Palmer Method of Penmanship

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Automatic Writing and the Body

Akin to Foucault's conception of the docile body, the Palmer Method put a military-like emphasis on the posture, position, and muscle control of the pupil's body. Exercises and drills were to be taught and practiced regularly, and teachers were instructed to monitor and correct the their students' position. These drills programmed the body by building muscle memory so the mind need no longer think--the body simply performs mechanically and efficiently, just as would a typewriter. In this sense, Palmer's method embodies the cake-mix effect: after mastering the method, writing is streamlined and essentially mechanized. Though the person is technically doing the work, it is in fact the programmed body that is performing the task of writing, the conscious self is secondary to the process.

Penmanship and its connection to the self can be seen through an examination of signatures and the practice of graphology. Gitelman argues the term "automatic," which is used frequently by Palmer in his manuals, highlighting prevailing cultural assumptions "regarding the act of insciption and the relation that inscribing bears to authorial agency and textual evidence." (Palmer 1935: 3; Gitelman 1999: 186) Experiments carried out by Gertrude Stein attempted to explore the relation between the her test subject's character and the markings they would create through automatic writing. Stein maintained that her experiment resolved the "organic and mechanical - of human forms and functions built into machinery and of mechanical repsonses by human beings." (Gitelman 1999:189). Palmer's method of penmanship analysis treated the subject's automatic writing in the same vein by advocating practice drills to be evaluated by a teacher or a designate of the Palmer Company itself. Writing for drills divorces words on a page from any potential narrative, presenting itself as storage for data regarding a student's aptitude toward the mechanical project of penmanship. In bulletins for grading penmanship issued by each city's board of education, teachers were advised to regard penmanship as a skill needed to find employment after graduation of the eight grade. Through this method, the functional nonsense of texts written for drills allow for handwriting to become an object for scientific study, and a graphology emerges from the text. (Fig *) Teachers evaluated handwriting samples based on speed, consistency, and adhearance to the aesthetic standard, and scored the sample on a scale of 0 to 100-- cumulatively, and in each category. Teachers could then compare a student's results to the median scores for practitioners of a number of occupations (NY Dept of Education: 1920, 45). The direct link between penmanship and aptitude for business is made explicit, just as Gertrude Stein's experiments with automatic writing had attempted to draw corellations between the hand and the subject's character. In this sense, discrete analysis of writing as scientific object enabled teachers to decode the examinations in an effort to encode them into a particular areas of aptitude. Such drills were exemplary of a specific trend in psychology of the late 19th century, where the goal was to employ new physiological methods to decode the narrative of the subject's psyche. (Gitelman 1999: 195)

If, as Kittler suggests (198), the typewriter "tears writing from the essential realm of the hand," and the hand is the "essence of man," Palmer's mechanical method can be interpreted as an attempt to reunite the two without losing the desireable aspects of the typewriter (ie. speed, legibility, efficiency). Alternatively, this metaphorical reunion might appear to be an internalization of the typewriter technology into the body. To take the analogy of the human typewriter further, consider Flusser's essay entitled The Lever Strikes Back, in which he says, "we have been moving our arms as though they were levers since we have had levers. We simulate what we have simulated" (Flusser, 53). Not only did the Palmer method train the body to simmulate the typewriter in speed and legibility, the method also instructed students to use their left arm to cover other drills and push the paper up as one progresses. Thus, once again, the simulator is simulated and the classroom suddenly becomes a factory, a "place in which human beings become less and less natural and more artificial" (Flusser, 44).

Kittler argues that at the end of the nineteenth century, "something ceases not to write itself." (Kittler 1999:3) In this he is speaking of the modest mechanical apparatuses which were developed at/for the period which shattered the unity of the hand-driven form of writing, replacing it with an extension of the body in terms of a machine. The Palmer Method attempts to make the body into a "writing machine" through physiological training designed to promote automaticity. (Palmer 1935:*) The body becomes a machine, internalizing the habit of writing so that the person is fully occupied by the machine, ceasing to write one's self and beginning to write something else. (Kittler 1999: 14*) "But once a hand took hold of a pen," Kittler notes, "something miraculous occured: the body which did not cease to not write itself, left strangely unavoidable traces." The traces Kittler speaks about are the pops and hisses of the writing system--the individual character of one's penmanship. Despite the best efforts of the Palmer Method to teach a standardized script, the pops and hisses of each person's unique handwriting were inevitable.