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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer

I've seen a fair amount of coverage of this little gem of a book, and I thought it was worth showing here for a couple of reasons. First, it's a nicely executed formal exercise that involves an interesting technical application of die-cutting relevant to graphic designers (from a writer, not a designer, no less). Second, I've been somewhat troubled by the apparent lack of acknowledgement of the tradition from which the work comes out of. Part of this is likely related to the publishing company trying to highlight their author’s creativity, but I think the larger issue is a knowledge gap. I'll try and fill in a bit of that gap here, but of course it’s not a comprehensive picture. This is merely a blog post after all!

As you can see from the photos, the work is a book (the original text The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz) which has been die-cut to create a para-text by the explicit ‘author‘ (or is it editor?) Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is strongly reminiscent—at least to me—of Tom Phillips’ use of W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document as the sub-text for his para-text A Humument, the full current edition of which is now available online.

I can’t speak to the Tree of Codes (having not seen a physical copy), but A Humument actually has characters and plots that emerge in the para-text that aren't obvious in the sub-text by Mallock. They come out through loose poetic language, but are present nonetheless. This, to my mind, is what moves the para-text itself clearly into the realm of art (perhaps genius). Without these emergent characters and plots, the para-text would be rather shallow and barely noteworthy. Unfortunately, this distinction is largely lost in the few images posted below. For the total effect read through the book on Phillips’ site: http://www.humument.com/

Phillips admits influence from William Burroughs and his cut-up technique for writing. This was hardly a new idea or innovation from Burroughs, but pushes back to at least the Surrealists and DaDa. In all likelihood, other methods push back even earlier into some primordial conceptual headwaters that I'm unaware of. However, as with any exercise in ideological derivation such as this, I like to point out Jorge Luis Borges essay “Kafka and His Precursors”. Here’s a pertinent excerpt:

…If I am not mistaken, the heterogenous pieces I have listed resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This last fact is what is most significant. Kafka's idiosyncracy is present in each of these writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist…

…The word “precursor” is indispensable to the vocabulary of criticism, but one must try to purify it from any connotation of polemic or rivalry. The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

—J.L. Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors”, 1951

Whether or not Safran Foer is doing anything ‘original’—and therefore creating his own precursor a la Borges—is for another day. But, this work highlights what I think is a rather designerly way of working with received or found content. I would like to contend that a large portion of client-based design work involves the creation of para-texts, making these samples and their derivation of not insignificant interest to those of us interested in design processes.

As a final note, it's worth watching people’s reactions to seeing the book for the first time:

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer - Public Reactions from Visual Editions on Vimeo.