Editor’s Note: Regular readers of RD may notice that the following essay is presented in the Helvetica typeface, save for the brief mention of the Charlemagne STD typeface in “Tab Two.”
I’m doing my morning devotions—Web-browsing with Americano—and, as one does, I begin to open more and more tabs, read a bit, close a few, and move on to the next thing. Before I know it I’ve only got two tabs open. One is Stanley Fish’s recent New York Times blog post, “God Talk,” in which he reviews literary critic Terry Eagleton’s new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Therein Eagleton has an important row with the amalgamous personage he has termed “Ditchkins” (Richard Dawkins + Christopher Hitchens), decrying their confusion of categories between faith and reason. While I appreciate Fish’s take on Eagleton’s take on Ditchkins (and sympathize with the anger of “having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of schoolyard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins”), I find myself once again frustrated by the intellectualism of these debates, including Fish’s and Eagleton’s entrance into them.
By coincidence, the other tab open on my screen is last year’s Atlantic interview with filmmaker Gary Hustwit about his 2007 film Helvetica. The Helvetica typeface (easily found on your Word program) was created by the Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Edüard Hoffmann in the 1950s, and has become the most widely-used typeface in the modern age (think The Gap, Crate & Barrel, Sears, and signage in most cities in the United States and Europe). Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently acquired Helvetica as part of its permanent collection, the first typeface they have ever collected. Helvetica, whether we are conscious of it or not, has become a central visual reference in modern Western culture.
Two tabs. One sacred and one profane? The Internet as a mode of erasing such differences? But the truth is more complex. What I am after here is not a discourse on the reduction of all messages, great and small, to the medium of the Web page, interesting as that might be; but rather the constant interrelation of the medium and the message, and how they are dependent on each other. The philosophy and the font.
Reason, Faith, and Revolution, as a book and as a separable series of concepts, are themselves amalgamations of the sacred and the profane. So is Helvetica, as a film and as a typeface. Furthermore, reason, faith, and revolution are dependent on the media in which they are created. Printed documents, whether they are revolutionary tracts or sacred texts, are dependent on the graphic designs in and through which they are produced, disseminated, and received.
In his book, as reported by Fish, Eagleton indicates the religious import of questions like: “Why is there anything in the first place?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity, and intelligibility come from?” In this discussion, as in all too many proposals by the Ditchkins varieties (as well as their detractors), the questions have to do with abstract concepts like ultimate reality, “God,” and whether such belief in these objects is rational.
But, let’s be honest; under normal circumstances most religious people do not ask such questions. True, at various points in life many might question the existence of higher powers, or whether life itself is supposed to have meaning. Yet the phrasings given by the literary critics, scientists, and theologians obscure the deeply-felt engagement with the issues. They become the highly convoluted and disembodied queries of the linguistically inclined. Scholars, and those with careers in writing, might like to put those words in the mouths of the devout, but they are not common questions of the religious-minded. Or, more accurately, of the religious-embodied.
Fish and Eagleton, as well as Dawkins and Hitchens, all have important points that are worth talking about. The problem comes when these discussions revolve solely around “beliefs” and “God,” and then pretend to be talking about “religion.” Religion, I would argue, is much more complex, holistic, interesting, and even entertaining than quasi-logical talking heads discussing words and ideas.
Religion begins and ends with the human body; with all its sensational interactions within a sensual world. Religious people touch and taste, smell and see the sacred objects of the world; long before and ever after the conceptual universe of doctrines and beliefs and views of “God.”
In Hustwit’s intriguing documentary, Helvetica, we hear from a number of graphic designers and typographers discussing the ubiquitous-but-oft-loathed typeface. On the one hand it is amazing to hear the praise and/or hatred that respectable people can have for something so “profane” as a typeface, and viewers of the film are brought face to typeface with some of the passions that designers have for what now seems a natural design. One of the points the film makes is that Helvetica is now so visible it has become invisible. But this invisibility stirs the souls of those who do see such things.
On the other hand, viewers of the film are privy to rational explanations for the effect of particular fonts on particular messages. The graphic designer Neville Brody, for example, suggests how one can try to promote a message, but depending on the typeface “the immediate emotional response will be different, and the choice of typeface is the prime weapon.” Brody says this from an advertising point of view, but imagine:
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in Helvetica (too nice a typeface to start a reformation)…
Dawkins’ The God Delusion in Charlemagne STD (I kinda think Dawkins would have liked this)…
As discussed in a previous essay (RD’s very first feature, in fact), I noted how the use of Gothic type for the titles and interlinears in P.T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood sets a certain religious agenda for the film from the start. Font matters. It changes our minds, even before we begin reading and watching.
The argument that becomes most intriguing in Hustwit’s documentary, and that is most interesting in comparison to arguments for why people believe in God, comes from columnist and advertising critic, Leslie Savan, who declares,
“Helvetica has the perfect balance of push and pull… Helvetica is saying to us, ‘Don’t worry. Any of the problems you are having, or problems in the world… all those problems aren’t going to spill over. They’ll all be contained, and, in fact, maybe they don’t even exist.’”
Is Savan talking theology or typography here? Do fonts speak what gods wish? The answer is a bit of both. True, Savan would be surprised to know her words are taken for a theological spin, but really, it is not far at all from the comfort-giving arguments for the believed existence of God.
Whether or not God exists, Ditchkins and detractors agree, the idea of something supernatural has proven to be quite intractable in human progress as it lets us know everything is going to be all right. Gods are good for human well-being. Could the same be said for a typeface? The typeface of late capitalism to be exact? A typeface that says: “Do not worry. Trust in me. Put your value here, and you will be rewarded”? Here we are back to the suture of Tabs One and Two, the intricate and delicate relations between font and philosophy.