The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting
Author: Darren Wershler-Henry
Publisher: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007
Review Published: February 2008
In his review of my book The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, Adam Tourek comments, "On the subject of bodies, this fragmented history could benefit from a survey of the vast repertoire of performance art and the machines that shaped it." I couldn't agree more.
In manuscript form, The Iron Whim is approximately twice as long as the final version. Much the material that was edited out of the final text concerns poetry and performance in which typewriting plays a significant role. This does say something about the low tolerance of nonfiction editors for the indulgences of poets and artists, but it was, in part, a deliberate decision, because eventually I realized that there was enough material for another book entirely -- a poetics of typewriting.
I plan to approach this project in terms of creating a catalogue of a series of historic strategies for typewriting that permitted the creation of texts that departed from the rectilinear logic of the typewritten page. Some of these might include the use of the typewriter to create photorealistic art, like the work of Paul Smith; Dom Sylvester Houedard's mystical typewriter op-art; Steve McCaffery's multi-panel CARNIVAL; and the hyperdense overtyping of Charles Bernstein's VEIL. Each of these texts mimes a struggle between the logic of typewriting attempting to position a subject in a particular manner, and that subject's attempts to position themselves, and their writing, in a different configuration. This is typewriting against the grain -- a kind of teratology of a typing teacher's worst nightmares.
A poetics of typewriting would also include an accounting of typewriting itself as a kind of performance, with manifold possibilities. Vito Acconci fits here, as do the Italian Futurists. But so does Janis Joplin's version of "Trouble in Mind" from The Typewriter Tapes, the famous bootleg from the beginning of her career, in which an unnamed, unseen accompanist bangs out percussion on a crappy old manual somewhere in the background ... and Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, playing the guest solo typist in the Boston Pops performance of Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter." Because typewriting, in its own way, rocks.
There also remains to be written a longer account of typewriting's role in visual culture. The representation of typewriting in different media, at different historical moments, and in different cultures, was very different, and contributed to the creation of some very intriguing discursive formations. I have some ideas about that, too.
Part of the reason I wrote a book in fragments was I was quite sure that I would never be able to present a complete picture of typewriting. I was more interested in diagramming some trajectories that might lead to other places and other accounts, like those in the work of Lisa Gitelman, Ruben Gallo and other fine media history scholars. One of the reasons I began with Royal Road Test, Ed Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell's classic document of typewriting's destruction, was that there are enough fragments left for us to keep us all sifting through the sands for years to come.
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