I’m trying to finish the final revision of my Henry James chapter this week. Today, in the course of trying to rework the first section, I did some reading that led me to Heidegger’s Parmenides. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m certainly no expert on Heidegger, but the first part of the chapter concerns dictation and transcription in James’s writing process, so I couldn’t help pulling in a bit of Heidegger’s odd little polemic against typewriters. Cherry picking Heidegger is a dangerous business, so I hope things aren’t too “off” here. Anyway.

Heidegger, in the lectures that make up his Parmenides, provides another way to think through the problems of authority and authorship bound up with Bosanquet’s relationship to the typewriter and to James’s writing. “Man himself,” he writes, “acts through the hand.” For Heidegger, “only a being which, like man, ‘has’ the word can and must ‘have’ the hand” because “through the hand occur both prayer and murder, greeting and thanks, oath and signal, and also the ‘work’ of the hand, the ‘hand-work,’ and the tool” (80). The typewriter, through its elimination of “handwriting” from the relation between hand and word, “tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e., the realm of the word,” while “the word itself turns into something ‘typed’.” Moreover, typewriting “conceals the handwriting and thereby the character. The typewriter makes everyone look the same” (81). For Heidegger, “typewriting” interrupts the essential relation between man’s hand and the word, severing the continuity between the meaning imbued by man into the word and the appearance of the word on the page. The specificity of handwriting, eliminated by the printed word, signals the withdrawal of man’s “work” from his “word,” renders every word like every other because no word bears the identifying trace of handwriting, the thing that would link the specificity of a man’s activity to the mark left by that activity.

Heidegger’s critique of typewriting, then, posits a concomitant loss of authority when the typewriter intervenes between the word and the hand. “Hand” designates both anatomy and a general realm of identifying writing, as when we say a letter is written in someone’s hand. Heidegger views this link between anatomy and a highly individualized mark as the essential realm of man, one that exemplifies his capacity not just to acknowledge but to “greet,” not just to kill but to “murder.” “Handwriting,” in other words, serves to encapsulate the process through which the materialism of writing conjoins itself with a signifying quality that transcends it, a quality granted to it by the idiosyncracies of the writer’s body. Without the linkage between “hand” and “writing,” writing’s materialism supersedes its roots in the authority of human utterance, retains no trace of the hand that bore it into the world.

If, beginning in the 1890’s with the first viable commercial machines, typewriting becomes one of the most visible links between writing and authority, it is because, in Heidegger’s analysis, typewriting’s radical impersonality erodes the linkage between the body of the writer (who, as dictator, is not obliged to handwrite at all) and inscription: typewriting allows all authorized, all “official” writing to look the same, eliminates personal flourishes, and deletes even those hidden aspects of personality and motive that the pseudoscience of graphology, in existence since at least the middle ages, sought to uncover. Typewriting transfers the authority of writing from “the properly acting hand” to “the mechanical forces [the hand] releases,” abstracts rote motion away from the animating force of the hand’s grip on the stylus and transposes it onto the typewriter’s keys and hammers. This transference of force stakes out the particular moment in the “’history’ of the kinds of writing” that contributes to “the increasing destruction of the word” at the end of the nineteenth century (81). Typewriting’s newfound cultural authority, then, encroaches on the ontologically prior authority of handwriting, exposing the essential humanity of writing to historical technological contingencies.

So that’s where we’re at right now.