Mise En Page

Pense Bete by Marcel Broodthaers


Mise-en-page, literally "setting of the page," refers to the layout of the print on the page; it involves, for example, the width of the margins, number of columns per page, sizes and types of font, pagination, and generally any other features that comprise the appearance of the text on the page.

Bibliographers have always been interested in this feature of printed texts, but only more recently has mise-en-page come to be thought of as possessing an expressive capacity of its own.* D.F. McKenzie, for example, notes how changes in typographical convention were substantive influences on William Congreve as he revised his plays for printing at different periods in his career (Bibliography 19-29). Not only do textual alterations such as word substitutions (intended or accidental) impart new meaning to different printings of a text, elements such as spacing and font size may also be infused with crucial meaning.

At least three prominent theorists manifest an awareness of the expressive capacity of mise-en-page by employing un-conventional typography imaginatively. Julia Kristeva's essay "Stabat Mater" divides the pages horizontally, separating the essay proper on the right side of each page from a series of more autobiographical and poeticized passages on the left. This division emphasizes the relationship between biological and intellectual mothering, between public self and private self. Roland Barthes in A Lover's Discourse uses an unorthodox, informal form of citation: "What comes from books and from friends occasionally appears in the margin of the text, in the form of names for the books) and initials (for the friends). The references supplied in this fashion are not authoritative [never!] but amical: I am not invoking guarantees, merely recalling, by a kind of salute given in passing, what has seduced, convinced, or what has momentarily given the delight of understanding (of being understood?)" (9). This coded referentiality both patrols and erodes the borders of the page, and makes a nimble leap (as in much of Barthes) between the textual and the erotic, between paper and people.

Jacques Derrida frequently experimented with mise-en-page, among other bibliographic signifiers. Indeed, McDonald celebrates Derrida's "lively bibliographic imagination" (223), which is unsurprising given Derrida's capacity to pick up on the multiplicity of meanings inherent in much of the language bibliographers use to talk about books. In "Living On: Border Lines," for example, the pages are bifurcated by a horizontal lines. Like "Stabat Mater," this line divides the essay proper from a more autobiographical text that accompanies it, but here Derrida draws much more out of the potential meaning suggested by such a maneuver. He makes transparent his and his writing's dependence on the institution of the university, and forges intertextual connections between his own work and the poetic work, Shelley's "The Triumph of Life," that occasions the essay. In effect, Derrida is using the conventions of typography as an imaginative instrument, employing the codes of the system to question that system. While this signals an awareness of the ways in which something like mise-en-page structures reading, learning, and knowledge, Derrida's work can only go so far in offering or modeling the kind of cultural interpretation found in works of book history. McKenzie's "The Sociology of a Text: Oral Culture, Literacy, and Print in Early New Zealand," for example, examines bibliographic codes and their implications for human rights. Book history, however theoretical its underpinnings, tends more toward the world; theory tends toward itself.

*In the age of photography and film, mise-en-page comes to take on some of the specialized meaning of the term mise-en-scene, which refers to the arrangement of photographed elements in a photograph or film still; again, the convergence of terminology in conceiving the page, the computer screen, the movie screen. Is it because of the proliferation of visual media, our enhanced visual literacy, so to speak, that we are now more apt to pick up on the visual significations of texts, or to theorize such a thing?

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License