Wed Apr 27, 2005

Fetishizing the Text

A post over at the Valve asks, inter alia, “Do you compose on the computer? Why or why not? … Do you have a stationary and/or a pen fetish?” Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed chimes in with a column about his own writing habits:

The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two … all will be written there, in longhand. … My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. … In my own experience, though, writing is … a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. … So the penchant for haunting stationary stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.

The implication is that, unlike the printed page and the ink-filled pen (or mechanical pencil), composing prose on a computer is different—perhaps efficiency-enhancing but somehow also inferior—and, more importantly, not subject to fetishization in the way that the pen-and-ink method is. But a moment’s reflection shows this to be wrong. Or, in my case, far too much time spent getting manuscripts (scholarly apparatus, tables, figures, indexes and all) to produce themselves automatically and beautifully shows this to be wrong.

You can fetishize the computer as a writing instrument in two ways. The first springs from the efficiency impulse, as we might expect. The idea is that a lot of the tedium of composition can be automated, which leads one to spend far too much time figuring out ways to enhance your productivity, installing software to that end, upgrading it, resolving conflicts with other, very nearly compatible productivity-enhancing applications and so pleasanty whiling away the afternoon or week. In a clearer frame of mind I’ve pointed out that

You can do productive, maintainable and reproducible work with all kinds of different software set-ups. … There are many ways of implementing these principles. You could use Microsoft Word, Endnote and SPSS. Or Textpad and Stata. Or a pile of legal pads, a calculator, a pair of scissors and a box of file folders. It’s the principles that matter.

But the reverse is also true: any compositional medium is subject to fetishism. A fixation on being well-organized is not confined to computer users. The pen-and-paper method has had plenty of time to refine its objects of desire. Moleskine notebooks, hanging file folders with accordion pockets, Avery tabs, Post-its of just the right size and any number of other office products are the tangible manifestation of the mirage scientific self-management in the pen-and-paper world.

Efficiency aside, though, you might think that when it comes to sheer loveliness and aesthetic appeal, computers have nothing to compare to Mont Blanc pens and heavy cream paper and mahogany bureaus. The computer, in comparison, seems to bring only alienation from one’s own hand. Scott McLemee cites Roland Barthes in support of this idea:

“First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse,” said Barthes. It was a phase of copying down “certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me,” and of working out “the rhythm of a sentence” that gives shape to his own ideas. Only much later can the text be “prepared for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object” – a moment, according to Barthes, when the writing “is already beginning its commercialization.”

But this, too, is a mistake. The other way that the computer-as-writing-instrument can be fetishized is in its role as producer of the printed page. People who love pens and paper also tend to love beautiful books and well-designed type. But over at the Valve they are all English professors or Comp Lit grad students or what have you, so they use Microsoft Word for everything. Now, Word does have some virtues (Daniel will show up in the comments momentarily to enumerate them), but at bottom its main role is to produce ugly-looking text in a stupid and inefficient way. No wonder the literati abhor the clockwork muse, with the schlock they have to work with. They are unaware of the fact that computers can typeset text properly, and for cheap. Once you find this out—and see your own work treated by typesetting software with the immense respect it of course deserves—the door opens to a world of time-wasting fun that is at least as rewarding as hanging around in stationery and pen shops.

For instance, take this snippet from the first few pages [pdf] of my book, which I’m currently revising for publication. It’s just a draft, but I think that’s some pretty tasty typesetting and design, despite being the work of a complete amateur. (The layout, I mean: I do know something about the content.) At one level, taking the trouble to typeset your drafts like this is kind of a waste of time, in the same way as investing in an expensive pen rather than a biro is kind of a waste of money. You could get the job done more directly. But it wouldn’t look as good. Moreover, the scholarly apparatus you see in that snippet—such as the formatted references in the footnotes—basically generates itself. These features count for a lot when you’re working on something for a long time: they make you more willing both to keep looking at the damn thing, and more likely to make revisions to it. That’s a good thing if you ever want to get it finished.

The fancy pens and fine paper serve the same function, in the end. You like to use them, so you get in the habit. Some people don’t need these crutches. Give them a scrap of waste paper and a stubby HB pencil, or a twenty-year-old IBM PC Jr and WordStar, and they’re off and writing. Their existence proves that one doesn’t really need the Montblanc Meisterstuck Solitaie Doue (in your case) or the latest version of AUCTeX (in mine). We can all be jealous of those people and secretly hope that they desperately need something quite harmful instead, like gin. But us mere mortals all face the same empty page, whether it’s on a sheet of paper or a screen. Technological distinctions between us are invidious. It’s the added dimension the tools bring to writing, in whatever form, that help us produce anything at all.