This post is in response to Stella’s post from last Friday.  It is not an argument against anything that Stella wrote, but I was inspired by the subject and some of the comments.

Before I go on any further, I should tell you that I’m actually writing this post as a spoken piece which is being transcribed, or has been transcribed, I should say, so that is why there is sort of an extreme conversational tone to this post.  So I just wanted to give you the heads up as the reader that that’s actually what’s going on right now as I’m writing this post.  I guess “writing” needs to be in quotes.

Um, so this post is about the idea of handwriting or handwritten letters versus the idea of digitally represented letters, the kind that you’re reading right now (By letters, I mean a, b, c, and so on, not “Dear Blanche,. . .”).  Again, this post is not intended to be an argument against any of the points that Stella brought up on Friday. . . This post is more about the questions that I think need to be answered when it comes to the idea of handwriting and the representations of words and thoughts via a handwritten letter or manuscript versus the communication that takes place via digitally represented letters and words like the ones that you’re reading now on your computer screen.

The reason that I think this idea is interesting sort of goes back to some thoughts I had a few years ago about conceptual art.  Really, my thoughts were based on this idea that if conceptual art is really based on the idea itself or the concept, then we are actually moving away from the purity of the art when the conceptual piece is actually manufactured as an artifact because we lose the connection to the concept.  We use different senses than we might if we were just told about the concept or if we read about the concept.

So when we’re actually viewing a piece of conceptual art, we are sort of removed by at least one step from the concept itself.  So again, in my opinion, there’s a loss of the communication between the artist and the viewer of the purity of the concept.  Or the purity of the concept is clouded through the production of an artifact.

Another thing, or the reason I think this is an important point to bring up, and I’ve had this conversation before, when we talk about the idea of the death of the handwritten note or the handwritten letter, we often talk about this idea of there being a degree of intimacy lost in the communication when it comes to the handwritten letter versus a digitally manufactured and digitally delivered letter, say an email or an instant message or a text.

So if the point of a letter, a handwritten letter, is intimacy of communication, then the ultimate question is whether handwritten letters bring us a greater intimacy or a more intimate experience than digitally manufactured letters do.  And I would actually argue that this is not the case.  Or, I would at least argue that it is not exactly the case.

Okay.  So I would like to discuss very briefly the idea or the experience of a handwritten letter. Really, it has 3 parts.  A person writes it, a little time passes and it is delivered by someone else as time is passing, and finally the intended recipient reads the letter.  That’s you or me, the one who gets the letter.  Now the recipient, because what we’re talking about here is really the recipient, right? The person who’s reading the handwritten letter or is reading words that are represented on a computer screen. The recipient experiences a large degree of intimacy in a handwritten letter, but I argue that this is completely self-manufactured intimacy.  It must be so since the letter’s author is likely off somewhere else experiencing thoughts and emotions that are nowhere near connected to those that he or she was experiencing when he actually wrote the letter.  So the intimacy that the recipient of the letter is feeling is a one-way street.  Likely, probably, a one-way street. Again, the person who wrote the letter might be at work, might be stuck in traffic, might be writing a letter to someone else and is likely not feeling those feelings at that moment that he or she was when he or she wrote the letter.

So I would argue that what we are feeling in reality, the intimacy that we are feeling is really a connection to the letter itself, the physical object, not to the person who wrote it. In other words, it is the physical object or as I said the letter itself and not the pure experience of the letters’ contents.

Now the letter’s contents essentially are the feelings and thoughts that the person who wrote it was having at the time that they wrote it.  And you are removed from that experience by holding a letter in your hand. You’re thinking about their handwriting, you’re imagining what that person looked like when they wrote it maybe, what the expression on their face was, what time of day it was, what the light maybe was like in the room whwn they wrote it, or what the room itself looked like.  But you’re moved away from the actual words of the letter itself or the contents of the letter. The communication. Because that what letters are, right, they are supposed to be communication and in this case they’re supposed to be intimate communication.  Because that’s really what we’re talking about here.

So going back to the example that I brought up earlier of conceptual art, remember if it is the art, rather if the concept that is the art then the artifact works to move the viewer farther away from the art itself.  The viewer is experiencing a sensory reaction to an object, not an experience based purely on the concept.

Okay. Now let’s look at digital forms of communication.   The letters that you are seeing on your computer screen do not actually exist. They are, in fact, created by chains of zeroes and ones, or, more technically, they are created through tiny switches either being switched on or switched off.  In other words, unless you print this post they are not letters at all, but you are reading them as if they were.

So this leads to the obvious question: does it necessarily mean that the reader is somehow experiencing a purer communication via a computer screen than she or he would through a written letter?

If you have been following along so far, then the answer is yes.  This is because you are likely sitting in the same spot and looking at the same screen upon which you calculate your taxes, send emails, do instant messaging, and read or visit any number of websites.  So what I’m getting at is that you reading this post is not, physically speaking, a unique experience. You are not holding a handwritten, one-of-a-kind piece of paper. So you can experience a less removed understanding of my concepts.  Or a purer understanding of my concepts.

Another reason that I’d argue that the digital version of communication brings a greater degree of intimacy is based on the time factor. If a greater degree of intimacy is achieved when two or more people are communicating in real time, then it makes sense that instant messaging or texting is without a doubt a purer form of intimate  communication. In other words, you’re experiencing the joy; you are LOLing, as it were, while the other person is likely LOLing and whatnot.

So as we lament the death of handwriting, I further suggest that we consider what it actually is.  It actually is simply a form of communication that at one time was a technological miracle, much the same as our contemporary technological miracles.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that as we move farther away from the tradition of handwriting manuscripts, letters, and notes, I’m sure it will make momentary resurgences among the youth, much the same way that knitting or gardening has and will continue to do so in a cyclical fashion.

Finally I would argue that we have certainly created a wonderful community around the digital representation of letters through The Great Whatsit. Remember all the feelings that you’ve had, all the connections that you’ve had to all the other authors in the Great Whatsit community; you’ve never seen, or you’ve likely never seen, handwritten versions of our posts, even if posts were written on notebooks as some are–I know that I’ve written a couple in longhand–but really what you’re reading are just  digital representations of letters, not actual letters themselves. The end.

15 responses to “Post”

  1. Dave says:

    Love this, but I must pick a fight with your ontology. “The letters that you are seeing on your computer screen do not actually exist.” Really? They’re just things that LOOK EXACTLY LIKE LETTERS BUT SOMEHOW AREN’T LETTERS? Isn’t the most important characteristic of a letter, in fact usually the dispositive distinguishing characteristic of a letter, that it is legible as a letter by human beings using a particular language?

  2. SG says:

    Yes, I’d say that what I’m typing, and what you’re reading passes the communication test (i.e., that you see them as letters), but the reality that they no longer exist when your computer is turned off calls into question the idea of letters as potentially fleeting symbols vs. the idea of letters as something more lasting. If the definition of letters is simply, that they communicate a language, then you’re right. If they are intended to be more lasting, then I’m closer to being correct.

    You make a good point, but say the electrical grid were to completely fail, are we comfortable with a definition of letters that makes them so tenuous? But I guess you could say that if there was a massive fire that destroyed all printed literature…

    As for an important characteristic of a letter being its legibility, is a letter any less if written by someone who doesn’t have good penmanship skills? Or is the defenition of communication that letters need to fall into an exact order for the communication to have taken place? My spelling of “defenition” disproves this.

    Maybe the real test, because we’re talking about letters losing their value if they are fleeting, would be the question of whether or not a letter written in the air with a finger is a letter. If I swished an “S” through the air, is is actually a letter S or a faximele of a letter S? (A representation of a representation?) If the swish is a letter, then what we see on a computer screen is also a letter, but if not, then maybe the opposite.

    But what of the idea of fading ink or decomposing paper? So all letters are ultimately fleeting. Interesting.

    Hmm, these are big questions, and the discussion of such makes me love you more…that much is certain.

  3. LP says:

    Scotty, I have sent you a comment via telepathy, to make it as intimate and real-time as possible. This e-comment is just to let the rest of you know. I’m also sending a handwritten letter by carrier pigeon to Pandora, because among all of you, I have the most faith in her ability to feed and take care of the pigeon, perhaps with a sock-monkey-style little sweater.

  4. SG says:

    Does your T-comment say that you’re a class A wisenheimer?

  5. LP says:

    Wow! You received it perfectly!

  6. A White Bear says:

    I agree that written communication creates an order of distance from the thing being communicated, which causes a sense of intimacy with the object rather than with the ideas therein. I think the thing some people miss about handwritten communication is the physical intimacy it records. We can see where the author wrote quickly or slowly, where tears might have fallen or where a coffee cup rested in the corner. When I was 18, I sent a book to a lover that had in it a fingernail I’d been cutting while reading it; he was more thrilled by the accidental presence of a part of my body than with the book itself. The accidents of physical objects bring us closer.

    I have had deeply emotional experiences with email, text, blog, FB, etc., that have brought me so much closer to people, and even introduced me to people who, like Dave, have become my closest friends. I’ll always treasure an English woman who liked my old blog so much that when I was going through a hard breakup, sent me some DVDs of movies she thought might cheer me up. We have met since then and discovered that the intimacy we had in that medium was very real; we were instantly “real” friends. But digital communication does, I think, allow for the possibility of a much larger range of emotional responses. I have to confront the intimacy of a letter that, if it had been an email, I could discount or ignore.

    From a compositional standpoint, I find that handwriting causes me to think more slowly than typing. I write different kinds of sentences. And I also enjoy the artistry of handwriting. But is it always more intimate than the things I type? Of course not. I do think that handwriting, especially in the context of digital communication, demands a kind of attention and consideration that typing does not always result in.

  7. Tim says:

    Scotty, I really liked this. I’m still thinking of what to say in response. I may have to write it in a card and mail it to you, along with some keepsakes. Wait! I know what I wanted to say.

    I agree with your argument here, but only if we confine “communication” to “information” stripped of almost everything extraneous and limited to the “factual”. I would argue, however, that the “extras” (where and how the recipient reads — some call these “extra-textual factors”) are a real and valid part of communication as lived experience. It makes a difference to people when, where, and how they consume texts. Context and method of delivery become part of meaning. Yes, it can be argued that much of this meaning is either somehow conjured up by the recipient, whether through preference, wild imagination, and/or random elements that occur at the time of textual consumption (listening to a song on an mp3 versus on a scratchy old 45; that it happened to be raining while someone reads a particular poem; etc.).

    Communication, however, is never pure and never can be. That is the base of your argument (that conceptual art, once made physical cannot be the same as the concept). Communication cannot be stripped of the extra-textual. Reading must be done in some fashion, whether on a screen, from a newspaper, or off a handwritten page. Further, the extra-textual always in some way alters meaning, whether the reader is conscious of it or not.

    The significance of a handwritten letter for many people has to do with the element of effort, especially in this age of electronic communication. That someone takes the time to to write his or her thoughts out carefully, perhaps even going through multiple drafts, etc., imparts to the reader a sense of care that an email (that, ironically, might actually be even more well thought out and crafted) does not. Furthermore, a handwritten letter provides a memento, something by which that person can be remembered, especially when he or she is far away or even gone forever.

    That meaning, while extraneous to what you consider here to be “communication”, still has something to do with what the reader “gets out of” the letter, and that has a certain significance. The selection of conveyance (carrier pigeon, chalk on a sidewalk, tattoo on a forearm, etc.) signifies in the meaning of a message, even if the words are identical. The words may not be different, but these messages mean different things.

    Do I make myself clear?

  8. SG says:

    Thanks for this comment, Timo. This is why I love hanging out with PHDs. Who would’ve guessed that a slob like me would be privy to the term “extra-textual factors.” In fact, you all do make some really excellent points. I guess I’m just hung up on the mode of communication muddling up the communication itself. But I do see your point — believe me, I like a keepsake just as much as the next guy.

    I don’t necessarily buy that handwriting a letter takes much more effort than sending an email, and maybe this is the point that my post is sort of based on, and maybe where my post has a fatal flaw: the fact that a handwritten letter communicates a whole extra dimension of intent than an email, what you refer to as “extra-textual factors.” So, the point is that communication of a non-textual sort can only take place when these other factors are present? Interesting, so I guess the medium is still the message…

    But I do think I come up with some pretty interesting (if not airtight) arguments.

  9. SG says:

    I sure do like you all!

  10. SG says:

    Digital or analogue.

  11. PB says:

    OK – almost to prove your point as to timing, I am catching up on TGW, started with Stella’s post, made an ooey, gooey comment all loving the handwriting and then got here and am rethinking it all in less than an hour (faster than if I have been waiting for your letters).

    I am thinking about several things in no clever order – I am facinated that you “wrote” this by dictating and how it reads differently. It reminds me of slam poetry, words written to speak, or spoken with no intention of writing. As a person who is far more confident writing than speaking and because of this lack of confidence am in love with the cadence and sound of the spoken voice, I love the “sound” of this post.

    I am also thinking about this relationship of the artifact and the concept – and Tim’s comment. I wonder if instead of artifact we can say evidence. Evidence that something exists, someone exists. At one point I copied, pasted, saved and printed all my posts. Hubris? A complete disreguard for all things green? I think maybe I just wanted to know that they exist, that the effort was real. I worry that in a power shortage my voice will disappear? I look at my crazy handwritten journals from childhood and I think, there I am. I can’t remember it but it still happened. See, I have the words on the paper.

    But you are so right in the evolution of how we communicate and staying relevant to what works best in any given era. I love to email, instant message, read streaming feeds and follow blogs. I love the immediacy. I love the clarity. I have a friend with illegible handwriting and when she gives me a note I always have this panic attack because I can’t read them and I worry I will insult her with a blank stare. What good is this in a world where she could text and save us all the trouble?

    Wow, this was provocative because in my heart I am still in Stella’s Kells Camp, but in my mind . . .

    And LP, I have made several outfits for the pigeon, including a little cowboy hat and cordoroy coulotte’s like Kim Darby’s Maddy’s in True Grit. The pigeon likes MB’s cocktails as well.

  12. LP says:

    Now I am jealous of the pigeon.

  13. SG says:

    Enough with the pigeon all ready!

  14. The pigeon says:

    I love you, Scotty.

  15. SG says:

    I’m sorry that I spoke ill of you little pigeon. I love you too.