Would you like to know how I wrote these words? I have an inkling that you are not remotely interested, but I am going to tell you anyway. First, from my collection of inks, I carefully selected a tint called Noodler’s Nightshade. It is the colour of the skin of a ripe aubergine. Then, on Clairefontaine paper, I slowly wrote and rewrote the text using a Stipula I Castoni fountain pen fitted with a 1.1mm italic nib. Only when I was entirely happy with what I had produced did I sit at my iMac and transfer each word to Word.
Are you still reading, or have I driven you away? Has my ‘inkipit’ merely convinced you that I am a bourgeois aesthete with a roving and nostalgic eye for unnecessary commodities? Were you expecting a celebration of cutting-edge writing technologies? (‘But you’re supposed to be a posthumanist’, a friend once remarked when I inkled my writing habits in an unguarded moment.) Why, above all, should an account of rituals of inscription matter?
The work of Roland Barthes incubates an answer to that final question. In September 1973, Jean-Louis de Rambures opened an interview with Barthes in a manner that could easily have led the discussion into a well of trivia: ‘Do you have a method of working?’ 1 Barthes, however, immediately underscored and pursued the politics of such a question, noting that ‘there is a kind of censorship which considers this topic taboo, under the pretext that it would be futile for a writer or an intellectual to talk about his writing, his daily schedule, or his desk’. 2 And then, with a little encouragement, came an inky-fingered confession:
I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments. I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones – I have far too many pens – I don’t know what to do with all of them. And yet, as soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them.
When felt-tipped pens first appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. (The fact that they were originally from Japan was not, I admit, displeasing to me.) Since then I’ve gotten tired of them, because the point flattens out too quickly. I’ve also used pen nibs – not the ‘Sergeant-Major’, which is too dry, but softer nibs, like the ‘J’. In short, I’ve tried everything … except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a ‘Bic style’, which is really just for churning out copy, writing that merely transcribes thoughts.
In the end, I always return to fine fountain pens. The essential thing is that they can produce that soft, smooth writing I absolutely require. 3
It would seem that Barthes also had an almost obsessive relation to writing about writing instruments and the material act of inscription. Earlier in 1973, for instance, he produced a text entitled ‘Variations sur l’écriture’, in which he approached the familiar term ‘écriture’ in a manner that differed from his usual ‘metaphorical sense’. 4‘Today’, he announced in the opening paragraph, ‘it is to the manual sense of the word that I would like to come, it is “scription” (the muscular act of writing, of tracing letters) that interests me’, 5 and the text went on to discuss, among other things, the difference that a change in colour of ink might make to the meaning of words, the speed of cursive handwriting, and how every wall calls to be written upon with graffiti.
‘Variations sur l’écriture’ was not published during its author’s lifetime, but it made a brief, ghostly appearance in La Préparation du roman when, following a mnemonic that read ‘Mon texte sur l’écriture’, Barthes spoke of the relationship between a writer’s style, obsessive choice of materials, and the way in which he or she physically put pen to paper. Proust, he recalled, wrote ‘at a gallop’, and ‘all of his work depended upon this muscular ability [facilité]’. 6 Other writers, however, proceeded slowly and needed constantly to lift their pens from the page. ‘In a general way’, Barthes concluded, ‘one could risk defining the work as a kinetic relationship between head and hand’. 7
One final piece of ‘inkriminating’ evidence. (My ‘inkventory’ is not, I should stress, ‘all-inklusive’.) Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes reveals that the same writing instruments were kept in the two identical workspaces – one in the city, one in the country – in which the author wrote, and the book elsewhere includes ‘all kinds of writing pens’ in a list of passions. 8 The text even manages to return to a form of ink that had left a smudge upon Mythologies almost twenty years earlier: ‘I am writing this day after day’, notes Barthes, ‘it takes, it sets: the cuttlefish produces its ink’. 9
I have written at length in another context about the significance of the many ‘ink blots’ that are spilled across the work of Roland Barthes. 10 I will not, therefore, reopen that particular ink quest in detail here, but I do want briefly to address why such apparent trivialities matter. Immediately after telling Jean-Louis de Rambures that discussing writing habits is usually seen as ‘futile’, Barthes makes a comment that explicitly links the topic in question to the work that he had begun in Mythologies:
When a great many people agree that a problem is insignificant, that usually means it is not. Insignificance is the true locus of significance. This should never be forgotten. That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action: it contributes to the overturning of that old myth which continues to present language as the instrument of thought, inwardness, passion, or whatever, and consequently presents writing as a simple instrumental practice.11
A caustic resistance to the idealist, pre-Saussurean understanding of language leaves its mark upon many of Barthes’ writings, of course. 12 What texts like ‘An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments’ and ‘Variations sur l’écriture’ add, however, is the proposition that attending to the materials and the material act of inscription contributes to the wider inking-out of the idyll of idealism. There is no head that is filled before the emptying movement of the hand.
As one who shares Barthes’ almost obsessive relation to writing instruments and his related contempt for idealism, I have high hopes that Writing Technologies will continue his ‘anti-mythological action’ by ‘putting things on the most material level possible’ whenever writing is at hand. The struggle promises to be more difficult than it was in Barthes’ day, for the myth of expression seems stronger than ever at the beginning of the twenty-first century, thanks in part to its eager support from, among other sources, creative writing workshops, self-help guides, motivational speakers, chat shows, blogs, the individualism of human rights, biography, identity politics, and certain modes of multiculturalism. But bright alternatives lie in the restless remarking of the materiality of the written. Barthes once imagined a ‘history of painting … which is not that of works and artists but that of tools and substances’, and I dream of the same approach to writing. 13 Perhaps Writing Technologies could lead the way by publishing essays not with accompanying biographical information about the authors and their other works, but with detailed descriptions of how the texts themselves were produced – a task that could be overseen by an ink monitor.
I realize, of course, that my proposal, my declaration of ink dependence, incorporates two notable risks.
1. There is the possibility that my ‘inkipit’ will be read as a rewriting of a memorable moment in Parmenides. Having proposed that ‘the hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man’, Heidegger immediately insists that ‘[n]o animal has a hand, and a hand never originates from a paw or a claw or talon’. 14 Several lines later, after stressing that ‘the word as script is handwriting’, the text points an accusing finger at the way in which ‘modern man writes “with” the typewriter’:
This ‘history’ of the kinds of writing is one of the main reasons for the increasing destruction of the word. The latter no longer comes and goes by means of the writing hand, the properly acting hand, but by means of the mechanical forces it releases. The typewriter tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e., the realm of the word. The word itself turns into something ‘typed’. 15
When this key shift takes place, ‘a transformation occur[s] in the relation of Being to man’, and the latter is ‘plunged into an eminent oblivion of Being’. 16
If I have an anxiety about the recent rise of word processing, it is not one that is rooted in a Heideggerian nostalgia for ‘the essential realm of the hand’. As Jacques Derrida has pointed out, ‘when we write “by hand” we are not in the time before technology; there is already instrumentality, regular reproduction, mechanical iterability. So it is not legitimate to contrast writing by hand and “mechanical” writing, like a pretechnological craft as opposed to technology’. 17My unease, rather, arises from the way in which the act – common today – of writing directly onto a computer screen could easily go hand in hand with what Barthes called ‘the illusion of expressivity’,18 for, as Derrida remarks, ‘[t]he figure of the text “processed” on a computer is like a phantom to the extent that it is less bodily, more “spiritual”, more ethereal. There is something like a disincarnation of the text in this’.19 Word processing without a handwritten script can make writing feel effortless, natural, intimate, instant. The myth of expression may be more manipulative than ever when the unmistakably material moments – the old ‘rhythm’ and ‘timing’ to which Derrida points – are erased by the dust that now cloaks pen and ink.20
2. Obsessive interest in writing habits risks being smudged into a fascination with the private lives of authors that claims to reveal the individuals who stand behind and before the words on the page. I cannot think of anything more tedious, but I am also acutely aware that I am writing and walking the finest of lines. Biography is a magnet for mediocrity. Its continued – and possibly creeping – presence in literary studies is a curse that curdles the discipline into vacuous self-satisfaction. Donna Haraway once remarked that ‘teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse’, and I feel the same about the fostering of biography-based criticism.21 In writing lives, biographers write the obituary of textuality.
I am calling for a discussion of writing practices that does not celebrate the idiosyncrasies of the man or woman who nourished the work, but instead underscores how inscription cannot be reduced to expression, the transmission of an aching emotion, the sacred sharing of an inner self. This is not merely a question of theory. As the pen moves across the page before my eyes, as the ink flows and takes, the world is being worn down by a parade of fundamentalisms that fatally believe the Word to be an expression of the essential truth of a prophet, a president, a party, or a God.
Ink burns at its root. May Writing Technologies be a work of fire that sends idealism and the illusion of expressivity up in plumes of smoke.
1. Roland Barthes, ‘An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments’, in The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, trans. by Linda Coverdale (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 177.
2. Barthes, 'An Almost Obsessive Relation', p. 177.
3. Barthes, 'An Almost Obsessive Relation', p. 178.
4. Roland Barthes, 'Variations sur l'écriture', in Oeuvres Complètes: Tome IV: 1972-1976, ed. by Eric Marty, new ed. (Paris: Seuil, 2002), p. 267. All translations from this text are my own.
5. Barthes, 'Variations sur l'écriture', p. 267.
6. Roland Barthes, La Préparation du roman I et II: Notes de cours et de séminaires au Collège de France 1978-1979 et 1979-80, ed. by Nathalie Léger (Paris: Seuil/IMEC, 2003), p. 338. My translation.
7. Barthes, La Préparation du roman I et II, p.339.
8. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. by Richard Howard (London: Papermac, 1995), p. 46, p. 116. In the meticulous duplication of his workspace, Roland Barthes reproduced a habit of Proust's. For details of the latter, see André Maurois, The Quest for Proust, trans. by Gerard Hopkins (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 131.
9. Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 162. For the earlier reference to the cuttlefish and its protective cloud, see Roland Barthes, Mythologies, ed. and trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), p. 155.
10.Neil Badmington, 'The "Inkredible" Roland Barthes', Paragraph, forthcoming 2008.
11.Barthes, 'An Almost Obsessive Relation', p. 177.
12. See, for instance, Sade, Fourier, Loyola, trans. by Richard Miller (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 39; Sollers Writer, trans. by Philip Thody (London: Athlone, 1987), p. 43, p.84; 'The Death of the Author', in Image - Music - Text, ed. and trans. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-48.
13. Roland Barthes, 'Réquichot and His Body', in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. by Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 213.
14. Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. by André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 80.
15. Heidegger, Parmenides, p. 80, p. 81.
16. Heidegger, Parmenides, p. 85, p. 86.
17. Jacques Derrida, 'The Word Processor', in Paper Machine, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 20.
18. Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, trans. by Richard Howard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 98.
19. Derrida, 'The Word Processor', p. 30.
20. Derrida, 'The Word Processor', p. 24. Barthes also refers to the rhythm of writing in 'Variations sur l'écriture', p. 310.
21. Donna J. Haraway, 'A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century', in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), p. 152.