Avatars of the Word– O’Donnell– 1: Plato’s Phaedrus

“A drug of ambiguous power may heal or poison.”
– highly paraphrased Derrida

O’Donnell, J. J. (2000). Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace: Harvard University Press.

A point that O’Donnell raises early in this text is the public-vs-private setting of the pre-Gutenberg writer, who wrote, copied, and distributed his texts in hand-written manuscript form. “There was no divorce between private and public” (11). In this way, the writer was quite in the public, as opposed to the printed book one now buys off the shelf, which has no physical tie to the author; although penned by he or she, it has gone through an editor, and an elaborate printing-publishing-packaging-distribution process. With the arrival of printing, the idea of the “author” was born: one who sits alone, working through the manufacture of the text and then turning it over to a publisher.

With the internet, that level of self-publishing (private-to-public) is again present, since one can immediately publish online anything he or she has written and can receive feedback almost as rapidly. The OVC offers this publishing and feedback immediacy, yet in a largely non-textual form. An individual can post a video to the general public or to a specific (and often private) community and receive feedback and conversational engagement almost immediately.

In the 2nd chapter, O’Donnell addresses Plato’s Phaedrus. As I’ve discussed before in papers and some here, Plato dislikes the concept of writing and the practice of writing because it assimilates voice/orality which assimilates thought. So, primarily, the root of a topic is in thought. Plato and Socrates (Plato likely being the most popular/familiar author of Socrates) do not think highly of the written word thinking that it kills memory as well as the fact that text cannot answer for itself for purposes of clarity or to defend itself. As O’Donnell notes, “Writing has not the protections against misunderstandings that speech has” (21). However, some of the same downfalls that Socrates found in the written word (the objectivity and externality) can be seen as benefits. “Words that have been written down will lie still when you examine them–there are no speakers to change their minds or shift their ground” (21).

So, in its unique presentation, the OVC offers an interesting perspective on this view. The video nature of it has similar characteristics of the written word. An initial recorded video is static; it lies still and cannot answer for itself, yet it therefore can be examined and reviewed without it fluctuating in message or opinion. However, that one can comment and/or inquire of the video via text or video post at any point in the original video’s timeline opens a certain dialogue. A reader/viewer can request clarification, ask a question, or put forth some type of argument to a point the original speaker made. The speaker can, in turn, respond to the individual. This situation is similar to a FtF conversation in this way, yet it does not have the immediacy that FtF offers. It does, however, offer the benefit noted above of the written word; the conversation, unless deleted, remains static and available for either individual or even a third party to review and analyze.

Placed in the context of a written book, it would be as if the reader, upon formulating a question or comment, could immediately ask it of the author and could receive a response within a relatively minimal amount of time (within a few hours or days, considering the speaker likely gets some type of alert that a comment has been made on a given post). Either the original speaker or commenter can change his or mind or tangent to another conversation, but the original line remains. Also, that one must record and post the video allows more time to structure an argument, whereas FtF responses are more immediate and reactionary and therefore less planned/structured.

I will return to the Phaedrus later and offer further discussion on many aspects of that (I think I even still have a video presentation to share). However, before leaving this topic, I want to address a few points that O’Donnell raises. Toward the end of the Phaedrus (276c), Socrates ruminates on how he has enjoyed the conversations that he and his young lover have been having, comparing the process to a written form. O’Donnell states, “The dialogue as written is a model of how discourse might work, but it is no substitute for dialogue in the flesh” (22). Variations of this thought–that the FtF conversation is the ultimate in all forms of communication–are put forth repeatedly in all of the media theories (and others) that I am bringing into my study: media richness, media synchronicity, and media naturalness. But the extent to which this model should be pedestalled and others disregarded is a still-debated view. O’Donnell writes,

“How much of that ideal is worth retaining is a large question. We can cherish the dialogue and cherish face-to-face communication without dispraising other forms and other media. (If we do this wisely, we may see new media sometimes reenacting old forms with a new vitality.)” (22).

For the purposes of my study, I do see many advantages of FtF communication over other forms, particularly in regard to social presence. However, it is not logical to consider this a perfect communication form, since it does not include the ability to recall it exactly or to return to it for analysis, such as the written word allows. Again, here one can look to the OVC for such benefits. The social presence offers the benefits of FtF communication with the ability to break the limits of space and time. Note, that I am not citing the OVC as the ultimate form of communication, nor even stating it is better than FtF. The OVC also has its downfall: that it is lacking live, immediate responses; conversations in the OVC take place with some level of lag. What we are really seeing in this example is O’Donnell’s reference to new media reenacting old forms with new vitality… and variety.

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