Tag Archives: exactitude



I took my inspiration for this blox from Cornell’s sand boxes. They, too, attempt to represent something abstract, like the passage of time or the experience of the surreal, through careful arrangement of concrete objects. When I was first reading up on Cornell, I found it difficult to understand the point of the sand boxes, but then I realized that while they are not meant to look like a specific thing, they are designed to create a certain affect in the viewer, one of pensive meditation on temporality. With that in mind, I will focus my blox not so much on a one-to-one representation of exactitude, but on creating a sense of precision and careful thought.

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For my adaptation of the novel’s exactitude, I want to hybridize natural language and code in a visual format. The exact qualities of both languages are essential to the composition of this book. This one is a little harder to visualize because so much of the work of language is done behind the scenes: we can visualize a story as we read without having to think too much about the mechanics of the language. Likewise, we can even more easily use a computer without comprehending the tremendously specific code that enables it to run correctly. My blox for exactitude will attempt to make visible that which is normally overlooked.


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As I mentioned previously in my blog, there is a direct correlation between exactitude, natural language, and computer programming. Nowhere is this more evident than in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. We see it especially it Kat and Neel’s work: Kat’s knowledge of code allows her to solve problems with the utmost precision, while Neel’s skills enable him to make an accurate model of the human body using software.


Exactitude is not the sole domain of digital technology, however. As Penumbra explains to the three friends, Aldus Manutius and others like him developed the first book printing technologies, which required specialized knowledge and attention to detail to operate. He pioneered the field of data science by  making information available to readers in a concise, portable, easily replicated format: the book.



As a novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore pays homage to the pioneers, both past and current, of exactitude in language. As a work of literature in itself, the novel hopes to bridge the gap between the study of print and electronic media by bringing the precision and speed of computers to bear on the wealth of knowledge and history accumulated in print books.

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My emblem of exactitude is The Nightmare Before Christmas, a 1993 claymation film by Tim Burton. To produce a claymation film, the filmmakers have to create movable characters out of clay, then film each small adjustment of the character’s body to create the illusion of continuous motion. This ties in perfectly with my examination of the relationship between literature and animation in the E-Lit Example and Graphic posts.

A claymation film depends a lot on precision, skilled craftsmen, and quality storytelling. The individual frames all add up to one continuous piece which flows smoothly and entertains. Just as Calvino says that literature is the fulfillment of language, so too is film the fulfillment of the static image.

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When I think of exactitude, I think about grammar and syntax. These are the foundation of every language, from natural languages, such as English and Japanese, to formal languages, such as computer programming languages. Right now, I’m taking a Java programming class. I’ve never been more exact than when I’m working on a project in Java. Unlike humans, computers take language very literally and do not interpret meaning based on context.

For example, if I were to type the sentence

i luv ice cream its gr8

you would be able to understand it perfectly, even though it’s not grammatically correct. If, however, I were to type something with similar syntactical errors into a computer program, I’d be awash in error messages. I’d have to type something more formal, like this:

I love ice cream. It’s great.

See what I mean? Fortunately, despite their inability to interpret context clues, computer languages are extraordinarily powerful. I used Java to write a program that draws Albers squares, which we learned about in Graphic Design: The New Basics. 

This is what the code looks like:

import java.awt.Color;

public class albers
/*This program creates Albers squares. I’m an English major, and I got the
idea for this project from one of my English classes, where we’re learning about Josef Albers.
The program takes 9 command line arguments, which correspond to the RGB values for 3
separate colors. Enter the RGB values (separated by spaces) for your three colors, then run the program
to produce your Albers squares. Have fun!

Ex. java albers 255 0 0 0 0 255 0 0 0 255
will give you a square with red, green, and blue components.

A complete list of colors can be found at:
public static void main (String[] args)
//command line args–RGB values for 3 Albers square colors
String red1 = args[0];
String green1 = args[1];
String blue1 = args[2];
String red2 = args[3];
String green2 = args[4];
String blue2 = args[5];
String red3 = args[6];
String green3 = args[7];
String blue3 = args[8];

//convert RGB values into color variables
int redVal1 = Integer.parseInt(args[0]);
int greenVal1 = Integer.parseInt(args[1]);
int blueVal1 = Integer.parseInt(args[2]);
int redVal2 = Integer.parseInt(args[3]);
int greenVal2 = Integer.parseInt(args[4]);
int blueVal2 = Integer.parseInt(args[5]);
int redVal3 = Integer.parseInt(args[6]);
int greenVal3 = Integer.parseInt(args[7]);
int blueVal3 = Integer.parseInt(args[8]);

//available colors

Color color1 = new Color (redVal1, greenVal1, blueVal1);
Color color2 = new Color (redVal2, greenVal2, blueVal2);
Color color3 = new Color (redVal3, greenVal3, blueVal3);

StdDraw.setCanvasSize (800,800);

//first Albers square

//second Albers square

To an untrained eye, it may seem very technical and abstruse, but the point is that the syntax must be flawlessly exact for the program to run.


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I related Calvino’s exactitude to time and motion in graphic design. This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I see a connection between exactitude and animation in Soundpoems. Lupton and Phillips say that “Film is a visual art. Designers of motion graphics must think both like painters and typographers and like animators and filmmakers.”

Furthermore, they state that “animation uses sequences of still images to create the optical illusion of movement. The brain retains images for a split-second longer than the images are actually before us, resulting in the illusion of movement when numerous images appear in rapid succession. This phenomenon is called persistence of vision.”

Picture 3

This relates to exactitude because a work of literature, like a book or a film, is composed of smaller elements, like letters or frames, carefully arranged to produce exactly the right kind of effect. Creating such a work of art takes a great deal of finesse and attention to detail, which Calvino would call exactitude.

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E-Lit Example

Soundpoems by Jörg Piringer is a great example of Calvino’s exactitude.  In Soundpoems, animated letters, the smallest building blocks of language, combine in particular ways to create literature. According to Calvino, literature is the fulfillment of language. Piringer’s minimalist approach to poetry takes us to the fundamental units of language: letters and phonemes. His combination of programming and sound is exquisite: the skill required to create this type of animation is specialized and exact.


Furthermore, by breaking language down into its smallest building blocks, Piringer asks us to consider the arrangement of letters and sounds in a new way. We tend to take language for granted: our environments are saturated with written and spoken words. The combination of letters, sounds, and animation puts a whole new spin on the phrase “poetry in motion” and reminds us that language is alive, dynamic, and exact.

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Calvino’s Exactitude

The three components of Calvino’s exactitude are:

  • A well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question
  • An evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images
  • A language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination

He believes that literature is the fulfillment of language and defines good literature as “straining toward exactitude.” Literature is meant to create order out of a chaotic universe, as is science, Calvino says. Both are methods of knowledge that attempt to organize the world and define it in precise, constant terms. In science and in literature, we must be able to derive universal, infinite laws from particular, finite instances of those laws.

Exactitude reminds me of a sonnet, a poem which follows strict rules concerning meter and rhyme. There are two types of sonnets, Italian and Shakespearean, each with different rhyme schemes, but both are fourteen lines long and written in iambic pentameter. Sonnets are challenging to write because the poet must work within these constraints, but they are nevertheless rewarding. It takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill–what Calvino would call exactitude–to write a good sonnet. I chose one of my favorites, Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” as my example. As you read it, think about how the sonnet implements the three elements of exactitude listed above.

Let me not to the marriage of true mindsreading
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

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