The Print Sublime: A Material History of World Scripts in the Age of the Typewriter

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Date(s) - 26/09/2019
2:00 pm - 4:00 pm

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Speakers Series #1

The Print Sublime: A Material History of World Scripts in the Age of the Typewriter

The EAS Speakers Series presents a talk by Professor Raja Adal (Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh) on September 26, 2019 entitled “The Print Sublime: A Material History of World Scripts in the Age of the Typewriter.” The talk will be held from 2pm-4pm in the EAS Lounge (Robarts Library, 14th floor). Please see an abstract of the talk below:

If printed text has become ubiquitous, its success is usually attributed to its efficiency.  The printing press reproduced a large number of texts quickly, the typewriter wrote faster than the human hand, and the computer-cum-printer combination made writing into malleable bits, pixels, and droplets.  This talk suggests that from the beginning of the twentieth century to the rise of word processors and computers in the 1980s, it was less the efficiency of the typewriter than the aesthetic appearance of typewritten text that drove the global spread of typewriters.  Whereas in the first days of the Latin typewriter in the 1870s it was uncouth to send a typewritten letter, within a few decades handwritten letters had become unprofessional.  The rise of the print sublime relegated handwriting to the realm of the private, the subjective, and the personal.

From a global perspective, the shift from handwriting to typewriting was even more consequential.  When the combination of the Latin-character printing press and the Latin-character typewriter made printed text into the new visual language of official documents, non-Latin scripts that could not be typewritten risked appearing unofficial, unprofessional, and unmodern.  It was essential for scripts that sought a place in the modern global script regime to be typable.  This led to a global race for developing typewriters that could type the four largest scripts of the global script regime – the Latin, Arabic, Chinese, and Devanagari scripts – and dozens of others.  Today it is unthinkable for a state bureaucracy or a commercial business to use a script that cannot be typed on a standard digital device like a computer or smart phone.  This talk suggests that this dependence of script and technology dates back to the last years of the nineteenth century, when print acquired the sublime quality that made typewriters a prerequisite for a script’s survival in the global script regime.

Raja Adal is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh with a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  His publications include Beauty in the Age of Empire: Japan, Egypt, and the Global History of Aesthetic Education (Columbia University Press, 2019), “Aesthetics and the End of the Mimetic Moment: The Introduction of Art Education in Japanese and Egyptian Schools” (Comparative Studies in Society and History) and “Japan’s Bifurcated Modernity: Writing and Calligraphy in Japanese Public Schools, 1872-1943” (Theory, Culture, and Society).  He is currently working on a material history of scripts and writing technologies in the twentieth century.

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