Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Like a Typewriter: An Introduction

I do not collect material objects, but I can sympathise with people who do. If I were such a collector I would collect typewriters. I would begin by wandering through Buy Sell and Exchange stores past the crockery and cricket bats and old bags, and I would buy typewriters irrespective of price. Next I would wander around the country stopping at all the junk stores on the way and buying typewriters there as well, looking for common ones and uncommon ones and ones that were broken in unusual places, and when I returned I would put the least praise-worthy typewriter on a solid wooden bench and test each key one by one on a piece of new paper, and then do the same for the other typewriters on the same piece of paper.

I would do this for every typewriter I found, so that in the end I would have a collection of letters to go with my collection of typewriters. I would name each typewriter after a new and interesting word. The word might be expressive of some peculiarity in the typewriter, but it might not. The first typewriter might be called “strabysmic”, for example, or “boondoggle.”

I would buy books about the history of typewriters and the history of ink, and I would collect typewriter anecdotes and famous typewriters and typewriter trivia and stories about typewriters who changed history. I would follow the geography of typewriter development as carefully and delicately as I followed the geography of an individual typewriter, its field of soft keys and its deep inner rumblings, its steep and solemn face that slopes up towards rift in the crust where the paper plunges down and is transformed under the fierce pressure of the keys.

And in doing all this I would not just find out about typewriters. I would find out about words and about history and about the interior decorating of Buy Sell and Exchange stores, and about the junks stores and the small towns in my country, and I would also find out all sorts of odd facts about the physical properties of metal and ink and paper, and perhaps also about the gradual displacement of handwriting as the primary means of text construction in official documents.

People might say: “You see nothing but typewriters. You have become blinded by your typewriters. You have forgotten other things, like lawnmowers and sunshine and good food.” If I did things properly, however, these people would be quite wrong, because they would be blind to the fact that typewriters gave me sight rather than taking it away, that typewriters were a way of giving form and purpose to the broad facts of experience, of bringing them into a better order, and not a way of denying or ignoring those facts.

“Granted, my typewriters colour my experience of the world, and they do so in a stubborn and unchanging hue. But without that colour it would be no experience at all, and without a stubborn hue it would be a disorganised sort of colour. Although this collecting habit puts a sheet between me and the bare force of the external world, it is not an obstruction but an aid: it is (here my voice would rise triumphantly) the ribbon through which the stuff of life is forced, and without which there would be nothing on the page of my mind but a dim and brutal mark, an impression that is very hard to make out when it is there, and very quick to disappear, when the pressure is no longer applied.”

The point of all this is to prepare the ever-patient reader for the information that, although I do not collect material objects, I do intend to begin a collection of a different kind. I have a perennial fascination for what I will call “likenesses.” When I come across a metaphor in a piece of fiction, I stop and wonder at it with a collector’s glee; when I hit upon a particularly sharp analogy, or even a not-so-sharp analogy, I run my mind over it with a collector’s tenderness; and when I come across some philosophical thought about these two kinds of things, or about any other kind of model or similitude or resemblance, I am drawn into it by a mind filled with the collector’s dual satisfaction: the satisfaction which comes from discovering a new source of interest; and that which comes from extending an old pattern of curiosity.

In this short (ha) introduction to my interest in the topic, I will try to describe the source of my interest and the current pattern of my curiosity. I should begin by saying that one of the attractions of likenesses is that without too much strain they may be seen to give one way of joining together, or at least diminishing the gap between, the scientific and the non-scientific disciplines. In the form of metaphors, we use likenesses in literature, to serve the purposes that are distinctive of literature: they lend vividness, novelty, intimacy to our prose.

In the form of models, we use likenesses in science to serve the purposes that are distinctive of science: they allow us (at least in some sense) to explain phenomena, to predict future events, and often to abstract, from the chaos of surface appearances, the structures in the world that give it a look of order. Of course, I should be careful here: first, to insist that the account I have just given is very vague, and needs a lot of clarifying to make it philosophically interesting; second, to remind myself that this has been said many times before; and third, to mention that it is far too easy to be misled by what science and non-science sometimes share, into ignoring what they do not share.

One pattern in my curiosity will, I hope, be my attempts to make the above thoughts philosophically interesting. There is a vast philosophical literature on metaphor in general, and on the role of metaphor and analogy in science and in cognition (so cognitive science is relevant here as well). I could not hope to read all, most, or even a representative portion of this literature; much less make a real contribution to it. But those of us who are not participants can at least be active spectators, cheering events on and adding an original commentary every now and then; and that is what I hope to be. I want to begin this project by writing a “taxonomy of likenesses”: what are the main variables over which likenesses range? Hopefully I will find time to do this some time in the next month or so.

But there is more to the world than Philosophy; and (more controversially, perhaps), Philosophical inquiry is only one way of coming to discover what the world is all about. So I want to indulge my interest in likenesses in other ways, ways that I suspect come more naturally to me. Fiction, and any kind of expressive writing, is filled with likenesses, especially of the metaphorical kind; and I want to undertake a general pillaging of the books that I read in order to smuggle out of them the best treasures that metaphor can offer (and perhaps also some of the worst attempts, for the sake of contrast), and to lay them down for all to see in the glass cases that I have prepared in various high-security regions of my blog. I do not know if anyone else keeps a running database of metaphors, but if someone does do this then I intend to outshine him, with the quality as well as quantity of my gems.

Another and related project is to discuss the metaphors of particular authors. I think that the distinctive qualities of an author’s work are often quite useful guides to the distinctive qualities of their work as a whole; similarly for individual novels. Hemingway is spare on metaphors, preferring a more plain sort of expression; Jane Austen is spare on them as well, though perhaps for different reasons. A lot of Dicken’s peculiar charm, his wit and playfulness and comic sense, are conveyed in his peculiar choice of metaphors; Graham Greene’s metaphors tend to have the taunt efficiency that is an obvious feature of his writing in general. And so on.

Anyone who has tried to explicate a metaphor will probably know that it is not an easy exercise. Metaphors are special partly because they do not need much explication (or perhaps that they do not admit it), and explications can be tedious and damaging as well as unnecessary, like explaining a joke. But along the way I doubt that I will be able to resist the temptation to describe and analyse the examples that I come across, to set them alongside eachother and pick out the similarities and differences. Hopefully I can do this in a way that illuminates metaphors without putting them in too harsh a light. If I cannot, never mind.

A third route, and one that takes something of middle path between the philosophical and the literary routes, is to look at likenesses as they exist in education. Education is one of my labels, and somewhere on this site I will give a more detailed account of this interest: here it is enough to say that I am interested in education, and hence that I am interested in how students can best come to know and understand the things they are meant to learn. What kind of role can likenesses play in the learning process? I don’t know exactly, but I intend to find out.

My hunch is that they can play a large role; certainly, if they can play a large role in the process by which professional scientists come to learn about the world, there is a good chance that they have a similar power in, say, school education. But I said that this route is a middle path, and so I do not intend just to pontificate about the nature and purpose of likenesses in education: I would also like to come up with some of my own, to try and illuminate some things I have studied by way of likeness.

All of this sounds terribly ambitious: vain, in both senses of the word. But a true collector of typewriters would not let such things worry him, since his interest in the subject would be natural and spontaneous, and he would not feel that he is bending himself in order to satisfy this interest: he would consider it an act of bending, of strain and hardship, to turn himself away from this interest. And if one day his interest snaps, or gradually turns, then he would not worry too much that he had failed in something: for to fail in a project that one does not value is not much of a failure; at worst, it is a waste of time. So I will just do what I suppose any collector would do: start collecting, and see what happens.