“It is more difficult to understand how they can write proper names, especially foreign ones, for these are things that they have never seen, nor could they have invented a picture for them. I tried to examine this when I was in Mexico with some Chinese, and I asked them to write this sentence, or something resembling it, in their language: “Jose de Acosta has come from Peru.” The Chinese gentleman thought about it for a long time and at last wrote, and then the others read what sas indeed the same sentence, athought there was some variation in the proper name; for they use the device of taking the proper name and finding something in their language that resembles that thing, and then they write down the picture of it.” – Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Jose de Acosta (1590)
There was always something philosophically magic about the relationship between the figure and the thing inscribed. There was something entangled about the figure and the thing that held it, for how could the sign or picture exist without the surface upon which it fell? There was something non-entangled about the figure and the thing that held it, for how could one transpose the same figure – or a token of the same figure – onto another holder, another tablet, another scroll, another piece of paper, unless the characters could fly away? They could fly away by being read outloud, true – and here sound became the carrier of sense, and flocks of sounds would carry flocks of sense – but they could also fly away by being copied. So there was always the object written upon and the object of writing, and they were separate things, except the type of the one always came with the type of the other, and this type of thing was perplexing in the life of a person and it was perplexing when one tried to think about it seriously, as a sage.
At the same time writing systems were ‘invented’ in Mesopotamia, seals and stamps were also being invented. But it took a long time for the technology of the stamp to be transposed to the technology of the writing system in the West – that is, it took a long time to invent the printing press. This puzzles historians of technology. When you have the technology to stamp coins, you have the basis for stamping manuscripts – for printing. Yet the leap was not made by the Greeks. In China, on the other hand, the technology of the stamp was already being transposed to the character in 200 B.C., and woodblocks were used on paper in 800 A.D. It was Pi Sheng, an “unlearned man of the people”, [Otto Fuhrman] who invented a moveable type made of earthware in 1045.
In the always wounded dualism of the scribal cultures, the design, the character, the figure, the word, the discourse, and even the thought gets divided from the matter, the clay, the stamp, the dead letter, the clay tablet, the screen. The narrative of thought is of bound majesty – the prince among slaves, the spirit fallen into the machine. The nobility of the idea is that it really exists in the world of flight, the world of forms, and the ignobility of matter is proven by the fact that it sticks to the idea, the thought, the word, the symbol. Though it be as light as a leaf of paper, still it is of the world of heaviness and labor, this substratum.