Hands and bodies

Fewer and fewer things are today made by hand. In fact, we celebrate handmade products, whether clothing or food, as high-quality goods, and we are willing to pay a high premium to acquire them. The mechanisation of all things keeps accelerating. The retreat of the body from production means that all activity is being focused in the human mind and in the machine. It feels inevitable, but many of us also feel a sense of loss, of disjointedness. We don’t so much rebel against this state of affairs than lament its advent and its often nefarious consequences. And our lamentations and litanies are almost always recited in the digital temples we built using those very things we petition against.

But there is one area which is not receiving enough petitioning, where the choir is rather faint: writing. The testimonies of a generation brought up on a diet of handwritten word show the extent to which the human body was complicit in the act of writing.

Before handmade there was bodymade.

Handwriting is a misleading word. A culture based on handwriting, one where the first printed word hasn’t yet been printed, is one of sore backs, stif necks, strained eyes, weary bones, an aching body redeemed by the dilligent hand. To think that written culture was able to piggyback its way through centuries of violence and illiteracy on the literal backs of tireless scribes is one of the great mysteries of history. It is all the more mysterious as it is incomprehensible how those very scribes didn’t just give up. To say that copying by hand is manual labour is to miss the point – it is not manual, but utter labour. And that’s why we welcome mechanical writing, the press, the typewriter, the word processor. But leaving our bodies behind in the act of writing comes at a price. We forget our bodies count as much as anything else, and we fall into the cognitive bias of cognitive bias, that the mind is sovereign, our bodies optional, and us disembodies writers, nay, typers, delivering new worlds into a world which is as disembodied as we are.

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