Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros13VariaPolitical epistemology of the aut...


Political epistemology of the autographic mark

Johanna Drucker


Une distinction entre les signes autographes et allographes fut formulée par l’historien de l’art Nelson Goodman dans son œuvre majeure, Les Langages d’Art (1972). Cette distinction lie les qualités significatives de la forme avec la fonction des signes en tant que systèmes de notation. En analysant cette différence, cet article s’interroge sur la dimension épistémologique et politique que peut prendre/avoir le rôle des signes autographes en ce qui concerne la notion de sujet d’énonciation. Les autoportraits de André Breton et de Lazar El Lissitzky fournissent les principaux exemples puisqu’ils démontrent deux concepts très différents de subjectivité artistique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Todd Haselton, “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet NFT sells for $2.9 Million,” CNBC. 3/22/2021. (...)

1When Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, sold his first-ever tweet and “autographed” it with an encrypted signature, the gesture was more metaphor than material, even if the unique status of the non-fungible token was being authenticated in the process.1 Whatever marks were made in this transaction were inscribed automatically in a silicon substrate as digital code, not scrawled with some crude ink pen on a visible surface. While the term “autograph” was invoked for all of the resonance it has in such circumstances, the graphical features intrinsic to traditional signature marks were not present. The paradox—that the autograph was lacking the very components by which it is defined—did not keep it from performing symbolically. Still, something is missing, literally as well as figuratively, from this picture and the tweet in question appeared naked and uninscribed. The status of the autograph as a material entity is somewhat blurred by this practice—or is it?

2Hand-made and machine-produced written signs can perform many of the same functions, particularly when they instantiate alpha-numeric code. But the indexical quality of hand-made marks, their link to the somatic pulses and motions of a specific individual body, suggests that in their material form they signify differently from machine produced ones—both in the way they produce signification and what they might signify. The way they signify is through highly specific and infinitely varied forms. No two hand-made marks are ever identical. On a forensic level, no two machine-produced marks are either—each has within it the unique fingerprint of its instantiation. But functionally and epistemologically, machine-made marks can be swapped, one for another, so long as they are the same sign. One typed or laser-printed letter “a” is functionally the same as another, within reason (even if variant typefaces can complicate this basic equivalence through stylistic features). But what hand-made marks signify might be more fundamental and harder to substitute—the capacity of a sign to embody the trace of an individual subject and to inscribe a specific moment in time.

3A few questions arise from these observations. Do the differences between hand-made and machine-produced marks constitute an epistemological distinction? Do they produce knowledge differently and enact or embody different categories of knowledge? The argument proposed here is that what inheres in the autographic mark-as-made is a specific performance of sentient inscription. As already noted, on a forensic basis, uniqueness and distinction are properties of both kinds of marks—no two inscriptions are ever the same or identical one to another. But a distinction can be made in the ways such non-identicality is related to knowledge production and differences in the ways handmade and machine-produced marks function epistemologically. Whether this supports the additional notion of a political dimension to this distinction that is engaged with agency–through embodiment or location of knowledge, related to and essential for an individuated subject—remains to be seen. Given the proliferation of digital and mechanical production of signs—not only handwritten marks, but also images and simulacra of self and other in visual and virtual modes—the stakes for this discussion are connected to where and how links between knowledge and subjectivity are linked, enacted, expressed, and represented.

  • 2 Maria Giulia Dondero, in her comments on a draft of this piece, noted that Gerhard Richter’s “touch (...)

4Many aspects of the framework just outlined are open to criticism. Privileging a hand-made mark might seem to support a nostalgic concept of sign-making. This could be seen as a lingering influence of a romantic paradigm of the artist as a unique individual distinguished by their idiosyncrasy and quirks. In such a paradigm, interior life manifests itself in individual expression. The myth is that the brush, the hand and the touch communicate the compositional fingerprint that guarantees authenticity by virtue of its connection to the artist’s body and unique sensibility as a site and source of production.2 An equally questionable, but different, paradigm lurks in the characterization of technologies of mechanical production as always reducing complicated activities to repetitive acts that lack inflection or expressive range. Wariness about these hard binaries is in order. A line made with a compass and ruling pen, though produced by hand, may be as lacking in individual inflection as the output of a plotting device, while the marks made on an electronic tablet might have a quite distinctive and unique character.

5However, on a very personal level, a visceral experience of alienation is produced when an electronic document makes a “signature” out of a kitsch-italic font as its simulacrum of a handwritten gesture. The immediate response to the highly mechanical signature is “that signature is not me.” The chain of equivalence is broken. The “me” is not merely narcissistically attached to the specificity of the signature, but also, dependent on the recognition of individuated self-hood that inheres in its material expression. We need to see signs, traces of our selves, in order to have a sense of our identity as subjects. Without this, the chain of identification is broken. Some crucial aspect of the way identity becomes apparent to the self is negated. No matter how many times, or with what pressure, speed, or other gestural variation the name is typed into the signature box, the same image returns. It cannot be inflected, cannot register any change. The evidence of self is reduced to a bland trace, a surrogate for an actual mark, a sign of a category of signification that cannot be made to enact an absent presence in an embodied form. The question is whether this banishes the possibility, renders inoperable the very capacity, for a self to self-recognize through a trace made in the world.

6One crucial question, then, for the political aspect of mark-making, is whether one of the fundamental activities by which an individual subject comes to have an identity to themselves is through making, leaving, and recognizing an externalized trace. That external sign, made by a self and then perceived, functions to affirm an identity not merely within an interior life, but as a presence in a world where the subject is situated. Phenomenologically, we cannot see our selves as embodied subjects (except in the very important mirrored aspect so central to the psychoanalytic formulations of Jacques Lacan and other psychoanalysts). Therefore, the dependence on an externalized trace serves a profound function in the constitution of subjective identity. In addition, a trace that signifies an act of knowledge, an inscribed record of sentient engagement with perception, has yet more resonance in its embodied form.

7In my own experience, the relation to autographic marks is not limited to handwriting, but has a deep connection to my long-standing drawing practice. Learning to use a pencil in hand as a way to inscribe the knowledge gained from observation, to become the producer of a carefully modulated line in a process that becomes almost automatic, was transformative. So well-tuned are eye and mind, hand and instrument, that the experience becomes an integration of automatic and autographic action. The activity is also profoundly instructive in showing how knowledge is linked to visuality as a distinct mode of apprehension and expression. Graphical knowledge, transcribed as mark-making, inscribes a continuous attention to observation mediated through an individual subjectivity. This is non-trivial in the way the material dimensions of the marks embody this activity. In addition, these acts of drawing demonstrated how intimately the somatic dimension of subject identity is linked to the process of mark-making. Knowledge production within an individual identity manifested as inscription retains within its material trace a record of that sentient activity. The hand-made mark signifies this as a specific record but also as a category of signification.

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Drawing by the author, 1974. By permission of the author.

8Many kinds of marks and traces are made in the course of daily life. The pattern of breath disturbs the air. The movement of feet leaves its prints, the touch of a hand to a glass, passage of a car through a muddy track, the scuff-trail of a wheeled suitcase dragged across a floor—nearly every action leaves some kind of mark. Many marks are also mechanically produced, through keyboards and swipe motions, output devices far removed from the graphite pencils of the studio or the fingerprint on a random surface. Their capacity for differentiation maps onto primary functions of identity formation, authenticity, and knowledge production, but again, does this differently in hand-made and machine-produced marks. Attitudes about these functions find their expression in a highly self-conscious attention to the political significance of mark-making in modern aesthetics.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

André Breton, L’Écriture Automatique, 1923. Image in public domain.

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Lazar El Lissitzky, The Constructor, 1924. Image in public domain.

Self-portraiture and inscription of identity

9A pair of vivid and concrete examples offers a striking contrast embedded within the history of modern art and its beliefs about subjectivity and artistic practice as a social construction. In 1923, André Breton, self-proclaimed leader of the Surrealist movement, and Lazar El Lissitzky, an influential figure in Russian Constructivism, each produced self-portraits that included specific references to modes of writing. In fact, each of their identities as artists-writers was bound to their convictions about the technics of writing as a mode of mark-making.

10Breton is shown above a microscope beneath which fleeing horses race away from a globe of light while a woman, trapped in the background by a grid that confines her in a separate space smiles at the serious young poet who refuses to be distracted. The image, labelled “L’écriture automatique,” (“Automatic writing”), suggests the combination of dream, unconscious drives, and eroticism as sources of a lyrical subject’s poetics. Breton’s vision is a modern extension of Romanticism. The artist draws on inner life to produce work in the world that inscribes an individual identity in expression. The handwritten scrawl of the label/title enacts that inscription in a form that is its quintessential sign—the autographic mark. The Surrealists were well-known for their engagement with automatism, the trance-like condition in which they recorded texts, images, scrawls that came without conscious direction. This was seen as a source for imagery that by-passed the censoring mechanisms of convention, subverted bourgeois limits, and provided justification for aesthetic expressions that were conducted like research. The presence of the microscope and the scrupulously correct appearance of Breton in his starched shirt, clean cuffs and collar, argue visually for a rational and socially correct relation to the experiment underway. No wanton hedonism, no Expressionist indulgence in dance or frenzy, but instead, a project undertaken in clinical conditions to expose the rich contents of the poet’s unconscious as a source. Again, the quintessential graphic sign of the poet as individual—and individuated—was the mark of the hand, the writing of “écriture” as an autographic act.

11On some level, this image is purely a statement of an aesthetic program, an agenda of exploration and experiment. Nothing particularly political inheres in its imagery. Nor does Breton’s claim for the political value of Surrealism rely on a lyrical subject’s automatic autographic activity. But the value of subversion of bourgeois norms, conventions, and release from repression by social pressures could be construed (and generally is) as the core issue of the politics of the early 20th century avant-garde, with Surrealism as the last of that period’s revolutionary movements. The crux of the issue resides in what the autographic trace signifies beyond the semantic contents. How important is it that Breton’s image contains an autographic mark—and what work is it doing by its form?

12The second image, Lissitzky’s self-portrait as The Constructor, was made the next year, 1924. Though also a photographic collage (the approach was an outcome of Dada visual methods and became another graphic sign associated with modernity), the image is radically different in its composition and semiotics. Lissitzky wears a knitted turtleneck, no suit or tie, and his hair is close-cropped, giving his head a strong sculptural formality (Breton’s hair, while neatly coiffed, was longer and swept back). Lissitzky is a modern man and all associations with past fashions are banished. The artist’s hand appears over his eye holding an open compass. And behind, against a ground of gridded engineering paper, the stencil lettering of the final letters of the alphabet. The eye and compass are an old visual symbol, associated with Masons, creation, esoteric and secret and applied knowledge. The open hand with the “all-seeing eye,” has a long association with alchemy, but is so common it even appears on the United States one-dollar bill, traceable to a late-18th century original.3 The image also appears in William Blake as the golden compass to illuminate passages from John Milton’s Paradise Lost that describe the creation of the rational and conventional universe.4 In his own visions, Blake puts the compass in the hands of a figure named Urizen whose rational systems are limiting and repressive, conventions that trap and constrain imagination embodied by Los, the other element of Blake’s cosmology. But Lissitzky uses the imagery to reimagine the identity of an artist as a constructor, someone working within the formal languages of geometry to develop a mechanistic aesthetics. His vocabulary of forms of mark-making do not bear the trace of the hand, but of the stencil, the straight-edge, the compass, and the grid. The artist of this new modern world is meant to employ a graphic language of industrial production, and to train the body to conform to its patterns and processes. Lissitzky embodies—and the term is used deliberately to suggest the way the discipline of formalism imposes itself on the somatic impulses and capacities—a notational approach to mark-making. No autographic trace of the lyrical subject remains, instead, the subject is a construct of systems and process, social and formal, universal and cultural, lifted out of history even as the historical specificity of the concept of universality itself so conspicuously attends to his vision.

13The contrast between these two portraits provides a model of the way the distinction between autographic and allographic marks becomes integral to concepts of artistic practice and identity. Each offers a distinct image of artistic practice—and knowledge—one rooted in a lyrical subject and interiority, the other in a social system of formal signs. The contrast can be understood in terms of theoretical characterizations of sign systems, as per the work of later 20th-century writers.

Nelson Goodman: Distinction between the allographic and autographic

14The concept of the autographic mark invoked in this argument does not refer only to the generic idea of the handmade trace. It can be understood in terms borrowed directly from Nelson Goodman’s foundational 1968 book, The Languages of Art (Goodman 1968). Goodman, an analytic philosopher interested in formal approaches to aesthetics, distinguished autographic from allographic notation systems on logical grounds. Autographic works, such as handwritten documents and painting, cannot be remediated without loss of information. But in addition, Goodman considered an autographic work to be completely constituted by and through its making. In other words, a painting is a fully replete and finished expression. It can be forged, or copied, but it does not need to be “performed” for its latent contents to be expressed. Allographic works, by contrast, are composed of notational signs that can (and in a sense, must) be used for an infinite number of performances—like a musical score. The signs allow for the production of the work—as in the case of binary digits or ASCII code which can be executed repeatedly. The instantiated performance of an allographic notation can take any number of forms—you could play a piece on a child’s piano, an upright instrument, or a concert grand to very different effects. But the performance completes the work.

15Several quibbles can be made with Goodman’s original assumptions. For instance, even in allographic documents, every instantiation is distinct and discrete—and even, in his terms, replete as a material object. Likewise, autographic expressions can be considered provocations to performance. A painting, work of art, is made by anew by a viewer in each instance as much as a musical piece is produced in a performance. But Goodman’s argument was also concerned with authenticity. While it was clear that a painting could be forged, a musical piece could not (though a score could be), since every performance is considered a valid instantiation of the work. By contrast, the history of the production of an autographic work, its moment and temporal conditions of production, were considered an integral part of its identity and also seen as a record present in the object (a copy of a painting made years later, even by the original artist, would be considered a forgery because of the temporal remove). Goodman was interested in authenticity, but also, the referential and representational work of notation systems. Most importantly, he conceived of aesthetic work in formal, logical terms, rather than within cultural practices that were not central to his project.

16The other phrase in my title, political epistemology, suggests that knowledge inscription be understood as a politically significant action, something Goodman did not consider. His analytic approach did not include attention to a producing subject (though he was made use of constructivist theories of knowledge and cognition). But his concept of performance attended to the production of the work, not the experience of either artist or audience. However, the link between making a mark and producing knowledge depends on the existence of a sentient subject within a social system of communication that is, inevitably, a specific historical and cultural one. To understand epistemology as political is to posit that it serves a role in transformations of power relations, and, in this argument, posits that the autographic mark signifies that possibility in a crucial way.

17Goodman’s argument was that the value of notational marks inheres in their formal structure. Different kinds of marks produce specific effects through distinct formal qualities in advance of any semantic content they communicate. The information of the mark is bound to the coming-into-being of its material expression and then all that follows from this. In other words, the difference between an autographic and an allographic notation is significant—the distinction itself signifies. An allographic work could be hand-made—a musical score can be produced or copied by hand—but the qualities of those marks did not matter, did not factor materially into their signifying capacity, if the score were treated only as the basis of a performance, not as a primary material artifact. The distinction between allographic and autographic works thus relates to their use as well as to their material properties.

  • 5 Photographs have the capacity to be subjective expressions, without doubt, as has been argued since (...)

18Goodman did not fetishize the mark of the hand as a guarantee of authenticity. His logical distinction was not a value judgment, but a basis for understanding how representation worked. Was a work sufficient in its presentation or did it need to be completed by a performative act? But for an artist who uses the hand as a primary instrument of producing lines or marks, the generative act carries multiple valences from incidental to deliberate. At the most extreme focus of attention, a drawn trace serves to register the direct stimulus of visual perception through a motor-sensory action. For an experienced artist, this process is almost automatic—no moment to moment instruction has to guide the hand. The action has become a process in which the well-trained motions feel their way to expressing information in the trace of marks whose thinning and thickening can inscribe form and volume with a single line. What the artist knows has no other form to it, no other expression, and everything in the hand-drawn image comes into it through this physical process which is an indexical trace of the artist. The contrast with mechanistically produced images provides another dimension to this discussion. Traditional photography is also indexical—both in the “pencil of nature” sense that produces an image from light and in its ability to inscribe an individual sensibility in framing, point of view, and other selective choices.5 At the level of the mark, however, photographs are immediately replete, they are graphically full and each area of the image is informationally complete without the requirement that it be attended to individually. Much incidental information is registered as a result—and this can in turn be mined and analyzed, sometimes with surprising outcomes. The information recorded in a photograph is greater than the individual maker’s knowledge of the scene and can be recovered, perceived, after its production. This is an interesting fact, but hardly a novel observation.

19The production of images by other mechanical means—from printmaking to digital output has varying degrees of mediated and re-mediated hand-work and sensory-motor indexicality. No particular premium value inheres in indexicality, or, to put it more bluntly, the trace of the hand is not inherently better (morally) or superior (intellectually) to mechanical modes of image production. But it is distinct in the way the inscription of knowledge is produced through a gesture that inscribes the trace of somatic engagement with the world. That engagement is a form of knowledge production that registers the individual as a discrete and distinct presence within the social order and also informs the social communicative systems through its appearance as a sign, a trace of that capacity for individuation. This is the crux of the political aspect of the autographic trace as an epistemological expression. It serves to enact and to signify the interpellation of a subject in the world as a knowing being within a larger social system where individuation is frequently reduced to almost nil. To be clear, this individuation has no specific value in itself, but it is the capacity to individuate, to be distinct, to have a discrete identity that is of importance—and then, to have a sign form that can return that potential as a construct to the individual as well as to the body politic. The capacity for individuation to register is what matters, not the specifics of individual identity. For a subject to be constituted to itself, that capacity must be present as a sign exterior to its self. The necessity of the trace—the footsteps in sand, tracks in snow, shadow on the wall, scuff marks on the floor, and hollows left on the bedding by the body—resides in its ability to assure and reassure the subject of an identity. That this is forensically unique is more important than any fetishization of specific qualia or characteristics within that uniqueness, though of course narcissistic self-identification is inevitable.

  • 6 Bense (1965) in four successive volumes I, II, III, and IV. For an English-language summary, see Wa (...)

20The argument that the autographic mark serves as a sign as well as an act of subject-centered knowledge relies on the situated-ness of identity, its locational specificity, within cultural systems as they are embodied in material ones. Materiality plays a crucial role through its capacity to instantiate and hold traces. But in the 20th century, aesthetic practices have other engagements that contribute to the conversation about what constitutes the field. An interesting contrast between Goodman’s Languages of Art and the nearly contemporary production of Max Bense’s work on generative aesthetics in the 1960s will make this clear.6 Both authors addressed aesthetics formally, though Bense’s interest in computation extended his engagement with logical processes in other ways than Goodman’s analytic training.

Max Bense and Information Aesthetics

  • 7 Frieder Nake, “Information Aesthetics,” suggests that Bense coined the term by 1955. The article al (...)

21In his pioneering work on information and aesthetics, begun in the mid-1950s, Bense conceived of computation as a tool, an instrument for composition (Bense 1965).7 He did not consider the category of the hand-made work to be sacrosanct. Nor should he. After all, the ability of the human mind to express itself through computational devices has various connections to the body through the hand, keyboard, screen, and other features of artist and instrument. If programming could produce an original work, and the algorithm from which that sprung was a hman-authored document, then the connection to an individual artist was irrefutable. That the manifestation of the work, its instantiation, lacked hand-made qualities was hardly an issue. The history of modern art had been littered with examples of objects made without a “touch” in them–works fabricated in editions (sculpture), mechanically reproduced images (photography), and appropriated objects (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain) and methods (Donald Judd and Carl Andre’s fabrications). The trace of the hand had long lost its credential as the sole validating mark of artistic originality and authenticity by the decade in which both Goodman and Bense were writing. Goodman continued to engage with the distinction between analog and digital, and between autographic and allographic (not completed aligning these pairs), as contrasting modes of signification. But Bense had a different agenda.

22Generative aesthetics had a vibrant immediacy to it, a currency linked to contemporary excitement about computation and its possibilities. Bense’s core principles were that aesthetic work was essentially combinatoric. He wanted to conceive of the basic elements of aesthetics in a manner that parallelled the generative grammar of Noam Chomsky, in which language production was believed to operate on a modular and procedural basis. In Chomsky’s view, specific components and a set of procedures were the foundation of an infinite system of expression. Bense’s primary motivation was political, not just intellectual. He sought a mode of aesthetics that was not subject to emotion or a provocation to irrational action. He was steeped in a belief in order (and in its social necessity). Thus in making his outline of an informational aesthetics, he turned away from the entropy, which he understood as a feature of the physical world.8 The very qualities that make autographic marks into a political epistemology fulfill Bense’s fears—they are entropic, they cannot be fully contained within a logical and orderly system, and they proliferate their specificity in every instantiation in ways that defy analytic regularity. No semiotic sign that is individuated in its instantiation can be read as a simple replication of a category. It is always an inflection, unique and distinct, that extends the category through individuated cases.

23Bense’s informational aesthetics also had political dimensions. He deliberately eschewed affect, a response to the experience of the destructive power of emotion he had witnessed in the rise of National Socialism and its triumph over reason. The formulation of a concept of beauty on the grounds of information theory that could be anchored in mathematics and computation seemed a way to secure aesthetics against the dangers of such affect. Bense did not seem aware of the paradox in his ideas: if aesthetics were constructed on a systematic procedural and algorithmic foundation that eliminated the ways that individuation could register in the corporeal aesthetic materiality, that it also eliminated the possibility of political agency. This never registered in Bense’s viewpoint. His impulses towards securing order as a protection against the negative politics of Germany’s recent history were bound to his conviction that entropic forces must be contained. This may have been linked to the ways the romantic tradition had been invoked by the Nazis and all of the baggage that came forward with its use to justify violence and destruction in the name of an authentic volk tradition that had also fueled expressionist art and nationalist movements.

24Bense and Goodman were radically different thinkers, both highly influential. Goodman worked within the academic realm of art history and philosophy, Bense more directly within the realms of artistic practice, where he continues to be cited as a founding figure in computer-generated work. What they had in common was an attachment to formal logic in their approach to aesthetics, Goodman for descriptive precision, Bense for prescriptive control.

25Artistic production continued unregulated, however, and though the triumphant moments of expressionist abstraction that appeared in the post-WWII era marked a final phase of attachment to a particular romantic paradigm, the engagement of aesthetic practice with autographic mark-making is ongoing. So, of course, is the vastly populated field of computationally produced work. Many instances could be cited, but the work of Ana Hatherly offers a case for exemplary demonstration of principles on which the various threads of this discussion come together.

A note on Ana Hatherly: Asemic but semiotic

26In her essay, “The Intelligent Hand,” Natalie Ferris describes Ana Hatherly’s creative practice as a form of asemic writing—mark making that is not meant to encode linguistic or semiotic meaning in any conventional sense.9 The practice itself is widespread if one takes into account the multiplicity of modes of mark-making within the history of art practices, particularly in the 20th century when lines, blots, stains, and traces were freed from the work of meaning production to flourish on their own as visual forms (for instance, non-referential and non-representational approaches to process-based work). Ferris takes up Hatherly’s drawing as a mode of handwriting that is not linked to language, or representation, but to the presentation of its own making.10 Ferris characterized Hatherly’s practice as combining “affective labor,” with “conceptual writing” in an “immediacy of representation with the hands” into an “intelligent” practice. Intelligent, in this instance, suggests sentient, informed, knowing, and productive of knowledge as trace.

Figure 4.

Figure 4.

Ana Hatherly, untitled, 1989. By permission.

© 2021 Estate of Ana Hatherly / SPA, Lisbon/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

27Hatherly is one of the outstanding figures of 20th-century visual poetics, and her hand-drawn works reference visual and verbal conventions while pushing against their constraints. The images sit between conventions of text and image and the wandering meandering lines are both taut and casual, finely drawn and allowed to find their way. They also enact a politics—an assertion of feminist values within what was a largely male and masculinist network of concrete poetry. The wandering lines, with their refusal of typographic norms and conventions, their ineluctable relation to somatic practice, embodied hand and eye, were a deliberate enactment of the chaotic specificity Bense wanted to expel, and which also did not fit the formal principles of concrete poetry. Bense was linked in theoretical discussions and frameworks to the figures of the Brazilian Noigandres group and other major concrete poetry movements in Europe and elsewhere, though his formalist tenets were not adopted universally by any means. The fuller details of Hatherly’s work and attitude only expand the intricacies of poetic politics, but it is not the specifics of those circumstances that are central here, it is the way her work exemplifies a principle about the autographic mark.

28The simultaneous chaos and control of Hatherly’s wandering lines and her capacity to use the autographic mark as a signifying trace enacts a politics of refusal, of non-conformity to logic as a formally consistent system, while at the same time, existing far from any clichés of romantic lyricism. Her handwritten marks are neither aligned with Breton’s self-expression of dreamlife and desire, nor are they subject to the social discipline of Lissitzky’s constructed signs. Because they are, as Ferris eloquently notes, asemic, they occupy the suggestive space of provocation but not representation. They cannot be closed back into meaning in a singular correlation of mark to some other category of sense—word, image, or referent. Instead, their inscriptional activity is a trace of having been produced in an act of attention, the signification of a subject’s awareness made into form. The epistemological aspect of this work is fundamental, a knowledge production in advance of encoded forms and contents, an act of knowing that inscribes itself as a trace of subjective identity in the world. While representation of knowledge can be built in allographic notation and in formal logical systems, knowledge as knowing might always need to be produced in these inscriptional traces.

29There are ways of knowing that have a politics inherent in them, and semiotic systems signify a political position in their material expression, not in an alignment with specific agendas of resistance, subversion, protest, or transformation. The values attached to the autographic mark vary. No single correlation can be fixed between signifying practice and ethical values. But the practice of knowledge as a politics is enacted in the material instantiation of the trace of an individual subjectivity. Preserving the space for that possibility remains culturally and politically significant.

Autographic marks

30An autographic mark is an inscription, a trace, a materially instantiated mark that is infinitely varied and highly specific. An autographic mark might be highly ephemeral—the trace of a finger in water, line on sand, body through air. Its distinguishing characteristic is that it is forensically distinct. Unique. It cannot be replicated in its entirety. Nor can it be remediated without loss of information. Autographic marks define a category of information artifact. They reference a feature of any and all artifacts which is their forensic uniqueness, the attribute of any instantiated thing that makes it unlike any other thing.

  • 11 Krista Charles, “AI Analysis shows two scribes wrote one of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” New Scientist, A (...)
  • 12 Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, “4 Typefaces that Let You Write Like Einstein and Other Famous Thinkers, (...)

31Recent analysis of the script forms in the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea manuscripts has claimed to recover the trace of two different scribes.11 The information is not merely formal, not limited to shapes of individual letterforms, but involves recovery of the muscle and stroke pattern of mark-making. The autographic inscription can be reverse engineered from the physical evidence to argue for distinctly different patterns indicating two individual writers. The information in the trace is substantive, indexical, and specific. By contrast, a font produced by scanning the letters of a famous writer has the opposite effect, turning the particulars of handwritten activity into glyphs that are repeated in a mechanistic mode that negates the very identity of the subject it purports to represent.12

  • 13 Kirschenbaum (2008).
  • 14 Kirschenbaum (2008, 25).

32In his 2008 book, Mechanisms, Matthew Kirschenbaum made a strong argument for the forensic character of digital information.13 Arguing that “every contact leaves a trace” in a physical sense within the material substrate of a computer—on its hard drives, in its silicon chips, in some segment or section of magnetic charge—Kirschenbaum emphasized the distinction between formal and forensic materiality.14 Formal structures are notational, allographic, and their information value resides in their organization. A string of characters is allographic. Their value is in their distinction one from another and capacity to encode information in a stable and replicable manner. But in that sense, they are already abstractions, functioning at one step removed from their material instantiation. As Kirschenbaum further demonstrates, at the material level where forensic evidence can be garnered, even allographic marks are autographic in their instantiation.

33The point? The autographic has several dimensions to it, semiotically and informationally speaking. As a sign, an autographic mark is defined as one that cannot be replicated without information loss. That is to say, its ontological authenticity inheres in its instantiation. An autographic mark is always unique and always encodes the act of its production as a part of its informational substance. Allographic systems do not encode this information in a manner that is either evident, recoverable, or essential to their informational function. Any ASCII set will work to replicate another. I can re-keyboard a text without loss of information at the level of its formal organization (syntax/semantics).

34These distinctions raise the question—what is the information of a mark? Or a trace? A line made and instantiated in an action? Here is where the political epistemology issue arises, because a category of knowledge is associated with the making and reading of these marks. The communication of information, hermeneutically speaking, is not a one to one correlation of encoding and receiving. Nothing in the mechanistic sign guarantees a stable or fixed reception. The provocation to interpretation results in a probabilistic reading, not a transfer of information through notation, inscription, or code. In a machine environment, such a transfer might be at work, operationalized, as it were, through the activities and actions of an automatic and automated system. But within the human communication system, no such automatic or mechanistic exchange is achieved.

35This foundational understanding is necessary to make the argument that autographic marks contain a potential for provocation that is different from that of allographic ones–and that this distinction that derives from their original production. The informational content, mathematically and semiotically speaking, is different in an autographic mark than in an allographic one. As representational formats, all formal systems are fallacies that use generalized standard symbols to stand for specific entities. As autonomous logical systems, they are sufficient only for delimited tasks. They are premised on the supposition that the inherently specific and variable character of actual phenomena can be represented in stable, non-variable terms. But like Bense’s attempt to banish entropy by providing a formal and informational foundation for aesthetic practice, such approaches are doomed from the outset to an ontological failure—the infinite variety and specificity of material traces in their instantiation argues at every moment against the correlation of formal systems and actuality. The allographic can function, does function, in many purposeful ways as the foundation for semiotic activity. But the autographic mark instantiates an inscriptional specificity that necessarily enacts a chaotic refusal of any systematic order. Its individuations are in its material traces and these produce–as well as signify–a political dimension to epistemology as always processual, specific, and situated within individual and collective subjectivities. We preclude at our peril the possibility of being able to know our selves through traces we leave in the world.

Haut de page


Bense, Max (1965), Aesthetica, Baden-Baden, Agis-Verlag, vol. I, II, III, and IV.

Ferris, Natalie (2021), “The Intelligent Hand: Ana Hatherly/Asemic Writing/Visualizing the Creative Act,” Modernism/Modernity Vol. 5, Cycle 4.

Goodman, Nelson (1968), Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Walther, Elizabeth (2000), “Max Bense’s Informational and Semiotical Aesthetics,” Stuttgarter Schule.

Robillard, Gaëtan (2019), “A Vision without a Sight: From Max Bense’s Theory to the Dialectic of Programmed Languages,” XXII Proceedings of the Generative Art Conference GA2019.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew (2008), Mechanisms, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Haut de page


1 Todd Haselton, “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet NFT sells for $2.9 Million,” CNBC. 3/22/2021.

2 Maria Giulia Dondero, in her comments on a draft of this piece, noted that Gerhard Richter’s “touch” was used to create simulacra of photographs.

3 George H. Lilley, “The Meaning behind 15 Common Masonic Symbols,” Blog. 2/4/20.

4 David Boeno, “William Blake, Golden Compass.” Boeno Blog.

5 Photographs have the capacity to be subjective expressions, without doubt, as has been argued since their origin, but not in the material trace of the mark. Automatic photographic production exists in vast amounts—security cameras and surveillance methods—but so do automatic drawings (seismic devices, measuring and recording units with plotter pens and screen images). The automatic is another category that offers contrast with the autographic.

6 Bense (1965) in four successive volumes I, II, III, and IV. For an English-language summary, see Walther (2000).

7 Frieder Nake, “Information Aesthetics,” suggests that Bense coined the term by 1955. The article also tracks parallels with the work of Abraham Moles. See CompArt

8 “Max Bense Monoskop;; also, Robillard, 2019.

9 Ferris (2021).

10 Hatherly is a little tricky in this regard, since many of her drawn writings are procedural, but others reference visual images or objects.

11 Krista Charles, “AI Analysis shows two scribes wrote one of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” New Scientist, April 21, 2021.

12 Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, “4 Typefaces that Let You Write Like Einstein and Other Famous Thinkers,” Gizmodo, 5/20/2015.

13 Kirschenbaum (2008).

14 Kirschenbaum (2008, 25).

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1.
Légende Drawing by the author, 1974. By permission of the author.
Fichier image/jpeg, 386k
Titre Figure 2.
Légende André Breton, L’Écriture Automatique, 1923. Image in public domain.
Fichier image/jpeg, 490k
Titre Figure 3.
Légende Lazar El Lissitzky, The Constructor, 1924. Image in public domain.
Fichier image/jpeg, 276k
Titre Figure 4.
Légende Ana Hatherly, untitled, 1989. By permission.
Crédits © 2021 Estate of Ana Hatherly / SPA, Lisbon/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Fichier image/jpeg, 538k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Johanna Drucker, « Political epistemology of the autographic mark »Signata [En ligne], 13 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 02 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Johanna Drucker

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and Distinguished Professor in Information Studies at University of California Los Angeles.
Email: drucker[at]

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution 4.0 International - CC BY 4.0

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search