Handwriting, Print, and the Self

From Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting in America: A Cultural History:

To reconstruct the colonial world of handwriting, we must also attend to its setting within the world of the printing press.  Here the eighteenth century is especially critical . . . print underwent a qualitative change, now defining a medium that was characteristically abstract, impersonal, and, it was sometimes feared, duplicitous.  The quantitative growth of printing edged out the use of script in many instances, but the qualitative change in print lent new meaning to handwriting, providing script with a symbolic function even as it diminshed its practical utility.  If print entailed self-negation, then by contrast script would entail the explicit presentation of self.  The printed page might be “void of all characters,” but the handwritten one would present the self to its readers . . .


Where print was defined by dissociation from the hand, script took its definition from its relationship to the hand.  Where print was impersonal, script emanated from the person in as intimate a manner as possible.  Where print was opaque, even duplicitous, script was transparent and sincere . . . . handwriting functioned as a medium of the self.

Diminished practical utility = heightened symbolic function

Might this be a useful formula for understanding what can happen when a new technology displaces an old one? Plug in e-readers and books, for example.

On another note, would there have been a “self” needing to present itself to begin with apart from print?  So another principle:  an older technology may be appropriated to address/redress conditions arising from a newer technology.

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