The hand-mechanical is anti-spectacular and anti-heroic.
A little over a month ago now Darren Wershler came to Colorado College as a visiting lecturer for the Press. (His visit was what led me to reading his book on typewriting and typewriters, The Iron Whim, mentioned in a previous “Machined” post.) Before his visit we had done a broadside with him, a broadside that relied on delamination, so the hand-mechanical was very much on my mind during his visit. On the second day of his visit, Darren did a workshop/discussion/lecture with a group of students (and a few faculty & staff), and in that discussion he mentioned Kenneth Goldsmith and his piece Day, where he re-produced a particular issue of The New York Times.

I had always been under the impression that Goldsmith had physically retyped the newspaper. But according to Darren (a friend of Goldsmith’s) he did not. Goldsmith began by retyping the newspaper, and after doing that for a while, he decided to scan and OCR (optical character recognition, to convert the scanned image to malleable text) them. When Darren first disclosed that fact, I was, I admit, shocked. The mythology of that piece, and thus of Goldsmith’s work in general, was shattered. This was particularly disappointing because I had been thinking, for a while now, at least since the writing of the first iteration of The New Manifesto..., of Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” practice as a writerly example/precedent for the hand-mechanical.

This massive, interior deflation of mine occurred in about one second. Then the whole thing changed completely, because Darren when on to say something more, telling how Goldsmith thought that the act of typing the newspaper was too heroic, that it was the sort of thing that he could do in a gallery window, that the typing became a kind of performance that focused on his (heroic/nostalgic because of the typewriter) labor. But if he scanned them, then what he was doing wasn’t special, wasn’t heroic. He was replicating the way that written documents are converted to digital text every day, by the assembly line workers of the information economy.

One could make the argument that Goldsmith was not concerned about the “heroism” of his typing, that what he was concerned with was the amount of time-energy that it was going to take, and that he switched methods because he got lazy. One could make that argument. But we’re not interested in that argument, because the idea of the implied heroism of a process, or of its display, has helped me to articulate what I think is an important aspect of the hand-mechanical:

The hand-mechanical is anti-spectacular and anti-heroic.

(I did retype that sentence, instead of copying/pasting, but you would never know, nor should you ever believe me, here, here, in the realm of seamless replication.)

The hand-mechanical is, at least in my formulation of it, “monkish business.” These processes are quiet, disciplined, meditative, and are, to a large degree, hidden. Hidden not for secrecy, but for humility, to keep the process a process willingly undertaken, and to avoid the pitfall, the temptation, of performing the process. The process must, at all costs, be kept from becoming an image, from passing into a stable, transferable, and consumable representation. The process must repetitively dismantle and destroy any image of itself. The process must be thoroughly infused into the facts and factitiousness of the object as an object. The process must be a thing done, in time, a task completed and here, here, in the object that is in the reader’s hands.

This is getting difficult, now, because the process must also be an image of itself unfolding, an image that is transferable to the reader, so that they can, potentially, enact it themselves, or at least understand it, or at least destroy it, themselves.

So the image must exist. But its meaning must be precise. How is precision in meaning possible in a system with multiple inputs and outputs? How is exactness in meaning justifiable in a system that is claimed to be open? How can I, writing about this process, try to simultaneously dissolve and solidify my position of authority? Is that the game of the hand-mechanical?

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