CCR 633: Handwriting and Withdrawal

One of the tensions in the reading, particular in Thorton, was the role that handwriting has between self, discipline, and social role. Early on, Thorton writes, “Faithful imitation of penmanship models-what teachers would call good handwriting-thereby signals  conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality” (x). This immediately connects with some of the disciplining that Trithemius discusses in relation to scribe work. In both, a certain rigor and repetition, a discipline of the body and the “hand” takes place.

I think, then of writing’s broader potential to discipline, like what McCruer discusses in composition’s ability to “compose bodies” in “De-Composition” (2008) or even in formal rubrics, genre conventions, curricula, the Harvard rhetoric requirement, and pre-set forms, like the five paragraph theme. This capacity that rhetoric and writing has to conform and prescribe has along history, as Thorton points out.

But, in slightly different sense, writing also created or highlighted larger social identity, and in this way it also polices or defines. For example, as Thorton points out, business, itself a core catalyst to writing instruction (p. 6), prescribed more clerk-like ways of writing, rejecting the flourishes of more gentlemanly backgrounds. Writing was also gendered, with many “feminine” scripts designed to take longer and exhibit “fair” qualities. As Thorton writes, “mercantile advice books urged men of commerce to shun penmanship refinements appropriate for gentlemen in favor of a straightforward ‘Clerk-like Manner of Writing.’ And where men might be urged to cultivate a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ hand, Women were urged to cultivate ‘fair’ one” (37).

And through this quality, handwriting, seemed to exhibit a sort of self-expressive quality, growing from social identities. As Thorton writes,  “As each human being performs a socially differentiated part, so is each given a different ‘script.’ Conversely, by reading that script for its social information one could learn all there was to know about the writer. Here at last was a sincere medium of selfhood” (37). Hand writing analysis and associations with different scripts connected the self (albeit a socialized self) to the script, presenting a certain window of expression.

But once again, the movement to “automatic handwriting” and related systems of standardization, like the Palmer method, disciplines expression, but through a certain systematized erasure. By making writing more standardized and less idiosyncratic–whether justified through “science” or a sort of “lore”–one is essentially erasing the body, or trying to. This erasure or withdrawing is particularly bad for embodied backgrounds that do not fit the standard, like lefties, people with disabilities, or those with less training and resources. It is a sort of gate-keeping, but one that erects its gates by assuming writing a certain way is a type of present-for-hand skill and not a complicated, socialized, embodied action.

With this, I often think of a quote by Nirma Erevelles about special education that has been following–or rather haunting–since last semester: “Haunting these policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. . . In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable.” (Disability and Difference). In other words, as the body withdraws from systematization, quantification, and abstraction–as it often does–what bodies and what people get left behind?

And though handwriting is still “a thing” as they say, something that we discuss and learn and use, I am curious about the same disciplining, social-signifying, and withdrawal (in a Heideggarian sense) that takes place in today’s context through digital print or new media.


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