Derrida by Default
Dublin, 05.2011
Essay (introduction)
Complete text published in Artefact Issue 4, with essays by Professor James Elkins, Jill Murphy and Rachel Warriner.

Artefact is a peer reviewed journal published by the Irish Association of Art Historians in consultation with academics from universities across Ireland, North and South. It aims to provide an outlet for publication of new and emerging scholarship in Ireland. For more information please see here.

Derrida by Default: Wolfgang Weingart & the Accidental Deconstruction
of Swiss Typography

Introduction

Of Grammatology (1967) is regularly cited as one of the most historically significant books written by the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, it having been the one that introduced the concept of deconstruction into literary discourse. A reflection on the nature of language and the written word, the book critiques the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure and Jean-Jacques Rousseau among other philosophers, linguists and literary theorists. Deconstruction is a term used to describe the particular manner in which Derrida, through close reading and detailed examination, attempted to highlight what he saw as unquestioned assumptions and contradictions contained within their work. It subsequently became the term that defined his career, during which he continued to write prolifically on a range of subjects including the nature of language, speech and writing, life and death, culture, politics, ethics, religion and literature. During the 1960s and 1970s deconstruction was associated with the development of post-structuralism, a field of academic criticism that examined how modes of representation shape society, and included the work of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault among others. Similarly, as it coincided with the increasing prominence of postmodern discourse during this time, deconstruction also later became associated with the arts and many design disciplines including architecture, fashion and graphic design. In terms of design at least, as it became further and further removed from its original context, the application of deconstruction as a theoretical foundation for work was met with mixed results — at its best, it was a new approach that utilised recent technological advances to critically challenge convention, at its worst, visual gimmickry that disguised itself with ambiguous references to critical theory. Much of the style of the ‘deconconstructivist’ graphic design of the 1980s and early 1990s had been inspired by the distinct visual language of Wolfgang Weingart, a German-born graphic designer who had taught at the School of Design in Basel, Switzerland in the preceding years. Yet, when Weingart was producing his most influential work, during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the notion of deconstruction as a visual practice had not yet come into existence.

This essay proposes that during these early stages of their careers and spanning approximately the same timeframe, Weingart’s typography and Derrida's writing reflected similar themes, in spite of the fact that each appears to have been unaware of the work of the other. Through the analysis of specific examples, it proposes that there are a number of instances where themes that feature in Derrida’s writing - such as the trace, parergon, and what the literary critic Nicholas Royle has referred to as the ‘de-centring’ effect of Derrida’s work – are reflected in Weingart’s typography. The essay argues that Weingart’s output during this period ought to be considered as an early and fully realised instance of typographic deconstruction — not as merely a stylistic precursor to deconstructive graphic design.

Many thanks to Wolfgang Weingart and Lars Müller Publishers for their permission to reproduce the illustrations discussed in this essay, and to Dr. Linda King and Maeve O'Neill for their editorial assistance.