Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Derrida on Handwriting and Typewriters

Jacques Derrida, in an interview with La Quinzaine Littéraire in August 1996, was asked to comment on Heidegger's mystifaction of traditional trades, or what is called in German "das Handwerk." According to Heidegger, Handwerk is not concerned with public usefulness or making a profit.[1] In this way, it is similar to the work "of the thinker or the teacher who teaches thinking." He also thought that Handwerk qua work done by "the hand," is always in danger of being demeaned by the machine. And the danger for the thinker was in Heidegger's view the typewriter.[2]

Derrida is much more circumspect than Heidegger. He finds that "Heidegger's reaction was at once intelligible, traditional, and normative." It is understandable, but it is also too confidently dogmatic (19). Derrida correctly points out that "when we write 'by hand' we are not in the time before technology," as we are already using an instrument, a stylus, pen or pencil (20). He is also correct, when he points out that typing is "also 'manual.'" (20). "Having recourse to the typewriter or computer doesn't bypass the hand" (21). This is true of a manual just as much as it is of an electronic typewriter. And just as the use of an industrially manufactured plane does not make a carpenter less of a Handwerker, so the use of a typewriter does not diminish the thinker, or so one might argue.

So far so good, but Derrida cannot restrain himself in trying to out-Heidegger Heidegger. He actually goe on to argue that in typewriting our hand, or rather, our hands are even more engaged because "you do it more with the fingers—and with two hands rather than one" (21). Touch-typing engages our digits, and this leads him to make a terrible pun about all of this going down, "for some time to come, in a history of digitality" (21). Geez ...

More to come on Derrida on Word Processing.

1. See also Typewriters and Thinking and Adorno and Nietzsche on Thinking with a Typewriter.

2. I quote from Jacques Derrida, "The Word Processor," in Paper Machine, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 19-32

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