by Richard Polt
In March 1996, I gave a paper at a conference called "Back to the Things Themselves," in Carbondale, Illinois, that combined my profession (philosophy professor) and my hobby. If you're interested in ruminations about typewriters, read on.
The talk uses a little jargon -- it's part of the game. But you don't need a lot of background to understand it. Phenomenology is an influential philosophical movement founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). 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. Phenomenologists try to draw our attention "back to the things themselves" that we ordinarily take for granted. They look for patterns and structures in the world that we experience, and in our ways of experiencing it. The beauty of phenomenology is that it can be applied to anything: other people at the conference presented phenomenologies of pregnancy, woodworking and scuba diving. It's said that Sartre decided to study phenomenology when he heard that it would let him philosophize about the cocktail he was drinking.
The word eidos is important in my talk. This is a Greek word usually translated "form." It's very important in Plato and Aristotle, and also in Husserl. 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. In this talk, I use the words "eidos," "form," "type" and "essence" interchangeably.
That's about all you need -- now you can read, ponder, laugh, whatever. At the conference I showed slides and passed around an antique typewriter (a Hammond Folding portable). Below you'll find the text and some pictures -- to experience typing on a Hammond, you'll have to go beyond cyberspace!
The typewriter is in the process of becoming a thing of the past, along with dial phones and vinyl records. "Things of the past" are still present, of course -- it's their world that is absent (as Heidegger says somewhere about museum pieces). The context in which these things once fit, which gave them their appropriateness and integrated them into human lives, has slipped away -- disappearing, piece by imperceptible piece, until one day we recognize that the Gestalt has already changed, that we live in a new world. This doesn't mean that the things of the past, these ambassadors from a world that has sunk like Atlantis, have been reduced to merely useless chunks of matter, merely "present-at-hand entities." Again, Heidegger's phenomenology of the "ready-to-hand" is instructive: when a piece of equipment loses its smooth integration into a practical environment, it doesn't immediately become a mere object, but instead, the environment as such is lit up. When a spoke breaks on my bicycle, the entire "world" of bicycle riding, its purposes and requirements, is made annoyingly evident. In the case of typewriters, the problem is not that they have broken and no longer fit in their world -- instead, the world to which they belong is breaking up like a melting iceberg, to be replaced by a new configuration which we are only beginning to grasp under the name "cyberspace." But like the broken spoke, the typewriter draws attention to its world. A thing of the past evokes its world, speaks of it, by appealing to our imagination -- by pleading that we draw analogies between what we do now and what once was done with this thing. A thing of the past has magical power because it is a window -- a hole in the wholeness of our world (which is never a seamless wholeness), through which we can imagine another world.
Of course, the imaginative experience of a world is never the same as the pre-reflective experience of living in that world; to pretend that there is no such difference would be quixotism in the strictest sense. But this is exactly why things of the past are so instructive for the phenomenologist: imaginative experience is a step out of our natural immersion in the obvious lifeworld, and it can be a step in the direction of the reflective, philosophical understanding of worldhood -- that is, phenomenology, or as Husserl calls it, "the science of the obvious." My own interest in early typewriters -- writing machines of the 1870s through the 1930s -- is primarily imaginative: these survivors draw me, both as conduits for written signs and as signs themselves of a lost world. In this talk I will try to use my imaginative interest as a basis for phenomenological reflection. I am going to focus especially on the question of "typing": that is, both our acts of identifying types or forms of things, and the process by which types are themselves generated. What I think I see in typewriters is the finitude of typing. Types are neither eternal nor universal, but are limited by the character of their instantiation. The instantiation of a type requires that it be incorporated in matter and -- if we are to have any awareness of it -- related to our body. In other words, form is involved in a reciprocal relation with the body and with matter: form and corporeality are in symbiosis.
What is a typewriter? -- We know that this question, like all "what is it?" questions, is not innocent. It is a demand for a type, a form -- it is an eidetic question. According to Husserlian orthodoxy, the eidos is to be discovered through the technique of "free imaginative variation." We begin with a concrete example of the thing, and imaginatively subtract one feature, then another, discovering in the process which features are essential and which are not. This is not only Husserl's proposal, of course -- often the purpose of a Platonic dialogue is to stimulate such a train of thought, and it is the sort of thing everyone unconsciously does every day. (For instance: I perceive an old spot of paint on the door of a restaurant as irrelevant to the door's being a door, because I can imagine that the door would still be a door even if the paint weren't there. So as I walk into the restaurant, I overlook the paint, I look past it: it doesn't present itself as part of the door.)
But the question here is: how free is imaginative variation? Of course our imagination has the power to liberate us from immediate ties to particular things. As I just said, imagination can bring us some distance into a different world -- and it is also crucial to our awareness of worldhood in general, as a field of meaningful possibilities. Imagination opens up a space for us, elbow room in which we can play freely with what we call "essences." But despite the fact that indefinitely many possibilities are available to imaginative freedom, this freedom may itself be finite. The way to catch sight of the finitude of imagination cannot be through the power of imagination itself. Instead, we have to wait for something that is not in our power -- a gift, the presentation of an unexpected, unimagined, and perhaps previously unimaginable image.
I ask you to try to reach the type, the eidos of a typewriter through imagination. ... And now, consider this image ...
and this ...
In the pioneering age of typewriter production, the last three decades of the nineteenth century, inventors created an astonishing variety of machines. This free-for-all had an economic motive: the typewriter had been accepted by the general public as a useful thing, and wealth awaited anyone who could produce a successful design which did not infringe on any existing patents. But the inventing was also driven by curiosity, by the sheer pleasure of testing the eidetic limits of typewriterness.
Are there phenomenological lessons to be learned from our experience of seeing these unimagined, and to us even bizarre specimens? First, it's safe to say that none of us could have imagined that a typewriter could look quite like this. Only Frank Lambert, a French immigrant who lived in Brooklyn at the turn of the century and who eventually struck it rich with a device for measuring water flow -- only Frank Lambert could have invented the Lambert typewriter. And it took him seventeen years to do so. The instantiation of a form is hard work: it demands a struggle to expand the boundaries of our imagination, and not everyone is equally capable of such a struggle. Imagination -- and thus, invention -- are finite.
Now you may point out, quite correctly, that Husserl's method of free imaginative variation was meant to take us from an instance to the type -- not from the type to its infinite possible instances. The instantiation may be surprising, but the eidos is still the same eidos that you all discovered with a moment's thought: the Lambert is just another machine that prints figures on paper, one after the other. But I would like to argue that without the stimulus of unexpected instances such as this, our imagination of the eidos can be hampered: we can't be sure that we aren't inadvertently excluding what may be legitimate features of our eidos, or inadvertently including some that are not. For instance, without this image of the philosophically named Peirce Accounting typewriter ...
... we might imagine the essence of a typewriter as a machine that writes on single sheets of paper -- but the Peirce writes in blank books. Or we might imagine that all typewriters make an impression by moving the type, and hitting it against the paper -- but the Hammond, a very popular early typewriter, uses a hammer that hits the paper against the type.
I've read a number of dictionary definitions of "typewriter" that make mistakes such as this. For me, much of the fascination of discovering the varieties of early typewriters lay precisely in the way that they assisted me in re-forming my very concept of what a typewriter was.
So far, then, our phenomenological lesson has to do with "typing" in the sense of the act of recognizing types, or forms. The imagination alone is unable to carry out this process of recognition with any certainty; the process depends on the presentation of particular images of cases in which the form has been instantiated, has been materially realized. And we can never be sure that we won't be presented with a surprising case tomorrow, one that changes our concept of the type.
Why is our imagination so sluggish and un-free? Because we're latecomers. All human beings are latecomers, beings with a past they have inherited and in which they have grown up. This past brings with it a set of forms with which we are familiar -- established ways of "typing," of identifying things according to essences. As it is our past, or better, our having a past, that allows us to type things, it is not inappropriate that Aristotle spoke of essence as to ti en einai, or "being what it was." But typing is finite, because "what it was" is not all that it could be -- in fact, it's not even what it was. What it was, for us, is conditioned by the range of material instantiations with which we are familiar. This familiarity can be challenged and shaken when we encounter a Hammond or a Lambert -- a case of what it actually was, in a world where the type itself had not yet reached a canonical instantiation, a stereotype. For typewriters, the canon began to be established only with the Underwood of 1895.
This machine, which at first was only one of hundreds of competitors, eventually succeeded in defining the streotype of a typewriter: a machine with four rows of keys and a shift, typing with typebars through a ribbon onto the front of a cylindrical rubber platen. This is the form that (with some modification by machines such as the IBM Selectric) still determines our concept of what a typewriter is -- or "was." The canonical form becomes a canal through which imagination can be channeled -- as in Vikram Chandra's inventive new novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which is largely narrated by a monkey at a typewriter. But the canonical form itself becomes rigid, and resists imaginative variation.
Now I'd like to go farther: not only is our identification of types bound up with their material instantiations, but the types themselves are so bound up. It's not just that it's hard to discover the essence without the assistance of examples -- the essence itself depends on how it's exemplified. The reciprocity between form and matter is crucial to the process of the generation of types themselves. At least, I hope to show this with respect to artifacts, such as typewriters, and the activities we perform with them. There is no universal and unchanging essence of an activity or an artifact, because what an activity is depends on how it is instantiated in a world.
I'll begin with some fairly obvious examples. You will probably agree that the act of communicating orally is not really the same as the act of communicating in writing -- even if writing was originally meant to be a continuation of oral speech by other means. Writing as a medium of communication opens up unexpected possibilities that lead to a whole new set of activities, a whole new world, with advantages over the old one. And disadvantages, too: Plato writes that writing makes people "imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they ... know nothing" (Phaedrus 275b). Whether for better or worse, as Walter J. Ong puts it, "Since writing came into existence, the evolution of the word and the evolution of consciousness have been intimately tied in with technologies and technological developments."
The invention of printing makes possible a kind of writing that is eidetically different from handwriting. Again, this development involves gains and losses. In his In Praise of Scribes, the Renaissance humanist John Trithemius argued that "printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices ... the simple reason is that copying by hand involves more diligence and industry." Computerized word processing and electronic hypertext introduce yet another configuration, a new kind of writing, which we are just beginning to discover. I composed this "paper," as we anachronistically call it, on a computer. Word processing is, in many subtle ways, an activity different from traditional writing; Michael Heim has done a good job of pointing out the trade-offs involved here in his book Electric Language. And I maintain a site on the World Wide Web devoted to -- what else? -- antique typewriters. The writing I do for the Web site is a beast of a strange species -- it's a sort of never-finished tinkering with ways to channel my visitors' browsing instincts.
In between these major technological developments, the invention of the typewriter represents a less dramatic but nevertheless real alteration in the eidos of writing. Of course, a lot depends on exactly how you use the typewriter. If you're producing a typed version of a handwritten text, you are sending a message about how you expect your text to be received and evaluated. You are presenting the text as an official and standardized communiqué: the typed document conforms to "type." This has consequences for the character of the communicative act. W.H. Auden writes, "Much as I loathe the typewriter, I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at that, if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through it in manuscript."
If you are not only retyping a manuscript but actually composing on the typewriter, this has a more dramatic effect on the character of your writing. Reporters and policemen traditionally love typewriters because the activity of writing on them has a special quality, the quality of public reportage. Certain kinds of writing flow better on a typewriter.
Now, the character of the activity of typing was not clear to the many early inventors of typewriters. Many of these prototypes (if you will) were conceived by their inventors as machines for the blind or as aids to spelling. The potential uses of typewriters in business were not at all clear. The discovery and invention of typing as an activity involved a number of fumbling experiments with the meaning of typing. An anecdote which is often repeated in accounts of typewriter history tells of a customer who received a typed letter from a business in the 1870s, and wrote back angrily to say that he was perfectly capable of reading handwriting, and the business did not need to have documents specially printed for him. Typing can be an insult. Even today, if you answered a love letter with a typed (or laser-printed) letter, you would send a message of cold rejection, even if the words on the paper would have been encouraging in a different medium.
Early typewriter-related inventions explored the various possible meanings of typewriting in some ingenious ways which have their counterparts today. One device was the automatic form-letter-typing machine, which would produce a document indistinguishable from a hand-typed letter. Here the assumption is that, under the right circumstances, a typed letter is not an insult, but a polite, personal touch. Today's counterpart is the form letter from Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes which arrives with my name printed on a dot-matrix printer, and the rest of the letter designed to look as it it were printed on a dot-matrix printer. I always find that touching. -- Another early idea was to create a typewriter that would produce copy that looked like handwriting. Many early typewriters offered interchangeable cursive fonts. And around the turn of the century, a San Francisco firm even offered to make a personalized typewriter based on the handwriting of the buyer. As no specimens of these typewriters have appeared, we don't know whether anyone took them up on this offer. Today, it's relatively easy to create a computer font based on someone's handwriting -- and there is a company that will do exactly that for you for a mere $100. Most of these attempts show very little sophistication about what they are doing, since they advertise their products as providing a "personal touch." But obviously, writing by means of a machine-produced facsimile of handwriting is not the same as handwriting. It is a new kind of activity that sends a different message. To deny this is to overlook the principle I am defending: the character of the activity, its eidos, depends on the medium in which it is carried out. Things always transform the activities that they enable.
This brings us to some particular mechanical differences among early typewriters. Here, too, I would argue that the difference in the medium involves a difference in the activity -- even if the difference is not as striking as that between handwriting and typing. A would-be typewriter inventor in the late nineteenth century had a great variety of choices. Would the typewriter be a keyboard machine, or a cheaper index machine, suitable for slow typing by children and those of modest means?
If it was to be a keyboard machine, should it have one shift key, like the Underwood, or two shifts, like the Williams ...
... or the Oliver?
Or should it have no shift at all, but separate keys for upper- and lower-case letters?
Should the keyboard be straight, or curved?
Should it type with typebars, or with a type shuttle, like the Hammond?
Or a typewheel, like the tiny Bennett?
Or a type cylinder, like the elegant Chicago?
Among the almost endless other choices, let me mention one of special importance. Should the typewriter write in plain sight of the operator, or should it be an understroke machine that types on the bottom of the platen, so that the typist has to raise the platen in order to see what she just wrote, as on this Caligraph?
Strange as it seems to us today, all the most successful machines up to 1900 were understrokes, or as their detractors called them, "blind writers." All these decisions had serious consequences for the nature of the activity of typing. Here we should not be misled by the fact that the final product produced on all these machines would look similar (though not identical). Even if the results are similar, the activities can be very different. Typing on a big understroke with a double keyboard, like the Caligraph, is not the same as typing on a portable with three rows of keys, like the Blickensderfer, which produces immediately visible writing and uses interchangeable typewheels.
It comes down to the feel of these machines. Typing on the Caligraph feels like a formal, controlled affair meant to produce a carefully engineered document. Typing on the Blick feels like a spontaneous, experimental activity that shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Now I'll briefly consider an objection to my point, and make a few historical remarks. One could object that traditional metaphysics is well aware that there are eidetic differences in cases such as these. There are different species of typewriting. There are also higher eidetic levels: the level on which typewriting is distinguished from handwriting, then the level on which writing in general is distinguished from speech, and then the overarching genus, communication. So I'm making a mountain out of a molehill: some aspects of these typewriters are different, and some are the same. The aspects that are the same are not changed by being instantiated in a particular way.
Natural as this objection sounds, I think it is fatally simplistic. Reality does not divide up neatly into species, genus, family and order. These are convenient conceptual tools we use to deal with what is really an ontological continuum, as we can see from the fact that new levels of hierarchical classification can always be added. And if forms exist on a continuum, then a form of communication in abstraction from its instantiation in particular media is just a useful fiction. The process of abstracting to this general level is a process of disregarding reality -- which can be helpful, but can also divert us from the whole truth. The method of free imaginative variation is meant to teach us what to disregard. Isn't it a potential danger of eidetic phenomenology that it invites us to disregard the phenomena -- to ignore the activities as they are actually carried out in the world?
I know that here I'm getting into thorny problems that are central not only to phenomenology, but to the entire history of Western metaphysics. Let me acknowledge some of this history by making a couple of remarks on thinkers in the phenomenological tradition.
Heidegger discusses the typewriter in his Parmenides lectures of 1942-43 (to the bewilderment of his students, who can't understand what typewriters have to do with Parmenides). Heidegger says:
Writing, from its originating essence, is hand-writing. ... In handwriting the relation of Being to man, namely the word, in inscribed in beings themselves. ... Therefore when writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e., from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man. ... In the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. ... The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand ...
In my opinion, this passage betrays a nostalgia for a condition that would contradict the very nature of activity. As you know, I agree with Heidegger that typewriting is not the same as handwriting -- and in every shift of activity, something is lost. (Heidegger, of course, hand-wrote all his texts -- and then had his brother Fritz type them.) But Heidegger makes it sound as if handwriting is immediate and pure, while typewriting is mediated and impure. This is very misleading. Pencil and paper are media; the hand itself is a medium, in a special way which I'll discuss soon. There never was and never will be a time when an activity happened purely, without mediation and instantiation. Heidegger's remarks on the typewriter show a certain nostalgia for the Aristotelian God, who is pure activity without matter.
I have more sympathy for the point Sartre makes with his concept of "the practico-inert" (in Critique of Dialectical Reason). His point, as I understand it, is that all projects have to be realized in the material world, and this realization inevitably leads to unintended consequences which can force us to modify the original project. To use one of Sartre's own examples, people buy cars to make commuting more convenient, but all the new cars clog the roads and make commuting inconvenient. This is true as far as it goes, but I would go farther. An activity is not first a clear goal pre-existing in consciousness, and only subsequently a goal realized in the "inert," material world. The project itself does not exist until it is realized. This is proved by the fact that the inventors of the first typewriters did not know what the activity of typewriting would be like.
It may be a phenomenologist of a different sort to whom I feel closest here: Hegel, with his claim that a universal is not itself until it is "externalized" in finite particulars.
In the last part of this paper I want to ask: if the type interacts with the matter in which it is instantiated, what makes this interaction possible? What is the site where it occurs? In other words: what is it that leaves room for an activity to become itself in its realization? In the case of typewriters, at least, the answer is clear: the process is made possible by our bodies, as they participate in the world. A typewriter is oriented to the human body, the hand in particular, and without this reference to the body, it ceases to be what it is. In turn, our bodies depend on the typewriter to carry out the activity of typing. It is through the body that the form of the typewriter and the form of typewriting get generated, actualized, incorporated. The body allows the eidos to be instantiated and allows the instance to alter the eidos.
A few minutes ago I was pointing out the many variations in early typewriter design. Most of these variants developed their own following (just as the world of personal computing can be divided into Macintosh and IBM advocates today). In arguing for the superiority of their favorite design, people would appeal -- as they had to -- to the feel of it: the interaction of the design with the human body. Fans of understroke typewriters argued that they promoted careful fingering, and even that they were easier on the eyes than visible writers, which gave the operator a headache with their typebars constantly fluttering in plain view.
Now, today this argument sounds pretty absurd -- but I have no doubt that visible typing did hurt some people's eyes. The process of instantiating an activity involves training the body, habituating it to certain movements until they become "second nature." The body is adaptable enough, open-ended enough, that it can adopt many different habits. This is why the science of ergonomics -- which is experiencing a sort of renaissance these days -- can never be an exact science. There simply is no single best design for a tool or machine; there is a range of designs to which the human body can adapt. Of course, this range has its limits, as every carpal tunnel sufferer knows. But as long as you're habituated to a particular design, that design works better for you than any other -- because the precise activity that your body is doing with that design can be done, strictly speaking, only with that design.
We could call this a generalized Qwerty effect. Economists use the term "Qwerty effect" to refer to the fact that conforming to an established standard is normally more profitable than inventing a new, more efficient standard. The Qwerty keyboard appeared in 1873 on the first commercially produced American typewriter, the Sholes and Glidden, which was the predecessor of the very influential Remington.
Qwerty was designed to separate frequently-used pairs of typebars, so that they wouldn't clash and get stuck at the printing point. It was soon recognized that other keyboard arrangements could be more efficient, and over the next few decades a number of competitors were introduced, such as Blickensderfer's "Scientific" or "Dhiatensor" keyboard. But by 1920, virtually all such alternatives had been given up, and periodic attempts to promote alternative keyboards have had minimal success. Why?
The economic advantage of standardization is largely based on the body's resistance to changing its habits, and this means the body resists changing its activities. The activity of typing on a Qwerty keyboard is not the same as the activity of typing on a Dhiatensor keyboard -- or on a more unusual keyboard, such as the pincushion-like "writing ball" invented by Danish pastor Malling Hansen. Nietzsche, who knew all about the foundational role of bodily habits, got a writing ball as a Christmas present from his mother and sister in 1881. He was not impressed -- he described it as more of a strain than any sort of handwriting. And the fact is that the habit of writing with the writing ball would be quite different from the habit of writing with pen and ink in Nietzsche's forceful, vertical handwriting. Maybe the Nietzsche women wanted to change Friedrich's writing.
This brings me back to the question of sameness. How is it that handwriting and typewriting are not "the same," or that typewriting on a Remington and on a Blickensderfer are not "the same"? What do we mean when we say they are "the same" in certain respects? Maybe it would be helpful to say simply that the bodily habits of doing one activity can be adapted, with more or less difficulty, to doing the other. This gives us a way of acknowledging similarity or sameness without indulging in excessive abstraction and hypostatizing an eidos. To pick an example other than typewriting, delivering a paper at a conference is similar to giving a lecture in class. Why? Because they both fit under a general eidos of public speaking? This statement doesn't get us very far. Our attention might be focused better on the phenomena if we examined exactly how certain bodily habits -- patterns of speech and gesture -- adapt from one activity to the other. (I'm not interested in "reducing" the mind to the body, but rather in developing a rich conception of the body that sees how the body is itself "mental," that is, meaningful.) Types -- and stereotypes -- are grounded in corporeal habits.
The incorporation of forms means that a particular activity can occur only through a particular kind of body -- a body constituted a certain way. This is reflected in the vocabulary of the nineteenth century, when the word "typewriter" referred both to the machine and to the operator. There is a certain truth in this usage: when you type, your body becomes a typewriter. More precisely, you reinforce certain bodily habits that act symbiotically with the machine in order to carry out the activity of typing. A new activity thus opens up new, unpredictable possibilities for the human body. The typewriter, for instance, led to new possibilities for the female body. Typewriting became a new specialty which, for the first time, allowed a woman to earn a living in an office. Almost all professional "typewriters" were female. This led to many corny vaudeville jokes about working with your typewriter on your lap -- but it also led to real (though limited) economic progress and independence for women, so that by the 1920s, Christopher Latham Sholes, the primary inventor of the Sholes and Glidden, could be hailed as a great contributor to women's liberation.
Let me close by asking how far my three principles about "typing" can be applied. I've argued that in the case of typewriters, first, we cannot count on recognizing the type by imagination alone: we need to see it instantiated, and we can never be sure that we won't encounter a new instantiation which will force us to revise our concept of the type. Secondly, the character of the type itself depends on how it is instantiated: what something is and what it means depends on how it is materially realized. Thirdly, this material realization of the type occurs thanks to incorporation, that is, the development of certain bodily habits. If these claims are valid, do they apply only to artifacts, such as typewriters, or do they have a more general validity? I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that they do. The form of a thing can be understood in general (and this is a classical point of view) in terms of the activity it does. That activity, if I'm right, is inseparable from the way in which it is incorporated, instantiated. Let's take a natural thing, an oak tree. The eidos of an oak is its "oaking" -- all the processes that it does. How those processes are done -- and thus, what those processes really are -- depends on they are instantiated in its body, its particular matter, its wood, bark and leaves. As for our relation to the oak, we can never truly understand the eidos of an oak just by using abstraction and imagination to isolate some universal aspects of it (for instance, its genetic code); we have to keep open to seeing new examples of oaking. And it will be our bodily habits -- our habits of testing, cutting, climbing on the tree -- that familiarize us with oaks. I'll leave it at that, and leave you to think of further examples or counterexamples to my claims.