Derrida – On the Demise of Language Through Writing (Part 2)

Last week, I had three questions posed on recent readings of Derrida. Here are the questions and my responses.

While Birkerts lays out a clear demarcation between electronic and print writing, Derrida writes in the pre-Internet era. If you were to hypothesize how Derrida would treat the relationship between print and electronic “text,” what would you say his treatment would be and why?

Derrida was alive and writing well into the Internet age, so I am interested to know what, if anything, he actually did write on this topic. However, prior to researching the issue, I will address this question.

Derrida would likely take issue with many aspects of the relationship between print electronic text. In the work that I read, he discusses the long degradation of language due to print. With the existence of IM-speak and the egalitarian nature of writing for the Web (producing far more low-quality public texts), he would shudder at the direction or rapid change in the angle of decline that the electronic text is taking language.

However, he might very well look favorably upon the existence of easily accessible audio and video on the Web. With writing, the signifiers and perception are produced more by the reader than by the author/speaker, which is converse to the spoken oration, since more meaning and signifiers can be gleaned from the live speaker through intonation, volume, physical gesture, repetition, etc. Therefore, online orations would bring back to the individual this condition of more accurately receiving a presented idea.

How does Birkerts view hypertext? What caveats does he bring to its use and development?

Birkerts appears very excited about the promise of hypertext but sees it in a sort of beta-stage in that not all issues and bugs have been worked through. In other words, it is a promising concept on many levels, including communication, organization, information exchange and storage, etc. However, hypertext can be damaging or at least subordinate to the printed word due to the ease through which one can alter information (impermanence), manufacture truths, and also (like Derrida I suggest) that it will add to the degradation of language.

Both authors refer to philosophy and language in their texts. How are the concepts of philosophy, language, and writing related for each, and how does each author illustrate this relationship in his text?

Perhaps I’m approaching this question from the wrong perspective, but one commonality is their discussion of the ancient philosophers (Greeks) in regard to language and the transition from primarily oral culture to chirographic to print to electronic to digital culture. Whereas the text was originally to be a supplement to the spoken word (Derrida quoting Rousseau), it became its own entity, diverging from the spoken word and decaying away from the advantages of orality.

Between the two articles, there are ample philosophers and scholars referenced, from Plato’s derailing of writing as the destroyer of memory, since it is an approximation of the spoken word, which was an approximation of thought (hypocrite we now know him to be) and Aristotle’s concept of spoken words and symbols of thought on to more contemporary scholars, such as Ong/McLuhan/Havelock, discussing orality vs. writing. Both writers incorporate these ideas and earlier theories into their discussions of the transitions that language has gone through and where it is likely to go and at a much quicker pace than the previous evolution.

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