Affect Theory: Aura of Manuscripts

In a world dominated by print, it is important when encountering work in a different form, to take stock of its unique characteristics. When analyzing the manuscript of Austen’s “The History of England”, or Dorothy Wordworth’s “The Grasmere Journal”, we must evaluate how this presentation of the text dictates both its affect and aura. Does seeing an author’s handwritten text instead of generic typeface manipulate our emotional or intellectual response to the text?

Anna Chen addresses this query in her article “In One’s Own Hand: Seeing Manuscripts in a Digital Age”. Chen argues that “handwritten documents often elicit[s] immediate and emotional responses from viewers” because they are seen to embody the creator of the script (par.2). Handwriting has become increasingly more important to audiences as we have moved into a primarily digital era because it triggers nostalgia for the “corporeal identity” of the past (Chen par. 3). The “individually distinctive” features of handwriting stand “in contrast to the chilly impersonality of print” and evoke the perception of emotional ties to the author (Chen par. 4). This warmth – both referring to the warmth of the human body that creates the handwriting and the emotional “heart-warmth” the audience feels when viewing it – is what creates this incredibly affect and aura.

To demonstrate this argument, Chen utilizes the example of President Ronald Reagan’s handwritten letter to the American citizens outlining his personal health struggles while in office.  Chen argues that the letter garnered a more powerful message being viewed by audiences handwritten because you could see what appeared to be the “physical degeneration” of President Reagan (par. 19). This bodily aura of the text created a more potent emotional effect on the readers. As Chen asserts, Reagan’s “unreadable body” becomes “perfectly legible” because of the “viewers’ expectations about handwriting’s ability to embody its creator” (par.21)

President Reagan’s Letter (Courtesy of Google Images)

This very same theory can be applied to “The History of England” or “The Grasmere Journal”. For example, seeing Austen’s script on paper catalyzes a bond between viewer and creator. We feel privy to her colloquialisms and to the satirical genre of her text, which is exciting and engages us as active readers. Austen’s parodying the actions of British monarchs and the satirical commentaries that accompany her witty, psuedo-historical entries become clearer, more intimate, and – overall – more humorous when read in her handwritten script. However, while this window into Austen does seem extraordinary, it must be approached with caution. The aura of the manuscript is duplicitous: being both inviting (as we feel more connected to the author) and deceiving (in prompting us to forego a critical approach to the text in favour of the (supposed) intimate bond with the author that accompanies handwritten texts). Often the “initial visual effect” of handwritten documents overwhelms our senses, blinding our ability to assess the text. (Chen par. 27). As an active and critical audience, we must work to interpret manuscripts carefully in order to harness their potential for new study.

Chen, Anna. “In One’s Own Hand: Seeing Manuscripts in a Digital Age.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 6.2 (2012).

*To view page images of the manuscript that display Austen’s handwriting click here