I apologize to my classmates as the first part of the blog post harkens back to reading from a week ago, but it only just occurred to me that this was a good forum to share this experience.
Last weekend I went home to visit my parents and came across this amazing collection above. We had just read “The Lost World of Colonial Handwriting” by Tamara Thornton in ENGL621, and so I was immediately struck by this letter written to my great, great aunt, Mrs. Davie Halloway Neill. The handwriting itself was compelling as I struggled to decipher each word, and I thought about what this script might tell me about the author and her relationship with my ancestor.
“Because handwriting revealed the self, what made handwriting important was the impression of the self it left with readers, and what made it good was the degree to which it faithfully represented the writer.”
Thornton writes about the concept, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that handwriting could tell the reader something about the writer’s occupation and character, and I found myself jumping to some conclusions about this writer as I delved into her letter. Immediately, I thought about our correspondence project and wanted to include this discovery in my first letter to my pen pal.
And here is where I started to really think about the affordances of handwriting, print, and digital texts. I wanted to “show” my pen pal this letter because there is a sense of immediacy in the handwritten text that you just don’t get from print text (and especially not from digital text). I could feel the paper, already yellowing from time, and see the little gentle curves of the writer’s script. There was something gentile about it, and I transferred this gentility onto the writer of long ago.
But then, I couldn’t possible risk sending this one-of-a-kind original letter through the mail! And so I thought better of it and, disappointed, chose to focus on another topic for my first correspondence. It was not until this morning, however, that I decided to write this blog post because it occurred to me that while the immediacy of handwriting might be lacking in digital text, digital text has other affordances that the original does not. Namely, the ability to provide both visual and textual media that can be both convenient and powerful, yet allow us to preserve fragile texts that might otherwise not stand the test of time.
“Our culture conceives of each medium or constellation of media as it responds to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms historical progression, of newer media remediating older ones and in particular of digital media remediating their predecessors.”
(Bolter and Grusin 55)
So I got out my cell phone and began creating a few examples of remediated texts. Above you have a photograph of a photograph housed on this webpage. There is also a photograph of a news print that includes a printed reproduction of a hand-drawn representation of an original tombstone (in and of itself an original text). Lastly, there is a photograph of the handwritten letter. Wow! So many different levels of remediation, I don’t even no where to start. Ultimately, however, I’m thankful for the affordances that digital technology allows us in terms of literacy. While it is not the same as actually holding that original letter in my hand, it allows me to share with a much larger audience something that was really amazing and personal in the moment.
“But ours is a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history, and in this genealogy, older media can also remediate newer ones.”
(Bolter and Grusin 55)
And so I was left with this really powerful experience that really required all levels of media, text, and materiality. Without the original handwritten letter, I would not have felt the immediate connection with the original composer. Pashaw, Plato!… Rather than this writing distancing me with its inability to respond to my questions, instead it sparked a curiosity about the writer that would never have existed without the technology of writing. And without the affordances of digital texts, I would not have shared it with those of you reading this post. So this nonlinear history of texts has served me well.
“When we write with cutting-edge tools, it is easy to forget whether it consists of energized particles on a screen or ink embedded in paper or lines gouged in clay tablets, writing itself is always first and foremost a technology, a way of engineering a materials in order to accomplish an end.”
And so I am compelled to turn to Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels.” This text embodies for me what we should be doing with our assumptions about literacy, texts, and materiality. We should be questioning those notions that we assume to be true for many of those “truths” can be revealed as misconceptions. For example, I was surprised to learn that, historically, writing has not always been a trusted mode of communication. Baron expresses how “questions of validity came up because writing was indeed being used to perpetuate fraud” while “spoken language was easily corroborated” (Baron 76). We must always continue to question what we “know” to be true.
Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook, by Ellen Cushman, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 70–84.
Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2003.
“Notepad with Script.” Blick.com, twitter.com/blick_art/status/955826684732768256.
Thornton, Tamara. “The Lost World of Colonial Handwriting.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook, by Ellen Cushman, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 52–69.
“Various Writing Materials.” Teacher Link, teacherlink.ed.usu.edu/tlnasa/reference/ImagineDVD/Files/au/overview.html.