The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting
Author: Darren Wershler-Henry
Publisher: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007
Review Published: February 2008
As I sit here tapping... No, gently depressing the keys on my laptop's keyboard, I grapple with Darren Wershler-Henry's declaration that typewriting is indeed dead, and that its "Ghosts are everywhere" (2). As its cadaver is presented and dissected with the help of vocational literature, films, poets, artists, and the military, it becomes abundantly clear that what Wershler-Henry presents in The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting is precisely that: fragmented. It seems to be one's only option if there is any hope of achieving an autopsy of not only the machine with the keyboard, but the social, political, artistic, and economic bodies that governed its use and obeyed (or disobeyed) its protocols.
By way of well-organized passages, the reader is gently and astutely guided through tunnels of typewriter lore, witness to everything from typing cockroaches to typewriters shaped like cockroaches. There are some hubs of dialogue amidst these typewriter factoids, though. Wershler-Henry pairs typewriting off with women, guns, sex, ergonomics, art, vampires, the truth, and, of course, literature. What we are left with is a network of sustainable arguments about typewriting's influence on the (Western) world as we know it.
While credence is given to other archivists of the typewriter as machine, Wershler-Henry notes often that their accounts are incomplete with regard to the larger picture. As is promised, the reader is taken into some "decidely odd corners of Western writing" in search of "moments when typewriting became a phenomenon in its own right," and when it "began to modify our behavior, our social structures, our very sense of ourselves" (35). We are introduced to such characters as scroll-writing, speed-popping Jack Kerouac, obsessive-compulsive motion photographer Frank Gilbreth, and cyberpunk netjournalist Spider Jerusalem. In these cases, fragmented does not mean indecipherable, and the author of this compilation seeks to provide a clear picture of "the outlines of the machine that produced typewriting" (286).
Much of this text aims at trying to make sense of the "thick smear of vaseline on the lens of [the] movie camera, blurring out objectivity" (25). This smear is what Frederic Jameson (1991), we are reminded, called "pastness," and what Wershler-Henry pinpoints as "nostalgia" (quoted by Wershler-Henry on p. 24). He doesn't pretend to be above such sentiment, admitting his own affection for a typewriter that sits at the top of his stairs unused. His choice of subject is certainly appropriate for its time: just as the personal computer has begun to overstay its welcome and typing is in the palm of the hand, the winding path of Wershler-Henry's observations serve as a word-processed eulogy for an estranged text-service relative.
On the subject of nostalgia, we should note that while among typewriting histories, The Iron Whim as a ghost story assumes its share of nostalgic delicacy, it also provides for itself a special exemption. It's discourse points to descriptions of the typewriter not as a self-contained mechanical device (that can be sold on eBay), but an assemblage that consists of human (or, in the case of Emile Borel's typing monkeys, at least mammal) bodies. It is impossible, Wershler-Henry demonstrates, to describe the history of the typewriter as the culmination of mere technical innovation.
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. The story of Vito Acconci is especially pertinent here; as a writer he focused on "occupying the page" with typed text. In an interview with Shelley Jackson (2006/2007), he describes an interesting transition from paper to performative space by way of the presence of a typewriter ("A situation Using Typewriter, Voice, Descriptions"). While he is but one example (see also John Baldessari, "The excesses of Austerity and Minimalism" (Loeffler and Tong, 1989, p. 34)), Acconci has relied heavily on written and spoken word throughout his career, and even now, as an architect, explores the materiality of language.
Perhaps it is my training as an artist, but the reason I grapple with the fact of the death of typewriting is that I still encounter it (and not necessarily its ghosts). Take for example an installation a New Urban Artists exhibition in May 2007. Attendees were invited to type on a salvaged typewriter the answer to the question: "Where would you be if you weren't here?" Though the forces of nostalgia are strong in this piece, it does not rely on ghosts to do the work; there is a living, breathing typewriter in the gallery.
Typewriting, while out of the loop, survives, like some obscure religion suppressed by the utter usefulness of the computer (to say nothing of the internet). I know for a fact there's a woman in Lincoln, Nebraska who sells typewriter parts and supplies out of her home. Louisiana State University requests that certain documents be typewritten, and will offer a list of typists for those who are unfortunate enough to be without the marvelous machines. That's more than nostalgia; that's functionality at work.
Near the end of his travels in typewriterland, Wershler-Henry gives us a brief run-down of the arguments concerning comparisons between typewriters (as machines) and computers. He concludes that the influence of the typewriter is actually quite minimal; the keyboard merely a convenient interface attached thirteen years after the computer's conception as a calculating device. I have to argue that point; after all, text is still the most reliable way to navigate the personal computer, whether as a lone machine or as part of a network. While computers have taken the arrangement of keys to new levels of functionality, it is not hard to see that the rock-solid QWERTY arrangement, developed for machines with iron whims, is still intact in plastic.
I don't want to complain too much about what this series of narratives Darren Wershler-Henry has skillfully arranged lacks; it is indeed a very compelling, inter-disciplinary account of a machine with a life, or at least in the case of this literary work, an epitaph, of its own. It is not hard to see evidence of cultural machicide; after all, I had the option of creating this document on a typewriter. I declined the clickity-clack rhythm and carriage bell melody in favor of a nearly silent series of plastic keys hovering neatly over a bed of circuitry with an iTunes playlist. Efficiency has even more pull these days than it did in typewriting's heyday, but that doesn't mean that me and my Sears Electric 12 don't have our finer moments.
Baldessari, John. The Excesses of Austerity and Minimalism. Film, 3 min. 1971.
Loeffler, Carl E. and Tong, Darlene. Performance Anthology: Source Book of California Performance Art. San Francisco: Last Gasp Publishing, 1989.
End of Year Art Party. Flickr stream. Updated 06/06/06.
Jackson, Shelley. "Shelley Jackson [AUTHOR] Talks With Vito Acconci [POET/ARTIST/ARCHITECT]." Believer, Vol. 4 No. 10, December 2006/January 2007.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Loeffler, Carl E. and Tong, Darlene. Performance Anthology: Source Book of California Performance Art. Last Gasp Publishing, 1989.
Adam Tourek is a Master of Fine Arts degree candidate in the Sculpture Area at Louisiana State University. His work focuses on collecting and rewriting cultural/communal memory through sculpture, performance, interactivity, and video. He is the proud owner of four typewriting machines in various states of functionality. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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