Speech echoes within the self, and is based on immediate thoughts, built upon interior structures and resonating in the present moment of dynamic sound. Yet, in order to move beyond the “now” and the limitations of immediacy within a limited frame of reference, technology is required. Technology enables us to extend our bodies and utilize tools to go beyond our current space into the unknown and extend our curiosity. As ancient societies sought to preserve their memories, develop new methods of learning and understand different cultures, writing was developed, culminating in the invention of the alphabet.
Writing is a technology, requiring tools, particular surfaces, and specialized substances to ensure durability. It is a transforming invention, since, according to Ong (1982), it reduces dynamic sound to a quiescent space separating the word from the living presence, thereby removing it from the moment of creation and preserving it. This invented human technology, as defined by both Walter Ong and Marshal McLuhan (Jackson, 2006), is the material representation of language which goes beyond a set of symbols. Rather, writing provides for the augmentation of storage, preservation and accuracy of language and memory. It is a profound technology that not only transforms speech, but also all forms of human interaction, thought and sense of existence. Oral and aural methods of communication are thereby transformed into a visual object, which is external and in contrast to sound, outside of the body. This enables a transformation of speech, thought and concept of existence.
Ong (1982) writes that, when the ancient Greeks developed the first alphabet which included vowels, they did something of major psychological importance. Not only did it give them an advantage over other ancient cultures, the transformation of sound into a visual alphabet provided an abstraction from the vocal world into purely visual components existing in a spatial plane where human sound elements were transformed into letters and letter combinations. This reduction of sound enabled both the ability to translate other languages, but also provided the technology to move beyond pictures or simple symbols with the deconstruction of each element of sound into its simplest element. It also simplified learning by providing a standardized visual system of elements of sound, which together produced words, thereby impacting perspective.
In Phaedrus, Socrates speaks of his worries that writing will transform perspective. Hence the preserved image replaces the true image and the sense of what is real is transferred from a primary reality to a technological manifestation. (Churchill, 2003) In this, writing can be seen as one of the most momentous inventions, since by the transference of speech into the visual, thought is also transformed, and with this, perception and understanding. In societies based on Orality, the voice and ear are the primary senses through which learning and communication take place. This is the most natural process, since as humans, we learn to talk and listen far earlier than we learn to write. What is significant about the transformation from Orality to Literarcy is that sight now becomes an integral part of understanding. Through sight, we are more able to move beyond the internal experience to a more external perspective. This provides a connection between the objective and subjective fields of perception and understanding of the relationship between the world and an object, and the self in relation to the objective world.
Ong (1982) states that writing transforms interior consciousness. It does not well up in the unconscious, a characteristic of the immediacy of sound, but rather through an alienation from the natural, resonating once the alphabet and rules of grammar have been internalized. In this alienation from the natural, there is a sense of estrangement from self, and according to Gendron (2004), in order to write, the author must, in some sense cease to be, and exist in an empty space. Writing is therefore outside the subject, similar to Heidegger’s concept of the forward and outward projection of the self. (Gendron, 2004) The technology of writing thus provides the abstract space within which rational thought and self-reflection can take place. Yet despite the alienation from the natural, there is a relationship between the spoken and written word.
In researching the relationship between speech and writing, Stähler (2003) describes the spoken word as an expression of a thought, and the written word as an image of the thought. The image created by writing is further from the thought than the speech, and requires space. Speech is an instantaneous creation of a sound based on a thought, so it does not require space, is much more natural and exists only as long as the sound persists. Conversely, writing is the manifestation of a memory that goes beyond the “now” and reveals the passage of time. With a deep awareness of the passage of time, and an acute sense of past, present and future, deeper consciousness is possible. This transformation of thought and perception reveals the profound impact of writing as a technology on the human mind and existence.
The revolutionary act of creating a visual representation of language is such a profound augmentation of language and memory that it produced incredible transformation in society. There is much research to support the notion that writing produced modernity, modern science, and even formal reasoning. (Jackson, 2006). Since formal reasoning depends on the externalization of thought, it cannot exist without writing or the internalization of writing based on a tradition and culture of literacy. Gendron (2004) describes Blanchot’s concept of self-estrangement as a requirement of writing, by stating that in order, to write, the author must give him/herself over to the work and in some sense become the work. In this way, writing transforms our reality and we become the words and exist within the text.
The development of the alphabet, wherein words transformed out of sound into a visual sign, is a profound technological development that led to the development of rational thinking, an extension of memory as well as a transformation of perspective and sense of self. This technology is perhaps the most significant invention in the history of humanity. Not only did it introduce the modern, but it changed the way in which we experience time, consciousness and our existence. Writing, as a technology, enables us to extend our thoughts beyond the present moment, express our ideas in a powerful visual form that provides greater depth of understanding, a universal means of communicating sound visually through the alphabet, as well as a separation of the object from the viewer. This enrichment of human consciousness and intensification of the interior thought processes, coupled with an alienation from self, provide greater insight into what it means to be human as well as the intricacies of human thought, experience, psyche and curiosity.
Churchill, J. (2003). What Socrates Said to Phaedrus: Reflections on Technology and Education. Midwest Quarterly, 44(2), 211.
Gendron, S. (2004). “A Cogito for the Dissolved Self:” Writing, Presence, and the Subject in the Work of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze. Journal of Modern Literature, 28(1), 47-64..
Jackson, T. E. (2006). The De-Composition of Writing in “A Passage to India.”. Journal of Modern Literature, 29(3), 1-18.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
Stähler, T. (2003). Does Hegel Privilege Speech Over Writing? A Critique of Jacques Derrida. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 11(2), 191.