PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

The Iron Whim by Darren Wershler-Henry

Jason B. Jones

Darren Wershler-Henry's The Iron Whim is less a history of typewriting than a history of its image.


The Iron Whim

Publisher: Cornell University Press
ISBN: 0801445868
Author: Darren Wershler-Henry
Price: $29.95
Length: 331
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-02
Amazon
... men whose natural and sole habitat was the college town: failed or failing graduate students, drunk professors or book editors like my father, all of them wearing corduroy jackets in various stages of disrepair. These guys had once had their fields -- Victorian literature, tropical botany, the cultural import of the manual typewriter -- but one day they discovered they didn't like their fields anymore, not as much as they liked to drink.

-- Brock Clarke, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Sam Pulsifer's ruminations on his father's editing career at a university press clinch one point: Sam's no reader. For who could fail to see to the typewriter's appeal? Everyone remembers Dracula's Mina Harker, typing away on early versions of carbon paper, and isn't the most famous booty call in high modernist poetry the assignation between The Waste Land's young man carbuncular and the typist? Here in my room I can look up and see Tom Gallon's The Girl Behind the Keys, about a typewriter girl with a penchant for crime-solving, and H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay, where two characters on the verge of an infidelity admire a new typewriter as if it were an iPhone.

Darren Wershler-Henry's The Iron Whim is less a history of typewriting than a history of its image. The book opens by recollecting the peculiar 20th-century involution whereby "once, typewriting symbolized all that was antithetical to poetry; it was cold, mechanical, awkward. Now, however, through the misty lens of nostalgia created by several centuries of typewriting's own propaganda, we believe that typewriting is poetry: precise, clean, elegant in its minimalism." Wershler-Henry is a surefooted guide to some of the stranger claims made on typewriting's behalf.

Wershler-Henry has written several books, both nonfiction and poetry, about the mutually constitutive and confounding intersections of technology and culture. With Bill Kennedy, he is the author of apostrophe, a book of poems composed by a search engine they designed. (I reviewed apostrophe in PopMatters a year ago). The Iron Whim reflects that deep engagement, as it is a book equally at home with avant-garde poetry and with, say, the biometrical fantasies of Frank Gilbreth's "scientific management." The book speaks to aspects of typewriting both controversial (QWERTY vs. Dvorak layouts) and silly (just what will those monkeys type on those infinite typewriters?).

The Iron Whim's thesis is that the iconography of typewriting is almost preternaturally self-deconstructing. Typewriting produces the truth, but is easily forged. Typewriting, Wershler-Henry suggests, makes visible, albeit sometimes only as a ghost, an Other voice in the scene of writing. Sometimes this Other is a speaker dictating with authority; other times it is the typist, revising that dictation on the fly. Still other times the typewriter itself is the Other, as it seems to transmogrify from instrument to muse to tyrannical master in the writerly imagination.

Calling this argument a "thesis" probably goes too far, as The Iron Whim is deliberately fragmentary and elliptical. This decision is, we're told, located deep within the logic of typewriting itself:

A whim (a capricious notion or fancy) could inspire a person to press a few keys on their whim (a typewriter as a fanciful or fantastic object), and the inspiration would be conveyed to paper by ... a whim (a machine consisting of a central drum mechanism with a number of linked radial arms). Writing about the machine itself would be the most whimsical act of all, but it would give substance to the initial whimsies about that machine, as if those whims had been cast in iron.

There are some drawbacks to this "fragmentary" history, most of which arise from its wide-ranging approach. Disciplinary experts in Victorian and modernist literature, for example, will probably be startled to hear that "typewriting in Dracula ... has been overlooked." That's only true if "overlooked" means "understood as highly relevant for quite some time now. He's in a related tight spot when it comes to theory. While he offers lucid, accessible statements of key arguments by Foucault, Derrida, Kittler, Virilio, and others, his formulations are occasionally (and perhaps necessarily) under-nuanced. The associative leaps are sometimes less persuasive than a more conventional timeline would be -- oddly, we discover how William S. Burroughs destroys typewriting's disciplinary powers before we discover what those powers are.

Wershler-Henry eschews any claim to comprehensiveness; however, there are a couple of related phenomena that I found myself wishing he had addressed. The first is "erasable" typewriters. Surely the ostensible permanence of the typewritten mark connects up with claims that the typewriter produces the truth. A second example that's close to any academic's heart is the phenomenon that Kieran Healy has called "the typing wife" of academics' first books. I'm sensitive to both these topics, since, family legend has it, my mother was locked away furiously typing my father's dissertation while I was an infant. In the days before word processing, a mistake on a page's 20th line had material -- and, to be sure, marital! -- consequences.

But these are small blemishes on a book rich with telling anecdotes, conceptual ambition, and an easy, charming style. I have been reminded about this book in a variety of contexts. Apple's decision to have the iPhone's virtual keyboard make audible clicks evokes typists' objection to noiseless typewriters. Since he devotes a whole chapter to the modern children's classic, Click, Clack, Moo, one wonders what Wershler-Henry thinks of the prominent role a pencil plays in Giggle, Giggle, Quack, and so on. Anyone interested in technology and writing -- in the technology that writing is and is conditioned by -- will enjoy The Iron Whim.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.