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  • Michael Kalisch (bio)
Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew Kirschenbaum. Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016. £20. ISBN 9 7806 7441 7076

'I've gone back to longhand', Colm Tóibín tells fellow Irish novelist Collum McCann, in a television interview from 1999.1 Returning to pen [End Page 274] and paper has provided 'a particular control over the sentences', Tóibín explains, and he has discovered that he is 'enjoying the almost, sort of physical presence of the words on the page':

I realised that one of the problems with using a word processor is how easy it is to correct, and therefore you tend to feel that, 'Oh, I've corrected that', when in fact all you've done is read it over and changed bits.

Tóibín goes on to state his preference for a 'smudgy biro' over a computer, rubbing his fingers to his thumb as he talks. And he describes the pleasure he derives from writing out the names of the characters in the novel he is just finishing: 'the "L" for Lily . . . and the "P" for Paul. All my "P's" are quite seriously made'.2 But at the end of his answer, Tóibín counterbalances his effusiveness. Working by hand, he tells McCann, 'is probably exactly the same as working on a word processor'. The kinds of difference the invention of word processors did and didn't make to the way writers work is the subject of Matthew Kirschenbaum's new book.

Heidegger hated the typewriter, and 'would have really detested the "word processor", J. Hillis Miller notes.3 Believing that 'the hand holds the essence of man', Heidegger–whose own 'hands and posture' made him 'the perfect penman', according to David Krell4–insisted that Handschrift, handwriting, was a crucial concomitant to thought itself. As such it was central, Sarah Jackson observes in Tactile Poetics, to his 'meta-physics of presence and immediacy'.5 The typewriter tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of the word', Heidegger suggests in Parmenides, and thus renders 'the word itself something "typed".6 It's a view that was pervasive for a time among historians of communication technology.7 Most influentially, perhaps, Friedrich Kittler followed Heidegger's lead in his landmark work of literary sociology, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, with which Kirschenbaum's excellent study is in [End Page 275] dialogue. The typewriter 'unlinks hand, eye, and letter', Kittler writes, thus disrupting 'the play between Man the sign-setter and the writing surface'.8 But of course this 'play' was never entirely unmediated; a pen or pencil also amounts, Hillis Miller points out, to a kind of 'technical prosthesis', as much as a typewriter or a computer.9 As Derrida suggests in 'Word Processing', all writing takes place within this 'theatre of the prosthesis', and 'when one writes "by hand" . . . instrumentality has not been postponed'; rather, one is already encountering, as he puts it elsewhere, 'the ageless intrusion of technics'.10

The advent of word processing represents another iteration of this 'intrusion', one akin to, but also distinct from, that of the typewriter. As Kirschenbaum sees it, 'word processing hovers uneasily between the comfortably familiar and the encroachingly alien'; rather than simply a 'reimplementation or remediation of typewriting', word processing is part of 'an ongoing negotiation of what the act of writing means' (p. 23). Central to this is what Kirschenbaum, following Daniel Chandler, characterises as the word processor's unique method of 'suspended inscription', in which 'the stored record of the text is separate from whatever the medium or surface on which it is ultimately printed' (p. 46).11 This suspension, 'both temporal and locative in nature' (p. 47), raises the prospect of a new kind of open-ended, always provisional textuality: 'One is led to believe', as Derrida puts it, 'that revision could go on indefinitely. An interminable revision.'12 Derrida captures something of the double-edged quality to the word processor's promise of limitless and instantaneous adjustment and refinement–the sense that, as Tóibín suggests, the computer makes changing your mind a little too...


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