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.

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