The Writing Body:
Of hot metal, cold type and cell phones

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

Among the writers I knew in the '80s, I was the last to buy a computer. Even when I was editing the city magazine in Houston,

I spurned "word processing" as a threat to the process of writing.
Although I eventually became a zealous convert to computer technology, my objection did have its roots in the accurate observation that technology powerfully influences the actual structure of thought. Before switching to computers, I wrote on a portable electric typewriter.

Although I had been taught it was okay to literally cut and paste edited text, I would never do that with my own work. I had instead developed the time-consuming habit of re-typing a story from the beginning every time I reached a sticking place and wanted to edit what I was writing. This had the effect of continually refining my story and forcing me to pay very close attention to the linear development of the narrative. "You give great transitions," an editor at <I>Texas Monthly<P> once told me.

When I switched to computers and had the capacity to easily enter a story in progress at any point in the narrative, quickly moving around the elements through an eletronic cut-and-paste function, I was completely disoriented for a few weeks. My whole approach to text became less linear, although I confess I wrote in DOS-driven programs for years, only switching to Windows and the use of an even less linear mouse when it became impossible to avoid them.

I as well remember when, earlier, I was editing the <I>Atlanta Gazette<P> and our film critic, Barbara Gervais Street, used to write all of her reviews by hand. Sitting with a yellow legal pad, she would produce one word at a time, the sentences forming themselves like strings of pearls. She never needed to re-write anything. Once the review was handwritten, she would type it up.

My first job in journalism was actually in the last "hot metal" shop in Georgia. While every other paper in the state had converted to the new "cold-type" method of electronic typography, the Elberton Star still cast all its type in hot lead and used a flatbed press that required the pressman to feed it one sheet of paper at a time. Wearing a shop apron and a visor, I literally had to write and then cast all of the paper's headlines in metal myself. I also made the photo engravings from pictures I took with a Jimmy Olsen-style Speed Graphic camera.

All of the changes in the technology of writing and publishing increase efficiency. They affect the actual structure of thought and narrative by, for example, shifting emphasis from the story to the information. Every reporter becomes a Joe Friday, more interested in the facts than the way they came to sort themselves into a human drama. That's part of the irony. Computer technology has increased efficiency, meaning ideally that complex stories could be more easily presented. But the opposite has happened. Stories have gotten shorter and complex ones are avoided altogether.

Discourse has become glib. That's because, as Marshall McLuhan speculated years ago, the medium itself becomes more of a message than the particular content it has to communicate. So, our brains come to value efficient processing more than complexity of story or depth of discourse.

Something else is lost, of course: The body's engagement. Believe me, the lived experience of casting (and smelling!) your own headlines, of writing by hand, of submitting stories in person, of directly embodying text, is very different from writing on a computer and commending your words to the editor and public with the keystrokes necessary to send an e-mail.

This may be quite necessary but I can't help but regard it as a cause of some grief. Feelings begin in the body and I think the callousness, superficiality and cruelty of printed discourse may partly result from this rupture between the production of text and the body's experience. Indeed, where the rupture isn't an explicit absence, it seems to be signified by its compensatory opposite: gross sentimentality. Print is becoming television, in other words.

This rupture between what's actually present and the body isn't just the condition of journalists but of everyone now. I see an example of it at my health club nearly every day. I can't do an hour with weights or on the Stair Master without hearing the continual beeping of cellular phones. It is shocking to me to see people <I>working out<P> while talking on the phone. Can they really be aware of their bodies? There aren't the same consequences to others as the increasingly annoying habit of people talking on phones while driving. But it does seem like another step in the increasing disembodiment of consciousness.

Of course, I as often drag books and magazines around the gym with me. Exercise too becomes more boring with its increased efficiency. And I am also aware that, living on a dying planet, we may need new forms of embodiment provided by technology.

Perhaps we are all rehearsing that eventuality: The dissolution of consciousness into bytes, the transformation of body into machine.

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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