Thinking with a Typewriter

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 by sdileonardi

This week in the MAL I spent some time with an old typewriter, the 1956 Olympia de Luxe. Although this particular brand and model is more than half a century older than the original Remington typewriters, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for individuals to trade in their pencils and pens for this unusual contraption—this intermediate thing “between a tool and a machine” (Kittler 14). As Kittler points out, the typewriter was the first technology to insert space between the writer and text during the act of production. For many, this spatial insertion felt artificial and cumbersome, and Kittler gestures toward the lamentable loss of identity that one maintains when composing a letter in manual handwriting (not because Kittler feels this way but because it was a common reaction). The split in reactions toward the typewriter around 1900 remind me of a current split in cognitive science that we read about for Sue Zemka’s course on the human hand. Embedded cognition theorists propose that the act of thinking is produced and generated strictly within the mind and can be communicated by the hands, only as a secondary action. Extended cognitive theorists, on the other hand, believe that extensions of the body, primarily the hands, actually aid and cooperate with the cognitive processes to the degree that body and mind can never be separated.

            Such an anti-Cartesian theory of cognition raises compelling questions when you are sitting in front of a typewriter. Can the machine actually generate a particular kind of thinking pattern that may differ, say, when sitting in front of a pen and ink, or a MacBook Air? How does each variation in writing technology affect the mind of the writer, to the point where cognitive processes actually change from machine to machine? And perhaps in an effort to end the debate and begin a discussion—Is it less a question of good versus bad and more a question of style and desired results?


2 comments on “Thinking with a Typewriter

  1. willm2 says:

    I take issue with Kittler’s privileging of handwriting over typewriting. It comes across as overly mystical to invest hand-writing with some kind of poetic essence that is immediately lost once the switch is made to a typewriter. Maybe that’s just my rationalist, anti-humanities streak talking, though.

    Furthermore, if poetic interpretation can be done by the reader irrespective of the author, then how is a type-written text any different from one produced with movable type? Does it really matter if the latter printed text was composed by a quill, or a piece of charcoal, or whatever? Finally, how is a stylus different from a typewriter? Kittler accepts Heidegger’s differentiation of tool and machine, but I’m not so sure that I do. What do you think?

  2. I certainly do think there’s an effect on thinking as one moves from handwriting to typing on a computer to typing on an iPad, etcetera, though I’ve always equated it with how these devices change the speed of production (and how that slows down/speeds up thought). I suppose there’s other dimensions too, editing between a written page and a word processor, or the proximity of pen to paper vs. person to screen. And I suppose with typing there’s less the issue of fatigue–or at least it’s a different kind of fatigue, hand cramps vs. carpal tunnel. I wonder if the differences are profound, though, or even significantly measurable. It would be difficult to objectively test. I agree though–the question needs to stop being looked at in terms of good or bad. I personally am thankful to live in an era of typewriters/computers…being left-handed with an awkward pencil/pen grip has presented a lifetime of smudging, legibility, and hand cramping issues.

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