Of Pencils and Pixels

By Frank Berzbach

Sonja Neef, a lecturer in European media and culture at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, devotes her study ‘Imprint and Trace’ to the topic of ‘Handwriting in the Age of its Technical Reproduction’. In much the same way that Walter Benjamin, to whom the subtitle obviously alludes, did not object to photography as such, but only to the photographic reproduction of original works of art, so Sonja Neef does not lament the disappearance of handwriting. Whether the practice of handwriting will indeed ever disappear completely is, of course, an open question. If today’s continued presence of, say, vinyl albums – hastily written off as outmoded by many a commentator only a few years ago – is anything to go by, then there would seem to be little reason to be pessimistic about the future of handwriting. (After all, he who writes by hand may be said to demonstrate character, in that he writes against the tide of the zeitgeist.) On the contrary, what Neef sets out to show is that our current standardised typographies and digital substitute worlds remain indebted to handwriting as their ancestral predecessor. Cultural techniques may be everchanging, but they remain latently ever-present. Even the latest flat-screen technology is not left untouched by the history of handwriting. Neef makes it clear that traces of handwriting are to be found everywhere. What is important is ‘to contemplate the Manual within the Digital: the fingerprint on the touchscreen, the stylus on the writing pad of a tablet PC; in short, to consider handwriting from [the perspective of the] screen’ (p. 29).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Neef’s observations are informed by the conceptual vocabulary of such figures as Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Kittler, and consequently the study as a whole accentuates the cultural-philosophical more than media-theoretic aspects. To be sure, dogmatic adherence to any particular methodology – what Paul Feyerabend used to call ‘Methodenzwang’ – is not something one accuse the author of. What one might wish to criticise is the overambitious scope of the historical trajectory, which the author sets out to chart: Neef’s observations concerning the development, the significance, and the destiny of the technique(s) of handwriting go all the way back to the evolutionary origins of hand-like extremities “from fish to homo sapiens”, and span the whole breadth of cultural evolution, from human prehistory to the ancient world, the medieval period, the modern age and digital postmodernity. Thus, the author takes her readers on a tour de force from hieroglyphics to screen-savers, from cuneiforms to corrective fluid.

Neef, however, sees no difficulty in going back in history – or, for that matter, in extrapolating into the future. Her goal is to subvert the seemingly clear-cut distinction between the techniques of handwriting and the printing press: ‘My thesis is that there is no final dichotomy […] between, on the one hand, printing as a mechanical, technical, or digital way of writing and, on the other hand, handwriting as an individual, unique, and singular trace; instead, the two principles of “imprint” and “trace” are always already intertwined, both historically as well as systematically’ (p. 25). In other words, whatever the future may bring, handwriting survives safe and sound.

The individual chapters of the book span a wide range of topics and are refreshingly brief; in general, Neef writes succinctly and avoids long-winded sentences. As a result, her writing tends to be more intelligible than that of her theoretical role models. Nevertheless, it seems that writing in an accessible manner continues to be a professional risk within German-language academia. At the level of terminology, Neef pays heed to the expectations of her academic peers: The average reader will likely need a dictionary in order to make sense of such learned chapter headings and phrases as ‘Manus ex machina’, ‘Exergum’, ‘Dactylography’, ‘Currere’, ‘Ceci tuera cela’, ‘Infra-mince’, and the good old ‘Paralipomena’ (especially given that classics scholars are presumably not the main target group of the book).

Texts in the humanities, especially when they are (as in this case) reworked versions of an earlier PhD or Habilitation thesis, are often meant to demonstrate the author’s originality and independence. However, there is such a thing as too much originality – as Walter Benjamin found out the hard way when his Habilitation was at first rejected by the University of Frankfurt. Perhaps in order to avoid such a painful experience, Neef also dutifully goes over much secondary material. What emerges from this is a thoughtful and plausible assortment of important thinkers (Heidegger, Derrida, various anthropologists), who pondered the significance of hands and hand-writing. In outlining their views, Neef often develops her own theoretical positions, forges new connections, and delineates her argument from the views of others. As a result, the reader is spared the déja-vu experience of thinking that somewhere, somehow, one has read all this before.

Neef’s intellectual tour de force from antiquity to the present comes to a stop already half-way through the book. The remaining chapters are for the most part revised versions of previously published papers on such varied topics as graffiti, Anne Frank’s diary, and tattooing. While these chapters are nicely illustrated with photos and graphic images, thus inviting the reader to browse among them, they do not, as a whole, fit very well with the first half of the book. Towards the end, the book reads more like a collection of essays. All in all, however, Neef’s book not only conveys valuable insights into the cultural-philosophical significance of the ‘old’ medium of handwriting, but also whets the reader’s appetite to dig out that old fountain pen again – irrespective of whether one intends to draw precise block letters on a page or indulge in the magnificent swirls of ornate calligraphy.

Sonja Neef: Abdruck und Spur. Handschrift im Zeitalter ihrer technischen Reproduzierbarkeit
Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2008
ISBN-13: 978-3865990372
Softcover, 360 pages, EUR 24.90

Frank Berzbach teaches psychology and social sciences at the Ecosign Academy of Design, Cologne University of Applied Sciences (FH Köln).