by a writing—is remarkably close to Derrida’s own concept of a basal archewriting,

preceding both speech and writing as such.

Drucker detects in Helmont’s speculations a ‘‘profound belief that a close

relation between written form and physiology would result in a more perfect alphabet’’ (, ). And certainly physiology and grammatology implode in a manner that Derrida fails to address—an implosion carrying

the ideological assumption that the human anatomy is inherently perfect.

Helmont’s theory is less a search for the origin of writing than a proof of

anatomical perfection through the profound conspiracy of the written mark

and an oral assemblage in motion. In such systems, Drucker comments,

‘‘The body carried no association of carnal impurity . . . but was a natural

fact, and therefore, could be the basis of a neutral or even positive image.

The social order was not in conflict with this natural image, but a logical—or even . . . reasonable—extension of its character’’ (). But not to

dwell on these obsolete, ideological shortcomings. Helmont’s current value

to poetics lies in the clinamen effect of deviating the focus of the poetic

unit from word or line back to letters, and suggesting along the way how

writing is always at play underneath—and despite of—any physiological

labor of utterance.

Joshua Steele

Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02

Benjamin’s remark that ‘‘written language grows out of music and not

directly from the sounds of the spoken word’’ (, ) bears directly

on any candid assessment of Steele’s vertiginous system of prosodic scoring outlined in his Prosodia Rationalis of . (See illustrations  and .)

Its accomplishment—nothing less than ‘‘the most precise and meticulous

attempt to recreate the aural poem in visual form’’ (Bradford , )—

historically fulfills that need for emotive markers first called for in the eighteenth century by Duclos: ‘‘In writing we mark interrogation and surprise;

but how many movements of the soul, and consequently how many oratorical inflections, do we possess, that have no written signs, and that only

intelligence and sentiment may make us grasp! Such are the inflections that

mark anger, scorn, irony, etc., etc.’’ (quoted in Derrida ,  n.).

Steele’s complex and detailed system of super- and subsegmental markers effectively demolishes any linear negotiation of a text, answering Derrida’s call for the full-scale desedimentation of four millennia of linear

writing almost two centuries before that question is posed (, ). Con


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