Stenography, Spirituality, and the Media History of Liberation

pitman psalms

The Book of Psalms in the Corresponding Style of Pitman’s Shorthand

More religion and stenography, this from Isaac Pitman’s A Manual of Phonography, or, Writing by Sound (1864):

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the principles of the Reformation were extensively promulgated in this country from the pulpit. A desire to preserve for future private reading the discourses of the principal preachers of that day, led to the cultivation of the newly invented art of shorthand writing. Teachers and systems increased rapidly; and by a comparison of one mode with another, and by experimenting with various series of alphabetical signs, Mason, at length produced a system of the art, from the publication in 1588 of Brights’s system of arbitrary characters for words (or rather from the publication of the first shorthand alphabet by John Willis, in 1602) to the appearance of Mason’s system in 1682, may therefore be considered as resulting from the dawn of RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. Mason’s system was published by Thomas Gurney, in 1751, and it is used by members of his family, as reporters to the Government, to the present time (17).

So, on the one hand, because the “desire to preserve … the discourses of the principal preachers of the day” required a mode of recording faster and more efficient than normal writing, our knowledge of the Reformation depended on the development of shorthand writing systems. On the other hand, though, the rapid increase of shorthand writing systems and schools in the 16th and 17th centuries also points to the idea that shorthand writing was a product of the Reformation. So shorthand and “RELIGIOUS FREEDOM,” in Pitman’s account, sort of produce each other.

This seems like a dubious empirical claim, but there’s something about it that I don’t want to let go of. After all, we’re now used to talking about how new technologies enable the transmission and circulation of ideas that have real effects in the world (the Arab Spring and Twitter, for example). But the idea of print and the printing press dominates the way we imagine that information circulated basically until the invention of the telegraph. (I’m ignoring the work of many important scholars, like Lisa Gitelman and Bernhard Siegert, but stay with me.) Pitman may offer a hyperbolic, slightly dubious account of the Reformation’s media ecology, but in doing so he forces us to imagine a world in which the means by which information, language, and ideas made their way from one medium to another, from the voice of a speaker to the eyes or ears of a distant reader or listener, were not so settled.

In Deep Time of the Media, Siegfried Zielinski urges us to recapture those lost possibilities that inhere in forgotten or vestigial media. He argues that progressivist models of media history view our present media environment as developing inevitably out of prior environments. In this view, “history is the promise of continuity and a celebration of the continual march of progress in the name of humankind” (3). This progressivist idea of history is, in truth, ahistorical, since it suggests that, “everything has always been around, only in less elaborate form. One needs only to look” (3). Media historical progressivism remains blind to the possibilities offered up by media and technologies that didn’t survive, that remain buried. It is these forms that Zielinski finds interesting, urging us not to “seek the old in the new” but to “find something new in the old” (3).

The history of shorthand offers this kind of new oldness, but the relation between past and present, new and old in shorthand is more dialectical than what Zielinski suggests. I do see in Pitman the echo of an older way of thinking about the metaphysics of the voice’s relation to the hand and a foreshadowing of media history to come. Pitman’s enthusiasm about shorthand’s entwinement with political and religious liberation could easily transform into its opposite. Where he saw the shorthand as an agent of freedom, we could also see the origins of the copyist as a mechanized drudge. I’m still not settled on how I think all this plays out. Maybe it’s all because Pitman was a Swedenborgian.

Stenography’s Spiritual Dimension

Currently I’m reading a lot about nineteenth-century short-hand writing systems. It’s turning into a pretty large project, and a lot of it involves reading lots of old handbooks and tracts and magazines and such (many of which you can find online; the internet is still amazing, guys). As the historian Carole Srole has shown, from the 1830s to about the 1870s, shorthand writing systems were considered tools of social reform. Shorthand was both a kind of trade and a skill that would enable men (and it was practiced almost exclusively by men at first) to enhance their own learning. As Srole writes,

Stenographers’ early history strengthened their identity as middle-class men. Their unique association with reform and mastery linked them to middle-class values of progress and perfectibility. Shorthand’s potential as a skill for future learning contributed to stenographers’ self-identity as men who made themselves. They could see each action as movement forward. Their efforts to seek out new material and courses, practice to build speed, and travel for employment enhanced their image as ambitious, autonomous men (42).

Shorthand became a way to build, solidify, and perfect a kind of professionalized middle-class virtue. Shorthand allowed its practitioners to improve themselves economically (through increased employment opportunities), mentally (through enhanced literacy), and in some sense spiritually through what was for some a nearly monomaniacal dedication to craft and the transubstantiation of the spoken word to the written word.

Shorthand’s spiritual dimension is totally fascinating to me. For example, here’s an excerpt from Isaac Pitman’s seminal Stenographic Sound-Hand (1837) that suggests just what was at stake in writing reform for early shorthand evangelists.

Convinced as the writer is of the unspeakable importance of the art of writing, and more especially of short-hand, to man, while an inhabitant of this material world; convinced also of the superior excellency of a language written as pronounced, above one, like the English, where the sound of the letters is continually at war with the sound of the words; keeping in mind too the discoveries,the improvements, and facilities of every description that characterise this new age; he thinks he is not too sanguine in expecting, that, ere long, shorthand will be the common hand, in which the imperishable Word of God will exist no larger than a watch, and be as constantly used for the discovery and regulation of man’s spiritual state, with reference to eternity, as the pocket chronometer is for the discovery and regulation of time with reference to the the present life (10).

Two interrelated ideas seem important here. The first is the idea that, through its condensation in shorthand writing, the Bible (“the imperishable Word of God”) could be reduced to the size of a pocket watch and carried on the person at all times in order to ensure the constant vigilance of man over his “spiritual state.” And just as a pocket watch regulates our daily rhythms in “the present life,” the ever-present shorthand Bible would ensure that we remain in sync with the spiritual rhythms of “eternity.” 

The second idea is that shorthand could harmonize a language in which “the sound of the letters is continually at war with the sound of the words.” The disjunction between the individual sounds of component parts and the combined sounds of those parts has, for Pitman, a kind of transcendental wrongness about it. In this sense, the sound of the word and the sound of the letter reflect a more pervasive spiritual imbalance suggested by the absence of the Word of God from the person of the average man. In Pitman’s view, then, a perfect accord between English as it is spoken and English as it is written would create a kind of neo-Adamic language, one appropriate to realign man’s spiritual clock with that of God.

For someone like Pitman, the stakes of language reform and the possibilities of shorthand are transcendental. This is one of the aspects of nineteenth-century shorthand I find endlessly compelling. As shorthand became a popular means to achieve professionalization and middle-class respectability though, especially in the U.S., this spiritual dimension, sadly, predictably, fell away.

Laughing At/With Nathanael West

I’ve been writing something about Nathanael West, and I had occasion to go back and look at a conference paper I presented on The Day of the Locust from about six years ago. It’s not very good! But I did find some paragraphs I kind of like.

“It was another joke. Calvin and Hink slapped their thighs and laughed, but Tod could see that they were waiting for something else. Earle, suddenly, without even shifting his weight, shot his foot out and kicked Calvin solidly in the rump. This was the real point of the joke. They were delighted by Earle’s fury. Tod also laughed. The way Earle had gone from apathy to action without the usual transition was funny. The seriousness of his violence was even funnier” (111).

Tod, and therefore the reader, has no access to the motivations behind Calvin and Hink’s provocation of Earle. But “the real point of the joke” is not the joke itself – it’s the violence the joke induces. The violence and the transition-less passage from joke to violence is the source of the laughter. Moreover, because “the seriousness of the violence” paradoxically amplifies its humor, the line between humor and violence is, for all intents and purposes, erased. Violence is only funny when it is real violence, as opposed to slapstick or comedic violence. For Calvin and Hink, the humor is funny and meant to be funny. But as readers, we’re left with a comedic moment that isn’t meant to be funny. The staging of comedy is pretty grim in itself.

This performative contradiction is the engine of West’s book, both in its status as a black comedy and as a critique of what West sees as a particularly American mode of violence. In an oft-quoted letter to Malcolm Cowley, West notes that humor is bound inextricably to every facet of his writing. “I’m a comic writer,” writes West, “and it seems impossible for me to handle any of the ‘big things’ without seeming to laugh or at least smile … I tried to describe a meeting of the Anti-Nazi League, but it didn’t fit and I had to substitute a whorehouse and a dirty film. The terrible sincere struggle of the league came out comic when I touched it and even libelous” (Veitch ii). In the Shoop episode, then, the collapse of the violent and the comic represents a serious issue for West’s practice as a writer. For him, this issue is cultural.

I guess I’ve been thinking about The Day of the Locust and laughter not just because I’m writing about it again, but because, in the time between when I originally wrote the conference paper (early 2009) and now, comedy’s become, I don’t know, more “important feeling.” West’s sense of the comic and the violent are nearly indistinguishable from each other — he thought that Americans required ever-more extreme forms of entertainment in order to satisfy the desires that mass culture imbued in us. And eventually, the only thing that satisfies the need is not just comic representations of violence, but actual violence.

You could make the argument that he was right, and that the real and figurative violence on reality shows just fulfills his fictional vision. But we’re also in the middle, I think, of a kind of comic elevation. I’m hardly the first person to say this. Certain stand-up comics (Louis C.K., Hannibal Buress, Maria Bamford, Marc Maron I guess) are looked at more as artists than entertainers, things like “Too Many Cooks” exist and rack up millions of YouTube views, people seem more generally willing to extend aesthetic leeway to comedians, comedies, comics, etc. So if West was right about the way that, under the conditions of mass culture, violence and comedy have become indistinguishable from each other, he didn’t predict (couldn’t have been expected to predict) the way that the comic has, in some ways, elevated itself above the expectations people have of mass culture.

James Cameron and Michael Haneke walk into a bar …

Here’s something that sounds like the beginning of a bad awards season joke but is actually a halfway serious question: what are the differences between James Cameron and Michael Haneke?

There are some obvious ones we can tick off at the outset: budget, the ability to direct actors (maybe Sigourney Weaver rivals Isabelle Huppert as an actress, but not under Cameron’s direction), subject matter, the intellectual and artistic traditions they rep, their national and political origins (Haneke as a post-WWII Austrian and Cameron as an American Baby Boomer), their position on “the Na’avi Question” etc. 

A lot of differences, no doubt.

But I think there is one incredibly important area in which they overlap, and that’s the role of audience in their films. I’ve argued elsewhere that Cameron is truly a master of manipulating his audience, and that is one of the reasons we actually go to his movies: to be toyed with, emotionally. I’ll just quickly point out that this is one of the hallmarks of Haneke’s films as well: they don’t just assault their audiences — the assault on the audience is part of the thematic fabric of the film itself. This is clearly true in something like FUNNY GAMES, but no less true in THE WHITE RIBBON, which ends with a shot of a church full of people looking looking just like an audience in a theater (parents on the bottom, their soon-to-be Nazi children on the top), and his next film AMOUR, which begins with a nearly identical shot of an audience at a concert.

In these films, and in probably all of his films from BENNY’S VIDEO on, Haneke shows us things that seem designed to make us feel terrible. That alone would make him a sadist, but his films go further. They ask us not just to think about the relationship between aesthetic experience and cultural complicity but to live through it over the course of a couple hours, right there in the theater.

Let’s note that this is essentially what TITANIC does, albeit in a clunky, ham-fisted way and without Haneke’s moral complexity and seriousness. But, if you’re a certain kind of filmgoer, the experiences of watching both of them are comparable in an important way; they’re not totally alien to each other. Whatever thing makes Haneke’s critics accuse him of abusing his audiences is the same thing that makes Cameron’s critics accuse him of manipulating his.

Maybe that’s why Haneke, with his wobbly English and grim Austrian smirk, didn’t look as out of place as I thought he would onstage at the Golden Globes last night. He could have been the highest grossing filmmaker of all time. Instead he’s just one of the greatest.

Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Wildly Inappropriate Laughter

I saw Django Unchained this weekend, and like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about it in tandem with Inglourious Basterds. And obviously the comparisons have to do with vengeance, violence, and atrocities on a world-historical scale. IB gives us plenty of violence but no Nazi atrocities after the murder of Shoshana’s family in the opening scene. The Holocaust is conspicuously absent, providing all of the moral background for the film and none of the content, at least until the movie house is turned into an ad hoc crematorium. DU, on the other hand, presents us over and over again with all of the most brutal, dehumanizing aspects of slavery. Humiliation, whipping, dogs, etc. (even though “Mandingo fighting” was not a real thing, compulsory slave-on-slave violence certainly was).

But one of the interesting things DU does that IB doesn’t is present us with a moral agent with whom we can (and are meant to) identify in the person of Schultz. In IBwe see vengeance for past wrongs, whether those wrongs are personal (Shoshana) or political/racial/ethnic (the Basterds). Shoshana kills Nazis because Nazis killed her family, and the Basterds kill Nazis because the Nazis would kill them (or worse) if they got the chance. But in the case of Schultz killing Candie, we finally see someone kill not because they’ve been wronged and not because that person would kill him if given the chance, but because of moral revulsion. Schultz kills Candie because he finds slavery not just bad but disgusting, just as he helps Django because “when a German finds a real, live Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal,” not because helping Django will get him anything.

I’m not quite sure what to do with that. On the one hand, part of me feels a little weird about the agent of deep moral sensibility in the antebellum South being White. On the other, Django is consciously aligned with the mythical Siegfried and (what amounts to the same thing for Tarantino) the Blaxploitation protagonist — he’s something more than human. But in a film this concerned with providing this much screen time to the brutalizing effects of slavery, are we looking for “more than human”? Shouldn’t “human” be enough? Tarantino obviously isn’t the person to look to for realism, moral or otherwise,and that’s fine — there are plenty of other people to produce that kind of work. But when I heard the audience at Sunday’s screening laugh, chillingly, at the wrong places,  I suppose I have to ask what kind of imaginative/cultural work DjangoUnchainedis doing and what kinds of passions it’s engaging.