Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Handwriting in the Digital Era

Decades ago, when I would receive grades for handwriting in school, my handwriting was perfect and clear. When the grading ceased, it slipped a bit. As I began to rely more and more on word processing, my handwriting deteriorated again. Now, when my daughter watches me sign my name, she remarks that it looks like the product of someone who is having a stroke.

We recognize that handwriting still persists in the writing of personal letters, diaries, on Post-It notes, with calligraphy, and that it probably will never disappear, but we also understand that it is continuously adjusting to new cultural shifts, as depicted in a collection of essays edited by Sonja Neef, José van Dijck, and Eric Ketelaar and published as Sign Here! Handwriting in the Age of New Media (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006, ISBN-12: 978-90-5356-816-3. As the editors write, “Handwriting . . . has never disappeared in the wake of new technologies, but has always adjusted its use and meaning in the face of larger technological, social, and cultural transformations. It is therefore hard to believe that handwriting will vanish, as long as its technologies are intimately tied to particular cultural practices and forms that are continued in the present” (p. 8). The essays are grouped into three themes, considering the issues of handwriting and authenticity, remediation, and (dis)embodiment.

Throughout the various essays we find intriguing comments on handwriting. In an essay by Sonja Neef, comparing the genuine Anne Frank diaries to the forged diaries of Adolf Hitler, we learn about how the archive is used as a foundation for authenticity and authority, how handwriting is examined, and how the interest in Hitler’s diaries was not because of historical content but from a desire for his handwriting. Looking at the Frank diary on display in her house museum in Amsterdam, Neef provides this fascinating discourse about the nature of the diary: “Its materiality physically strikes us. It turns the writing from a sober speech act into a tender whisper, as if the author speaks to us personally, murmuring her secrets into our ears exclusively. Handwriting, here, makes a difference, because it does not only inform us, but affects us. Paradoxically enough, this touch – although sensational and corporeal – is not indulged by material authenticity alone, because the diary in the case is, strictly speaking, not identical to the one manufactured by Anne Frank. As a material object, it is subject to time and to dilapidation; its constitution is different than it was 60 years ago. This is precisely why two perfect facsimile copies were manufactured. What needs to be preserved is, indeed, the physical touch indulged by the original diary for when it is no longer there” (p. 42).

John Mackenzie Owen, considering digital media and authenticity in scientific communication, believes that the “culture of handwriting has disappeared” because of the need for multiplication and its required technical support. This “isolates” us from the “authentic expression that handwriting can be considered to be.” Another reason for the end of handwriting is the “objectivity required by the modern scientific enterprise, which can only be achieved through the centralized, standardized, and certified procedures developed over the centuries by scholarly publishers” (p. 71). José van Dijck contributes a number of insights with his comparative analysis of diaries and blogs. First, she indicates that “handwritten diaries are material artifacts that are themselves memorials – traces of a past self. Memory, in other words, is always implicated in the act and technology of writing” (p. 119). How is this different from diaries written with the aid of a word processor? The computer “provides an intrinsic textual paintbrush with which to edit one’s personal records. The potential of digital editing at a later stage diluted the concept of the diary as a material, ‘authentic’ artifact, inscribed in time and on paper” (p. 119). And where does the weblog fit in, with its capacity for including pictures, music, links, video clips, and an anonymous readership? “The digital success of the diary is as polymorphous as its paper precursor, and, yet, when researching the new functions and forms of diary writing in the digital era, the old typology of the diary in terms of content and directionality still often informs the epistemology of the weblog” (p. 123).

Other essays cover such subjects as the identity of signatures and the efforts to find a signature substitute in the digital sphere, the formation of an archive, reading the manuscripts of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the use of signatures in movie and television productions, the use of fingerprints, blood, and signatures in art, and bodily tattoos.

There are a few other comments worth making about this book. First, this is another indicator of the growing number of disciplines, outside the immediate archives community, exploring the nature of archives and archiving (read Ketelaar’s essay on writing machines in this volume for a sense of how the scholarship on the archive and archiving is growing, widening, deepening, and becoming more complex). Contributors include art scholars and artists, and experts on law, media studies, literary studies, linguistics, archives (just one, Eric Ketelaar), information science, and film. Second, many of the essays are deeply theoretical and quite dense, some reflecting what critics have complained of in facing the dense academic writing style that cuts off a broad readership’s benefits. If one can wade through the essays, they will walk away with some profoundly interesting new ideas about digital writing and recording and the notion of the archive, but this is also a volume directed toward other literary and cultural studies academics rather than toward archivists (although some archivists undoubtedly have no problem with such scholarly writing) or the public which is becoming increasingly interested in the notion of personal and other archives. As a final note, I want to mention the beautiful design and printing of the book. It uses as chapter dividers and subheads handwriting facsimiles and each essay is signed off with the author(s) signature facsimile. The book is attractive enough that I hesitated to write in it, until I realized how counter-intuitive it would be to restrain myself.