Academic journal article Afterimage

Purple Dotted Underlines: Microsoft Word and the End of Writing. (Features)

Academic journal article Afterimage

Purple Dotted Underlines: Microsoft Word and the End of Writing. (Features)

Article excerpt

Microsoft Word is fundamentally different from other word processors. Word treats "information an entire page at a time, rather than as a stream of text and codes," according to the "Microsoft Word 2000 Reveal Codes White Paper" by Microsoft Product Support Service. The "White Paper" adds that Word is "based on a hierarchical formatting system that allows you to format based on the entire document, a section, a paragraph, or even one character. The hierarchical architecture of Word does not allow stream-based formatting, as does WordPerfect, but Word does allow you to control, understand, and manipulate formatting." (1) The concept of the document is hardwired into Word. Controlling the appearance and hierarchical structure of this document is what the Word interface does. Meanwhile, the Word file format remains a company secret, Friedrich Kittler's recent program of software discourse analysis reminds us that the domination of Word and Its hierarchical infrastructure cannot easily be separated. Kittler calls for us to "abandon the usual practice of conceiving of power as a function of so-called society, and, conversely, attempt to construct sociology from the chip's architecture." He continues: "it is a reasonable assumption to analyze the privilege levels of a microprocessor as the reality of precisely that bureaucracy that ordered its design and called for its mass application." (2) The functionality of Word is a mirroring and repetition of the hierarchical document structure its interface implies. Every use of Microsoft Word will invoke the differential discursive structure of the printed document.

The world runs on Microsoft Word documents. Word's WYSIWYG interface between screen and printout--which remains the software's major selling point--puts our world Into writing. Microsoft Word Is the latest onionskin layer of historical inscription surfaces-spread on top of paper, parchment, papyrus, stone tablets, cave walls, sand.... Our institutions--legal, educational, cultural and so on--are supported by the masses of paper printed from computers running Microsoft Word under the Windows environment. In fact, the historical status of these institutions is inseparable from this process of word processing. The beauty of Word, if we are to believe the marketing literature, is that it allows you the flexibility to format and edit until you arrive at the perfect printed product. Word displays a simulation of a written page, and a poor one at that. You toggle between Normal, Print and Outline View, fiddle with margins and headers, and hope for the best when you print. The hyper-mediated framework of the interfac e, with its buttons and pull-down menus, offers simple verbs that transform the basic ontology of the written page: File, Edit, Format, Help and so on. Word processing means that writing is infinitely flexible in the service of print; Word extracts and puts on display exactly what writing always meant.

But what did writing mean? Writing meant producing an image. Writing was an appearance machine. The word processor provided a convenient materialization of this appearance machine, letting the operator manipulate symbols and formatting in order to print. Microsoft Word orders a stream of markings--in this case keystrokes or mouse movements, or even the voice commands so badly implemented in Office XP--into the linearity of writing. The line of writing leads to an image. A document is an image formed by extracting a line of writing from a stream of marks. (3)

Hegel already made the point in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), where writing supplies the example of the material and specific reality that cannot be referred to by language. When we seem to mean "'this' bit of paper on which I am writing, or rather have written--'this,'" we in fact do not mean what we say. If we actually "wanted to say this bit of paper...then this is impossible, because the sensuous This that is meant cannot be reached by language, which belongs to consciousness, i. …

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