Monday, January 31, 2011


As I have by now restarted or failed to start so many distinct careers, likening myself - as I must to remain American - to those careers, and thus finding myself a wreck sunken before it was ever launched, I also find occasion to re-read that essay I wrote by virtue of which I was awarded a Bachelor's Degree.

By the evenness of the type's impression on the page, I can tell the machine whose keyboard I pounded was electrified. My own powers of recall would have told me as much. But by the unevenness of the type's line, I can tell that it was the more primitive and by then worn hammer-type machine and not the IBM Selectric I would later use.

There would be daisy wheels and there would be electrostatic machines, but now they're all subsumed beneath virtualized page drawing languages which can be rendered in any number of ways onto literal or virtual sheets of blank approximate whiteness.

They keyboard remains. Sort of. As happens often, I got my hands on a newer smartphone from Google, and right there on its keyboard is an icon for a microphone, and sure enough it will replace your keystrokes with a typographic rendering of your voice. And I watched a friend capturing his notes and a lectures soundtrack electronically by his pen. I don't really know what it is I want anymore.

I know I don't want videos of myself giving lectures. For one thing, I'd have to write them first. And even though I'm still working on a writer's 'voice' I wouldn't trade it - elusive though the writing voice may be - for my literal droning voice (cross-genre resemblance you say?).

Even when I wash a floor, I like to get down on my hands and knees once in a while so that I can see what it is I'm interacting with. When I write English, the letters are near enough to the keyboard, but when I write Chinese they're not. I lose touch with the written forms which are replaced by my ability to recognize them quickly which is not the same as to be able to form them.

To type Chinese is to lose touch with the forms as they are formed, and so, of course, many scholars note that it should be as it must be. And good riddance to needless complexity.

Alongside the typescript of the essay I've just re-read are my handwritten Chinese characters, and they are lame. To protect myself, had it been possible, I would have used a word-processor to hide my handwriting disability, just as I had to render written English.

I'm just now reading a book written by one of my oldest friends. I believe that I would be accurate to say that it treats the history of the introduction of industrial printing to China as synecdoche for a variety of technological and organizational changes in China which occurred as the result of the overall confluence of Chinese and Western traditions, starting from some time after the Gutenberg revolution in the West and still ongoing with the globalization of technologies to reproduce the written word.

I am astounded at the extent to which the machinery of printing in both its development and its form is part and parcel of the machinery of industrialization more generally. But the really interesting part is how, in the case of printing, the output of that production was the actual means for dissemination and ideological persuasion about the process by which it was created; printing machines could seed the globe with schematics to describe the building of more such machines. Printed words could persuade readers of the utility in doing so. And along the way this same technique for the broad-casting of written tracts would expose and transform the social arrangements which had been transformed because of its arrival on the scene; industrial capitalism brutalized workers, and nowhere more markedly than for the workers of printing presses.

There is a kind of ironic feedback loop to the technology for mass producing words. At one and the same time that it accelerates the penetration and acceptance of the underlying print-making technologies, it also accelerates ideological transformations which might and sometimes do counter those very trends.

And no wonder that governments quake now in the face of Facebook or WikiLeaks. Widely dispersed and replicated agencies, microbe style, have always had the collectivized agency to topple centralized institutions of power.

One effective antidote to this kind of threatening infection of the body politic is to flood the field with sound and fury. Captivate attention and signify nothing. A less effective antidote is to try to contain, privatize and control access to what gets published.

But as with plans for nuclear devices, it's not so much the actual material as its context which makes widely disseminated writing so powerful and dangerous. I know from small and insignificant examples that it is mostly the knowledge that it can be done which most often empowers me to do it, whatever the "it" is. I don't always need to be shown the precise means, if I can but know with some assurance that what I might attempt has actually once been done.

But such knowledge can be a demotivator too.  Why would you bother if it's already been done by someone else somewhere else? Why, if you can master only a small part of what the masters have mastered would you essay a long shot on your own? And so we all lose touch with the written word because we no longer even try to write it. We only speak it. We give T.E.D-sized renditions for our friends' consumption in company and let the world take care of itself. We have confidence that someone somewhere will know how to and will have done the work.

What then will be my work? What will I do with hands-on that is not merely to keep the machines humming? Which language is left to be informed once words have proliferated to such an extent that there is no principle which will or can prevent our being lost among them? Or has it already all started its descent once again to nonsense, where the makers can no longer make without machine?

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