Modernism and the Writing Hand
The hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man…Man does not `have’ hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man…The typewriter tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of the word. The word itself turns into something “typed” ‘. [Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 80, 81.]
Heidegger’s depressed sense of the supersession of the hand has proved surprisingly authoritative in recent considerations of the technology of writing. Friedrich Kittler sets typewriting against a discourse network dominant a century previously, in which the expressive self communicates directly through the hand to the paper, the transferential continuity between these elements ultimately being guaranteed by the hallucinated origin of all language in the mouth of the Mother. The voice of the Mother was the guarantee of a universal equivalence and transmissibility, `the interlocking media network of speaking and writing, of the soul and Poetry’. [Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 184.]
There is one page of Kittler’s book – p. 195 – which seems to have caught the imagination of many of his readers. I scored my own copy heavily when I first read it: when that was stolen, I found the Senate House Library copy similarly wealed by readerly attention on the same page. The page is quoted by Mark Seltzer in his Bodies and Machines; and it surfaces in an essay on the technologies of writing in Malcolm Lowry’s work by Michael Wutz. [`Archaic Mechanics, Anarchic Meaning: Malcolm Lowry and the Technology of Narrative’, Reading Matters: Narratives in the New Media Ecology, ed. Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 59.] It is the page on which Kittler quotes from Angelo Beyerlen, an engineer and founder of the first German typewriter business, an analysis of the difference between the typewriter and the writing hand.
In writing by hand, the eye must constantly watch the written line and only that. It must attend to the creation of each written line, must measure, direct, and, in short, guide the hand through each movement. For this, the written line, particularly the line being written, must be visible.By contrast, after one presses down briefly on a key, the typewriter creates in the proper position on the paper a complete letter, which not only is untouched by the writer’s hand, but is also located in a space entirely apart from where the hands work. (quoted in Kittler, p. 195)
Here is Kittler’s gloss on this analysis.
Underwood’s innovation unlinks hand, eye, and letter within the moment that was decisive for Goethe. Not every discursive configuration rests on an originary production of signs. Circa 1900 several blindnesses – of the writer, of writing, of script – come together to guarantee an elementary blindness: the blind spot of the writing act. Instead of the play between Man the sign-setter and the writing surface, the philosopher as stylus and the tablet of Nature, there is the play between type and its Other, completely removed from subjects. Its name is inscription. (Kittler, 195)
This passage and its commentary seem to pin together Kittler’s general claim about the typewriter’s loosing of the bond between the self and its language, a bond which secures, for the writing-reading regime or ‘discourse network’ of a century previously, the unbroken link between the mouth, the eye, the hand, as well as a link between language and Language, that newly-anthropomorphised entity which speaks through and behind every local instance of utterance. In the regime of automatic writing, there is no behind or beneath. Everything takes place elsewhere, or at a distance. At the same time, there is a shrinking of the expressive distance that, in the act of handwriting establishes the very command of the writer: `Not for nothing was the typewriter born in the realm of blindness. Whereas handwriting is subject to the eye, a sense that works across distance, the typewriter uses a blind, tactile power.’ (Kittler, 195)
(In a moment, I will start reeling out some of my uneasiness with Kittler’s characterisation of the new discourse network of 1900, but for the moment, I will remark only on the strangeness of the fact that we should imagine the late nineteenth century should have found adapting to a keyboard strange – as though nobody had ever played the piano before. Of course, part of the effect of the new discourse network, which included sound and visual technology, was gradually to decrease musical competence among the new audiences for the gramophone and the radio: but that is our problem and not theirs. One of the ways that one might interpret this new writing technology is as a new modality of music, rather than as demonic or inhuman automatism.)
A remarkably firm consensus seems to have arisen among historians of writing technology about these new relations between human beings and their writing machines. Mark Seltzer seizes on this page of Kittler’s book to introduce his analysis of the ways in which writing machines seem to intergrate human bodies with the new mechanical, mathematical and ergonomical dispositions of modernity.
The linking of hand, eye, and letter in the act of writing by hand intimates the translation from mind to eye and hence from the inward and visible and spiritual to the outward and visible and physical, projecting in effect “the continuous transition from nature to culture.” The typewriter, like the telegraph, replaces, or pressures, that fantasy of continuous transition with recalcitrantly visible and material systems of difference: with the standardized spacing of keys and letters; with the dislocation of where the hands work, where the letters strike and appear, where the eyes look, if they look at all. [Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p. 10.]
On the one hand, there was speech, and the handwriting animated by it: on the other there was automated and automatic writing. Where speech-writing is intimate and expressive, machine-writing is abstract and impersonal. Speech-writing transmits: machine writing simply disposes and transposes. In the account offered by Kittler and Seltzer, the new discourse network appears perfect and exceptionless. Kittler takes his term `discourse network’ from the writings of Daniel Paul Schreber, since, for him, the writings of the insane are paradigmatic of the new discourse network: one might suggest that the term retains an unhelpful tincture of Schreber’s paranoid logic, which sees the same principle, the same world-altering mutation operating everywhere, and all at once, at all levels of the culture.
Both Kittler and Seltzer emphasise the amputational logic of the new technologies, the fact that the new body-machines could be operated as efficiently by the blind, halt and maim as well as by the hale of sense and limb. The logic is clear and a little queasy in each case. Rather than showing, in Merleau-Pontyan fashion, that apparently impoverished or depleted forms of life are always also `whole forms of life’, both Kittler and Seltzer aim to show the dehumanising effects of the new technology, which reduces its all users to the constrained condition of those paraplegics who are forced to tap out their autobiographies letter by painful letter. (Because amputees and blind people are less than human, their adaptation to the new machines is proof of their dehumanising effects). This unpleasant and paranoid assumption reaches a new intensity in Paul Virilio’s recent denunciations of the realm of what he calls tele-contact, in which telecommunications have reduced all distances to nothing, and removed the need for any able-bodied and life-sized interaction with one’s environment. Such a regime brings about, as its limit-form,
the citizen-terminal soon to be decked out to the eyeballs with interactive prostheses based on the pathological model of the `spastic’, wired to control his/her domestic environment without having physically to stir: the catastrophic figure of an individual who has lost his capacity for immediate intervention along with natural motricity and who abandons himself, for want of anything better, to the capabilities of captors, sensors and other remote control scanners that turn him into a being controlled by the machine with which, they say, he talks.
[Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose (London: Verso, 1997), p. 20.] Central to Virilio’s account, as it is to Kittler’s account of the typewriter, is the principle of blind contact. As in the mythological typewriter, everything takes place at a distance from the actual individual sensorium: but this general mediation produces an overwhelming and intolerable immediacy and proximity of everything, a heightened version of what Heidegger called `Entfernung’, in which nothing is in fact sufficiently apart from the self to allow it to communicate or exist:
beyond the confines of proximity as we know it, prospective telepresence – and shared tele-existence with it – not only eliminate the `line’ of the visible horizon in favour of the linelessness of a deep and imaginary horizon. They also once again undermine the very notion of relief, with touch and tactile telepresence at a distance now seriously muddying not only the distinction between the `real’ and the `virtual’, as Cybersurfers currently define it, but also the very reality of the near and the far, thus casting doubt on our presence here and now and so dismantling the necessary conditions for sensory experience. (p. 45)
This, in a somewhat literal sense (the complicated sense that the term the `literal’ has, is part of the point of what I will come to be arguing here), is hysterical writing, or writing that finds a certain relief in the elaborate display of the marking of a surface, even as it is telling us of interfaces and interactivity that is so intense that surfaces and contacts between them have vanished. Bold, italic and inverted commas seem to insist on the truth of its terms, a truth that is made to appear so inescapable that it has burned or gouged its way into the page we are reading.
The central claim of the Kittler-Heidegger-Seltzer hypothesis is that the lived body vanishes in favour of the organised or rationalised or otherwise worked-over body. I will be trying to coax you into supposing that the body does not vanish, and is not diminished at all. Merleau-Ponty writes that every phenomenological world is total – even the depleted worlds of the sick or the ignorant are whole in their depletion. Phenomenology mourns and attempts fantastically to make restitution for the amputation of the Lebenswelt. Kittler and Seltzer are only apparently less sentimental in their belief in the wholeness and commmunicability of head, hand, pen and paper prior to modernism. Theirs is Heidegger without tears, dry phenomenology. Neither are sufficiently alive to the complex and unsummarisable experiences of transformation undergone by technologies; both are driven by the need to refer technological changes and effects to a single master-code.
I will be saying that what Heidegger, Kittler, Seltzer and Virilio share is a hysterical overestimation of the systems of presence allegedly overturned by machine-writing, along with an equivalently paranoid insistence on the totality and issuelessness of the system of relations instituted in its place. I’ll want by the end to be saying that the very habit of mind that sees one epoch simply erased and replaced by another is a doubling or imprinted effect of the hysteromechanist model of history with which it works, the model that Bruno Latour has called historical `sorting’.
Having begun with Heidegger mourning the loss of the hand, and the amputation of the hand in Kittler’s and Seltzer’s typographic regime, let us begin again somewhere else. Here is Michel Serres, trimming his nails.
I cut my nails.
Where does the subject settle itself? Since I am left-handed, I take the implement in my left hand, and present the open blades to the end of my right index fingernail. I position myself in the handles of the scissors, the I situates itself there, and not at the tip of the right finger. The nail, awkward at the end of the thread of steel; the hand, fine and astute in its management of the cutting. The left hand subject works on the right hand object. The left hand participates in the I, suffused with subjectivity, the right hand is of the world. If the scissors change hands, everything, or nothing, changes. The I haunts my left index finger, the nail of which caresses the fine thread delicately, shamelessly and as intimately as can be, the handle of the scissors which were grasped by the left hand are deserted by the self. A strange engine is working the machine and my index finger designates the exact limit of the bite. The presentation of the finger to the blade, the suppleness or stiffness by turns at the moment of the cut, the precision of the process, are enough for an outward observer to determine the state of the soul, the place where it is to be found, right now, as in a scale. The soul of a left-hander is in the left hand; on the right it is a black body, disturbed into hybridity.
Now this changes and and varies. This inversion does not take place with the toenails. At such a distance, it is still body, or always the world. At such a distance, the soul is absent. No toe can touch the blade in the same way as my left index finger. Let us leave implements here. [Michel Serres, Les cinq sens: philosophie des corps mêlés. 1 (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1985), p. 18.]
Central to Serres’s sense of the body in Les cinq sens is the awareness of its foldings over, those intrigues of posture and gesture in which I touch me: folded arms, knitted fingers, lip settled on lip, ankle crossed over ankle, the complex vagrancy of hands in face and hair. All of these self-touchings mean that `the skin itself takes on consciousness’. Indeed, Serres suggests that `without this folding, without this contact of the self with itself, there would really be no internal sense, or body of one’s own, let alone coenesthesia, or body image: we would live without consciousness’ (p. 19). The hand, one might say, is not an extremity of the body, but the principle and agency of this capacity to put right against left, bringing oneself to oneself, transmitting portions and quantities of this interstitial soul as it does so.
The hand is not only the means by which I mingle onanistically with myself: it is also the way in which I mingle with the world. This is possible largely because of the nearly universal phenomenon of unilaterality in humans – the fact that one side or other is dominant – and that we therefore already consist in ourselves of self and world. In writing, for example, I am never merely the hand that inscribes; I am also in part the surface on which the inscription occurs. The surface does not merely wait for its inscription. Writing gives itself the surface on which it writes. The little finger rests a little to the right of the thumb, and first two fingers that hold the pen or pencil. To write, one must encounter the surface on which one writes: one’s hand (the rest of one’s hand, for one’s hand is never all in the same place) is in touch with the surface on which one writes with one’s hand; in a sense it is partially that surface. The left-handed display this principle in a different way. Left-handed females write with the wrist cocked, to rotate the little finger of the left hand anti-clockwise, and thus prevent it from smearing the line that the thumb and first two fingers have inscribed. The relative weakness of the wrists of left-handed males at the age at which writing is learned means that they rotate the hand clockwise, and lift it clear of the page, forming the characteristic crab posture of male left-handed writers, which appears to trail, rather than to propel the written line. Left-handers therefore, we can say substitute tact for contact. Their hands hold the awareness of and maintain respect for the line being inscribed. In the same way as the right-hander, the hand is responsible not just for the line, but for the whole scene of writing: its pressure and posture discloses the space, the surface, the support of the written.
It is Serres’s contingency which gives the relation between the hand and the surface: the hand comes into contact with a surface: whatever it apprehends, it apprehends as a surface, or a contingency, a touching that is a being touched, a touching of something that touches me. This hand does not vanish in a typographic era: but it has the capacity to be transformed. But the hand is always already the means of transformation through contact. It is not a matter of discursive epochs, or regimes, or networks, but of possibilities, retouchings, contingencies (mutual touchings) apertures, interruptions, loopings, and anachronisms. Instead of the analysis of the discourse network, I would like us to be able to elaborate Serres’s philosophy of mingled bodies.
Accounts of the coming of the typewriter have far too little to say about the actuality of learning to type, and two aspects of this process in particular. First of all, typing involves a move from the hand, tapered to a single operative point to the participation of the whole hand, and the use of the fingers, which spray out letters in complex chords and arpeggios, rather than playing the single line melody that writing involves Typing inherits the phenomenology of activities like music and sewing, both of which are characterised by the suppleness of the fingers rather than the strength of the hand.
The other important factor in typing is that it involves two hands. This is the most striking inattention involved in Heidegger’s view of the amputation of the hand. Typing does not remove the hand: it multiplies it. I am a poor typist. I type as I play tennis, inelegantly, with awkward, if often effective improvisations. For me, typing is a kind of swimming through a turbulent volume or substance: there are certain words or sequences of letters over which I skim, like Sartre over his blissfully compliant snow. Other words stubbornly resist, like knotted wood under the plane. Oddly, my left hand is faster and more mobile than my right, because I am used to fretting notes on the neck of a stringed instrument (the fingers of my right hand are more used to plucking than pressing), though it feels less like me doing it. I have spent a long time trying to work through typing tutors, forming words with the fingers of the left hand. The word `hand’ is a joint work of the two hands. `I’ is located firmly on my right hand, and I strike it always with my second finger. `Me’ is a snappy and satisfying cooperation between left and right; but `we’ belongs to the left. A special atmosphere attaches to words the letters of which are concentrated on the left; the atmosphere of words learned in a foreign language. The word `dream’ is almost entirely a left-handed word, as is the word `left’ and the word `word’. Few phrases involve so much work for the left hand, in fact, as the phrase `left-handed word’. As all typing tutors know, one of the longest words that it is possible to form from the letters of one row only is the word `typewriter’.
But, because I am a clumsy typist, these patterns are extremely variable. I have no set routine for how I write the words `hand’, or `ventriloquist’, and so invariably stammer and blunder (words that I find it easy and pleasurable to type). I am forced to improvise. I can never merge with or merely typw through the machine I am using, even though I can type at speed. I am susceptible to wrist strain, as jerky tennis players are susceptible to pulled muscles, and graceless runners to cramp and blisters. But this means, not that I am subdued to the machine, but rather that, at every moment, new contingencies and complications are arising; new mingled not to say, in my own case, mangled bodies. What happens when I cross my hands, as for a cross-hands boogie? Something very bizarre. The whole keyboard is reassembled in an impossibly complex interior space. The clumsy typist is a virtuoso of this improvised space.
Commentators on the history of typing have often been struck by the specialisation of typing by women, and it has often been assumed that this enacts in the most brutally obvious way, the identification of woman, not with the origin of speech, but with its transmission. Woman becomes the `typewriter’, the very type of the typewriter, in parallel with the process whereby the very word `typewriter’ shifted from designating the person using the machine to designating the machine itself. The woman transmits; she does not write; she copies, she does not originate. The writer writes by hand; he uses the hand; the typist writes with two hands. Now it is not necessary to relapse into simple biologism to be struck by a certain rhyme between women’s perceived aptitude for typing and a well-recognised neurobiological fact; namely that language is distributed more evenly across the two sides of the brain in women than in men. Thus, right-handed women who suffer strokes (a word which clearly bears the impact of the typewriter in it) which affect the left side of the brain, are less likely to suffer loss of language function than men, and, when they do, more likely to be able to `regrow’ language function in the undamaged portion of the brain. Now it would be easy to reject the significance of this analogy, which is indeed little more than an analogy. However, it does allow us to wonder whether the assumption that typing is mechanical, inhuman and regressive because it is a two-handed rather than a one-handed operation (and is comparable perhaps to eating two-handed, which is a sign of brutishness) is not a view that one might expect from men, with our egregiously lopsided brains. If Julian Jaynes, who sees the achievement of self-consciousness as a feat of socio-neurological engineering which brought together the two halves of a previously bicameral consciousness, in which one half of the brain was apt to hear the words formed in the other half in the form of divine commands, is even a little bit right, then one might see typing, not merely as evidence of automatism, with the words of the other passing through the self, but also as evidence of bicameral integration. The typist knits together the two hands, which for Jaynes had previously been wired separately to speaking and hearing. [Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (London: Allen Lane, 1979).]
As all readers of Bleak House will be forced to acknowledge, it is not typing as such that is oppressive: it is copying out. Typing is not more mechanical or dehumanising in itself than manual copywork: it simply makes the copying process easier to industrialise. In typing, the two hands do not merely alternate. The keys touched by my left hand encounter, and form a surface that is not homogeneous with that formed by my right. I touch the keys on my right; the keys on my left hand touch me back. My right hand encounters a surface, my left is part of the surface. It is almost as though in typing, I were typing with the fingertips of my right hand on the fingertips of my left. The surface of the page has not vanished. But it has become folded, complicated, intermittent. The final result of the starkly printed or impressed page gives litle clue to the phenomenology of the process of impressing words. Far from being amputated by the new typographic and phonographic machines, the hand is reduplicated: in the typewriter, the corona of levers operated by the keys irresistibly takes on the shape of a multiply-fingered hand. Fingers are to the fore in other technologies: the telegraph is operated by a finger (and telegraphists grew to recognise the distinctive signature of other operators in the digital pattern of dots and dashes), and the stylus of the phonograph and gramophone acts like a finger or fingernail.
In order to make good my objections to what I regard as the epochist way of thinking about technology, I will be returning to the point with which I began, in order to wonder about two aspects in particular of the libidinised rereading of modernism and modernity; what happens to the hand and how the hand is related to the cultural phenomenology of the surface. All this will not be to say that nothing changed in the period we have come to call modernity: but it will be to say that the temporality of that change is much more cursive and complex than it is usually taken to be, a matter much more of loops, apertures, susceptibilities rather than regular shifts, or statistical regularities. Indeed, I will find the issue of temporality at work in the very conditions of the marked surface that will be my subject. In brief, I will be suggesting that we read cultural history not like a typewriter, in which the sheet of paper that rolls through the platen receives the stamp or mark of technology, but rather more like the crumpled handkerchief which is Michel Serres’s model of time, a surface which is not merely marked by successive time, but itself grows, like mathematical phase space, out of the interaction of spatial with temporal dimensions. (An exemplary loop to start with: it was the very substitution of the quantitative for the qualitative, the mathematisation of nature, which seems to belong to the new discursive network of the modern, which brought about the defeat (or the complication) of the mechanism of a previous era.)
Serres gives us the hand mingling with other bodies in its mingling with itself, shuttling between the condition of stylus and surface, figure and ground, subject and object, shifting, mingling and exchanging. His is a phenomenology not of contusion, but of suffusion, not of impact, but of implication. Serres writes, left-handed, of the two-handed implicate order.
My aspiration in what remains of this paper is to follow Serres in reading the hand persisting in modernism. But it will not be Heidegger’s hand, or Kittler’s, which is to say, the hand that forms a single continuous stream transmitting inward to outward, Language to language. Nor will it be the amputated hand of the typological order of modernism as descried by Kittler and Seltzer. It will be the topological rather than the typological hand.
I will begin by a seemingly self-evident contrast between what might be thought of as a typographic novel, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Beckett’s trilogy. Ulysses is a novel that is full of the signs of print and what Derrida calls telegrammophonic culture. Ulysses works by combination, by manipulation, by permutation of fixed elements. Its dominant code is not growth, development or progression, but coding itself, the restless reordering and transposition of elements. It is this which makes it, to adopt another Derridean locution, a `hypermnesic’ novel, which is ready-to-hand to itself at every point. [Jacques Derrida. `Two Words For Joyce’, trans. Geoff Bennington, in Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays From the French, ed. Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer ((Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).] The writing line, which propels the conventional novel forwards to its end, is given up well before half-way through the novel, during the `Aeolus’ chapter of the novel, set famously and of course tellingly in a newspaper office. One of the recurrent proofs of this typographic disposition of the novel is reversal. This is apparent in the verbal inbreath-outbreath taken at the beginning of the chapter, in which the words inspired in `Grossbooted draymen rolled barrels dullthudding out of Prince’s stores and bumped them up the brewery float’ are almost immediately breathed out in `On the brewery float bumped dullthudding barrels rolled by grossbooted draymen out of Prince’s stores.’ [Ulysses: The Corrected Text, ed. Hans Walter Gabler (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 96 7.21-4. All references to Ulysses will follow this style: page number: chapter number.line number.] The most interesting thing about this example is how badly it survives the transition to actual reading out loud in which the intake and expiration of breath are actually involved, since, of course, one still has to breathe in in the usual way before each sentence and breathe out during it. One might see here an apt illustration of a point made by Walter Ong about the fundamental difference between an oral culture and a print culture. In a print culture, signs can not only be fixed, they can also be reversed.
(Of course, it would be physically possible to read the first sentence while actually drawing in the breath, just as certain instruments, such as the mouth-organ, allow notes to be formed through inspiration. Interestingly, one of the most influential anatomical explanations for the phenomenon of ventriloquism, or belly-talking, was that it involved speaking while drawing in breath. A complex network of associations relate speaking from elsewhere than the mouth – through the belly, the fundament or the genitals for example, all of which appear at points in Ulysses – and the alternation between the left and the right: the left side of my body is related to my back side. The left hand is related to the backside in the widely-spread practices of segregating the right hand from the hand charged with the inglorious task of, in Beckett’s words, `absterging the podex’, or arse-wiping. No account of the hand in modernity can afford to neglect the far-from casual link between newsprint and arsewiping in modern culture.)
Typographic reversal is made apparent throughout `Aeolus’ and beyond in Ulysses. The riddle that runs through the chapter (`What opera is like a railway line? The Rose of Castile‘) seems to run the `rows of cast steel’ of newspaper type parallel to the parallel lines of the railway. The newspaper is an image of the typographic sensibility, in which the page is not threaded, but gridded, not sewn together by the continuous running stitch of a single discourse, but is blocked into columns and slabs of print and image, in an enlargement of the typewriter’s stamping out of the individual character all at once. It is precisely the separability of the elements of the newspaper, abutting as they do on each other, that makes them recombinable in different orders, makes it possible to move from any part of the paper to any other part. Advertisements function as the essential units of the newspaper’s articulation: formed from prefabricated units, which can be moved around at will (Bloom shamelessly cuts and pastes, as we would say, the design for the House of Keyes advertisement from another newspaper). However, it is perhaps this communicability of its parts which suggests the topological variability of the newspaper’s shape in Ulysses – rolled into a baton, crumpled up into a ball, and perhaps in the end morphing into the shape of the novel itself. Certainly Bloom seems to be struck by the indeterminacy of its substance; seeing the `obedient reels feeding in huge webs of paper’, he thinks `Clank it.. Clank it. Miles of it unreeled. What becomes of it after? O, wrap up meat, parcels: various uses, thousand and one things’ (99: 7.133-6).
Reversal is apparent in the vision Bloom has of the typesetter casting off the letters of the name `mangiD kcirtaP’, which reminds Bloom of another kind of reversal, the right-to-left reading line of Hebrew (U, 101: 7.204-7). The reversibility of Patrick Dignam’s name, combined with the dissolution of the letters of that name, seems to suggest the decomposition of death. At the same time, the reversibility of the letters also suggests another feature of the typographic disposition, or decomposition, namely its intolerance of the negative. The reversal of Patrick Dignam’s name just gives us another name, outlandish to be sure, but not nothing or negativity. Patrick Dignam’s decomposition is cognate with other decompositions in the book, and looks forward in particular to the Black Mass which is celebrated at the end of the `Circe’ episode, in which the Voice of All the Damned intoning `Htengier Tnetopinmo Dog Drol eht rof, Aiulella’ and the voice of Adonai calling `Dooooooooooog!’ have to be reversed to yield the Voice of All the Blessed crying `Alleluia, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!’ and Adonai calling `Goooooooooood!’ (U, 489-50; 15.4707-4715).
Joyce is said by Frank Budgen to have been pleased to see a pianola playing in a Zürich café. Such a pianola plays in the Circe episode of Ulysses, an episode in which it might be said that Joyce deliberately allows, or aims to give the impression of allowing his work to write or play itself out independently of him (Stephen Dedalus’s famous prescription for artistic impersonality focuses on the indifference of the artist ‘paring his fingernails’ – ‘Look. no hands!’, in other words.) One way of reading this pianola is as an image of the typewriter, or even the process of typesetting that features so notably in the novel. As a machine for producing sound automatically, the pianola belongs with the phonograph and the gramophone: indeed, the `Circe’ chapter features a gramophone, too, the utterances of which are not ontologically distinguished from the other voices, human and non-human, recorded and played back. Actually, playback proves to be literally at work in this chapter, in which playing back allows and accomplishes playing backwards, which Walter Ong has identified as the very characteristic (character, Gk. a stamp or impression). The playback offered by the `Circe’ chapter gives us an image of typophonographic reversibility. It is, as so many commentators have discovered, a scrambled encryption or anagram of Ulysses itself, which suggests the very world of incresence, of gratuitous inward growth inwards, that will generate Finnegans Wake. Like the pianola, the chapter plays itself.
And yet the pianola is an image of body creation: we cannot help but conjure the body of the person sitting at the piano (this is why pianolas were regularly supplied or exhibited with stools). This is a ghosted effect of the recording process; for the player who records the piano-roll has indeed left, indexically as we must say (a word that is itself marked by the ghost of the hand), their fingering on – or in ? – in the roll. The rhythm, weight and tension of the person who played the music is preserved in such a way that to play the music back is to reverse the whole process of transmission.
In `Circe’, the pianola draws or is drawn into the reading and writing of hands. Like the ventriloquised corpse in Poe’s story `Thou Art the Man’, the talking heads of Father Dolan and Father Conmee from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man fly up from the coffin-lid of the pianola, and they recall the primal scene of Stephen’s pandybatting. Stephen’s memory of this assault actually instigates a chiromantic interlude, in which Zoe the prostitute first reads Stephen’s `womanly hand’, and then Bloom’s, whose short little finger denotes, she says, the `henpecked husband’ (a henpecked manuscript will be at the core of Finnegans Wake). The crude, percussive assault upon the hand gives way to a more complex lacing together of the life-lines evidenced in Bloom’s and Stephen’s palms (Bloom shows a scar that is the result of a fall sixteen years previously when he was twenty-two, which is Stephen’s age now; sixteen years before, Stephen lost his glasses and suffered the pandybatting.)
The hand does not simply stand present an organic alternative to the world of blind, violent mechanical contact in Ulysses, since the cheirographic and the typographic are written through each other. In fact, Joyce supplied us with an apter image for the writing of Ulysses than the ghostly pianola, jabbering out its mindless tunes. As he was apporaching the end of writing the novel in 1921, he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver:
I am sure that this letter is rather more puzzleheaded than usual but the printer, for some reason, sends me now proofs of Circe, Eumeus, and Penelope at the same time without having finished the composition of the first two and I have to work on them simultaneously different as they are so that I remind myself of the man who used to play several instruments with different parts of his body. [Letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver 10.xii.1921, Selected Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 287.]
In contrast with the many-voiced, many-handed and joyously overwritten Ulysses, Beckett’s Trilogy seems to have no way of keeping a grip on itself, governed as it is by the movement, not of peristalsis, but of outflow – excretion and vomit in particular. In Ulysses, everything can be doubled, recalled, reversed. In the Trilogy, there appears to be less and less of a surface for the marks to cling to, and so less and less opportunity to recall anything. At the beginning of the Trilogy, in Molloy, Molloy launches his words into air, but at least has the reassurance that some of his words have been kept. (‘Because they’re keeping it, apparently…’) As the Trilogy runs on, it runs out, with only occasional stretches snatched from the gurgles of outflow. By the time we reach The Unnamable, even the fragile contact between hand and writing surface has dissolved:
How, in such conditions, can I write, to consider only the manual aspect of that bitter folly? I don’t know. I could know. But I shall not know. Not this time. It is I who write, who cannot raise my hand from my knee. It is I who think, just enough to write, whose head is far. I am Matthew, and I am the angel, I who came before the cross, before the sinning, came into the world, came here. [The Unnamable, in Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, (London: John Calder, 1973), p. 303. References hereafter to the three novels, abbreviated to M, MD and Un, in my text.]
If Joyce’s work appears to be typographic, then Beckett’s Trilogy is surely the most cheirographic imaginable.
My little finger glides before my pencil across the page and gives warning, falling over the edge, that the end of the line is near. But in the other direction, I mean of course vertically, I have nothing to guide me. (MD, 207)
None of Beckett’s writers and scribes, as far as I can recall, uses a typwriter. But it looks as though something of the blindness and automatic process of typing has entered into the relation between finger and hand. (We can tell, by the way, that Beckett, or at least Malone, is right-handed, since his hand precedes rather than follows the line of writing.) This is a discourse in which the interruptions and resumptions of handwriting, which are elided in the idealised form of handwriting imagined by Beyerlen, Kittler and others, are built into the writing process. Unless it is in the continuous, ploughwise writing imagined in Finnegans Wake, handwriting (and typing, for that matter), is punctuated by these little hiccups and discontinuities. The typewriter-like focus on the fingers seems to accompany a sense of the dispersive nature of writing and of the body:
my fingers too write in other latitudes and the air that breathes through my pages and turns them without my knowing, when I doze off, so that the subject falls far from the verb and the object lands somewhere in the void, is no the air of this second last abode (MD, 235)
The blindness and interruptedness of Malone’s writing here is magnified in the text of Malone Dies itself, which presents an unbroken continuity, word following word (until the theatrical rifts which begin to open up visibly in the text towards the end), and yet is full of abrupt breakings off (`What a misfortune, the pencil must have slipped from my fingers, for I have only just succeeded in recovering it after forty-eight hours (see above) of intermittent efforts’ MD, 222). The final breaking-off, the real `end of the line’ is the death that is both the unavoidable centre of the narrative and unrepresentable in it. This moment can easily be representable, of course, as the mark or pressure, within a resolutely manuscriptive text, of the typewriter. In his final words, which run together Lemuel’s hammer, Malone’s stick and his pencil, Malone seems to have become a typewriter, as the voice in The Unnamable tries to make himself into a phonograph, as he winds one-legged towards his family, or the vibrating diaphragm of a telephone or loudspeaker.
Despite the amnesic sense of a writing produced purely by hand, though deprived of the reassurance offered by the eye, the Trilogy, like Ulysses, is full of reversals and rewinds. (By the time the tape-recorder had become available for dramatic use in Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s work had already invented it.) One thinks of the inversion in the order of Molloy’s and Moran’s narratives, or the self-unzipping quality of the latter-former, with its final words that repeat and contradict its opening words. Or there is the gyre-like movement, unwinding and rewinding, of the speaker inThe Unnamable. Most notably, there is the awareness of iterability in the novel, in which each of the narratives only succeeds in getting on by going back, dramatised as this is by the question of self-translation, which seems to be anticipated in Malone’s references to `another pencil, made in France, a long cylinder hardly broached, in the bed with me somewhere I think’ (MD, 223). Beckett’s text, written of course first in French, but here, in its reference to the resources of the other, French pencil, seeming to be a translation of an English text in which Beckett anticipates the turn to French which he has already made, seems a thoroughly left-handed affair. We should recall that Beckett the cricketer batted left-handed, but bowled his medium pace right-handed. A full investigation of the manual aspects of Beckett’s writing would have to take account of its sporting, as well as its musical components – `What ruined me at bottom was athletics’, we read in the prose piece `Horn Came Always’. [Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 (London: John Calder, 1984), p. 194.]
As in Watt, in which backwards writing abounds, the effect of this overwriting is not to consolidate the surface of the writing, but to dissolve it. The implication of the hand in this process is a mark however of the indissolubility of the body, of the propriocentric skewering of the subject in the corporeal appehension of the dissolution of definition. We are never in the wholly abstract world of the typographic disposition evoked by Kittler, in which `All that remains of the real is a contact surface or skin, where something writes on something else’ (Kittler, p. 224). The hand maintains itself (main-tenant, holding its own hand, like the intertwined hands of old and young in the groundless dim of Worstward Ho) through all the typographic decompositions, in a self-touching topology.
This is not to say that Beckett’s texts do not aspire to the typographic condition evoked by Kittler – the condition of elementary, wordless concussion or impression of stylus on surface. This is to be found dramatised in the various acts of violent concussion to be found through the trilogy, like the assault inflicted by Molloy on the charcoal burner, the blows delivered by Malone’s silent visitor and, most memorably, though not for its subject, the means employed by Molloy to communicate with his mother: `I got into communication with her by rapping on her skull. One knock meant yes, two, no, three, I don’t know, four money, five goodbye.’ The desire for the fixation of the letter in a stable surface which will hold it in place often seems to make associations between inscription and the many references to crucifixion to be found in Beckett, with the focus especially on the painful impalement of the hand. The painful condition of the hand, known as Dupuytren’s contracture, from which Beckett suffered in later years, and which seems to be evidenced in the appearances of unnaturally constricted `hands like claws’ must surely at times have presented itself as an auto-crucifixion to Beckett. It is bizarrely anticipated by the story in How It Is of the Eastern sage who keeps his hands clasped so tightly together that the nails grow right through the palms and out through the back of the hands. [How It Is (London: John Calder, 1964), p. 59.]
But Beckett’s texts also recoil away from this economy of the primally and permanently marked surface, this desire for what Lyotard has called `this first touch, which touched me when I was not there’ [Jean-François Lyotard , `Prescription’, L’Esprit créateur, 31 (1991), p. 18]. The self is not to be found either typographically fixed or organically ready-to-hand in its penmanship. Rather the self flares up in what Malone calls the `latitudes’ of the hand, in the manifold self-touchings and contingencies of Beckett’s text, including the touching-together of the economies of the pen and the keyboard. As in Ulysses, the hand, pen and keyboard mediate each other, creating a complex, self-organising phase-space of writing.
The hand haunts modernist writing: but not merely as a ghost of the bodily integrity or presence that have been lost in the age of type. The age of type forms a handiwork; the so-called abstraction is lived in the body. There is a cultural phenomenology of the typist body which is as complex, variable and lived as its predecessor. The soul of man does not slip out of his hands. (The pen falls, it is noted’, we read in Texts for Nothing.) His hands are everywhere, because his hands are not things, his hands are contingencies, places of contact, commingling, mutual touching. Typing does not remove the hand of man from the world; it makes man ambidextrous.
My aim has been to show you that modernist writing never deserted the hand, though it may unavoidably have transformed it. My larger aim has been to discourage ephocal analysis and the deterministic cultural totalism it allows. I will conclude by suggesting that epochal analysis of the regimes of writing is in the grip of a particular, and inappropriate model of historical writing, a model in which one technological mode merely effaces and replaces another. The new technological determinism is tautological: it borrows the metaphors (of being stamped, imprinted, penetrated, forced into grooves) of the technology it aims to understand. But in fact technological determinism fails to recognise the transformations that it itself, and self-refutingly, effects. We have magical relations with machines. All machines are anachronistic; they have been invented long before they come about; they have begun to decay as soon as they do.
Much of Kittler’s discourse network style of interpreting material practices derives from the work of Foucault. But there is also to be found both in Kittler and in Seltzer, a striking desire to be plus mécanist que le mécanicien. Foucault – of all people – is criticised for being insufficiently attentive to the formative force of technological innovation. `Foucault conceived discursive rules as comprehensible and therefore overlooked technologies. But innovations in the technology of information are what produced the specificity of the discourse network of 1900, separating it from transcendental knowledge’, writes Kittler (p. 278). Foucault is accused, breathtakingly, of only acknowledging discourse, or technological forms which could be translated into the order of discourse (it’s hard to know what Kittler can possibly mean here, unless he means simply that Foucault only registers material practices when they can be translated into ideas or propositions). Foucault is being accused here of not paying enough attention to the blind, immediately corporeal effects of technology; but Kittler’s own assumptions about how discourse networks work on human bodies, bypassing awareness and language, seem to belong to the very discourse network the existence of which he is attempting to prove. In effect, he substitutes one model of discourse for another: the discourse of marking or inscription over the discourse of willed proposition. What is it that makes the discourse of inscription such a necessity, so desirable, if not the dissolution of the surface and the economy of marking that it supports, the vanishing of that magical-mechanical model of marking? The masochist prefers the pain of being hurt and visibly marked to numbness, or there being, as for poor Mrs Gradgrind, a pain somewhere in the vicinity and not being sure if it is his own.
To be fair, Mark Seltzer is more uneasy than Kittler at the prospect of a cultural history of technological forms based upon the principle of universal equivalence. Discussing James’s late turn to dictation and his relations with his long-term typist Theodora Bosanquet, Seltzer urges us to remember that
things are, among other things, what they appear to be, and practices are neither simply reducible, nor simply irreducible, to anything else. If for James, for instance, the practice of dictation to the machine and the act of writing in general become “absolutely identical,” it is the work of making identical (here, the work of making writing and mechanics equivalent such that each becomes transparent to the other) that must be analysed. In short: the writing of writing at the turn of the century locates, and specifies, the tension between the “material and illusory” or immaterial in terms of the body-machine complex. It is thus the relays by which new writing technologies [pp] and the relations of machine culture become reciprocally intelligible, and operational, that I am tracking here. (pp. 196-7)
But there is a master code at work here: the master code is work itself – sorting and relaying as a kind of work, and a work that is accomplished primarily through writing – thus closing the circuit which the point about the working out of mediations and relays is supposed to prise upon. In other words, the very mode of reading the continuity of apparent discontinuities derives from and confirms the hypothesis it is supposed to be demonstrating: that of the universal domination of thermodynamic or informational work (and the equivalence between them ande the work of writing). In a similar way, the `psychotopography of machine culture’ (p. 4) borrows from and seems unnecessarily to verify the topographisation of the self that is the alleged characteristic of the period under question (Kittler’s term for the quantitative mapping of the operations of the soul is `psychophysics’).
The embrace of technological determinism is a turning away from the difficult freedom thrust upon us by new technologies. We must at all costs, it seems, avoid thinking ourselves free, or not free to take the exact measure of our constrainedness. Any suffering is better than the anguish of that openness. Kafka’s writing machine surely allegorizes this process in advance. The writing machine in In the Penal Colony cannot not be read as the direct, unconscious inscription of the very process of inscription. Here, law, like psychoanalysis and the other privileged expressions of the discourse network, bypasses consciousness and is inscribed directly on the body of the subject (the subject is the one who lies underneath, the support, the receiving surface). The text which shows this is itself inscribed by the truth it inscribes. But the machine goes wrong. Does the machine of Kafka’s own allegorical demonstration itself fail as a result? Does it know its meaning, or is its meaning written through it? If it is a blind allegory, then what is it an allegory of, exactly?
In all of this, we are not really talking about modernity; we are talking about our own relations to technology (just as Kafka appears to be anticipating in his story our own nostalgia for the inscription machine). Our own machines have faded away from us, or perhaps faded away into us. In the era of the soft machine, it is proving necessary for us to reinvent the machine, to find the evidence of the machine at the moment before the human-machine interface dissolved. There must be a kind of violence in this writing. It is necessary for us to read the history of our relations to machines mechanistically (with is to say magically, and sentimentally) because this is the only way of preserving the idea of the inhumanity of machinery which is the last refuge of our anthropomorphism. There is a sentimentalisation involved in the historical accounts of our modernity which comes from a sado-masochistic desire (the linkage between sadomasochism and writing is very strong) for technology to be determining, for us to be able to determine once and for all the once-and-for-all determining powers of technology.
The writing modes of modernism begin to disclose the complex historicity of all writing; a model of cultural relationship based on topology rather than succession, on palimpsest rather than erasure: on overwriting. With Bruno Latour, I want to say that we have never been modern, or never all in one go (and, when it comes to being modern, it is surely all or nothing). The writing of modernism is not a date-stamped technology. It has a complex temporality, the complexity of the mark that is not made once and for all on a void and stable receiving surface; a mode of inscription which refuses the successivity and linearity necessary to the order of inscription (which requires there to be a surface available to be marked in order for the mark to be made). Just as the hand makes the body and world go hand-in-glove, giving world to body and body to world, so media mediate each other, and the temporalities these media produce filter and refold each other.
Half way through the century, Jackson Pollock would seemingly reinstate the pen in his drip paintings. Laying the canvas on the floor emphasised its role as receiving ground (things on the ground normally receive the print of the foot, rather than the mark of a pen, or caress of a brush), but also made it possible to reinstate the erotic distance between the painter and his surface. Gravity turned the drip, delivered from a stick that doubled as a stylus, into a line. Instead of the contact sports practised by the grid-modernists, with their starkly slabbed colour fields, these were water-sports, in which the energising distance between stick and surface maintained, instead of the contact of the brush and canvas, a kind of tact, or reserve. Pollock painted huge canvases, but never climbed into the middle of them, or smeared dolly-birds over them, like the next generation of action painters: like a snooker-player, he prowled around the perimeter of the canvas, leaning painfully from the edges into the centre, increasing to a maximum the arc between the pot of paint held in one hand and the final drip-line deposited by the other at full stretch and at speed. The very speed of the application was a way of painting in slow motion, of preserving by renewing the fall of the drip. As Michel Serres remarks, `Gymnastics begin and condition metaphysics.’ [Les cinq sens, p. 19.] This restless, vigilant, tender hovering over the canvas is preserved in the tautness of the reticulations resulting on that visible surface, which have the tension, complexity and nervous life of the written page. The surface vanished beneath the threads and networks of the drip-patterns. Where traditionally painters had applied their signature as a last authenticating flourish to a completed surface, Pollock formed his surface out of signatures, in an unreadable but endlessly fascinating and profoundly reassuring cooperation of the line and its surface.