Saturday, January 12, 2008

Typewriters and Thinking

Martin Heidegger found in his lectures on Parmenides that

"Writing, from its originating essence, is hand-writing. We call the disclosive taking up and perceiving of the written word "reading" or "lection" ["Lesen"], i.e., col-lection, gathering—("gleaning" ["Ähren lesen"]), in Greek legein—\logos and this latter, among the primordial thinkers, is the name for Being itself. Being, word, gathering, writing denote an original essential nexus, to which the indicating-writing hand belongs. In handwriting the relation of Being to man, namely the word, is inscribed in beings themselves. The origin and the way of dealing with writing is already in itself a decision about the relation of Being and of the word to man and consequently a decision about the comportment of man to beings and about the way both, man and thing, stand in unconcealedness or are withdrawn from it.

Therefore when writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e., from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man. It is of little importance for this transformation how many people actually use the typewriter and whether there are some who shun it. It is no accident that the invention of the printing press coincides with the inception of the modern period. The word-signs become type, and the writing stroke disappears. The type is "set," the set becomes "pressed." This mechanism of setting and pressing and "printing" is the preliminary form of the typewriter. In the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. The typewriter leads again to the typesetting machine. The press becomes the rotary press. In rotation, the triumph of the machine comes to the fore. Indeed, at first, book printing and then machine type offer advantages and conveniences, and these then unwittingly steer preferences and needs to this kind of written communication. The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man's experiencing this withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.

The typewriter is a sign-less cloud, i.e., a withdrawing concealment in the midst of its very obtrusiveness, and through it the relation of Being to man is transformed. It is in fact sign-less, not showing itself as to its essence; perhaps that is why most of you, as is proven to me by your reaction, though well-intended, have not grasped what I have been trying to say.--" etc., etc. (See Parmenides. Tr. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz, Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 85; see also 80f.)

This is, of course, nonsense of the highest order (or should I say: "nonsense in its most primitive form"?) One may well wonder what he would have said about gathering and "managing" information by electronic means. It is certainly nothing a "primordial thinker" should or could do, for it does not just remove writing from the "origin of its essence," and thus threatens thinking, but makes "col-lection, gathering ... 'gleaning' itself into a "sing-less cloud" -- at least if we believe the spineless pied piper of unconcealedness.

None of this means that writing, note-taking, or thinking with a computer as opposed with pen (pencil) or paper is without consequences for thinking, but they are bound to be much more subtle than Heidegger suggests.

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