Monday, May 2, 2016

A Literary History of Word Processing

in the review of a new book on word processing: by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing and published by Harvard University Press, we find:
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Louis Simpson warned that the word processor “tells you your writing is not final. …  It enables you to think you are writing when you are not, when you are only making notes or the outline of a poem you may write at a later time.” By contrast, Jacques Derrida reflected on this mutability with delight: “Previously, after a certain number of versions, everything came to a halt—that was enough. Not that you thought the text was perfect, but after a certain period of metamorphosis the process was interrupted. With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking you can go on revising forever.” Simpson and Derrida agree on the formal features the word processor offers: They just disagree about whether the machines are good for writing.
Perhaps, but I doubt either one characterized the nature of the difference between writing on a typewriter and a word processor quite correctly. The word processor does not tell you anything. It does not radically erase the difference between making notes, outlines, and the final product. It appears to me that there is and always has been ambiguity about whether a certain formulation is just a note or whether it represents the final product, whether it is a penultimate or ultimate draft. And, yes, word processing makes revising much easier than the type writer, but only a fool thinks that you "can go on revising forever." You may go on for longer than you used to, but it is impossible to go on revising forever. You can't because your time is limited, and that is a brute fact, even if you are using a word processor.

The differences between traditional writing and word processing seem more gradual to me than either Simpson or Derrida suggest.

None of this reflects on the book (or even the rest of the review), of course. I am looking forward to reading Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing.

Materializing Thought

Cao Pi wrote in the third century AD in an Essay on Writing: "Life and body are limited by time, unlike writing which is eternal. Therefore writers gave over their bodies to ink and brush, and materialized their thoughts in tablets and collections."[1]

I like the phrase "materializing their thoughts," though I would perhaps prefer "externalizing their thoughts." The reason is that material to us is just as little eternal as our bodies. Tablets may outlast us, but they are far from being eternal. But tablets and collections allow us to manipulate thoughts and communicate them over the centuries.

There is a rather similar sentiment in Samuel Butler's Notebooks, even though it might seem to contradict Cao Pi.[2] Butler claimed that in pure thought we come "as near to God as we can get; it is through this that we are linked with God." But "the highest thought is ineffable; it must be felt from one person to another but cannot be articulated" (at location 1384). We cannot really do anything with such iintuitive thoughts. But, "the moment a thing is written, or even can be written, and reasoned about, it has changed its nature by becoming tangible, and hence finite, and hence it will have an end in disintegration (at location 1386). For him, words were "organised thoughts, as living forms are organised actions. How a thought can find embodiment in words is nearly, though perhaps not quite, as mysterious as how an action can find embodiment in form, and appears to involve a somewhat analogous" (at location 1391).

I have written many time about "exteriorization" before, of course.


1. Quoted in accordance with Alexander Monro, The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention (New York: Knopf, 2016) p. 31.
2. See also the previous post on Samuel Butler.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

John Berger on Translation

John Berger writes in the The Guardian:
true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.
This is not my experience. An I am bilingual (German-English), have translated from English to German (generally recommended, as that is my native language) and from German to English (not generally recommended, as it goes from the native language to the language I speak and think in now, that is, for the last 48 years).[1]

In fact, I don't know what it would mean to "return to the pre-verbal." I have never had any access to this level. Even when I dream, I dream in English or in German. Nor do I understand what he means by characterizing translation as a "binary affair." If he means that it is something that resembles Searle's "Chinese room," I agree. It's not a question of simply correlating a definite set of words in one language with some definite set of words in the other (in accordance with certain rules). It's much more complicated and involves reconstruction. If, however, he suggests that there is another kind of language between the source language and target language, I strongly disagree. But perhaps I am just more deficient than Berger.


1. Even though I have I have lived in English for much longer than in German, my English is weaker. It's like handedness. A left-handed person may become very good at using her right hand, but that does not mean that she will become right-handed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Essay and Self

From a recent review of books on essays by Harper's:
To throw in our lot with the essay — to place it at the center of our literary culture — is to accept the idea of a more or less continuous self that can make its observations, emotions, interpretations, and opinions intelligible to others. From Montaigne to Didion, essayists have shown that even questions about the very coherence of the self or the legibility of experience can be addressed from within the essay. Does this mean we’re walking away from the more recent modernist and postmodernist challenges to certainties about the self? Can everything important be filtered through a talking “I”? What do we do with our skepticism of the bourgeois subject and his abiding interest in his personal experiences, his foibles, his feelings?
Is that true? Is it even coherent?

I somehow doubt it. To use Montaigne's as a proof for an abiding self seems rather strange--just as strange as the claim that essays are the center of literary culture, or the claim that literary culture is most central to our understanding of self.

Hume (and others) have shown--at least to my satisfaction--that there is less to "self" than this articles implies.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Samuel Butler on the Fundamental Principles of Note-taking

I had read Butler's Note-Books before. But this weekend I read them again in a Kindle Edition.[1] Here are some characteristic passage:
That our ideas are baseless, or rotten at the roots, is what few who study them will deny; but they are rotten in the same way as property is robbery, and property is robbery in the same way as our ideas are rotten at the roots, that is to say it is a robbery and it is not. No title to property, no idea and no living form (which is the embodiment of idea) is indefeasible if search be made far enough. Granted that our thoughts are baseless, yet they are so in the same way as the earth itself is both baseless and most firmly based, or again most stable and yet most in motion (at location 4389).
Butler gives in this note colorful expression to his belief that there can be no ultimate foundation in taking notes on any and all subjects. In his view, "the error springs from supposing that there is any absolute right or absolute truth, and also from supposing that truth and right are any the less real for being not absolute but relative" (at location 4404).

The most important thins is to take care "not to accept ideas which though very agreeable at first disagree with us afterwards, and keep rising on our mental stomachs, as garlic does upon our bodily" (at location 4414). In other words, "we should aim not at a supposed absolute standard but at the greatest coming-together-ness or convenience of all our ideas and practices; that is to say, at their most harmonious working with one another" (at location 4405). In other words, he accepted what has been called the coherence theory of truth. It's the connections that count (in this view), not the correspondence to some (ultimately unknowable) reality.

And the moral of the story seems to be: "The only thing to do is to glance at the chaos on which our thoughts are founded, recognise that it is a chaos and that, in the nature of things, no theoretically firm ground is even conceivable, and then to turn aside with the disgust, fear and horror of one who has been looking into his own entrails" (at location 4713).

I believe that this Nietzschean dramaticism is uncalled for.[2] Nor is looking at one's own "entrails" necessarily inducing fear and horror. Perhaps we should remember that he wrote before x-ray radiation and other non-intrusive ways of looking at our "entrails" became widely available. Whether Butler is ultimately right is, of course, still another story.[3]



1. Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler. transcribed from the 1912 Fifield edition by David Price. Apparently Butler was a great influence on James Joyce.

2. Apparently, Butler never read Nietzsche, even though his thoughts resemble those of Nietzsche in many ways.

3. Butler incessantly worked on his notes. From 1891 he "made it a rule to spend an hour every morning re-editing his notes and keeping his index up to date. At his death, in 1902, he left five bound volumes, with the contents dated and indexed, about 225 pages of closely written sermon paper to each volume, and more than enough unbound and unindexed sheets to made a sixth volume of equal size" (at location 11).

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lamy 2000 Mechanical Pencil

Here is a good review of the Lamy 2000 Mechanical Pencil. It's hard to believe the design dates back 60 years. I own one of these, but I have hardly ever used it.[1]





1. By way of Bleistift. The review site takes very long to load for me.

Smart Writing Set

Moleskine has created what they call a "new set of tools to write, draw and work with." It's supposed to allow you to "easily create digital text and images and share them right away with your smartphone or tablet."

In other words, "is a system made up of three objects – the special Paper Tablet notebook, the smart Pen+ and a companion App – that enable you to digitally edit and share what you create on paper in real-time without taking a photo, uploading files, or scanning documents." The notes application is available for the iPad and for Androids.

The entire setup costs $199.00.

It looks interesting, but I am not sure I need (or want) it.