Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Typing Life: Books: The New Yorker:

It is a shame that Wershler-Henry, so willing to generalize about our experience with the typewriter, does not spend much time on the difference between that and our relationship to the personal computer. Consider, for example, our physical involvement with the typewriter, which stands in relation to our connection with the P.C. as a fistfight does to a handshake. On the P.C., we use the same typing skills that we used on the typewriter, but the contact is not the same. We run our fingers lightly over the keys, making a gentle, pitter-patter sound. On the typewriter, by contrast, we had to stab, and the machine recorded our action with a great big clack. We liked that. (As Wershler-Henry tells us, a silent typewriter was put on the market in the nineteen-forties, and nobody wanted it.) The noise told us that we had achieved something. So, in larger measure, did the carriage return—another line done!—and the job of changing the paper—another page done!

Which brings us to the white page. Mallarmé spoke of the uncertainty with which we face a clean sheet of paper and try, in vain, to record our thoughts on it with some precision. As long as we were feeding paper into a typewriter, this anxiety was still present to our minds, and was revealed in the pointillism of Wite-Out, or even in the dapple of letters that were darker, pressed in confidence, as opposed to the lighter ones, pressed more hesitantly. A page produced on a manual typewriter was like a record of the torture of thought. With the P.C., the situation is altogether different. The screen, a kind of indeterminate space, does not seem violable in the same way as the page. And, because what we write on it is so effortlessly and undetectably erasable, the final text buries the evidence of our struggle, asserting that what we said was what we thought all along. Wershler-Henry suggests that the P.C.—with some help from Derrida and Baudrillard—ushered us into a world in which the difference between true and false is no longer cause for doubt or grief; falsity is taken for granted. I don’t know if he was thinking about the spurious perfection of the computer-generated page, but it would be a useful example.