Monday, 29 December 2014

The interruptions of handwriting

One of the commonly held assumptions (especially among impatient readers) is that texts are fluid, continuous. This is a belief that expects a text to present itself like a cake from which no piece has been cut yet – and more importantly, expects that cake to remain as such forever.

The theory of the solidity of texts, however, proves to be unsatisfying. This continuity, this smooth unfolding, is not exactly what a text is made of, and neither is it something the text is aiming for. On the contrary, as already hinted last week, the fundamental component of a text is its discontinuity. And, as I will hope to show today and, maybe, next week, this discontinuity is apparent at almost all levels of a text’s constitution.

Patterns, repetitions

To start with (and this, again, might require a rereading of last week’s post), the formation of a text presupposes an interruption of one’s biological awareness. Writers often make reference to this ‘forgetting of the self,’ which is in essence a forgetting of body and of bodily functions. Writing is, as such, a redistribution (along different spatial-temporal coordinates) of the body.  Michel Foucault suggested that, while writing, the body becomes a launching pad and, at the same time, a hiding place for the subject who writes. But in order for this to happen, writing must mark a break from habitual (i.e. overlooked) occurrences in one’s life.
To write is to cease living.
This cessation is one form of interruption apparent in relation to writing but certainly not the only one. In order to see the other interruptions, we need to regard writing in a particular way: we need to look at it from the perspective of patterns. Patterns presuppose repetitiveness. And repetition presupposes finite objects, i.e. objects with a beginning and an end. I stress the end because, as is very easy to observe, an interruption makes apparent this finality, this endness of things. In a repetitive pattern, the fact that objects end is crucial.
In writing, one uses the patterned distribution of letters. This means, every occurrence of a given letter is a repetition of the archetype of the sign that represents it. This is why we are able to recognize that letter and, consequently, read the given text.

Print script

Printed writing, which is the style of penmanship where all letters are written in a non-conjoined manner, is a clear illustration of what I mean here. In printing, one executes strokes that mark the independence of signs and, therefore, their limitness – their ability to stop and come after each other.
A note of caution: let us not be misled by the other model of penmanship, the so-called cursive. The effort put into linking the letters together only perpetuates the myth of the continuity of writing. By making the letters touch each other, one hopes to achieve the illusion of writing’s connectivity, an illusion with roots deep into the misconception about the ability of writing to generate order (of the sequential type, in this case) in the disorder of the world.

Script on a clay amulet from Tărtăria. Source: Wikipedia
In this respect, the earliest forms of writing were more ‘honest,’ closer to the truth of the matter. Cuneiforms, Hieroglyphics, Chinese ideograms, Greek and Roman Letters, or even older systems, such as the ones discovered at Vinča (Serbia), or Tărtăria (Romania), dating back to the Neolithic period – all of the above give signs their due: their independence from each other, their separateness. There, signs are units of meaning designed to represent units of the world; one for one. And there is no fooling about, no pretense of continuity. It is as though at that ‘early’ stage there was still hope for reconciliation, or at least some awareness of the former (i.e. pre ‘madness of signification’) structural match between objects and signs.

Joint-up writing

Cursive scripts, on the contrary, bring up the issue of the radical difference between man and world, between systems of notation and the materiality of Being. With them, the possibility of misrepresentation is given a face. To be noted, at the same time, that basic writing systems that employ continuous script, like the Arabic and some other Abjads, are late comers to the feast of writing. They became active at a time where the erosion of the relationship between world and sign had already been tested and amplified.
(The material support may also be of interest here, although some closer examination of the history of writing systems could be required to understand the dynamics of the move from stone and clay to leather and paper.)
Most importantly, thought, cursive writing developed along with the polishing of official records. In Bengali, the cursive script is also known as “professional writing,” and that should say it all. Not only did this type of notation indicate a need for officials to keep record, it also indicates a need, pointed out by researchers, to shorten the process of writing. At this stage, one could say that the emphasis is moved from the representation of the world to the management of the sign. Efficiency of inscription appears to be a manifestation of the drive to be done with it as quickly as possible. The world as such appears to have fallen onto a secondary place.

A sample of cursive script: the writing of office. Source: Wikipedia
The same thing may be said about the most common European version of this cursive writing, the so-called “chancery hand.” It was developed in the thirteenth century by the Chancery of Apostolic Brief (Cancelleria Apostolica), whose initial main purpose was to collect money used to maintain papal armies, later turned into the collection of money for the support of missionary work. Once again, the official role of cursive writing is impossible to miss. Its use for business transactions makes it a very practical form of notation.

The way towards modernity

Of course, the pedantic historian of writing will find other, possibly more refined, possibly better suited, examples of this cursive mode, but the major point here is the relevance of the cursive to the languages and practices of office.
The cursive appears to be the imposition of economy upon writing. With it, writing starts being regarded as an economic entity, a tool of the trade, a means of production. Production of signs relevant to economic transactions. Signs which, as abstractions, are increasingly present in economic systems based on speculation. The cursive letter is, therefore, the way towards modernity: towards a completely abstract manipulation of the world, whether for economic, political, or cultural purposes.
The cursive letter is a bargain: the budget version of writing. With it, the spatial proximity of letters is employed to impose a different kind of order upon the dangerously independent form of the print script. And at the same time, the separation of sign and world becomes harder to spot. This is a phenomenon made apparent most dramatically with the establishment of semiotics. A scientific system for the explanation of signs and signification was necessary to make us aware of how the world has always been represented – something we should have been aware of anyway, if we’d remained at the stage where the world and the sign resembled each other – a time where, among other things, notations were primarily of the print kind.

Modernity and beyond. Source: Seconds
With the imposition of cursive over print (whether the distinction has become again a matter for debate), we have come to misunderstand the world even more acutely than before. We have come to misrepresent, primarily, the signs meant to represent Being. We have come to cover  to place a mask on  the interruptions that make writing what it is: a system of notations, i.e. of making notes, of taking note of the world.