J.R. Osborn's Critical Reads

April 6th, 2018

J.R. Osborn is a scholar and experimentalist of communication. His work explores media history, semiotics, communication technologies, and design aesthetics with a regional focus of the Middle East and Africa. Dr. Osborn is currently Assistant Professor of Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) and Co-Director of the Technology Design Studio at Georgetown University. His 2017 book Letters of Light: Arabic Script in Calligraphy, Print, and Digital Design (Harvard University Press) follows the story of Arabic script and technology, from the advent of calligraphic tradition through the implementation of the Unicode standard. In 2012, he produced and co-directed the feature documentary Glitter Dust: Finding Art in Dubai, which examines the burgeoning contemporary art scene in the United Arab Emirates. Currently, Dr. Osborn is co-authoring African Art Reframed: Dialogues and Reflections on Museum Culture. Osborn discussed Letters of Light on Thursday, 4/5, 6pm at the Co-op. Be sure to stop by the Co-op to grab a copy of Letters of Light before it sells out! 

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, by Marshall McLuhan - McLuhan’s insights remain some of the most thought provoking ideas for assessing the the impact and import of media technologies. The Gutenberg Galaxy is his work which deals most directly with the ways in which technological changes in script influence our perceptions and knowledge of the world.

Gesture and Speech, by André Leroi-Gourhan - Leroi-Gourhan’s presentation of technical evolution is a wonderful companion to McLuhan’s work. His presentation of functional aesthetics and the co-development of speech and writing (as traces of gesture) ask us to reconsider language as a technical practice.

In the Vineyard of the Text, by Ivan Illich - A fascinating reflection on the rise of silent reading in the late middle ages. Illich wonderfully conveys what the experience of reading was like in a very different era through a careful examination of the Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor. Filled with insights on how our relationship with knowledge adapts to new technologies and textual practices.

Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, edited by Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman - A useful and reflective edited collection that re-examined practices of script and text––both historical and contemporary practice––in light of the current technological moment. I especially appreciate Johanna Drucker's essay "From A to Screen."

Arabic Type-Making in the Machine Age: The Influence of Technology on the Form of Arabic Type, 1908–1993, by Titus Nemeth - A powerful, well researched, and deeply referenced historical account of Arabic type in the 20th century. A brilliant study and resource for those wishing to dive deeper into issues of Arabic type design touched upon in Letters of Light.

The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney - A compelling study of the development, usage, and impact of the typewriter in China. Mullaney’s work, like my own, challenges us to reconsider the alphabet-centric and Euro-American assumptions that often influence––implicitly or otherwise––histories of script, communication, and technology.

About Light of Letters: Arabic script remains one of the most widely employed writing systems in the world, for Arabic and non-Arabic languages alike. Focusing on naskh—the style most commonly used across the Middle East—Letters of Light traces the evolution of Arabic script from its earliest inscriptions to digital fonts, from calligraphy to print and beyond. J. R. Osborn narrates this storied past for historians of the Islamic and Arab worlds, for students of communication and technology, and for contemporary practitioners.

The partnership of reed pen and paper during the tenth century inaugurated a golden age of Arabic writing. The shape and proportions of classical calligraphy known as al-khatt al-mansub were formalized, and variations emerged to suit different types of content. The rise of movable type quickly led to European experiments in printing Arabic texts. Ottoman Turkish printers, more sensitive than their European counterparts to the script’s nuances, adopted movable type more cautiously. Debates about “reforming” Arabic script for print technology persisted into the twentieth century.

Arabic script continues to evolve in the digital age. Programmers have adapted it to the international Unicode standard, greatly facilitating Arabic presence online and in word processing. Technology companies are investing considerable resources to facilitate support of Arabic in their products. Professional designers around the world are bringing about a renaissance in the Arabic script community as they reinterpret classical aesthetics and push new boundaries in digital form.