The other day I began reading Darren Wershler(-Henry)’s The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but it’s an interesting book, about the history of the typewriter and typewriting, about how our relationship with the machine has changed the way that we represent and think about writing, as well as the way that we actually write. Or wrote, because now we are in the midst of a related, yet new, discourse on writing and writing machines.
One of the main reasons that I am interested in this book particularly (besides my general interest in Wershler’s work and these kinds of discursive histories more generally) is that typewriting provided me, many years ago, with the seeds of the idea for using processes that I now call hand-mechanical. A hand-mechanical process is any method that stands or slides between the rigidity of machine control and the variation of the human hand. I tend to think these techniques mostly in terms of printing and bookmaking, and indeed, print(mak)ing naturally carries these kind of soft, repetitive processes at its core. Some examples: setting lead type by hand, inking & wiping litho stones and etching plates, pulling sheets of paper from the vat, pulling a squeegee across a screen to force the ink through the stencil. All of these things, done over and over again, each time the same, each time a little different. The hand-mechanical is repetitive.
Drawing and painting can be hand-mechanical as well. Drawing/painting through stencils, or with guides, or tape, or a pre-determined composition (Frank Stella, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, coloring books, paint by number, Andy Warhol). Knitting and crocheting are hand-mechanical, forming a larger structure through a network of small movements. The hand-mechanical tends toward compositions that are planned out beforehand.
Writing is always somehow bound to the physical processes that enact it, and thus writing is always, to a degree, hand-mechanical. The very act of typing or writing out by hand the same 26 letters in different forms and combinations, according to pre-determined conventions (whether the author’s own or the culture’s) is a hand-mechanical activity. To write is to engage the hand, the body, with multiple technologies. When we are composing as we write (like I am now) the physicality of the activity moves to the background of our consciousness. When we are not composing, but still writing (like when we have to retype a handwritten document, or in the “uncreative writing” of Kenneth Goldsmith) the physicality of the activity becomes foregrounded, and we see ourselves as bound to the machine and the activity that it produces. The hand-mechanical occurs when a human being and a machine create as an assemblage, as a larger, creaking, organic and deliriously imperfect, machine.
Almost everything we do, now, in a techno-logical society, is to a certain degree, hand-mechanical. As long as our activities are tied to the movement of our bodies, we are caught in the machine. Naming, locating, and outlining the hand-mechanical as an approach to creative practice will let us begin to see how that machine works.