Cursive, they say, is going the way of cave painting, the compact disc, and the birthday card. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 45 states have now standardized a core, public-school curriculum, and teaching cursive handwriting is not included. Gone is that grade for “Penmanship” for which my generation was routinely assessed. Indeed, when I think back to some of my elementary school peers, the first thing I remember is their cursive: Neha’s plump and perfect curls, written with 0.9 mechanical pencil lead; Michael’s childish, hybrid-print scrawl on the blackboard; my own painfully delicate letters, which barely used 70% of a college-ruled line, until my fifth-grade teacher urged me to live a little between the margins, to make a darker, stronger mark.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, a concerned middle-school teacher has formed a Cursive Club, where students learn an art now as arcane as stamp collecting. “By 2016,” the Journal continues, “nearly half of all home loans could be closed electronically, meaning that thousands of people will buy homes without having to physically sign their names …”
The writing has been on the wall for the signature for some time. For years, we haven’t had to sign for petty credit card payments. And when we do, it’s with that clumsy stylus attached to the keypad—or, more recently, a finger on an iPad—but never with a traditional writing implement. The signature I sign when I pay for groceries bears little resemblance to the one I practiced all those years in school. It is perfunctory and haphazard, full of the knowledge that it will never be judged by the likes of Visa and found wanting.
Life seems to go on just fine without the ritualized repetition of our names in ink, the flourish of old cursive. But the signature was once a matter of deep philosophical contemplation. Jacques Derrida’s game changing, post-structuralist revision of the classical Western theory of writing departed, in part, from an understanding of the significance of the signature. He argued that the written signature exists in “a transcendental form of presentness,”
characterized by the fact that, on the one hand, a signature is absolutely singular—a one-time event—but, on the other hand, in order to be readable, it has to have “a repeatable, iterable, imitable form.”
In other words, the signature on the receipt must match the signature on the back of the credit card; it must be repeatable in order to be recognizable. But the signing of a document—of a groundbreaking legislative act, for example, or a criminal sentence—is a purely unique event, which brings into being a unique set of circumstances and consequences.
What have we lost with the loss of the signature, with its digitalization and increasing impersonality? Most people don’t even “sign” emails anymore. They send messages that close with some variation of “sent from my iPhone,” meant to excuse both the brevity of the mail and the lack of a proper signature. Derrida conceived of writing as that which would be readable and repeatable after the death of the writer; he theorized a form of presentness beyond absence, and an absence beyond presence. The irony of digital communication, of all this typing instead of writing, is that more of us are present to each other than ever before, but our absence from the communal record is equally assured—as certain as a computer crash, as inevitable as the obsolescence of every new technology.
I was reminded of Derrida and his signature during my recent trip to India, a country full of firsts, daily proclaiming the presence of the new. From December 2012 through mid-March of this year, India is host to its very first biennale, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an exhibition of contemporary Indian and international art held in over a dozen venues in Kochi, Kerala. I visited the main venue, Aspinwall House, and was struck, like many, by the confluence of old and new, antiquity and modernity, low-tech and high. This, of course, has become something of a cliché in describing and thinking about the “new” India.
Nevertheless, amidst the videos and digital images, the snazzy technological innovations of Dylan Martorell’s touch-based multi-user instruments, and the kaleidoscopic hologram-art of musician M.I.A., a quieter installation drew me in—in part, perhaps, because of the strength of its contrast to the LED lights and robotic drums elsewhere on exhibit.
Sheela Gowda’s “Stopover” is a multi-room installation comprised entirely of the large grinding-stones that were once found in old south Indian homes, tharavadus, and ancestral plantations. Mammoth ancestor of the mortar and pestle—themselves out of date—the grinding stone was a fixture in the kitchens where women would grind for idli and dosa, and prepare fresh spices for the daily cooking. Today, there is no place for the weighty grinding stone in the modern home, but families are reticent to dispense with them entirely. Some find new lives as plant-holders. Others wind up on the street.
In “Stopover,” the Bangalore and Switzerland-based artist has arranged 170 grinding stones in a manner reminiscent of both a cemetery and a parade. The stones extend out almost into the sea; they are still and grave, but speak to each other of other lives, places, spaces, people: the hands that would have touched them, the signatures of lives lived and living, and now the legs that walk between them, in pursuit of a view of the Arabian Sea.
Gathered together, the stones tell the story of their own absence. Their “stopover” is not, the viewer realizes, their final resting place. But in Derridean terms, Gowda’s grinding stones also foretell the story of their persistence: their presence in every whirl of an electric mixer, their haunting of the spice rack in a 21st-century Indian kitchen. The absence of the grinding stone ruptures the present—like the digital swish of the keys, or block-printed initials, where once there was cursive, and the intimate signing of a name.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.