The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Derrida and Writing

In a number of the readings for this course the philosopher Derrida has been mentioned, along his “graphocentric” view that writing is a more primary type of communication than speech. He is a difficult philosopher to understand, but I’ve studied his thought somewhat in the past and I’d like to try to clarify his ideas about writing as far as I understand them.

The background that Derrida was coming from, and reacting against, was structuralism. According to structuralism, words have their meaning by how they relate to other words in a whole system of language. Proponents of structuralism thus draw a distinction between language (the whole system that gives words their meaning) and speech (the things we actually say). The distinction is discussed by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in this comedy sketch

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A related distinction made by structuralists was that between the signified and the signifier. The signified is the place a word takes in the whole system of language and the signifier is the spoken sound of the word or written mark of the word.

Derrida rejected the idea of a fixed system of language giving meaning to everything written and spoken, and rejected the idea that there is a signified that gives meaning to the signifier. He believed that language should be understood in terms of the signifiers only, which in turn are to be understood as dependent on acts of signifying. These acts of signifying have meaning, he thought, only in relation to all other acts of signifying. With new acts of signifying, these relations could change, and so meanings are never fixed but are open to change, their meaning being constantly “deferred”. His method of “deconstruction” is an attempt to change received meanings and received interpretations, using methods such as reversing the received view about what is important and what is unimportant in a text.

Derrida believed that the notion that speech is primary and writing secondary was based on the mistaken view that, with speech, the meaning of our words is something “present”. According to this view, the person who speaks has mastered the system of language to some extent and is an authority on what he or she means. For instance, when you speak to me I am able to respond to your questions and reply, “No, what I meant was…” The written word, in contrast, is something whose meaning is more elusive, for it depends on what the writer meant when he or she wrote it, and the writer may be absent and might even be dead when we read it.

Although he acknowledged that from a historical point of view speech appeared before writing, Derrida thought that writing revealed the nature of language more fully than speech did, for it reflected the way in which the meanings of what we say are not within our control and are constantly open to revision and reinterpretation.

The clearest introduction to Derrida’s views on writing that I have come across is in Richard Harland’s book Superstructuralism. You can see some of it here.

There’s also a movie about Derrida on google video, which is not too bad

October 11, 2009   No Comments

Reflections Modules 1 and 2

I am enjoying the content of the two courses I am taking this semester tremendously, both via readings and sharing by keen and engaged fellow-learners. Unfortunately, I have a sense of missing much since there is such a plethora of material and it rests in many different places, both within course materials/wikis/weblogs/webCT,  and via the excellent links to further reading and viewing.  As I read through the postings while catching up after the flu, I feel all the salient points have been presented in so many comprehensive ways—what else can I say that is even remotely witty or wise? That adds to the discussion in a meaningful, scholarly way?


 In our readings, we have explored the way humans transitioned from primary orality and adapted to new ways of putting pen to “paper”. That process took from 3500 BC to now. Very recently, text is becoming more plastic and functional by integrating hypertext, and news travels very fast by widespread social network collaboration. We are moving away from solo writer, and set in “stone” letters and words, to plastic text—textology is changing fast.


Postman in Technopoly presents a position of concern around new technologies.


In Brands’ Escaping the Digital Dark Age, the loss of digitized data is explored in detail. He admonishes all to sit up and take notice of this hidden risk.


The CBC commentary surrounding the digital universal library concept is a wandering exploration of the issues of copyright, and private corporation involvement. The Kelly article “Scan this Book” explores many similar themes as in the other readings about the universal digital library.

O’Donnell proposed in the Virtual Library piece that the idea is neither new nor golden.  He speaks of the historical aspects from The Great Library of Alexandria through the Memex in the ‘40s, and expresses concern that “infochaos” will be the only thing to emerge from the debacle of the dreamed universal digital library of the future.


In the video version of funeral oration of Julius Caesar, and in Phaedrus, we saw classic oratory in the rhetoric form, which was also exemplified in the Plato Iliad excerpt. The irony of the Plato oration is that the written word is the vehicle he uses to expound his theories about the downside of writing, and he proposed that nobody who had serious and important ideas would write them down—how ironic is that! The issue Plato raises of the relationship of memory with written word is revisited in modern times in the Visible Language article, Hypertext and the Art of Memory.


James O’Donnell in “From Papyrus to Cyberspace” explored the flip side of new technologies—the downside, when we do not know fully the effects until after implementation. He believes that unpredictable change and a less intimate community are hallmarks of the modern time.  Dr. James Engell feels the state of affairs is that education is already transformed by new technologies, and the generational divide is a big one. He emphasizes instability in business and in information storage as examples of how unclear the future direction is in these frontier times.


Lamb’s article “Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, ready or not” is a good ingress into the next section of the course where we deal with the connections between text and fluidity of the web-based text realm. His thoughts about the use of wikis in academics and otherwise were a refreshing introduction to “wikidom”, the new and evolving kingdom of wikis.

October 11, 2009   No Comments