The third kind of typography to emerge in the 1960’s is more accurately described as a style of lettering, as it was never intended to be used a moveable type and was of a very different kind. It became known as ‘psychedelic’, and was especially associated with the 1960’s counter-culture. Seeking to find a visual-verbal analogy for the spiritual and anti-materialist values of disaffected and rebellious youth, the poster designs of, for example, Wes Wilson could not be more different from the paired-down styles favoured by the big corporations or the futuristic fonts intended to evoke a vision of a technological utopia. Stylistically, such designs were deliberately anti-modernist in appearance, promiscuously appropriating the apparently archaic Art Noveau and Victorian styles which were consigned to the dust-bin by the modernists. Where modernism and futuristic typography favoured forms that evoke qualities of reason, structure, stasis, and geometry, the psychedelic style embraces the anti-structural forms of liquids and of the organic in order to convey a flux-like sense of restlessness, and returned to writing a powerful sense of gesture and relationship to the body.
But such an anti-structural impulse had in fact always been central to the avant-garde. Indeed, the common point of contact between what may at first seem radically opposing typographic styles - modernist, futurist and psychedelic - is in fact the innovations of the Italian Futurism in the second decade of the twentieth century. ‘Casting aside every stupid formula and all the confused verbalism of the professors’, wrote Marinetti in 1913, ‘I now declare that lyricism is the exquisite faculty of intoxicating oneself with life, of filling life with the inebriation of oneself’ . This was a style of typography that aspired to indeterminacy and immediacy, and these energies were soon embraced and pushed further to anarchic effect by the Cubo-Futurist and Dadaists.
However, by the 1920’s the energies had been re-directed and controlled within the machine-aesthetic promulgated by Constructivism and the Bauhaus, in which a new purity and order, and a concomitant allegiance to left-wing politics was imposed on the avant-garde.
The counter-culture of the ‘long’ 1960’s in this context brought to the fore once more the de-stabilising energies lying deep within Western modernity. In the arts, the various strategies that had been pioneered by the pre-World War One avant-garde, which amounted to an assault on all the established structures of society, took on new pertinence that reached beyond the confines of art. Automatism, deliberate sabotaging of signs, embracing of non-sense over sense, elasticity and migration of media and meaning, extravagant invention, the multiplication of clashing forces, the pitching of invisible order against material rigidity, varieties of methodical imitation, relentless analysis, the pursuit of altered states of consciousness through drugs and other methods, intense spirituality often involving journeys to the East - these were some of the strategies employed to challenge established forms of social and cultural discipline and structure, to satisfy what the philosopher Alain Badiou has called modernity’s ‘passion for the Real’.
Translating Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts into political terms, Badiou declares: ‘equality is the Imaginary (since it cannot come about as an objective figure, even though it is the ultimate reason for everything), freedom is the Symbolic (since it is the presupposed instrument, the fecund negative), and fraternity is the Real (that which is sometimes encountered, in the here and now).’ Thus the horrors and triumphs of the twentieth century equally originate in the desire for the experience of what Badiou calls a ‘togetherness of a ‘we’ that is not an ‘I’. They originate, in other words, in the unquenchable desire for the transformation of society through a transformation of consciousness that was to be achieved though passage over a borderline and into what can be described as a liminal state.
LIMINALITY AND THE SENSE OF ‘COMMUNITAS’
Limen means ‘threshold’ in Latin, and so when speaking of the liminal I am referring in the broadest sense to moments at which something is about to undergo a phase transition or turn into something else. These can be physiological or psychological, spanning everything from the hypnogogic states we inhabit between sleeping and waking to more extreme situations such as when we lie at the margin between life and death. Thus liminal moments are to be understood as times of tension and extremes, but also moments of great potential. Something fundamental happens within this strange and estranging state of consciousness that brings into question the structural unity of both the self and of society.
In his classic study of the rites of passage performed within tribal societies, the social anthropologist Victor Turner examined transformations in consciousness and how they play a role in shaping society. He argued that a key aspect of many tribal rituals was a phase he described as being essentially ‘liminal’. In these rites, he noted, an initiate will appear to pass ‘through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state’ , and this phase marks a vital intermediary stage within a broader ritual process.