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  • Graphology and the Science of Individual Identity in Modern France
  • Roxanne Panchasi (bio)

“In France, It’s How You Cross the t’s”

On October 19, 1993, an article by Roger Cohen entitled “In France, It’s How You Cross the t’s” appeared on the front page of the business section of the New York Times. 1 The article outlines the case of Michel Malat, “a 46-year-old former furniture sales manager . . . [who] decided to have his handwriting analyzed by an expert” after being unemployed for six months. Having made several job applications with no positive returns, Malat began to fear that his “handwriting was suspect.” The article situates Malat’s dilemma within the broader economic context of France, noting that “[a]s French unemployment has soared to a rate of 11.7 percent or 3.2 million people, an increase of more than 10 percent in the last year alone, more and more people here are worrying about their handwriting.” Apparently, “a growing number of French corporations routinely subject the handwritten letters from job applicants, particularly for management positions, to graphological tests”: handwriting is viewed as “a crucial indicator of personality,” and its analysis is employed as “a way to narrow the field and even to choose between finalists” in job competition. One representative of a French corporation remarked on the use of graphological information in weeding out undesirables: “‘You may suddenly find that a person you are about to hire as an accountant has a tendency toward deviousness.’” [End Page 1] According to the article, “the loops, slants, margins and flourishes . . . have assumed considerable importance” in the French job-hunting climate, where “almost all advertisements for jobs request a handwritten letter” and, as one recruiter commented, “‘[i]t would be very badly viewed if a job applicant sent a typewritten letter.’”

The article goes on to outline that graphology “was invented 122 years ago by a French priest named Jean-Hippolyte Michon” and that the “science” is not officially recognized in France. In spite of entreaties from Prime Minister Édouard Balladur to “stem the rising tide of unemployment,” and reports that different graphologists often produce contradictory readings of the same individual and her or his handwriting, French companies nonetheless continue to use graphological analysis in their applications processes. The French paper Le Nouvel Observateur is quoted as concluding on the subject: “‘Americans use figures . . . while we prefer impressions. We like grace, emotion, approximation, instinct. We are probably not made for the modern world.’”

In the 1990s in France, the meanings and values attached to handwriting styles and forms reflect definitions of the normal and the pathological in a modern, professional context. The insistence on the handwritten in an age of advanced computer technology seems like a kind of nostalgia for a pretechnological, authentic representation of self dependent upon a notion of the intimacy of the handwritten versus the “impersonal,” typed (faxed, e-mailed) word. Far from new, this set of connections between handwriting, identity, and psychology can be traced historically to the period of graphology’s codification as a “science” or systematic knowledge of individual identity and character in the early decades of the Third Republic. The cultural significance of handwriting in modern France has been historically tied to the spread of literacy and universal elementary education, to the importance of individual identification for legal and political purposes, and to the emergence of sciences of the individual and their articulation as sites of medical and juridical authority and power.

Friedrich Kittler has argued that “the silent or even dead marks of writing”—in the “discourse network,” or system of communication and notation, of the nineteenth century—were viewed as “reproduc[ing] the unembellished accents from the profoundest regions of the soul.” 2 While Kittler is particularly concerned with discursive frameworks in the German context, his point is relevant for thinking [End Page 2] about the ways in which a particular construction of handwriting as the imprint of individual identity and personality has become inscribed on the French cultural imagination in the modern period. Graphology participated in, and worked to constitute, a particular fascination with the scribal that was a crucial part of the bureaucratic and educational...

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