The Society for Critical Exchange
  MLA 2000
SCE Program
  Economies of Writing I

Blackstone and Electronic Text

Michael Hancher
University of Minnesota


Littera scripta manet: the permanence of writing, celebrated by writers from the time of Horace through the early modern period, can be warranted either by the durability of a particular inscription, or by the general replicability of all inscriptions. In either case it also requires the survival of a competent interpretive community. Furthermore, such permanence requires security against alteration. In a suggestive passage in his authoritative Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), William Blackstone privileged paper or parchment over any other substrate (such as wood or stone) because either paper or parchment offered a satisfactory combination of durability and security, qualities in tension with each other.
Given the fact that, by statute, in certain circumstances a written conveyance or deed would trump any oral evidence, Blackstone had to address the question of what physical form such a document should take (aside from the question of procedural form, such as the necessity for appropriate tax-revenue stamps) in order to count as a valid deed. It is as if Blackstone were addressing the question, What counts, formally, as littera scripta? His answer, informed by a critical reading of seventeenth-century treatises, has implications for twenty-first-century understandings of littera scripta in the age of electronic text.
Blackstone posited an antithesis between textual durability and textual security. Both are desirable features of the written word, but they are at odds: one comes at the expense of the other; and the ideal medium for writing will maximize both. The ideal medium would be a compromise: a substrate sufficiently fragile to betray tampering readily, yet sufficiently durable to secure the permanence of the text. Paper and parchment were two such media; and so, according to Blackstone, the law required that deeds be written on paper or parchment, and not some other substrate.
Like printing, but to a greater extent, electronic media substitute replicability for the durability of any substrate: typically the electronic word survives not by binding to a physical medium but by being readily and precisely copied. Therefore security cannot depend on the choice of substrate: it must be achieved homogeneously in the electronic code itself.
Texts written in analog media are naturally auto-historical: that is, whatever their referent they carry more or less legible traces of the history of their being inscribed, a history which can be understood in relation to the history of other events. In that respect such texts are like stone itself, which has its place in the geologic record. But texts written in digital bits are characteristically ahistorical: unless artificially date-stamped, they lack any fixed relation to any historical moment; they are like water. In Benjamin's terms, they renounce the "aura" of historical authenticity in favor of an easy access afforded by perfect, fungible reproduction. Electronic text is naturally synchronic; and only the artifice of experts can authenticate it by binding it to the history of passing moments, through such devices as digital time-stamping based upon hashing the code.
Unlike the evidence afforded by the paper or parchment underlying an inscription, such evidence of the security of the text is not available to direct experience; it becomes a construct of expert testimony. In the electronic age the permanence of writing comes to depend upon experts other than the writer or the reader, custodians of the text comparable to the hieratic scribes of ancient Egypt or the secretaries of early modern diplomacy. The permanence of electronic writing is not at all open to inspection but becomes a secret.
{footer if any}
return to top