Writing Technologies

[Printable version]


Daniel Cordle and Philip Leonard

‘exile was already there in paper’
Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine

Technology is frequently seen as an arriviste on the scene of writing. When Derrida argues that ‘it is not legitimate to contrast writing by hand and “mechanical” writing, like a pretechnological craft as opposed to technology’1 he seeks to disabuse literary critics, philosophers, and social commentators of the notion that writing was once an unmediated poiesis, now corrupted by modes of articulation which have turned the creative act of writing into a technical articulation, increasingly constrained and threatened by regulatory artifices. The quill, the pen, the mechanical typewriter, the electric typewriter, as well as the computer, for him instantiate writing’s enduring history as an intrinsically prosthetic and processed expression, these instruments offering various forms of mechanical resistance while at the same time allowing the act of writing to occur. Paper Machine is not, however, solely concerned to establish writing as an essentially technologized expression or to conceive it as the encoding of thought by an external apparatus. In addition to challenging the division between creativity and technicity that has prevailed – and stubbornly remains – in literary criticism, Derrida also questions the attempt to engineer the human as an entity that is, in essence, not technological. For him, the instruments that are necessary for writing are also central to identity formation: technologies of writing, and writing itself as a technology, prosthetically inaugurate the human, and they do so in different ways. Paper, for example, has held (and continues to hold) a ‘sacred power’,2 authenticating the proper name and archiving memory by giving it a seemingly incorruptible permanence in the world. The pen allows us to dream of immediacy and provides us with a particular sense of how our interiority is externalized. Today’s technologies offer not just a departure from the fantasy of physicality that other writing technologies promote, but also a different experience of time (‘These new powers delete or blur the frontiers in unprecedented conditions, and at an unprecedented pace’) and space (affecting frontiers ‘between the national and the global, and even between the earth and the extraterrestrial, the world and the universe’).3

Both the ontological persistence of and the specific effects that result from the writing-technology interface have been a constant source of fascination for some of the most prominent figures in cultural theory. Deleuze and Guattari stand as perhaps the most venerated of those who find an extreme saturation of the social and the subjective by technology, claiming that machinic assemblages pass through, shape, and (sometimes critically) reshape bodies and cultures. Certainly, this sense of the machinic as an embedded and ubiquitous force has found itself vigorously embraced by cultural theory in recent years, from DeLanda’s location of ‘the virtual’ in the physical and the natural (rather than in new technologies of representation alone)4 to accounts of the invisible and unpredictable complexity of informational systems.5 Often ignored in this work on the machinic qualities of social, cultural, and natural strata, however, is Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that the book too is an assemblage – ‘a literary machine’6 – which plugs into other machines, all functioning and failing in the production and transmission of meaning. When connected to their concepts of the rhizome (an acentred and immeasurable structure that defies positivism’s mania for the encyclopaedic) and rhizomatic writing, this concept of the machinic becomes a powerful resource for thinking the production of – and experiments with – printed textuality, as well as the alternative modes of articulation (such as hypertext, Wiki, blogs, Writely and networked writing) that are offered by emerging media and digital technologies.

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1. Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 20.

2. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 58.

3. Derrida, Paper Machine, p. 57.

4. Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2002).

5. See, for example, Theory, Culture & Society vol. 22, no. 5 (2005).

6. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone, 1988), p. 4