In which we discreetly make it happen

Typewriting always begins with something telling someone what to write.

“Follow these instructions as though they were being dictated,” commands the first sentence on Ruth Ben’Ary’s famous textbook Touch Typing in Ten Lessons, written in 1945 but still in common use today. Ben’Ary’s command spells out one of the secret rules of typewriting: at some point, even a lone “generative” typist has to learn to type by following someone else’s dictation, without question. Sometimes a book or an instructional audiotape or a piece of software or even a half-assed personal notion of how to hunt-and-peck one’s way across a keyboard substitute for the stern voice of the high-school typing teacher. All of these possibilities amount to the same thing: someone or something, even if it’s just another part of ourselves, dictates to us, tells us what to write until we internalize and forget about it. Even then, the dictatorial voice that makes typewriting possible very often comes back to haunt the typist, after being split, stretched, twisted, and transmogrified into something uncanny and alien by the typist’s imagination. In other words, no one is ever alone at a typewriter.

What actually produces typewriting turns out to be a surprisingly variable assemblage of people and machines. From the relative beginnings of typewriting, this assemblage has consisted of three positions. There is a space for a dictator—the source of the words that are being typed. There is a space for a typewriter—that is, an actual writing machine. And there is a space for the person who is actually operating the machine—an amanuensis (“One who copies or writes from the dictation of another,” from the Latin for “hand servant” + “belonging to”). The problem is, it can be very difficult to determine who—or what—is occupying any of those positions at any given time.
In some cases, dictator and amanuensis can and do change positions, or a new dictator or amanuensis can take up where the previous one has left off, all without leaving any clues as to this occurrence in the typescript. The amanuensis can also change the dictator’s words, deliberately or accidentally. In any event, “I” and “you” create a typewritten document together, and from reading that document, it’s usually impossible to tell whose words ended up on the paper. Typewriting confuses you and I. In his analysis of Franz Kafka’s first typewritten letter, Friedrich Kittler spots twelve typos, over a third of which involved the German equivalents of “I” or “you,” leading Kittler to observe that it’s “as if the typing hand could inscribe everything except the two bodies on either end of the…channel.”

The above passages are from:

Darren Wershler [-Henry], The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 74-75.

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