AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 722

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Session 722: Mechanizing Language and Culture in Modern China and Japan

Organizer: Thomas S. Mullaney, Stanford University, USA

Discussant: Andrew Gordon, Harvard University, USA

This panel examines the technologization and mechanization of cultural practices in China and Japan during the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular focus on language. Drawing upon new research into Chinese typewriting, Japanese stenography, and Japanese typewriting, our central objective is to consider what happens to linguistic subjects, objects, and practices during the emergence of novel forms of linguistic technology. Whereas such questions have been examined thoroughly in the realm of alphabetic languages, most notably by the renowned Friedrich Kittler, questions of linguistic mechanization and technologization have remained largely neglected in the East Asian context. Furthermore, although focused on language, the panel's discussion will extend well beyond this realm, drawing upon the discussant's new research into the history of mechanized sewing in Japan.

The People's Republic of Predictive Text: How Communist "Typewriter Girls" Invented the First Natural Language Chinese Typewriter
Thomas S. Mullaney, Stanford University, USA

When mechanical Chinese typewriters first entered the marketplace in the 1910s, they featured tray beds containing approximately 2450 free-floating metal characters arranged within a 35x70 rectangular matrix. Characters were arranged according to the Qing dynasty reference, the Kangxi Dictionary, whose “radical-stroke” system had for centuries formed the basis of an immense and highly diverse information infrastructure encompassing dictionaries, indexes, catalogs, name lists, telegraph codes, typewriters, and more. Beginning in the Republican period (1911-1949), linguists and engineers experimented with alternate organization and retrieval systems, witnessing a proliferation of competing taxonomic systems. However, it was not until the early Communist period (1949-present) that a loose network of largely anonymous women typists broke with tradition and began to develop dramatically different organizational schemes. Rather than following the radical-stroke system, they sought to maximize the proximity – if not adjacency – of those characters that, when paired together, formed the most commonly used two-character compounds (known in Chinese as ci). In a purely mechanical, non-electrical context, they went on to develop perhaps the first natural-language system of categorizing Chinese characters, anticipating what in the computer age would come to be known as “predictive text” or “autocompletion.” This paper examines the epistemological, technological, and sociopolitical foundations and meanings of this system, one that remains central to Chinese-language computing through to the present day.

Turning Speech into Evidence: The Steno-Typewriter (soku-taipu) in the Japanese Courtroom
Miyako Inoue, Stanford University, USA

The conversion of speech into written statements and legal documents is centrally constitutive of modern legal facts. This paper focuses on the steno-typewriter in the Japanese court and seeks to understand how speech is turned into a forensic object endowed with the durable epistemological status of “fact,” “evidence,” and “truth.” In current Japanese criminal cases, statements recorded by the steno-typist records can be recognized as the official court record only after the court clerk (selectively) cites it in official legal documents. This paper traces such medial displacements caught between technical and juridical fidelity in the current Japanese courtroom.

The First Japanese Typewriter and Its Specters
Raja A. Adal, University of Cincinnati, Japan

In 1915 the future Japanese Typewriter Company manufactured the first practical Japanese typewriter, a machine of some 2400 keys which soon became a fulcrum for debates about the mechanization of writing. Some celebrated it, while others argued that its size and speed demonstrated the unmodern nature of the Japanese script. Still others saw it as an instrument of materialist civilization, and some imagined that it would relieve the human hand from the functional act of writing so that it might devote itself to the higher art of calligraphy. This presentation will introduce some of the key debates that surrounded the introduction of this first Japanese typewriter.