Serial Series, Part 6





Above, from top: a Sholes & Glidden c. 1873, the model used by Mark Twain; a Hansen Writing Ball c.1882, the model used by Friedrich Nietzsche; the Adler typewriter found on the desk of Jack Torrance in a still from The Shining; the Smith-Corona on the desk of Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) in a photograph of his Montana cabin.

Shortly after buying his Remington Model 1 typewriter, Mark Twain dashed a letter off to his brother in 1874. In his note, he seems equal parts addled and satisfied with his new purchase:

I am trying get the hang of this new fangled writing machine, but am not making a shining success of it. […] I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair & work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don’t muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.

Knowing they had a notable writer for a customer, Remington’s salespeople contacted Twain to see if he’d vouch publicly for their Remington Model 2, which he’d purchased as soon as it was released. In a typed note of all caps he declined, signing off not as Twain, but with his given name, Samuel Clemens:

Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don’t like to write letters, so I don’t want people to know that I own this curiosity breeding little joker. Yours truly, Saml. L. Clemens.

It’s easy to speculate as to why Twain might’ve signed his note as Clemens. He routinely signed “Sam” to friends and used Clemens both in business and for personal notes. Perhaps he didn’t want his more famous pen name used in any way with Remington’s products, so he refused to even sign it. But it also seems at least a little bit possible that, when he wrote as Twain, Clemens felt he had a kind of creative power he did not possess as Clemens alone; but, when he wrote with the Remington, Clemens may have felt it had a power over him, and even over Twain, that made them both uncomfortable, even anxious. “Mark Twain” started out not as a given name but as a sailor’s pseudonym. Before that it was a sailor’s call—“mark twain!”—meaning the river’s depth was 2 fathoms (12 feet) deep, and the boat could navigate its passage safely. When Clemens selected Mark Twain, he selected not only a the name of a storyteller but the sign of a technician, who, with this piece of information, could signal the crew that the ship was in control and could be guided safely down its course. “Cybernetics,” which is the study of communication and control between humans and machines, takes its name from the Greek “kybernetes,” who is the oarsman, pilot, or rudder: the one who can skillfully bring a boat to port. Clemens’s pseudonym, Twain, was another name for the author himself. But, according to his letters, his typewriter often behaved as an allonym—a ghostwriter. While the pen name Twain helped to put Clemens in control of the writing process, the Remington’s ghostwriter effect counteracted that control, placing the invention of text somehow just beyond its operator’s reach, or total understanding.

Like Twain, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s experience with his Hansen Writing Ball, a typewriter Nietzsche purchased in 1882 directly from its inventor, seemed somehow beyond his control—even supernatural. Living in Genoa with his eyesight failing, Nietzsche hoped the writing ball would make it easier for him to write away from home, but he arrived to find his machine damaged in transit. The Hansen’s already fussy keys only became more difficult in inclement weather. “The typewriter has been unusable since my last card,” Nietzsche wrote, “for the weather is dreary and cloudy, that is, humid: then each time the ribbon is also wet and sticky, so that every key gets stuck, and the writing cannot be seen at all.” The typewriter, which was meant to free Nietzsche from his pen and make it easier for him to write, had left him blocked. No longer in control of his own output, Nietzche’s productivity would now rise and fall with the barometer. By 1882, he’d pounded out a well-known poem, which reads, “The Writing Ball is a thing like me: of iron / Yet twisted easily—especially on journeys. / Patience and tact must be had in abundance / As well as fine [little] fingers to use it.” As Prof. Friedrich Kittler points out in his study Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, in Nietzsche’s poem, “three moments of writing coincide: the equipment, the thing, and the agent. An author, however, does not appear […] Our writing tool not only works on our thoughts, it ‘is a thing like me.’”

Nietzsche would soon give up his typewriter, but he would never dismiss it entirely. In one of his last typewritten letters, he observes, “This machine is delicate as a little dog and causes a lot of trouble—and provides some entertainment. Now all my friends have to do is invent a reading machine: otherwise I will fall behind myself and won’t be able to supply myself with sufficient intellectual nourishment.” Nietzsche feared his own typewriter might outproduce him. Its mechanistic drive to produce text faster than its owner could read it harkens back to the scene that Twain described previously, when he was first entranced by the typewriter in the shop. 57 words a minute! If only he could write that fast. But recall that the salesgirl who’d impressed Twain had a trick: she always typed the same text, over and over and over again. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in a touchstone image of typewriter-as-ghostwriter, the ceaselessly repeated typescript reappears when Wendy discovers that her husband Jack’s novel isn’t a novel at all. Instead, he has typed “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” on sheet after endless sheet. Jack isn’t using his Adler typewriter; the Adler is using him. Realizing her husband has lost his mind, Wendy’s face pales, terrified.

Kubrick’s film is fictional, but cautionary. Kittler, too, tells of a 1941 detective play by Jean Cocteau called La Machine à écrire (The Typewriter) involving “an unknown woman who has been tormenting her community with anonymous typewritten letters.” Kittler continues, “[the detective] ‘imagines the culprit at work at her typewriter, aiming and operating her machine gun.’ Typewriters are simply ‘fast,’ not just ‘like Jazz’ […] but also like rapid-fire weapons.” When Cocteau’s antiheroine finally confesses, she explains, “I wanted to attack the whole city. […] I wanted to stir that muck, attack and reveal it. It was like a hoax! Without accounting for myself, I chose the dirtiest and cheapest of all weapons, the typewriter.” She terrorizes the city with the stroke of a key.

A vividly real and far more terrorizing letter from an anonymous typist was received by the New York Times on 26 April 1995. It had been keyed on an old machine later identified as a 1920s-era L.C. Smith-Corona. Enclosed was a lengthy typewritten manifesto that began, “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” The New York Times shared the letter with the FBI, who explained that it was from a domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber. The letter demanded that the manifesto be published “in the New York Times, Time, or Newsweek, or in some other widely read, nationally distributed periodical,” and, it promised, “if you can get it published according to our requirements we will permanently desist from terrorist activities.” As for the text, its author stipulated that “after six months from the first appearance of the article or book it must become public property, so that anyone can reproduce or publish it.” Also: “because of its length, we suppose it will have to be serialized.”

The Washington Post instead opted to print the text whole as a four-page supplement that September. It would prove to be the Unabomber’s undoing. The following April, authorities raided the one-room cabin of a former UC Berkeley professor named Theodore Kaczynski, whose brother had called in a tip that Kaczynski’s writings reminded him the Unabomber’s. By the time they finished their search, they’d found the smoking gun: amidst firearms, handmade bombs, and various disguises, sitting on a desk littered with carbon copies of the letters and manifesto, was the Smith-Corona.

Serial Series is a six-part meditation on the production of text from the text’s point-of-view. It was written serially and published serially during the three-week run of Dexter Sinister’s The First/Last Newspaper, a project for Performa 09. The final broadsheet, including this piece (titled REMINGTON LAUNCHES GHOSTWRITER) can be downloaded here. You can also find all six installments archived here.