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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Externality of Typewriters

Here it is, 6 o’clock on a bright, sunny Canberra New Year’s morning, and I am wide awake sitting at a typewriter (albeit one with a USB connection). As I do so, I am giving some thought to the externality* of typewriters. That is, the externality of typewriters vis a vis a machine for the creation of serious writing, particularly when compared, say, with an electronic device.
This a conundrum probably best left to those schooled in the field - such as, perhaps, Richard Polt, whose “other” area of expertise (that is, apart from the ongoing usefulness of manual typewriters) is philosophy, which he teaches at Xavier College, Cincinnati. Indeed, in 1996 Professor Polt presented a paper titled, Typology: A Phenomenology of Early Typewriters - The metaphysical significance of writing machines, a rumination on typewriters in which he combined his profession and his hobby. It can be read at
Professor Polt explained that, “Basically, ‘phenomenology’ means describing the phenomena -- trying to describe just how things appear. This is not as easy as it sounds, since in everyday life we tend to ignore what is in plain view, because we take it for granted.” He went on, “The word eidos is important in my talk. This is a Greek word usually translated ‘form’ … It refers to the ‘whatness’ of a thing: for example, the eidos of a triangle is what makes it be a triangle, rather than any other sort of thing -- its triangleness.”
With all this in mind, I can’t seem to shake the expression “the externality of typewriters” out of my head. It’s as if I am wrestling with myself for an insight, convinced that somewhere within it there must be some meaningful answer.
All this started when Christopher Hitchens died. A letter writer to The Canberra Times, under the headline “Contingent beings”, claimed “Faith is not essential to conclude there is a supreme being - God in usual terminology. Reason and logic can be sufficient. I accept I'm a contingent being because I do not contain in myself the reason for my being. Neither did my parents or their antecedents. I am unaware of other beings or objects which contain in themselves alone the reason for their existence. Logic therefore allows that the reason for the existence of all these beings or objects is explained by something external to themselves - a necessarily existing non-contingent being. Otherwise it can be lumped in with the rest of us, and explain nothing."
This elicited a response under the heading “Fallacious logic”: “The reason and logic [used] to conclude there is a supreme being is fallacious. It is reasonable for a contingent being to argue that their existence can be explained by something external to themselves, but it is a fallacy to imply that the externality has some of the properties of a ‘being'. That is equivalent to creating God in man's self-image. By the same logic, a steam locomotive pondering its existence would conclude that its creator (man) had some of the properties of 'steam locomotive'. If we can clearly see that the logic of this argument is incorrect, then so too is the notion that the externality explaining our existence has some of the properties we assign to the notion of 'being'.”
In turn, a further response appeared, under the headline “Effect and power”. “Thomas Aquinas argued that, while the nature of a cause is not known through its effect, we can through its effect know its power, which follows on its nature. Thus, the example of the steam locomotive demonstrates the power of the human, and the human tells us something of the power of God.”
The use of steam locomotive as an example of a machine pondering its existence naturally got me thinking about typewriters (Don’t ask me why, but more often than not, when I think machines, I think typewriters and steam locomotives, rather than, say, typewriters and cake mixers, or typewriters and cars; perhaps it has something to do with two of Will Davis’s interests, the third of which extends beyond my power to contemplate).
What I do often contemplate are what typewriters mean to me: The practical and the physical. And between them, I sense an “externality”. The practical, of course, applies not just to the usefulness of typewriters as writing machines, but to my subjective perception of their superiority over more modern machines in the creation of writing. The physical, on the other hand, applies to my shakeable belief in the superiority of typewriters over more modern writing machines as things of great beauty and considerable presence.
I have attempted to express, elsewhere on this blog, my feelings about the physical presence of typewriters, and the impact that has had on me throughout my life. As for the practical, again I can merely rely on my own experience, of having used typewriters for more than 54 years. It started when my father, in 1957, decided his company needed a bigger typewriter, an Imperial, and he brought home for my use the superseded machine, an Underwood Universal portable. In my mind I might compare that experience against that of someone, 40 years or more my junior: perhaps this imaged person’s parent replaced an office laptop with a desktop computer, and thus their youthful writing began on such an electronic device.
In such a scenario, I wonder what differences the implement for writing would make. In my case, I began by taking a book (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick) and copying the lines on a typewriter. “Call me Ishmael full point. Some years ago dash never mind how long precisely dash having little or no money in my purse comma and nothing particular to interest me on shire comma” and so forth. Quite aside from its valuable, inherent lessons about the construction of sentences and paragraphs, the careful choice of words (and of words to exclude) and the placement of punctuation, this experience gave me a notion of the “cadence” of typewriters. Cadence might be defined as “A modulation or inflection of the voice; Such a modulation in reading aloud as implied by the structure and ordering of words and phrases in written text.” The sound, the beat, of a manual typewriter while copying well written text, well constructed sentences and paragraphs, can have the same, if not more telling, effect as having such text read aloud to one. Depending on the ability of the reader to capture to true, desired cadence of the text, the typewriter might well do a better job.
Taking such an experience as an early and life-developing example of the use of a typewriter, I am inclined to believe in the externality of typewriters. That belief extends to an acceptance of the critical role the typewriter plays in the creation of good writing. All of us have, at one time or another, been happy to cite the ongoing use of typewriters by modern writers, and the reasons offered by those writers for their preferred use of typewriters. In these explanations, the typewriter inevitably becomes a part of the creative process. Therefore, logically, it does have an externality. I wouldn’t go so far as to image a typewriter “pondering its existence [and concluding] that its creator (man) had some of the properties of typewriter”. I would, nonetheless, offer that in the case of the typewriter, the machine can act as an extension of the creator, and therefore can play a part in the act of creation.
*Externality as in "The fact of existing outside the perceiving subject".


Richard P said...

I don't know whether I'm more amazed at the metaphysical content of the Canberra Times (this sort of thing does not make it into U.S. newspapers) or at the fact that your first words written on a typewriter of your own were "Call me Ishmael."

Interesting reflections on man-machine symbiosis. Keep going! --"The Professor"

Robert Messenger said...

As night check sub-editor at The Canberra Times, the letters page can become quite tedious. Then again, these kinds of letters start one thinking ... thanks "Professor"