The Gesture of Writing

24May12

Flusser, Vilém. ‘The Gesture of Writing’ 1991

Accessible online here.

p.1

To write means, of course, to perform an action by which a material, (for instance chalk, or ink), is put on a surface, (for instance a blackboard or a leaf of paper), to form a specific pattern, (for instance letters). And the tools used during this action, (for instance brushes and typewriters), are instruments which add something to something. Thus one would suppose that the gesture of writing is a constructive action, if by “construction” we mean the bringing together of various objects to form a new structure (=”con-struction”).

But this is misleading. If we want to seize what the gesture of writing really is about, we have to consider its original form. If we may trust archeology, writing, at least as far as the Occident is concerned, was originally an act of engraving. The Greek verb “graphein” still connotates this.

[…] it is this half-forgotten gesture of scratching which is the essence, (“eidos”), of writing. It has nothing to do with constructing. It is, on the contrary, a taking away, a de-structing. It is, both structurally and historically, closer to sculpture than to architecture.

It is a gesture of making holes, of digging, of perforating. A penetrating gesture. To write is to in-scribe, to penetrate a surface, and a written text is an inscription, although as a matter of fact it is in the vast majority of cases an onscription. Therefore to write is not to form, but to in-form, and a text is not a formation, but an in-formation.

I believe that we have to start from this fact, if we want to understand the gesture of writing: it is a penetrating gesture which informs a surface.

We do not think about the act of writing while writing, but about what we are writing, (which is, if you consider it, a dubious statement). Writing has become a habit, and habits are what we do without having to think about it. In fact: writing has become more than a habit.

Writing cannot be in our “genetic program” the same way nest building is in the genetic program of birds, because, after all, it is a cultural, not a natural, behavior pattern.

It comes to us rather like the behavior of walking and speaking: we have to learn it, but we must learn it, if we are to behave according to human nature. But again, writing does not seem to belong to the same level as do walking and speaking. it seems more superficial, more recent, and therefore it is learned later in life, and many never learn it.

p.1-2

And although it is difficult to imagine a man of the future who does not walk or speak, […] we can very well imagine a man of the future who no longer writes, and in fact there are symptoms even now which point toward such a future.

p.2

Which shows the fluidity of the limit between natural and cultural behavior, and suggest that those two categories should be abandoned. Anyhow: writing has become for many of us more than a habit, but a sort of second nature. This is the reason why we do not think about it while performing the gesture.

But, as it always happens with phenomena covered by habit and more than habit, writing becomes almost mysterious, if we discover it by deliberate consideration.

To write we need several things which are supplied by our culture.

[1. Blank surface
2. Instrument which contains a matter that contrasts with the surface, and can put matter onto that surface
3. Letters of the alphabet, or equivalent
4. Convention  which gives meaning to the alphabet
5. Orthography (rules of letter ordering)
6. Shared language
7. Grammar (rules of language ordering)
8. Underlying idea to be impressed on the surface
9. Motive for the idea]

The typewriter is not the same sort of reality as is a spoken language or a rule of grammar, let alone an idea.Therefore writing is a gesture which goes on several ontological levels. External observation will show only one  of those levels.

The structure of writing is linear […]

p.3

Now this linear structure of writing is more or less firmly established in our memories, we take it more or less for granted. In fact: it is programmed in the typewriter; which is a machine for writing lines from left to right and for jumping back to the left side. Thus the typewriter is, to some extent, a materialisation of a cultural program of ours.

If we look at the typewriter, we can see materially, to some extent, how one aspect of our mind works. But only to some extent, because the typewriter is more rigid than is our mental structure. The lines it writes are straighter than are the lines written by longhand, they are space more evenly on the sheet, and the letters are more evenly separated from each other and neater. Longhand writing is thus closer to our mental structure, and expresses it more directly. But of course, this is an argument which may cut both ways. We may hold that the typewriter is more faithful to our mind processes than is longhand writing, and that the irregularities of handwriting are technical imperfections which have been overcome by the invention of the typewriter. Which side of the argument we choose will reveal our attitude toward the gesture of writing.

If we hold that the typewriter is less faithful to the workings of our mind than is longhand, we consider writing to be a gesture related to drawing.

The irregularities of handwriting are then considered to be deliberate compositions which are excluded from typed writing.

If we hold that the typewriter is more faithful to the workings of our mind than is longhand, we consider writing to be a gesture related to conceptual thinking.  A far more “material” thinking, to be sure, than is “internal” thinking, but still a gesture which puts concepts or their symbols into an ordered sequence. The irregularities of handwriting are then considered to be unwanted accidents avoided by typed writing.

It is of course possible to combine those two attitudes toward writing. one may hold that it is a gesture which lies somewhere between drawing and conceptual thinking.

[“Concrete Poetry”] is a deliberate manipulation of the linear structure of writing.

pp.3-4

But concrete poetry is still, essentially, a linear writing, even if the lines it puts on the surface are not straight lines. It stresses the family resemblance between writing and drawing, but unlike drawing it does not seek, primarily, to project shapes on a surface.

p.4

In other words: concrete poetry is not in its essence a gesture of drawing, but an unconventional gesture of writing.

Unconventional writing is of course easier for longhand than for typed writing, because the convention is programmed materially within the typewriter structure. But precisely because it is more difficult to impose a non-conventional structure on the typewriter than on the pencil, the typewriter is a more challenging instrument than is the pencil. If one aims at writing non-conventional lines with a typewriter, one must invent new methods of writing, (for instance, a specific manipulation of the paper) . This is characteristic of creation: the more limits are imposed on the act, (the more it is “determinist”), the better it can find new ways to change those limiting factors, (it is the “freer”). Unconventional gestures of writing like concrete writing suggest that the typewriter is a more challenging instrument than is the pencil.

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