Florence Margaret Paisey
The Material Construction of Textuality
Textuality and materiality are indivisible. Material forms or materiality and its
textuality inhere meaning and hermeneutics, creating a substrate of textuality, whether in
digital objects and artifacts or physical artifacts. Inscription or textuality creates
materiality. My argument, therefore, rests on the notion that materiality and textuality are
sociotechnical innovations and that they are interwoven, so that the construction of text,
as McKenzie stated, forms materiality or material construction (McKenzie 14).
This constructed materiality or substrate of a text unites with textual forms to produce
a mise-en-page, interacting with its elements, such as typography, producing textual
interpretive potentialities greater than the sum of their separate or discrete parts.
Durkheim (1895) viewed the whole as greater than the sum of its parts – so it is with
materiality and textuality. Each inheres embedded and self-evident meaning and rhetoric
that contributes to a holistic sense of communication.
Greetham (11) holds that any medium of communication technology – graffiti,
painting, fresco, architectural space, musical composition or book – is the purview of the
textual scholar. He maintains that it is for the textual scholar to grasp the sense of these
forms, their function, and their sense or ontology and content. Material forms or
materiality and the informational content contained within, textuality, inhere meaning and
Textuality, then constructs materiality in all forms and characterizes the technologies
and architecture of the mise-en-page. This page, so often taken for granted, is not simply
a receptacle for “the transmission of ideas” (Mak 9). The page, in itself, together with
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inscribed traces, such as typography, communicates sense or meaning and often
influences one’s thought. The relationship between the materiality of the page and its
elements is of consequence. This relationship, between the materiality and the material
construction of textuality has been reciprocal from the origins of recorded messages in
antiquity, such as clay tables to current digital media. The historical passage of the
material constructions of textuality and the mise-en-page form a dynamic relationship
with a historical progression of material constructions and textuality or the organization
of information on a page.
However, what exactly constitutes the mise-en-page? As stated previously, the miseen-page is the material construction of texts – words, graphics, markers, memorials,
symphonies, paintings or artefacts that are inclusive of all communication technologies
from papyrus prayer scrolls, scripts, Roman lapidary letterforms to digital media and the
typography allied with digital media. Each form of a mise-en-page organizes information
differently, yet each forms a material, if invisible or intangible, construction of textuality
and how that textuality is displayed.
However, before addressing the importance of the technology of the mise-en-page and
the effects of the technology of letterforms or typography on the transmission of
messages or communication, let us turn to the factors that underpin continued growth and
sustainability of textual technologies, in general. How did the mise-en-page evolve; what
factors led to its continued growth and sustenance?
The notion of what factors determine the success or failure of a technology lies at
the heart of the growth and sustenance of textual technologies in general and the mise-enpage together with specific letterforms. In recognizing the social dimension of textual
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technologies, one is also acknowledging that the social as well as the technical are
collaborative in shaping what technologies develop and how they are purposed. This
relates as much to textual technologies as it does to a bicycle, mailbox or spoon.
Pinch & Bijker, “If [technologies] evolve or change, it is because they have been
pressed into that shape” (13). In this sense, the social can be viewed as a path of
“associations” between unstable heterogeneous elements. What processes and
associations influence the shape and direction of technologies? Why do technologies
develop in one direction, rather than another? What pressed the mise-en-page of the clay
tablet into papyrus, and papyrus into parchment, vellum, paper, and all materiality that
undergirds textuality? What moved letterforms from cuneiform to Hebrew forms, Greek,
and Latin, which, ultimately, became identified as the Roman alphabet and the basis on
which variations of Western letterforms or typefaces evolved?
Textual technologies have taken on many forms from monuments to scrolls to tattoos
and digital media. Clearly each textual technology and the materiality on which it is
constructed carry variant meanings, functions and content. They are sociotechnical
communication technologies. How have textual technologies, in particular the mise-enpage and letterforms, been shaped or constructed by social dimensions? What social,
historical and technical negotiations have directed their innovation, evolution and their
diversity? What motivates an individual to appropriate a particular technology or artifact
while discarding another? These issues are at the heart of a sociotechnical perspective.
The sociotechnical point of view maintains that the social and the technical do not
develop as mutually exclusive entities, propelled by separate systems of internal logic or
determinism. They develop in counterpoint, seamlessly, within heterogeneous
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contingencies that societal, economic, political, scientific, professional and psychological
dimensions impress. This sociotechnical perspective maintains the perspective (and
assumption) that “technology, the social world, and the course of history should all be
treated as messy contingencies” (Bijker & Law 8).
One of the seminal papers that sets forth principles aimed at explaining the dynamics
of sociotechnical innovation is Pinch & Bijker’s The Social Construction of Facts and
Artefacts or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit
Each Other. They state, “… science and technology are both socially constructed
cultures and bring to bear whatever cultural resources are appropriate for the purposes at
hand” (Pinch & Bijker 404).
Pinch & Bijker emphasize that elaborate social, scientific, and technological shaping
occurs owing to discourse and negotiations within social and technical environments.
The organizing principles encompassed in this discourse open the black box of
technological development by identifying the actors and agents involved in technological
innovation, its perceived applications, utilization, advancement, and integral social
applications. Pinch & Bijker refer to this unit of organizing principles, framework, or
theory as the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT). I will argue that SCOT does,
indeed, offer a logical set of propositions that, when applied as a unit, will offer an
empirical means of understanding how textual technologies are parlayed, applied, and
directed as part of a cohesive, yet fluid, social fabric and construction.
While Pinch & Bijker focused on sociotechnical innovations such as the bicycle,
aircraft, and household appliances, their perspective addressed what factors move or
drive any technology – this would include textual technologies. And, from a
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sociotechnical perspective, textual technologies – of all forms and functions – need to be
relevant to a social need or interest, be economically advantageous and politically
valuable – certainly as a means of disseminating information whether as affirmation or
protest. The central precepts that arise from this proposition include “relevant social
groups”, “interpretive flexibility”, the “technological frame”, “inclusion”,
“controversies”, “stabilization” and “closure”.
In terms of SCOT, each relevant social group is characterized by particular variables
and each group holds a stake in a particular technology or feature of a technology,
including textual technologies. Were movable type irrelevant to the interests of
significant social groups, another textual technology would have developed as
negotiations among stakeholders altered the artifact and reached stabilization or
resolution. Aldus Manutius’ script, lettera antica, became a model for many engravers
(Jean 98). Manutius’s octavo format supplanted the quarto as a portable, inexpensive
codex. University students needed a less expensive, portable, book. In turn, as the
octavo’s size required smaller pages, the composition, organization and layout of the
page evolved while also ushering in letterforms suitable to a smaller format.
Sociotechnical factors moved and directed the flow the innovation both for the mise-enpage and the inscribed letterforms.
The key principles in sociotechnical construction and potential technological success
are the “interpretive flexibility”, the amount of “inclusion” or perceived meaning that a
technology offers, and “relevant social groups” within a “technological frame.” This
social constructivist perspective on technology identifies, conceptualizes, describes, and
explains technological progression and the significant factors in play during its social
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construction. That is to say, SCOT views technological development as a dialectical
sociotechnical construction enacted between innovators and stakeholders or “relevant
social groups” (Pinch & Bijker 406). As a theory, SCOT furnishes an explanation for an
applied area of inquiry – it aims to explain the success [or failure] of an artefact.
Having briefly discussed a few precepts of SCOT and the rationale it offers for the
stabilization of technological innovations, it is now appropriate to turn to the textual
technologies of the mise-en-page and letterforms – each of which complements the other.
Bringhurst states, “A page like a building or a room can be of any size and proportion,
but some are more pleasing than others, and some have quite specific connotations”
(143). The design of a page, or mise-en-page, consists of lines or forms and the
relationships among those elements. The functions of such design are manifold and may
include imparting information or knowledge, influencing beliefs, attitudes, impressions,
or behavior, entertaining, achieving an aesthetic quality that is compelling to readers.
Any one of these notions describes a function of the mise-en-page, although any one text
can include all of the above. Consider the following image, recently published in the New
Yorker magazine. This image – without letterforms – imparts information, aims to
influence attitudes, achieves an aesthetic quality and dignity that elevates its message
and, clearly, opens views to its message.
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JR’s Mise-en-Page of Protest in a Brazilian favela -- The New Yorker Magazine,
November 28, 2011
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This is a text of protest. As depicted, the shanties in the Brazilian slum are painted –
clearly, the most flagrant images are the eyes and their positioning as they look out and
over the slum. This mural followed a Brazilian military raid, thought to be connected to
the Brazilian mafia. Three young men of the favela were killed. Afterward, the generally
quiet and socially isolated community rioted in protest. Although many were injured
during the riot, no medical aid was called or administered. Following the riot, the painted
eyes throughout the favela began to appear. The painter responsible for the images is JR,
a French painter who heard of the killings, traveled to Rio, introduced himself to
residents of the community and began painting. The residents said they wanted dignity –
JR sought to attract attention to the plight of this community (Khatchadourian 56).
This mural lacks letterforms, yet it is a mise-en-page and it is an unambiguous
example of how materiality restricts or constrains textuality, compelling the artist to
innovate and find a means of depicting a narrative within the constraints of the
materiality. The favela emerges as a conceptual structure that directed the organization or
composition of the information or images. The proportions of the mural are balanced and
linked to individuals – like a printed page, this mural evokes certain responses in the
reader, independently of the discrete elements in the mural or text on a printed page.
Materiality and textuality are linked – their meanings conflated, content and function
Text or letterforms on a page have values, social, individual, cultural, and phonetic.
They are representations of thought and speech that express rhythmic meter and, like
poetry, that rhythmic meter embraces meaning, communication, and functionality. The
combination of the printed mise-en-page and letterform (including punctuation, paratext,
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rubrics, rubrication, running titles, and marginalia) all offer the reader interpretative
potentialities and performances. Mak states, “...structures for arranging these letterforms
in manuscripts and printed books are graphic indications of how graphic designers
visualized ideas and organized them for themselves and others” (16).
Early page designers divided the page to aid reading and understanding. One of the
most influential Protestant bibles was the Geneva Bible; its influence and popularity
related strongly to the interpretive aids provided. These aid included study features such
as illustrations, maps, annotations, marginalia, and the Roman letterforms that facilitated
reading. A few editions of this bible were issued with Gothic blacklettering, but what
became the household bible for nearly a century, just preceding the King James Bible,
was lettered with a clear, legible, serious Roman Textura letterform and Robert
Estienne’s numbered verses. These reading aids, as identified above, contextualized the
reading experience in elemental ways.
The mise-en-page and typography are expressive features of materiality and textuality;
they are cultural artefacts and technological innovations. Each innovation has developed
and been negotiated socially as well as economically until the most stable form was
attained. The great typographers, Aldine, Grippo, Jensen, Estienne, Garamond, Gill,
Morris all achieved a balance between art and sociotechnical variables. Jenson, however,
is noted particularly for his contribution to the mise-en-page, which became a model of
composition and arrangement on the page. Jensen succeeded in translating the humanistic
script from manuscript to type where legibility of forms and spacing of letters, so that
they provide a match between counters (Chappell 79).
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The variety of typefaces developed since the 15th century, when the printing press
was invented, has given mise-en-page an immense range of possibilities. Yet, despite this
range, generally letterforms may be traced back to scribal origins. Although many
computers, for example, make available more than 100 fonts, with options for lightface,
boldface or italic; for black and white or a variety of colors; and for a wide range of type
sizes, all of these options, ultimately, derive from scribal forms or early letterforms and
The mise-en-page done well depends not just on the prudent use of letterforms and
organization, but also on the application of basic design principles. Among them are
balance, contrast, proportion, and unity. Among these principles are balance, contrast,
proportion, and unity. Jensen, again, was a master of this perspective. The concept of
page or mise-en-page has expanded with the advance of technology. Clay, papyrus,
parchment, and vellum were early materials, as were the walls of caves such as Lascaux
and other topographical features. (The carvings of historical faces on Mount Rushmore
are modern extensions of this, as are graffiti and murals on the walls of buildings.)
In conclusion, it is apropos to mention de Saussure and the post-structuralists such as
Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, and Eco. These semiotic linguists have enlarged and
deepened our understanding of materiality and textuality – what one views as a conflation
of messages embedded in the mise-en-page and the placement of its letterforms together
with the letterform, itself, can be further understood in light of de Saussure’s sign and
Strauss’ floating signifier. Each form of materiality and textual inscription conveys a
message, a communication. These messages reach the reader as signs that one’s culture
and society have established with specific connotations. Although the sense of signs
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existed from antiquity, an awareness of what triggers the messaging in textual, material
constructions extends our understanding of technological textuality and role that
materiality plays in its multi-layered communication.
The shaping and direction of textual technologies rests on sociotechnical factors where
social and economic issues play into the direction innovation moves and attains stability.
Neither technical achievement nor technological innovation proceeds along a detached,
linear, deterministic path. Rather, scientific anomalies and social factors influence the
discovery, construction, design, and production of knowledge and technology, textual
technologies. One of the many theories on how the social shapes technology is the social
construction of technology (SCOT). This theoretical framework offers a means of
analyzing how social factors shape innovations and how the process of innovation, in
turn, provides insight into how technological innovations develop. AJ’s mural on the
shanties in Brazil is an artistic innovation, moved by injustice as a performance,
inscription, and sign of social protest. The mural or textuality is constrained by the
materiality of shanties rising up a hillside. The mise-en-page and its counterpoint –
typography – are shaped by the material construction of the page and produce a
personality that functions through its content as a performance for readers.
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