Ink and After

Scott McLemee further explores The Mediated Mind by Susan Zieger and the impact that expanded distribution of printed material in the 19th century had on what the world felt like.

August 3, 2018

By now you’ve probably seen the ad for a writing application that opens with a student settling down to work on a term paper. Her brow furrows from the strain of coming up with a thesis statement that -- once she types it -- is utterly trite as well as passive voiced. The app can catch the latter problem, at least. So she revises the sentence and is quickly swept up into the flow state of increasingly confident and thoughtful composition, enabled and enhanced by suggestions from the writing app. The designers have evidently blown the old computer-science “garbage in, garbage out” problem wide-open.

A fantasy is at work here, as in most advertising -- especially when the commodity on offer is a piece of technology for personal use, with the mobilization of private insecurities and anxious wishes skewing toward the obvious. But as averse to that ad as I’ve become (thanks to incessant exposure at some online venues), it connects in an interesting way to something Susan Zieger points to in The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century (Fordham University Press). The author is associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside.

As indicated in last week’s column (which you need not read before continuing with this one, though here it is, for reference) Zieger’s book takes the vastly expanded production and distribution of printed material in the 19th century as having an impact not just on what people read, or even on the dimensions of the public sphere, but on the emotional and cognitive texture of everyday life -- on what the world felt like. Literature captures some of it, but often in ways that barely register now. Everyone who has read Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” probably remembers its mood and the narrator’s violent and weirdly self-punishing compulsions while drunk. But lost on most readers today are the overtones of temperance culture (the tracts and periodicals against the moral poison of alcohol, the enormous crowds who gathered to hear mesmerizing speakers recount their abjection and recovery), which Poe’s audience would have recognized. Like all of his work, “The Black Cat” is an example of content produced for the new media of its day; at the same time, it absorbs and embodies aspects of the social environment that were themselves media saturated.

Which brings us to the must-have writing app of its era. The variety available today tantalizes users with the possibility of making the writing process easier, faster, more agreeable, less awkward or some combination thereof. Hope springs eternal. But it is not just a chimera of the digital age.

By the middle of the 19th century, the disadvantages of the quill were obvious to everyone without a vested interest in raising geese. Besides the frequent need to repair the nib with a penknife, the motion of dipping into the ink bottle and getting just the right amount was a constant drag on one’s concentration. Coleridge imagined a writing instrument customized for literary creativity: “The pen should be allowed, without requiring any effort or interruptive act of attention from the writer, to dip sufficiently low, and yet be prevented, without injuring its nib, from dipping too low, or taking up too much ink.”

With necessity as the mother of invention, the mass-produced steel-tipped pen became, Zieger writes, “an emblem of modern speed and efficiency throughout the century,” and one readily wielded by the growing population of those who generated or handled the paperwork generated by the rest of industrial society. As with the expanded audience for print, there were ricochet effects from the emergence of a mass public not just able to write but also compelled to do so. Neophobes suddenly found that everything that had made quills a nuisance to use was, in fact, essential to the leisurely and contemplative activity of serious composition. Further, streamlining the ability to communicate did not ensure wisdom in doing so. Zieger quotes one author’s warning: “[A] steel pen ready made to one’s hand is a dangerous temptation to a man in a fit of passion.”

The resemblance to attitudes and concerns associated with post-ink writing is obvious; likewise the fact that innovation generated new demands. Zieger writes, “The challenges of spilled, smudged, blotted, evaporated, thickened, moldy, crusty, dried, frozen and faded ink can be inferred from the high number of new and improved inkstands advertised and reviewed throughout the century … Ink’s messiness was a drag on the swift, clean, ideal efficiency of the steel pen and the accelerated modern writing it enabled.”

From another angle of vision, ink’s messiness corresponded to a growing smudging of the lines between the “new” and “vintage” media of the day, and between mass and elite literacies. The literature and the advertising of the 19th century show a series of sudden, rapid transformations in how information was produced, consumed and metabolized by large and changing demographics. Each technique or device for reproducing and transmitting culture entails a reformatting of the culture itself, even at the level of the individual’s experience of memory or identity. Photography and sound recording can serve as supplements (or, as McLuhan put it, extensions) of memory. But they also soon became models for how people understood the depths of the mind itself -- our formative experiences stored as negatives or gramophone cylinders somewhere in the basement of the personality.

Zieger's notion of "the mediated mind" is not the flattened, homogenized mentality often implied by discussions of mass communications; she documents and explores these changes with far more detail and finesse than an informal commentary can convey. I hope readers find it.


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