Writing at the Speed of Thinking — Miyako Inoue at Digital Aesthetics Workshop


For our final event of this year’s Digital Aesthetics Workshop (which, we can now confirm, will return next year!), Stanford’s own Miyako Inoue will be presenting her current research on the Japanese typewriter. Her session promises to consider the effects of media on thought, to push technology studies towards the history of empire, and to argue with Friedrich Kittler. Needless to say, we are thrilled to have her!

The event takes place on Tuesday, May 29, from 5-7 in the Board Room of the Stanford Humanities Center.

There is no pre-circulated reading. However, attendees are encouraged to familiarize themselves with Kittler’s “Typewriter” chapter in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.

RSVP to deacho@stanford.edu

Snacks and wine will be served

Dr. Miyako Inoue

Writing at the Speed of Thinking: The Japanese Kana Typewriter and the Rehabilitation of the Male Hand

Tuesday, May 29, 5:00-7:00

The invention of the Japanese syllabic (kana) typewriter in the beginning of the 20th century was a modular articulation between the Japanese syllabary and the engineered metal body of the English typewriter. With keys and type bars for Japanese syllabaries neatly conjoined with it, the kana typewriter promised Japan’s industrial efficiency and productivity of repetitive inscription labor. While the kana-typewriter was originally used in business and government offices to streamline the production of invoices, order forms, utility bills, and so on, the postwar portable models attracted allies for personal use among male intellectuals, industrialists, scientists, and colonial officers, for whom the kana typewriter meant “the liberation from Chinese characters,” or Japan’s break from “Asia” (and its return as a colonizer), and a renewed connection with Western industrial modernity. Friedrich Kittler argues that the western typewriter led to the de-sexualization of writing, liberating (hand)writing from its organic and exclusive ties with the male hand and allowing women to enter the white-collar workplace as typists. In this presentation, I would like to discuss how the kana-typewriter led, in fact, to the re-sexualization of writing as a masculine enterprise, and to the reunion of the man’s hand with language, as its portability allowed elite Japanese (type)writers in international scientific communities, in colonial administrations and associated overseas business communities to synchronize writing and thinking and to re-enact the western subject-position of auto-affect in writing.

Miyako Inoue is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, where she also has a courtesy appointment with the Department of Linguistics. She teaches linguistic anthropology and the anthropology of Japan. Her first book, Vicarious Language: the Political Economy of Gender and Speech in Japan (U. of California Press), examines a phenomenon commonly called “women’s language” in Japanese modern society, and offers a genealogy showing its critical linkage with Japan’s national and capitalist modernity. Professor Inoue is currently working on a book-length project on a social history of “verbatim” in Japanese. She traces the historical development of the Japanese shorthand technique used in the Diet for its proceedings since the late 19th century, and of the stenographic typewriter introduced to the Japanese court for the trial record after WWII. She is interested in learning what it means to be faithful to others by copying their speech, and how the politico-semiotic rationality of such stenographic modes of fidelity can be understood as a technology of a particular form of governance, namely, liberal governance.

Of Baboons, Touchscreens, and 4-Letter Words: Or, Nonhuman Agency and an Object-Oriented Perspective on the Pre-Discursive Origins of Language

As Sharon Begley puts it in her article for Reuters (“This is Dan. Dan is a Baboon. Read, Dan, Read”): “No one is exactly using the words ‘reading’ and ‘baboons’ in the same sentence, but a study published Thursday comes close.”

In a sense, though, the temptation to describe the implications of that study (summarized in the video above) as a demonstration that “baboons can read” is just another iteration of a familiar tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman primates rather than to draw the converse and much more interesting sorts of conclusions suggested by observing these animals’ behavior: Rather than humanizing apes, I suggest, we should be led by studies like this one to relax our anthropocentric perspectives and to appreciate the nonhuman aspects of those activities and skills, such as language-use, that are typically seen to distinguish us most centrally as human.

While the implications of the experiment shown here are interesting from a wide variety of scientific and philosophical perspectives, they are of especial interest from a media-theoretical perspective, especially one (like mine) that’s interested in pre-, sub-, or non-discursive interactions between bodies and things.

To quote again from Begley’s article:

The study was intended less to probe animal intelligence than to explore how a brain might learn to read. It suggests that, contrary to prevailing theory, a brain can take the first steps toward reading without having language, since baboons don’t.

“Their results suggest that the basic biological mechanisms required for reading have deeper evolutionary roots than anyone thought,” said neuroscientist Michael Platt of Duke University, who co-authored an analysis of the study. “That suggests that reading draws on much older neurological mechanisms” and that apes or monkeys are the place to look for them.

Reading has long puzzled neuroscientists. Once some humans started doing it (about 5,000 years ago in the Middle East), reading spread across the ancient world so quickly that it cannot have required genetic changes and entirely new brain circuitry. Those don’t evolve quickly enough. Instead, its rapid spread suggests that reading co-opted existing neural structures.

Furthermore, as this article at BBC Nature succinctly puts it: “The results suggest the ability to recognise words could more closely relate to object identification than linguistic skill.”

Dr Grainger [one of the scientists responsible for the study] told BBC Nature that recognising letter sequences – previously considered a fundamental “building block” of language – could be related to a more simple skill.

“The baboons use information about letters and the relations between letters in order to perform our task… This is based on a very basic ability to identify everyday objects in the environment,” he said.

Of course, it’s not like this settles things, but it does suggest some interesting correlations between eyes, hands, and objects — embodied, techno-material correlations of a straightforwardly nonhuman sort — that would seem to be basic to the constitution of discursive (human) subjectivities, and not vice versa. Thus, rather than bringing the apes into the citadel of humanity, perhaps we should let them lead us out of the prison-house of language!