Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Quality Of Writing Is Strained - Friday Flash

I typed a log entry into/on to my tablet. Then I deleted it and watch it seemingly become snaffled by the roiling plasma. Apposite word that 'tablet'. Harks back to the origins of writing, pieces of flint gouging out marks on stone beneath their sharpened tips. Matter grinding away at matter. Energy transference, heat sparks engendered through the friction. The intaglio letters cupped within the stone. Any natural cleft in the petrous grain, easily confused with a character whose shape it coincidentally approximates. Who can say where the boundary of a character ends and the natural stratum of the stone resumes? The letters utterly interacting with the flow of the grain around them, since one is hewn from the tissue of the other. Letters as impressions in negative space. That stone which was formerly there, now hacked away to leave the fossilised shapes of an alphabet.

Progress to mankind writing on parchment or papyrus with quill or stylus. Two materially different substances, pigment and canvas. The ink licked on to the surface of the fabric, filling its empty plane with characters. Colonising it. Again at the stiff pointed tip, although scribes also used the reedier kalamos to brush the ink on, like drummers who have both drum sticks and brushes for that more jazz vibe. Just as well really, or we'd have to doff our caps at the Freudian imagery of a shaft spilling its liquid seed on to a receptive membrane. The mark of the scribe, being the accidental transference of ink into the whorls of the pads of his fingers.

And it's not just fleshy fingertips. For unlike the carved incisions in stone tablets, here the ink rests upon the host surface, albeit some of the ink will seep and spread into the fibres beneath. In the main the two substances coexist in a space that is not as blended as those characters cut into stone. The inked boundaries of the letters delineate them from a differently coloured paper textile. They sit flush on a plane that is itself flat. The ink does not really have any texture of its own. No raised surfaces. The two do not interact, in the sense that where the ink lies the paper beneath is effaced and where the ink is not, the paper bears sole possession untouched. Once the ink has dried and settled, the two are inert from each other. Of course with illuminated manuscripts, where gold leaf was being applied to the pages, then such calligraphy would have a texture. And while such manuscripts provided an interesting approach to representing the divine light in halos and the illuminated script itself, let's just say the legerdemain of gold leaf doesn't actually represent how light operates. Rather, it more approximates the reflective properties of the moon's light actually originating from the sun. Reflected glories as second-hand light. A paucity of illumination.

Then on to moveable typesetting of the printing press and its personalised version in the form of the typewriter. An embossed letter block, whether placed in a composing stick, or at the end of a typebar, which then punches an impression filled in with ink. An inverted return to carving letters in stone through incision. Directly with hammer rather than chisel. The paper surface is indelibly altered, distorted, beneath the inroad of the press. The letters sit on a plane, but not flush. They are slightly sunken into its weft, a fact you can plainly see were you to view the underside of the paper, with its Braille-like displacements projecting through towards your eye. There is something almost animated by the process of smashing force upon force. Each typebar a metal monolith, with a homunculus letter clinging on for dear life to its surface, being smashed and pounded by the press of a lever launching the typebar like a ballista. Particularly if you used the red half of the ribbon, pressed in blood. Off key and off centre, the type was idiosyncratic. Personal. Die cast stamped with the metallic grain of the writer's force brought down on the keys. 

Of course in time, electronic typewriters and superior printing technologies ironed out these concavities and restored the smooth, unbroken plane of the canvas that houses the letters ranged there in regular blocks of text. The white of the paper merely acting as spacers between words, lines and paragraphs. Typescript orderly ranged across the paper, but more concerned with proportion to itself, so that the paper fades into the background. Print and paper barely having any relationship one to the other.

And now we are come to the present state of affairs. The plasma screen, a curvy sea in which the letters hang seemingly unmoored. Movable to anywhere on the display. The dancing characters which can pirouette and spin across the turbid screen as they are formatted. It is hard to determine which is more vaporous, screen or letters mounted there. The plasma remains indifferent to what it plays host to, yet it utterly determines its nature. In the ineffable coding that remains hidden and unknowable. Somehow, like planets in spacetime, these characters too interact with the curved plasma and the two shape one another. No longer is the screen an inert host. Yet neither letters nor plasma ocean possess significant mass. This is not like the heft of a planet curving proximate space around it. This is more akin to particle physics. Letters like elemental particles, brushed from the keystroke perhaps to become manifest in the plasmatic field. Colliding hard up against their neighbour, expressing their valency. The nature of their charge.

And thus do our letters evanesce and die. Oh they persist in some ghostly form, as hypertext, but they are quickly interred by the next rolling mass of text which too will be overwhelmed and underwritten, or should that be underwhelmed and overwritten? The letters, our letters, have become cast asunder from our fingers. Left to drift and do battle with CEO algorithms in the plasmatic main. The quality of writing has been strained through being shorn of material paper through which to filter it.


Helen said...

I really liked how this moved through the stages of the written word. I particularly liked the comparison of the quill or stylus to plasma screen. Somehow I think the beauty of the action of writing was lost when we gave up that feathered quill.

I loved this line: "The mark of the scribe, being the accidental transference of ink into the whorls of the pads of his fingers."

peggy said...

If I had found this flash unattributed, I would have guessed Marc Nash. You have such a distinctive style, and your brain just goes places that my own doesn't even know to travel.

Just yesterday, I was saying how important words are--they shape our very lives. Apparently, they shape so much more.

Beverly Fox said...

WOW! What a goregeous journey through history there! And I got the feeling that all of this were going through the mind of that person we glimpsed at the very beginning- the one just pausing for a moment whilst fidling on his tablet. I could imagine all of his thoughts following this long, vibrant path through the history of print. So many great images in there, so many lyrical phrases. Just lovely.

Deanna Schrayer said...

Helen's favorite line is also my favorite line. I also love the "die cast" line. Your mind is just amazingly brilliant Marc and I feel honored that you share that brilliance with us.

Interesting - just yesterday I was reading a blog (and I'm sorry I can't recall who wrote it) where a woman described how an Etch-a-Sketch works, how it's the absence of the grainy beads that gives us the image, not the beads themselves.

Tim VanSant Writes said...

One has to wonder whether the quality of thought has been strained through being shorn of material through which to filter it.

Katherine Hajer said...

My favourite phrase was "petrous grain". My favourite passage read about the letterpress, though.

I thought the omission of Roman wax tablets, sand tables, and chalkboards was interesting though.

Li said...

Beautifully composed. :-) I want to be cremated and the ashes scattered, but now a selfish bit of me wants an engraved stone somewhere - preferably with something on it which will make future generations who stumble upon it go Hmmmm...

Kath said...

This has such a beautiful flow to it, Marc, and I loved some of the description like the ink colonising the canvas; "The mark of the scribe, being the accidental transference of ink into the whorls of the pads of his fingers." and the "pressed in blood" red ribbon of the typewriter. But the last paragraph made me so sad: "And thus do our letters evanesce and die" - I'm going to keep writing letters and cards, and more importantly stories, so that some words live on in the white noise of all the other words out there.

Larry Kollar said...

I loved how this flowed. After 5000 years, we're back to writing on tablets! It could have been made a little more stuffy and become An Incompleat History of Text, but I liked it better this way.

Given sufficient time, all writing—or at least the meaning—is lost. There are petroglyphs from ancient India, with no Rosetta Stone to provide a key, for example. There are other examples where linguists aren't even sure whether they're looking at writing or design motifs. Did the Babylonians sneer at the Egyptians for writing on papyrus, or lament its impermanence the way some today lament the disassociation of paper and the written word?

Definitely a thought-provoking piece this week!