The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘handwriting’ as “ Writing with the hand; manuscript as distinguished from print, etc.; the writing of a particular hand or person, or that pertaining to a particular time or nation” (OED). Our notion of what constitutes handwriting, then, is qualified by three features: the presence of the anatomical hand, the mediated content’s condition as manuscript, and the idea of identity, both personal and societal, and encompassing historical and cultural contexts. This article will attempt to draw the boundaries of ‘handwriting’ according to these three key associations, and from there to make inferences about its relationship to writing as a finished product. In a sense, the attempt means to differentiate the act of writing, which focuses on the author and the interaction between her thoughts and the various writing media, from the reception of writing, which is an altogether different experience.
The hand is the human body’s “organ of prehension” (OED). As such, it is closely associated with the concept of human agency. Heidegger emphasizes the link between the hand and agency when he writes, “Man himself acts through the hand; for the hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man” (80). Moreover, for Heidegger, the hand is inextricable from the word, and the word from the hand. He regards the typewriter as an emblem for the mechanization of the word, and thus, for the mechanization of man. What Heidegger laments is the remediation—of the medium of “writing, i.e. the word, i.e. the unconcealedness of Being” (85). There is a recognition that remediation creates a rift in the fabric of the experience of existence, and with the use of the typewriter, the realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of Being, must shrink to make room for the clunky machine. The swelling of space between the primary medium of writing (the hand) and the material of inscription constitutes a break in the generative process. This break occurs on the behalf of utility, i.e. permanence and expediency. One can, of course, write with one’s finger on a surface of sand, but such an act commemorates the generative act itself, and renounces the utilitarian dimension of writing, which has given civilization its form in history. And so, the hand must pick up the sharp object of inscription, the pen, and in that way make its mark permanent. What Heidegger seems to get at is that, with the pen, the hand at least grips; it exerts itself on the pen and on the paper and thus guides the words. While the hand can write without the pen, on any soft, malleable surface, the pen cannot write without the hand. With a typewriter, the sense that the forms of the letters themselves are a creation of the hand disappears. The hand cannot create, of itself and without remediation, the uniform type. In this way, the generative act of the form of the words is ascribed to the typewriter, for which the hand becomes a tool. If you throw a ball on the keys of a typewriter, type will be inscribed; if you fling a pen on a paper, it is inconceivable that a handwritten letter would appear. And so, the typewriter serves utility in writing but renounces the generative act: the hand’s pleasure of giving shape and form. The thought on the paper, as a product of the mind, remains, but the tactile quality of that thought as a product of the grip and the force of the hand is effaced. Thought loses character, both literally and figuratively, if we are to believe that “the medium is the message.”
In its second qualification to ‘handwriting,’ the OED relates the word to the generative process, aligning it with the condition of the manuscript as opposed to that of print. Both instances of ‘manuscript’, as a handwritten draft of a printed work or as an ancient text transcribed by a scribe, (OED) relate to the generative act of writing. Both also implicate extensive use of the hand.
As a draft, a manuscript hints at an ongoing process that culminates in the printed text. Manuscripts are characterized by fluidity and are subject to change, while print freezes the content and presents it as a finished work. In “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand,” Daniel Chandler points out that, “For some writers ‘writing in one’s own hand’ has a resonance of privacy and informality (in contrast with the fixity and public nature of print) which makes it a supportive medium for the initial expression of tentative ideas” (Chandler). Exploring the role of the word processor in the creative process, Chandler touches upon its inability to account for the alterations that form a finished product. He rightly points out that the new technologies that allow for the preservation of a work’s blueprint, so to speak, require a “deliberateness” alien to the “rapid slash of the pen,” which “maps paths not taken in a way that enables them to be re-explored if necessary” (Chandler). Furthermore, even word processors that record every change do so in a way that involves navigation through different “views” in order to access the succession of changes, while the written hand shows, within the temporality of the line, the portion of text that has been scratched out or altered.
As an ancient text transcribed by a scribe, ‘manuscript’ relates to the generative process associated with handwriting in that it bifurcates the content of text, which involves a generative process of its own, and the physical word. In this sense, writing itself can be understood as a craft; the scribe is well versed in the art of calligraphy, which concerns itself with the aesthetic quality of words. In “The Making of Book From the Sky,” Chinese artist Xu Bing recounts the joys of creating a book devoid of content. His enjoyment stemmed from the process of carving the characters themselves; “I liked this sort of skilled handiwork that takes time but not much mental effort” (Bing 56). He goes on to say that “Since what you confront is devoid of content, it cannot interfere with you” (Bing 56), emphasizing the idea that the creation of physical forms in the form of language embodies a text by imposing the creator upon the mass of the words. That Xu Bing characterizes content as something that “interferes” with the creator points to a tension between content and medium. A medium like the typewriter evinces a bias for content, maximizing utility in language’s ability to communicate ideas of the intellect. Logographic languages, on the other hand, communicate aesthetic information and, through a great emphasis on the artistry of the grapheme, emphasize the generative process of writing. In the latter, the relationship between content and aesthetic quality displays a greater degree of symmetry.
Xu Bing’s rendering of the book as an artisanal object—devoid of the type of content that is associated with the age of print, but “replete with secret signs of ‘content’” (Bing 60)—disrupts, and forces us to question, what we regard as the site of information gathering. What are the signs of content? Movable type, and more recently, its electric embodiment in the form of the word processor, gives us an all too obvious answer. But Xu Bing’s narration of the “making [of] something that says nothing” (62) makes us privy to the possibility of a truly arcane knowledge—a knowledge that is embodied because it is craft. A return to Heidegger’s Parmenides lectures, discussed earlier with regard to the centrality of the anatomical hand to the act of writing, informs this notion of writing as handcraft. Heidegger’s etymological account of the Greek word Πρᾶγμα, “customarily translated as ‘thing’ or ‘fact,’ ‘matter,’ ‘issue,’” reveals its original sense of “[a] setting up of itself as well as what is set up… [the] inseparable unity of the setting up in the arrival at something and of what is reached in the arrival and is then present as unconcealed” (80). The unconcealed, i.e. the message of a content, is not the end product of the action of writing, but rather the action itself as the fusion of process and product. In shifting his attention from content as communicative in the utilitarian sense, and instead focusing on the aesthetic information gathered and transferred through the process of the formation of the physical word, Xu Bing unearths a knowledge that “only those who have tried it can truly understand” (54).
Most relevant to the history of the manuscript in the Western tradition is the age of the manuscript culture, spanning from the fifth century B.C. to the fifteenth century A.D. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan points out that “only one third of the history of the book in the Western world has been typographic” (74). The importance of the manuscript in the medieval tradition as regards media studies has to do with its situation between the oral and aural world of pre-literate tribal peoples and the visual world of the literate, detribalized individual. In The Originality of Texts In a Manuscript Culture, Gerald L. Bruns addresses how dissimilar concepts of textuality—determined by historical and social contexts— “shape the act of writing” (113). He makes a distinction between “the closed text of a print culture and the open text of a manuscript culture” (113). The idea of the medieval manuscript as an “open text” is analogous to the notion, discussed earlier, of the manuscript as a malleable draft that precedes the fixity of print publication. The medieval manuscript is never sealed in the manner of the print culture’s textual product because the text is not yet linked to the idea of authorship. In a medieval world where writing was understood as the craft of the monk, and where the production of the text was contained within the monastic realm—involving the binding of parchment or vellum, the inscription of words, and “illumination” through elaborate illustrations—the information contained within the single and distinct manuscript was transmitted orally. McLuhan informs us, rather whimsically, that “the medieval monks’ reading carrel was indeed a singing booth” (92). His analogy unveils the various ways in which medieval writing was an oral and aural activity, ranging from the reading of texts aloud—“There is no lack of indication that “reading” throughout ancient and medieval times meant reading aloud, or even a kind of incantation”—to the notion of “publication as performance” (84), where intonation, physical bearing, and expression joined in the formation of a kinesthetic memory, whose element of tactility McLuhan regards as the defining feature whose absence explains the “imperfect recall” associated with the typographic individual (93). The “open” quality of the medieval text places the site of interaction in the interstices of content, characterizing the medieval approach to writing as an intervention “in what has already been written; [a working] ‘between the lines’ of antecedent texts, there to gloss, to embellish, to build invention upon invention” (123). In the medieval conception of writing, process is synonymous with product; content is never frozen and writing does not stop. The idea of writing as Revelation (127)—a movement toward a truth yet to be uncovered—renders notions of authorship contingent upon mastery of the craft, as opposed to originality of content. Content is never original when all writing is interpretation. When content is “fixed,” all innovation is necessarily a working and sharpening of the medium.
Bruns’ account of the conception, or “shaping,” of writing as a product of ethos—of imagination qualified by cultural and historical contexts—frames Chandler’s view, itself shaped by various contemporary or near contemporary writers’ thoughts on the “mechanics” of their craft, that writing is “the act that fuses physical and intellectual processes” (Chandler). In a phonetic alphabet, the artistry of the grapheme is in the tactile nature of the stroke of the hand. While logographic systems encompass a very rich visual component, the experience of the phonetic alphabet, from a writer’s perspective, is in the physicality of inscription. The speed with which words flow from the pen at the behest of the hand has given rise to countless metaphors that reveal a sense of streaming and flowing associated with the generative act. Quoting Roland Barthes, Chandler characterizes the hand in writing as that which embeds thought with tactility: “the pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas” (Chandler). Whereas the tactile quality of the word in the medieval text was diffused through all aspects of production—from the binding of the literal flesh of the manuscript (parchment and vellum are made from limed animal skin), to the handcrafted words and illustrations—the contemporary writer channels the tactility of writing through the tools of inscription at the moment of inscription.
Shifting ideas of originality—themselves associated with cultural and historical dimensions—are present, and even guide, the interplay between the hand, its tools of inscription (marker and surface), and the intellectual content of writing. Writing is itself a medium. It is not itself thought. It necessarily involves inscription, and inscription thus shapes thought according to the physicality of its boundaries. Changes in modes of inscription as related to the role of the hand in writing point to changes in the way a culture imagines the act of writing. Despite these gradations of difference, we tend to regard the product of different interactions with writing media as unqualified writing. As the texts of the word processor become increasingly embedded into the tools used to create them, so too there is a surfacing of opportunity for the study of the ways in which new media redefine the act and products of writing.
Bing, Xu. “The Making of Book From the Sky.” Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 209. Print.
Bruns, Gerald L. “The Originality of Texts In a Manuscript Culture.” Comparative Literature. 32.2 (1980): 113-129. Print.
Chandler, Daniel. “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand.” N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct 2010. .
“Hand 1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. . ”Handwriting 1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. .
Heidegger, Martin. Parmenides. Trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print.
“Manuscript 1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. .
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962. Print.
“Remediation 1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.uchicago.edu/cgi/entry/50202258?single=1&query_type=word&que ryword=remediation&first=1&max_to_show=10
Remediation as regards media studies corresponds to what the OED describes as “the action of remedying or correcting something.” More specifically, it refers to the interpretation and representation of one medium by another.