Perhaps you’ve seen it. One of those instantly recognisable meme images, that neatly confirm our prejudices with a concise and tweet ready bon mot. The image shows a young man, trendily emaciated and nebbish, Brooklyn casual in navy and white stripped boaters, below his aquamarine shorts and Warby Parker goggles. He sits on a park bench, oblivious to his anachronism, pecking away at an analogue typewriter. ‘You’re not a real hipster’, the text smugly asserts, ‘until you take your typewriter to the park’.
Quoth another readily shared bon mot, ‘Christ what an asshole’.
As with so many pieces of received wisdom, this one is a primary source only about the beliefs of those who spread it. Look we say, as we reblog, tweet and post it to Facebook, ‘I spurn the ironic adoption of outmoded technologies, for I am unpretentious’. Unhappily for the hipster cliche, it turns out that our sartorially stereotyped analogue aficionado is in reality a writer ‘The Roving Typist’, making what must be an agonisingly modest living selling custom hand typed short stories, written one at a time.
I came of age, just as the typewriter was becoming obsolete. Say what you will about the destructive impact on concentration, artistry and erudition the computer hath wrought. For me, the spellchecker made writing possible. I remember the sinking feeling, just before my junior cert, on being instructed by a particularly pernicious crone, only ever to use words that I could spell. Well thats it, I thought. I’ll be handing up a blank English paper. I’m not actually dyslexic, the technical term is subclinical auditory working memory difficulties. But without the smooth forgiving inline recommendations of autocorrect, I’d be at sea with two es.
But that doesn’t make me immune to the allure of ageing technology – the pleasing hum of a vinyl record enticing you to listen all the way through. The pen gliding over paper, devoid of the distractions of the internet. Working with clay, or paint, in a tactile medium, making things that exist even when the power goes out.
The typewriter is something different, a tool that attained a mythology inseparable from it’s use. The iconic silhouette and the clammer of it’s chattering teeth are endlessly evocative – inseparable from the toiling writer, the sweating journalist, the bun mopped ladies of the secretarial pool. It is at once feminine and brutish. A tool which cracked open the workplace for women as it subjugated them into mere transcribers. As Friedrich Kittler, in his meditation on technological media ‘Gramophone Film Typewriter’, called the typewriter a ‘discursive machine gun’, ‘Typescript’ he wrote ‘amounts to the desexualization of writing, sacrificing its metaphysics and turning it into word processing.’
The permanence of typing, the ink spilled like blood, the trees felled and boiled to make the paper – has the quality of murder. Typing prose is a kind of creative destruction – connected to our colonisation of nature. The writer as a one man printing press, a wild egoist making permanent his thoughts. How strange that this machine, with it’s digital keys, engineered to bureaucratise and mechanise the act of writing, seems romantic to us. Will future generations eulogise the laptop, collecting battery heavy early models, propping them up on park benches to pay homage? I doubt it. There is something unique about mechanical machinery – something at once unearthly and comforting. The typewriter a beast that comes to life, only at our touch – magnifying our strength and dexterity. It is vulnerable to injury – clogging with paper, teeth knotting together. It hungers for ribbon.
It is not purely analogue. Florian Cramer in his essay ‘What is Post digital’ argues that the type writer, with it’s keys chopping information into ‘discrete units’ can be considered digital. And yet, each tap bears the mark of our fingers varying pressure. As a child I used to practice typing without ink. The slalom of my dancing fingers, marking the paper like footprints in snow. Hidden messages that could be uncovered like grave rubbings.
For some writers this physical connection, the hypnotic rhythm of words on paper, is a self conscious escape from the ferocious intangible. Words become real, only when spoken or written. And it’s here that the digital realm is a deadly peril. The computer lets us to reedit at a moments notice. The internet leaks endless accelerating accretions of material – reference and competition, distraction and response. So many voices, drowning out our own. So many screaming certainties, making certainty suspicious. The world becoming software dissolves our words.
The typewriter is a cathect, a storehouse for our feelings about the past. If the act of writing changes what is said, then writing on a machine purpose built and laden with history cannot help but shape our words. Taking the trouble to type, mastering the mechanical spider, binds our ideas in paper. A single vulnerable edition, peppered with human mistakes. A naturalised piece of the world, ready to blow away in a slapstick breeze. Perhaps it’s this image, the loose leaves of a novels single copy escaping it’s author, colliding comically with a street full of machinery, that captures something of the draw of the typewriter today. For a writer, the maelstrom of words which pours from the screens around us, can be overwhelming. A break is needed, a discontinuity, writing as retrograde amnesia. One word at a time.
Eric Satie – Parade – Performed by Griffyn Ensemble
Leroy Anderson – The Typewriter
Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle – Typewriter Tip Tip Tip
Liars – They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top – The Garden Was Crowded and Outside
Billy Fury – Gonna Type a Letter
Alicia Keys – Typewriter
Type of Music (featuring a typewriter) – Jon Brooks