What if Arabs Had Invented the Printing Press?
The politics of script classification in the global Type Design industry
Let’s imagine an alternate universe where Arabs had invented the printing press, led the global information technology revolution and were the first to develop and export digital fonts to the rest of the world.
The hypothetical world’s leading Arabic type foundry has now taken upon itself the responsibility of elevating the standards of global typography. I, as the head of the Arabic Type Design team, was tasked to launch and supervise our non-Arabic Type department. But, to our dismay, our executive decision to create a reductive binary distinction of the world’s linguistic diversity and cultural polyvalence has been met with harsh criticism, especially by non-Arabs.
For those who are familiar with the post-structuralist critique of structural linguistics and the postcolonial theory of identity construction, you can probably see where I’m headed. But for those unfamiliar with such concepts and terms, perhaps by virtue of not having experienced first-hand the complexities of mixed identities and multilingualism, it is important to understand that the discussion around binary opposites has been a decades-long debate about the structure of language, and it continues to be of crucial importance to identity construction in a globalised world. But to properly examine the imaginary criticism I mentioned earlier, I will first briefly explain the post-structuralist critique.
Language is a constructed symbolic system whereby each term gains its meaning not independently but rather by its mutual and interdependent relation to other terms within that structure. “Up” is understood as an upward direction in relation to the word “down”. Structuralist theorists extended this idea from Linguistics to Anthropology to examine the underlying structure of culture, examining how people, across different cultures, have a tendency to make sense of the world and their identity through interdependent binaries, “us” and “them”. But, it wasn’t long before the post-structuralists and post-modernists highlighted the problematics of binary opposites, a reductive set of two terms that encapsulates the cultural biases of a central element versus a decentralised other.
To go back to my imaginary universe, it follows then that the binary Arabic / non-Arabic within the structure of Type Design, for example, is a logocentric view that privileges the Arabic script. It is a distinction that denotes a power imbalance and imposes a violent hierarchy: “Arabic” at the centre and everything else, “non-Arabic”, in the periphery. By using these terms, we have thus positively defined Arabic typefaces by “othering” the world’s multitude of scripts, which have now been reduced to a homogeneous group that knows itself negatively as the “not other”.
What I have put forth so far is nothing new. These issues have been highlighted by scholars and theorists such as Edward Said, Jacques Derrida and Homi K. Bhabha, among many others — I believe everyone in the field of communications would benefit from exploring these theories further (post/structuralism, post/modernism, post/colonialism). Binary opposites are a reductive, naive, and dangerous attempt from our part to make sense of the chaotic world we live in, and they reflect one point of view, which is often the view of those in power.
Let’s stop imagining now and look at the structure of the Type Design industry, informally and inadvertently defined by a narrow set of parameters: Latin and non-Latin. This classification implies a world where the Latin script has spearheaded the development of written communication and is thus in a privileged position to call everything else “non-Latin”. Just like Arabic/non-Arabic or West/East, the Latin/non-Latin binary is as problematic and politically charged and should be equally scrutinised. There is no right or wrong (you can tell by now I don’t like binaries) just like there is no absolute Truth but rather a set of cultural discourses that we take for granted and accept as normal, saying to ourselves in a conciliatory tone “it’s just the way the world is”. Nothing is normal about language or culture. We constructed them and thus they hold our biased point of view — and who isn’t exempt from cultural biases? The aim here is not to vilify the centre of such binaries but to critically see the fallacies of such structures, especially as we continue to inadvertently use unexamined terms.
In designating smoking and non-smoking areas, for example, the latter’s definition is reduced to one aspect: it’s the area where you cannot smoke. You can scream, dance, or jump around naked, but all these “positive” activities are of no value now that we have come to see this space as a negation, the absence of the central action of smoking. By the same token, is it fair then to expect that “non-Latin” typefaces accept their assigned definition as a group of scripts that exist only in relation to another central script? If it’s bizarre to answer the question “What do you do?” by saying “I design fonts that are not Latin”, it’s equally bizarre to refer to a set of one, hundreds, or thousands of scripts as non-Latin, non-Arabic, or non-whatever.
One can argue that the industry’s current script classification speaks of our shortcoming to discover common traits among scripts, besides the obvious fact that they’re not Latin. Indeed, script and font classification is a conversation we all need to actively and critically engage in. But will all designers have an equal say in this conversation?
As I was writing this article, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of how typefaces are the visual representation of language, and how we, type designers, have fallen into the same trap of structural linguistics and binary opposition, naively denying the power that language has in shaping our subjective reality. The double irony here is that the practice of type design further echoes the power dynamic of the Latin/non-Latin binary, especially if we look into who commissions, funds and designs typefaces that are labelled “non-Latin”.
But most ironically, I realised that I only mustered the confidence to raise this issue after my socio-economic position had been raised to a “first-world” British citizen, after I had long debated with myself Gayatri Spivak’s question “Can the subaltern speak?”. It is not surprising that many “non-Latin” type designers, the subalterns, are hesitant about publicly raising such pertinent concerns because of our peripheral position within the Latin-centric industry, accompanied by our fear of being professionally accepted. We opt instead to reserve much of our energy to understanding our social, economic and political subjectivity in an imbalanced power structure, and to reconciling our cultural identity and practice with our subconscious subordination to a higher standard set by our English education as we try to make a decent living out of a vocation we’re genuinely passionate about.
And so the question remains, do all designers have an equal say?