Sunday, October 12, 2008

Derrida on the Word Processor

Derrida's paper "The Word Processor" is really a paper about the computer as a writing tool.[1] There is no indication in the paper that Derrida had any other use for the computer than as a replacement for the pen. He says: "I began writing with a pen, and I remained faithful to the pen for a long time (faith is the right word here), only transcribing 'final versions on the machine, at the point of separating from them ... The ... I wrote more and more 'straight onto the machine: first the mechanical typewriter, then the electric typewriter in 1979, then finally the computer, around 1986 or 1987" (20). He admits that he can't do without his "little Mac" any more. Like many of us, he "can't even remember or understand how [he] was able to get on before without it."

Protesting against Heidegger, he finds that having recourse to the computer, just as the use of the typewriter, "doesn't bypass the hand" (21). "It engages another another hand, another 'command,' so to speak another induction, another injunction from the body to hand and from hand to writing" (21). Therefore, it is not handless writing, as dictating into a tape recorder might be.

This, Derrida seems to think, is a good thing for Heideggerian reasons. He seems to believe with Heidegger that "the work of thinking is a handiwork, a Handlung, an 'action,' prior to any opposition between practice and theory. Thought, in this sense, would be a Handlung, a 'maneuver,' a 'manner,' a 'manner'" (21). Thinking is acting, and acting is thinking. And both of them are writing, just as writing is both thinking and acting. "The hand" is thus indispensable in thinking.

Perhaps it is possible to make some coherent sense out of these obfuscations. But I doubt it. Das Handwerk does not further thinking. Nor is thinking a matter of Handwerk. Perhaps both Heidegger and Derrida may be excused for thinking that there was a deep connection because it is just a fact neither of them learned one. And some people would argue that neither learned to think consistently either.

Derrida did, however, learn how to use a word processor on a Mac, and we may therefore trust his observations on word processing more. He obviously liked the cut and paste, the search and replace function, as well as "the mechanical spell-check" (26). But he does not think that these functions fundamentally change writing. "The word processor saves us an amazing amount of time; we acquire a freedom that we perhaps wouldn't have acquired without it. But the transformation is economic, not structural. There are all these time-saving devices in the finishing off or polishing stages: playing with italics; separating paragraphs; intervenon directly in lexical statistics ..." (26). He is also doubting that writing with a word processor has changed "what is written, even if it does modify the way of writing" (25). And he does not feel "the interposition of the machine as a sort of progress in transparency, univocity, or easiness" (21).

Perhaps Derrida is right in his evaluation of word processing. But the importance of whether or not he is right on this fades in comparison to the question of whether he ever came to realize that there are other aspects to thinking that have to do with the kind of note-taking, reflection, and writing that is best not done without the use of a word processor (and that is the subject of this blog).

But, be that as it may, these sober observations are embedded in some more fanciful speculation, some of which seem strangely at odds with them:
  • the electric typewriter and the computer may not "make the text 'too readable' and 'too clear' for us. the volume, the unfolding of the operation, obeys another organigram, another organology" (21). Whatever ...
  • "the computer maintains the hallucination of an interlocutor (anonymous or otherwise), of another 'subject' (spontaneous and autonomous, automatic) who can occupy more than one place and play plenty of roles: face to face for one, but also withdrawn: in front of us, for another, but also invisible and faceless behind its screen. Like a hidden god who's half-asleep, clever at hiding himself even when right opposite you" (22). Never had any of these experience, and find especially the last one downright weird.
  • He knows how to make the machine work, but has no idea how it works, or "how the internal demon the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys." This is for him a "secret without mystery" (23).
  • he computer "seems to restore a quasi immediacy of the text, a desubstantialized sbstance, more fluid, lighter, and so closer to speech, and even to so-called interior speech." You "have the feeling that you are dealing with a soul—will, desire, plan—of a Demiurge-Other," etc., etc., and of "the "Other-Unconscious" to boot (23).
  • "the written text becomes both closer and more distant. In this, there is another distancing and remoteness. re-mote here meaning a distancing of the removed, but also a distancing that abolishes the remote." Etc., etc. (25).
  • "The computer installs a new place: there one is more easily projected toward the exterior, toward the spectacle, and toward the aspect of writing that is thereby wrested away from the presumed intimacy of writing, via a trajectory of making it alien. Inversely, because of the plastic fluidity of the forms, their continual flux, and their quasi immateriality, one is also increasingly sheltered in a sort of protective haven" (27).
  • "I'm always wondering what would have happened to Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and even to Heidegger (who really knew without knowing the computer), if they had encountered this 'thing,' not only as an available tool but also as a subject for reflection" (30).

I don't understand any of this, but I have gotten clearer on why I don't understand Heidegger, "who really knew without knowing." If only I could manage to do this.

1. For the reference see previous post.

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