Jacques Derrida: The Word Processor

From: Paper Machine, Standford University Press, 2005 (2001)

“Heidegger deplores the fact that even personal letters are now typewritten and that the singular trace of the signatory are no longer recognizable through the shapes of the letters and the movements of the hand. But when we write ‘by hand’ we are not in the time before technology; there is already instrumentality, regular reproduction, mechanical iterability. So it is not legitimate to contrast writing by hand and ‘mechanical’ writing, like a pretechnological craft as opposed to technology. And then on the other side what we call ‘typed’ writing is also ‘manual’.
You would like me to speak of my own experiences. Well, yes, like so many other people I have gone through this history, or I have let it come my way. I began by writing with a pen, and I remained faithful to pens for a long time (faith is the right word here), only transcriving ‘final versions’ on the machine, at the point of separating from them. The machine remains a signal of separation, of severance, the official sign of emancipation and departure for the public sphere. (…)
But I never concealed from myself the fact that, as in any ceremonial, there had to be repetition going on, and already a sort of mechanization. (…)
Then, to go on with the story, I wrote more and more ‘straight onto’ the machine: first the mechanical typewriter, then the electric typewriter, in 1979; the finally the computer, around 1986 or 1987. I can’t do without it any more now, this little Mac, especially when I’m working at home; I can’t even remember or understand how I was able to get on before without it. It’s a quite different kind of getting going, a quite different exercise of ‘getting to work’.”

“I don’t feel the interposition of the machine as a sort of progress in transparency, univocity, or easiness. Rather, we are participating in a partly new plot. Heidegger points out that the work of thinking is a handiwork, a Handlung, an ‘action’, prior to any opposition between practice and theory. Thought, in this sense, would be a Handlung, a ‘maneuver’, a ‘manner’, if not a manipulation. But is that a reason for protesting against the machine? Having recourse to the typewriter or computer doesn’t bypass the hand. It engages another hand, another ‘command’, so to speak, another induction, another injunction from body to hand and from hand to writing. (…) Ultimately it’s the hand we’re talking about (…) With mechanical or electrical writing machines, with word processors, the fingers are still operating; more and more of them are at work. It is true that they go about it in a different way. You do it more with the fingers – and with two hands rather than one. All that goes down, for some time to come, in a history of digitality.”

“I was very late in coming to this figure of ‘word processing’. I resisted for a long time. I thought I would never manage to submit to the rules of a machine that basically I understand nothing about. I know how to make it work (more or less) but i don’t know how it works. So I don’t know, I know less than ever ‘who it is’ who goes there. Not knowing, in this case, is a distinctive trait, one that does not apply with pens or with typewriters either. With pens and typewriters, you think you know how it works, how ‘it responds’. Whereas with computers, even if people know how to use them up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking – at any rate, I don’t know – how the internal demon of the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys. (…) this might give us plenty to think about with regard to our relationship with technology today – to the historical newness of this experience.”

“It’s a different kind of timing, a different rhythm. First of all you correct faster and in a more or less indefinite way. Previously, after a certain number of versions (corrections, erasures, cutting and pasting, Tippex), everything came to a halt – that was enough. Not that you thought the text was perfect, but after a certain period of metamorphosis, the process was interrupted. With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever. An interminable revision, an infinite analysis is already at the horizon, as though held in reserve behind the finite analysis of everything that makes a screen. At any rate it can be more intensely prolonged over the same time. During this same time you no longer retain the slightest visible or objective trace of corrections made the day before. (…) Previously, erasures and added words left a sort of scar on the paper or a visible image in the memory. There was a temporal resistance, a thickness in the duration of the erasure. But now everything negative is drowned, deleted; it evaporates immediately, sometimes from one instant to the next. (…)
All in all, it’s getting a bit too easy. Resistance – because ultimately, there’s always restistance – has changed in form. You have the feeling that now this resistance – meaning also the prompts and commands to change, to erase, to correct, to add, or to delete – is programmed or staged by a theater. The text is as if presented to us as a show, with no waiting.”


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