Completely familiar, absolutely revolutionary - Part 1

by Thomas Wagner | 9/22/2016
"Cutting and Holding a Quill" ex: Johann Stäps: Selbstlehrende Canzleymäßige Schreibe-Kunst, (Leipzig, 1784). Photo © Das Archiv. Magazin für Post- und Telekommunikationsgeschichte.

“Coarse writing,” murmured Holmes. “Surely this is not your husband’s writing, madam.” “No, but the enclosure is.” “I perceive also that whoever addressed the envelope had to go and inquire as to the address.” “How can you tell that?”“The name, you see, is in perfectly black ink, which has dried itself. The rest is of the grayish colour, which shows that blotting-paper has been used. If it had been written straight off, and then blotted, none would be of a deep black shade. This man has written the name, and there has then been a pause before he wrote the address, which can only mean that he was not familiar with it. It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “The Man With The Twisted Lip

A hangover from more Romantic days

Coarse writing? Who even writes by hand today? And blotting paper, no, it’s been ages since anyone used it. Maybe some will still know it from school. While master sleuth Sherlock Holmes still concerned himself with the different degrees to which black ink dried, in today’s TV series the lead detectives on the case invariably have the forensics experts analyze hard drives or mobile phones. In fact, the faith in progress declares loud and clear: Anyone writing by hand today is an antique!

Exceptions prove the rule: Anyone wishing to place a personal line beneath the printed Christmas card greeting or to tell friends and relatives that a child has been born will tend to take a pen in hand rather than a cheap biro; and when that personal touch, a sense of quality, are required, people like to write by hand. At least a “handwritten” signature seems to still be indispensable as proof of identity and authenticity – more or less, as the signatures made by automats, the growing number of electronic signatures and those on officious documents show – which declare to the recipient straight up that they were produced automatically and intentionally do not include a signature by hand. And although teachers, linguists, ergo-therapists and researchers into writing bring good arguments to bear in expressly emphasizing the immense importance of learning to write, where children not only acquire and train important refined motor skills but also learn to express themselves, handwriting seems by no means to now be at home in the present world. It is no coincidence that this text was written using a keyboard and a word processing program on a latest-generation computer – although the original notes were jotted down on bits of paper using various different pens.

So is it really true? Is not only hand-writing being suppressed, squeezed onto the margins and into a niche existence, but the danger of its complete disappearance now with us? And what about alphabetized writing in general? What are the trends that will influence the fate of both? What are the preconditions for them? And what consequences can we expect to see if in future we do indeed only type, swish and click?

“Lamy 2000” pen, design: Gerd A. Müller. Photo © Lamy

“Fountain pen, a good fountain pen is something quite special. Down through the years it adapts to its writer. If at the beginning the nib scratched the paper, over time and through use it becomes more plaint, writing morphs from being an ordeal to being a great deal.”                    

Andrea Maria Schenkel

The flow of writing and productivity

The gradual transition from ordeal to fund deal that the above writer mentions is more than an act of becoming accustomed to something. Writing with a fountain pen is not without its own special feel. The fountain pen with its nib radiates authenticity. The entire process has something magical about it. Or do we only imagine this as we now only rarely actually own fountain pens? When did you last write with a fountain pen, to this day the noblest of writing implements? Only recently? Then you will no doubt know the feeling when the eye, the brain and the hand meld in the fluid movement of the pen and the small piece of metal that exudes the ink, softly and almost without touching, free and yet controlled, moves across the seemingly infinite expanse of the empty white sheet of paper, sailing away like a ship tacking close to the wind and laden down with thoughts. In such moments the mind and body blend, as do the hand and script, the individual and the language system, combining in exhilarating fashion into an articulated flow. Of course, this does not happen every day of the week. Yet the act of writing remains an event that needs to be construed as being bound up with the material properties of the writing implements. Why else was Georg Christoph Lichtenberg – in an age when the quill and the inkpot were the standard tools – able to note: “It may sound risible, but it is true: If you want to write something good, you need a good quill, mainly one that writes easily without your needing to apply much pressure.” [1]

Logo “Thinking Tools”. Drawing © Christoph Niemann for C. Joseph Lamy GmbH

Not only those of you who have a good quill or a good fountain pen when writing will have noticed: While writing it is not just about the use of some random tool. Sure, other writing utensils such as pencils, biros or ballpoints, and equally typewriters or computers as word processing machines, influence in their own way how we write and shape our writing. A “fountain pen” evidently does so in an especially intense manner. Not without reason do writers often resort to a cunning trick in their use of writing utensils in order to keep their thoughts and words flowing, “as they seek to overcome the resistance that these put up to their creative, if not somnambulist will.” [2] Novelist and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot even went so far as to suggest the movement of the hand when writing “was a form of productivity located in the ‘shadow’ of consciousness.” [3] Blanchot was of the opinion that at this level of writing the focus was not even about communicating something in particular. Rather, the movement of the hand was an indication of a form of nameless productivity that can be controlled neither economically nor semantically, neither in terms of output nor as regards meaning.[4]  This is evidently part and parcel of writing, too: When one writes, one “makes oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking.” [5] In other words, the writing continues even when we pause with the pen, however obscure that may seem at first to be.

“AL-star” pen, design: Wolfgang Fabian. Photo © Lamy

Paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, who has studied the evolution of technology, language and art, [6] has found out that as regards symbols and words, back in pre-historic times, something abstract always corresponds to ever more nuanced cerebral requirements as the motor skills of expression progressively refine. [7] In the early days of human evolution two languages thus arose from one and the same source: “Although the interplay between the two poles of figurative representation between the auditive and the visual-changed considerably with the adoption of phonetic scripts, the individual's capacity to visualize the verbal and the graphic remained intact.” [8] The graphic expression of language, as here the idea is similar to that proposed by Maurice Blanchot, represents the dimension of the ineffable. Without a means of expression, humans’ real situation in a cosmos could not be grasped and writing “restores humans to their true place in a cosmos whose center they occupy without trying to pierce it by an intellectual process which letters have strung out in a needle-sharp, but also needle-thin, line.” [9] This line has an immense reach, is needle-sharp and needle-thin – it is hard to put what script means more succinctly. Hand and writing utensil, united in rhythmic motion, have thus since prehistoric times generated the framework for the first system of notation. Since then, or so philosopher Vilém Flusser suggests, the writer presses “the letters, these dead letters, against the living body of language in order to suck the life out of it, and suddenly these vampire adopt an adventurous life of their own beneath his very fingers.” [10]

[1] Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher 2, H 129, in: his Schriften u. Briefe, vol. 2, ed. Wolfgang Promies, (Munich & Vienna, 1971), p. 194.
[2] Martin Stingelin, “’Unser Schreibzeug arbeitet mit an unseren Gedanken’, Die poetologische Reflexion der Schreibwerkzeuge bei Georg Christoph Lichtenberg und Friedrich Nietzsche,” in: Sandro Zanetti, Schreiben als Kulturtechnik, (Suhrkamp: Berlin, 2012), p. 284.
[3] Sandro Zanetti, Schreiben als Kulturtechnik, introduction, (Berlin, 2012), p. 17.
[4] See ibid.
[5] Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude,” in: The Space of Literature, tr. A. Smock, (Univ of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1982), p. 27.
[6] André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: MIT Press, 1993).
[7] See ibid., p. 190: “The earliest known paintings do not represent a hunt, a dying animal, or a touching family scene, they are graphic building blocks without any descriptive binder, the support medium of an irretrievably lost oral context.”
[8] Leroi-Gourhan, op. cit., p. 216.
[9] Leroi-Gourhan, op. cit., p. 200.
[10] Flusser, Die Schrift, in Zanetti, op. cit., p. 37.


Thinking Tools
Design as Process: On the Creation of Writing Tools

Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt/Main
September 24, 2016 through to January 29, 2017