Saturday, January 12, 2008

Adorno and Nietzsche on Thinking with a Typewriter

I am on a roll here. So, one more entry on typewriters and thinking.

Theodor W. Adorno might appear to be more progressive on the relation of thinking and the typewriter (with the emphasis on appear, of course):

"Writers still object that because the typewriter does not obey the innervations of the hand it is supposedly incapable of producing a bodily sort of contact between thought and writing; writers for whom such contact is paramount should, it is said, keep with the fountain-pen. O romantic and inexperienced objection, that even maintains the mistrust of technology there where the thought long ago came to the rescue of technology! Nowhere is the contact between word and thought closer than on the typewriter. Not, admittedly, that between writing and thought. The hand that strikes into the material of the keys doesn’t bother itself with the written result that hovers way up there on the horizon of the machine. Rather it chisels word-bodies out of the keys, so clearly that it is as if they were held in the fingers under whose pressure they are sculpted out of the keyboard. On the machine, writing has been transformed back from a two-dimensional into a three-dimensional process. Words, across so many centuries merely read, can once again be felt; perhaps in this way we are getting them back within our grasp, whereas for so long we had been under the sway of their foreign power." (Translated from the German (c) by Marc Hiatt. (Last revised 5.08.2006.) This one comes to you via Excerpts from Words without Songs

Nietzsche who was one of the first philosophers actually to buy a typewriter seems to have been the first who felt that typewriters influence our thinking, saying that "Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts." In so far as he says the least about this, he is (almost by default) also the most subtle.

Strictly speaking it is just as much nonsense to say: "Nowhere is the contact between word and thought closer than on the typewriter" as it is to say that "in the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. ... The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand" (Heidegger).

Words and thoughts are not the kinds of "things" that could, in any literal sense, make contact. And, if I take the claim in a metaphorical sense, I would argue that word and thought actually fail to make contact in Adorno and Heidegger. Put differently, they both talk nonsense. And it's not that I don't like nonsense in general. I appreciate Tristram Shandy and I find the "Jabberwocky" just as delightful. It's just that the nonsense of Adorno and Heidegger masquerades as sense.

There is no such a thing as "the essence of writing" into which the typewriter as a "mechanism" can "irrupt," or so I would like to believe. Perhaps it makes a little more sense to speak of writing as a "two-" or "three-dimensional process," but I am far from confident that it is.


Marcus said...

These are interesting quotes, though perhaps not profound ones. Among many other differences one can observe between the act of handwriting and the act of typewriting is that in the former act only, one's hand traces the shapes of the letters. Whether, and if so how and to what extent, the shapes of the letters bear any significant relation to their sound (as experienced and/or spoken), and the sound (and/or speech-formation) of words to their meaning, is not an easy question to answer. But if the answer is anything other than an unequivocal no, then this particular difference between handwriting and typewriting may have some significance.

harryg said...

Adorno, of course, dictated the vast majority of his writings to his wife (thus avoiding having to produce a false synthesis of the dichotomy between typewriter and pen).