Three technologies fascinate me and have always fascinated me. Three technologies continue to find their ways into my life and continue to inspire me to pursue them, collect them, and use them.
For a long time I’ve though it might be useful to sit down and try to figure out what they have in common, married as they seem to be to one another in my experience if being in the world.
It’s not the optics, or the seeing. I know the history of the camera obscura and so on; I was exposed to it in a fair bit of depth in graduate school. I’ve taught about it in university courses. A lot of the intelligencia are fascinated by the image, the inversion of seeing, its reflective nature, the “seconding” of reality, and so on.
I only seem to be interested in it once we arrive at plates and prints; once the images are “captured” by the camera and stored, indelibly in some solid material.
I become most fascinated once there is a shutter and a shutter actuator.
Far more than in the output—the essay, the book, the article—I have always been fascinated by the pressing of the keys. By the gesture through which a finger presses a button moves a lever imprints on paper, etc.
I keep these things around in dozens of ways, in modern formats. Desktop computer. Laptop computer. Alphasmart Neo. Alphasmart Dana. Apple Newton. iPad and phone keyboards. Not to mention the old 50-pound Royal typewriter on the table in the living room.
And I use them. Anyone that knows me or that has noted the existence and presence of this blog knows that I am frequently compelled to type, even if I have nothing in particular to say and no idea what I will “say” in the end.
The compulsion is to use the keyboard. To make letters. Whether the letters are good letters or bad letters, useful letters or not useful letters. It’s been this way for decades now.
There are a lot of guys that own wristwatches and that collect wristwatches. But I have a particular tic in my wristwatches; I can’t bring myself to be interested in quartz watches—the electronic ones. No matter how high end. No matter Swiss Ronda movements in $5,000 watches with beautiful logos and lines and sapphire crystals and heavy bracelets.
I just don’t and can’t care about quartz. Not interested. Even if someone haded me a Tag Heuer or Omega brand new tomorrow, if it was quartz I wouldn’t wear it—ever—and I just wouldn’t care.
But mechanical wristwatches I am mesmerized by. I want them on my wrist. I want them everywhere around me. I sit and watch the movements. I am tempted by each one that I see. I’d sell a kidney for an average 24-jewel NH35A movement. Luckily I don’t have to, since they’re cheap as dirt.
They’re less accurate than quartz. The last less long that quartz. They’re heavier than quartz. They’re old-fashioned technology. And yet—
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So what do they have in common? Here’s what they have in common.
Cameras that fascinate me, that I use, have a shutter—a shutter that stops time. A mechanical contrivance for quickly and cleanly and completely capturing one moment and not another. They’re not continuously “on” like the early camera obscura. That’s boring. Instead, they are used for the opposite purpose—not to slide along with time, conveying light, but rather the opposite. To trap time and freeze it forever.
Typewriters and all of their analogs do something very similar. Every keypress is a captured fragment of time. At that moment, the moment of the keypress, a conduit opens between mind and its ever flowing conscious and subconscious river, and something that was somewhere in that mind for that moment is imprinted—like that—indelibly. Every single character I’ve ever typed here, or in any of my papers, or in any of my articles, or in any of my books, is one moment of time in my mind, caught forever and preserved. A frozen record of what—even if just for a moment—once was.
And mechanical watches, the things that fascinate me perhaps most of all, are at their core an escapement. In the watch on my wrist right now, it is a little piece of technology that measures time—if time is what is evident in the hands of a watch—literally by stopping it entirely and starting it again six times per second. This is magic beyond magic, neither good nor bad but wild; transcendental. And it is not like quartz because quartz has initiative; it’s natural state is one of rest. Quartz watches take an action once every second. If they do not take the action, their time does not move. But an escapement—an escapement puts the brakes on time; an escapement is pressed, pressed ever-forward by a mainspring whose pressure is steady, unyielding, continuous, relentless. The escapement takes the natural flow of things—like the camera, and like the typewriter—and stops this flow dead in its tracks against all odds, many times every second.
The Nub of Things
So they do have something in common. One thing that lies at the core of everything that I am fascinated with in the world.
Each of these technologies is a technology of mortal-immortality, of death-life; they are monadic; they embody the basic contradiction in human being.
The camera freezes and preserves forever in matter a live moment as a dead thing, stopping time in its tracks and turning it into beyond-time, anti-time. The typewrite freezes and preserves forever in matter a live thought as a dead thing, once again stopping time in is tracks and turning it into beyond-time, anti-time. And a mechanical wristwatch measures and sustains the flow time precisely by stopping it in its tracks, bringing its little universe to an impassable end over and over and over again, forever. It is the thing in which time can never and does never flow, despite endless pressure to do so, and it is in the prevention of this flow, the endless interruption, that it somehow ultimately flows and flows smoothly.
In short, I am fascinated by the reconciliation of animation and death, of movement and stillness, of eternity and ephemerality; of mortality and immortality. These things embody the basic paradox of social being for me and for that reason, I am compelled to keep them around and to operate them, over and over and over again compulsively.
It also bears mentioning that I somehow conceive of these as essentially masculine tools and technologies; even when and if women use them, I still see them as male. Why this is I don’t know, exactly.
Maybe it has to do with the deep archetype of woman as life-giver, life-producer, which is more about the source of time than its interruption. Men have, rather, always been the world’s murderers and soliers, those charged with effecting the trascendental stoppage of time as embodied in the stoppage of a life.
If these are devices that in some sense kill time, foreshorten it unexpectedly, interrupt and savage it repeatedly, then they are akin to the men of history in a history made of men—killing, foreshortening, interrupting, and savaging individuals and historical narrative(s) in the singular, the plural, and the gestalt.
Perhaps in some way my fascination with these things is an attempt to understand, in some deep way, the nature of my being as man operating in the world. Not the everyday, instrumental purpose and function, but the transcendental one.
Maybe these things offer a cloudy window into the meaning of my life as an individual human man in a world that asks men to be more like women. What is the fundamental power that is ours, as opposed to theirs? What does it do and what has it traditionally done? What are the deep, biological compulsions that I feel and have always felt? What is that feeling in men that causes them to appeal to and to be fascinated by the arc of abstract history and their place(s) in it, rather than the individual, the personal, the nurturing, and the life-giving?
I daresay that these things are all of a cloth.
So that’s that.