HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

The Typewriter Revolution

Thomas L. Lynn, Jr. reviews a new book on typewriters by an expert in Heidegger. Will the revolution be typewritten?

Richard Polt, The Typewriter Revolution – A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century (The Countryman Press, 2015)

As we find ourselves squarely within the adolescence of the twenty first century, an increasing cognizance has emerged as to the tension between what could be termed the analogue and digital modes of technology. Among the exponents of that tension is a burgeoning array of movements which are seeking to compel a regrounding of our lives in activities that sever, or at least attenuate the dependency which has accrued upon the latter of these terms: the slow food movement, the embrace of vinyl records, within some bounds, SteamPunk, and even certain flourishes of hipsterism.  Within this loose confederacy of champions of the analogue, the Typewriter Insurgency announces itself as of particular avail for a mediation of the technological more broadly construed, a mediation which resists the temptation to fall into tempting absolutisms. It aims not to necessarily reject the digital altogether, but to subordinate it to the imperative of the real world. Thus it was that Richard Polt, engaged by the spirit of that insurgency penned a Manifesto some years back which would quickly be circulated a thematizing document:

 

In time this Manifesto would also prove a kind of conceptual skeleton for the arrangement of The Typewriter Revolution – A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. For, though if one wishes, this comprehensive text can be read simply as an entertaining manual or reference guide for those who take a collecting or other interest in typewriters, it is more substantively an elaboration of the framework suggested by the forerunning Manifesto.  This is clear enough given both the contents of the book’s Forward, and the organization of its chapters.  The former anticipates the highlighting of typewriting’s subversive potential, lamenting the glorification of the efficient as a totalizing end. History is not without irony, of course, as initially the typewriter itself was seen by many as an expression of that very end. However, due to the ruthless dynamism of capitalism, it has been pushed back from that role to occupy the galleys with such other older members of technological yesteryear as the bicycle and the fountain pen.

But its situation there is not, it is hoped, one of mere obsolescence. For, as a physical machine it can serve to instantiate in a unique way those nodes of dialectic tension which its eponymous insurgency has highlighted as the flashpoints of their revolution. The first of these moments is its declaration of resistance to “the Paradigm”. What is that Paradigm? Elucidation is provided in the first of the eight interludes which are interwoven with the text’s chapters. Therein, Polt conveys that the antipode to the typewriter revolution is not the computer itself, but the computing mentality. Of this, he continues,

This world view sees everything as a cluster of information, and information as a resource that can be processed for profit: From the Bible to the human genome, from Rembrandt to Rihanna, it’s all just data…From this point of view, everything we do is a data stream, a flow of information to be tapped and sold… (p.62)

The “horizons of the Information Regime” which emerges from the totalizing trajectory of the computing mentality in turn delimit a series of consequences: dependency, surveillance, and disintegration fall out and pervade our situation in a way epitomized, but hardly exhausted by the Internet. Our very relationship with time and space is challenged in ways that have deep repercussions for our very being. Thus, The Typewriter Revolution exhorts us through its course to the cultivation of self-reliance, privacy, and coherence as ideals to resist that tide. These themes of the second, third and fourth interludes are in turn realized through more concrete counterparts in  the fifth, sixth and seventh meditations. Therein, the value of the written word is set against the profligacy of multimedia, the real is set against mere representation, and the durable is set against the unsustainable. The eighth interludes rounds out the arc of reflection by revisiting the theme of the book’s Forward by positing the self-sufficient in lieu of the Efficient.

The sort of self-sufficiency being advanced by Polt here though is of a different order than that sometimes cartoonishly put forwards by celebrants at the church of Robin Crusoe. Instead, it is rather that Aristotelian self-sufficiency of action pursued for its own end rather than something beyond itself. The Typewriter is an apt mascot for such an ideal given how refractory it proves before efforts to either eliminate it, or subjugate its users to the instrumentalizing imperatives of the Information Regime. And it is indeed those people which constitute the vast bulk of The Typewriter Revolution’s content, the insurgents themselves. Whether it is the collectors of these delightful machines, the writers, the activists, or the children now discovering these wonderful writing machines, their stories were a profound encouragement to read. The difficulties of our times are such that it is all too easy to fall into a certain despondency. The elan and the those typewriting in park is welcome antidote indeed to that malaise – providing one can avoid simple nostalgia and a backwards-looking fetishization of the object’s of the past. Hence it is I can warmly recommend Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution as a delightful, and stirring read.

A Heideggerian Postscript

Within his noted “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger ventures that the essence of specifically modern technology is found in what he terms the ‘enframing’, or, the Ge-stell. This characterization is grounded in a more general gloss of technology’s essence to be intimately connected to a mode of revealing, or of bringing forth, or poēisis. In the German, this finds reflection in the related notions of ‘producing and presenting’, or ‘Her-und Dar-stellen.’ Yet with modern technology that mode of revealing is altered so that what unfolds, the actual, is shown to be merely component to a standing reserve, the Bestandt. That is, the world, and we are enfolded within a space in which we are reduced to mere resource. The Typewriter perhaps is so powerful a machine for escape from the enframing precisely because it does not necessitate such an enfolding: by contrast, rather than inviting a ‘challenging-forth’ and an ‘ordering’ of nature, it prepares a space which permits the world to simply unfold freely. We might say that the typewriter invites us to embrace the poetic.


Thomas Lynn is a thinker currently situated in Cincinnati. Among his preoccupations are the way in which phenomenology can inform questions in current philosophy of mind, the relations between the analytic and Continental traditions in philosophy, and off the beat thinkers such as Jacques Ellus, Paul Feyerabend, or Michael Polanyi. His musings can be found at his blog Notions from Tom. He is also the host of Thinking Thomas, a channel dedicated to critical theory and an interview series with authors in theory and philosophy.

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