Sue Zemka (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘“This Living Hand”: The Literary Organ in Dickens and Stevenson’

The hand is a second self. An appendage composed of several organs (skin, muscle, nerves, and bones), the hand is more than its physiological components; it extends human subjectivity. The hand is the body’s instrument of material signification (in gesture, in writing, in making), and, insofar as each hand is as unique as each face, it is a nodal point of identity. In the age of chirography, a person’s handwriting conveys her identity in a triple sense – as a vehicle of linguistic communication (what one says), as a inscription with a legal status (one’s signature, or simply one’s mark), and as a script unique to each individual (hence paleography, and later handwriting analysis). Handwriting thus conveys messages and instantiates the writer’s identity at the same time. For Heidegger, these features of the hand and handwriting make them predicates of dasein, the human species. And so, for Heidegger, as for Derrida after him, the typewriter introduces a possible rupture in the purported ontological continuum of human subjectivity that flows from the mind to the hand into space or to the pen and the page.

This paper will bring these concerns to bear on an historical subject: the late age of chirographic authorship prior to the acceptance of the typewriter for literary production. My case studies will be Dickens’s Bleak House and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While Dickens’s novel expresses a faith (like Heidegger) in the organic flow of humanity through the hands, Stevenson’s novel expresses a suspicion (like Derrida) of the two-fold premises of this faith –  the premise that technology and organicism can be separated, and the premise that identity coheres in presence. My method in this paper will combine the philosophical framework described above with strategic readings of these two novels; in addition, both will be set in the material context of literary chirography circa 1850 to 1885.

Categorized as Abstracts

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