February 4, 2021
Gothic galore! Old-fashioned face flourishes online
by Mike Lindgren
Words are our business over here on (digital) John Street! and that means, by extension, typography is also our business! As scholars of the intersection of the digital and the analog, and as persons professionally attuned to the ever-shifting nuances of the zeitgeist—indeed, as students of Derrida and Saussure (well, sorta)—we were startled to find that the family of Gothic typefaces known as blackletter have recently been proliferating online and in social media.
In a recent Baffler essay, Esmé Hogeveen ruminates on the trend and its complicated past—and present. Hogeveen notes that the typeface (we remember the difference between typeface and font, don’t we, kids?)* has been linked with with, variously, medieval Bibles, German philosophy, Nazism, Mexican graffiti, prison and gang tattoos, and both heavy metal and hip-hop, somehow. Even the New York Times—you just cannot throw one past those guys, kids!—recently alluded to “the fashion industry’s recent infatuation with the ornate style of lettering,” noting that blackletter has the ability “to convey both a sense of reverential authority and rebellion.” OK! You totally got this, New York Times!
As amateur cultural anthropologists, we are fascinated by this salmagundi of associations. How can a typeface come to have such diverse overtones of meaning? Our sources in the medievalist academic community** proved uncharacteristically unhelpful, perhaps leery of anything related, no matter how tangentially, to white nationalism. So what to make of this? Our own multiple-award-winning Art Director has mixed feelings about the trend: she admits to using blackletter on a recent cover for its academic overtones, but is still leery of its unsavory associations. “It can have many meanings,” she said, “but the Nazis kind of killed it for us.”
Well, yes. Perhaps the best lesson to take away is a reminder that nothing — not even typefaces — is politically or culturally neutral. As the writer Ben Hersh put it, “Typography can silently influence: It can signify dangerous ideas, normalize dictatorships, and sever broken nations. In some cases it may be a matter of life and death. And it can do this as powerfully as the words it depicts.”
*Who got it right? A typeface is a family of fonts; e.g., Garamond is a typeface; Garamond Bold is a font.
** Also known as “twitter.”
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.