The act of writing might be isolated but to be a good writer in order to reach what Ong (2002) called the ‘fictional’ audience (p. 100), I believe, is to use the ‘right’ written words, the ones that reflect our thoughts the best. And this can be challenging. Clearly, it needs self-confidence to transfer original thoughts in writing, perseverance and dedication to complete what I think is an absolute self-directed act. Moreover, and most difficult, a writer must have the ability to materialize the written words into reality so the audience can understand his thoughts. Indeed, transcribing is a complex process that humans are uniquely capable of; and it continues to evolve over generations.
Autonomous Discourse in Writing
Plato (n.d.), through the voice of Socrates in Phaedrus, argued that written words were poor in comparison to spoken arguments. Likewise, Ong (2002) said that “writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language” “or ‘autonomous’ discourse” (p. 77) which he compared to oral speech that can be contested while written discourse cannot. Nevertheless, the idea that writing is detached from the author is questionable; in today’s society, the written words chosen by an author must be articulated and should be supported.
However, Ong (2002) stated that writing “separates the knower from the known” (p. 43). According to him, people “need not only proximity but also distance” (p. 81) to fully understand what is written and get into the writer’s mind. Moreover, Ong (2002) developed an interesting point about writing being not natural but artificial which allows the reader’s mind to open up in new directions. It is this artificiality that “establishes in the text a ‘line’ of continuity outside of the mind.” (p. 39)
Hence, writing should be considered an instrument of “power” (p. 92) as it gives the readers new avenues to investigate and endless possibilities to innovate. Indeed, “by taking conservative functions on itself, the text frees the mind of conservative tasks, that is, of its memory work, and thus enables the mind to turn itself to new speculation” (p.41). So, the process of writing allows a new organization of the thoughts; using written words is liberating the mind in some ways.
Writing: is this really a Solipsistic Operation?
Furthermore, Ong (2002) assured that “writing is a solipsistic operation” (p. 100) where the writer is alone and his writing, introspective. Moreover, since the writer and the reader are isolated from each other as Ong (2002) alleged, the interpretation of a text may vary from audience to audience. Still, if his words are right, can it be for the best interest of the supposedly well written piece? Thus, since the reader can interpret the writer’s thoughts by the words he is using, it becomes important to choose them well. Even though the ‘perfect chosen words’ will never be perfectly chosen it is necessary to decide on some words that will best represent the person’s thoughts.
Therefore, despite the fact that the author may question the degree of his ‘fictional’ audience’s ability to understand his thoughts, it is important to note that “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLulan, 1964). In fact, by choosing words to represent his thoughts, the writer is adapting to others, even though he doesn’t know the readers, so the text can be understood by his readers. Hence, it certainly demonstrates a form of socialization that can only happen while the writer is in contact, even fictionally, with others which I believe is contradicting Ong (2002)’s thoughts on the subject when speaking about writing as a “solipsistic operation” (p. 100).
The Effect of Written Words on Readers
In addition, the characteristics of the words chosen are going to determine the degree to which the readers are affected. However, we can ask what will be the pros and cons for the written words to be understood differently by the readers and if it changes something for the writer at the end? Also, does interpretation or misinterpretation of a text influence societal evolution? Whose responsibility is the ‘right’ interpretation of a written text: the writer or the reader? Is there such a thing as a ‘right’ interpretation of a text? And can written words be specifically chosen by the writer to captivate the audience in a certain way? Could it be looked as a form of cheating the audience? Does the reader ‘fictionalize’ the writer like the writer does with the reader? And does that have an impact on the reader’s interpretation of the text?
These are just a few questions I would have liked Ong (2002) answers in the fourth chapter of his book Orality and Literacy but, ironically, since the written words cannot be questioned, as suggested by the author himself (p. 100), it allows me to self-debate my own thoughts.
Externalizing Writing into the World
As it first started with oral stories that over time were written in sophisticated manners depending on culture and history, words are now expanding through more new technologies – including written words (e.g. text messages on a cell phone, forty characters messages on Twitter) – which diversify the writing communication spaces but where miscommunications may happened more often. After all, written words may be understood differently depending on the readers’ individual and cultural values.
Ultimately, the words might be the same but their meanings might change. And according to Postman (1992) if we considers words being the equivalent of technology, “our task is to understand what that design is – That is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open” (p. 7). Consequently, I agree with Ong (2002) when he said that “technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines “freedom”, “truth”, “intelligence”, “fact”, “wisdom”, “memory”, “history” – all the words we live by. And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask”. (p. 9). Finally, it is safe to say that using written words to express ideas brings humanity to the world.
McLullan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The extensions of man. McGraw-Hill.
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. (pp. 1-114). London: Routledge.
Plato. (n.d.). Phaedrus. (Jowett, B, Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1446405
Postman, N. (1992). Technology: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage books.
You asked a few questions that I’d like to answer. “Is there such a thing as a ‘right’ interpretation of a text?” It depends on the text. Poetry and theatrical scripts are open to interpretation by the reader and the performer. Scientific texts are meant to be accurate, and therefore, only to be interpreted in one way or in a minimal amount of ways; the background of the reader can not be neglected. Historical texts are meant to be interpreted in different ways, depending on the reader, but an experienced historian will likely interpret the text better than a novice.
“And can written words be specifically chosen by the writer to captivate the audience in a certain way?” Certainly. An experienced writer will know how to make something sound more dramatic than someon who has no creative talent.
“Could it be looked as a form of cheating the audience?” If the author is irresponsible or ill-intentioned, the audience will rightly feel cheated. Bias in tone or content can affect people in different ways, be they positive or negative. This is why it’s important for writers and editors to be as clear as possible and for readers to request clarification as needed.
Thank you Danielle for your reply! ;o)
I like the way you explain how different texts can be interpreted differently by readers except for the scientific ones, of course. But certainly, a scientific text could open avenues to more innovative ideas depending on the reader’s experience in the field and desire to go further and beyond. So, I think that not all will take it on the same degree. So, I guess, what I am trying to say is that the reader is as important as the writer discussing the interpretation/comprehension of a text. Perhaps, from that interpretation comes its value (the value of the text).
About the chosen words to captivate the audience, I believe too that a good writer might use his/her talent to entertain the audience. But, if we talk about other type of texts, I wonder if a person behind a text is as always as authentic (true) as the person who is talking in person. Iwonder if the written words is making a barrier between what could be interpret as true people and false (people).
Yes, people from different disciplines will certainly have different interpretations of scientific data.
As for modes of communication presenting different barriers… Anyone who is extremely insecure might give the wrong impression both in writing or in person because they don’t feel confident about what they’re saying. For the average Joe though, it is still probably easier to send the wrong message, intentionally or not, with written communication. There is no eye contact to provide feedback and determine whether the listener understands or believes the message being sent. On the other hand, as has been brought up in many MET courses, asynchronous communication allows people more time to think before they write. This increases the chance that the writer gets to complete his/her thoughts because there are no interruptions and no pressure to answer quickly. It also reduces the chances of Freudian slips, which send the wrong message. Generally speaking though, the more signals you have (tone of voice, facial expression, body language, nervous tics…) the easier it is to tell whether your communication partner is honest or not. It takes a lot more effort to fake those signals in person (unless you’re a master of disguise) than it does to fake a written message.
I completely agree with you. One other thing that is very important with writing and most especially about the asynchronous writing is that these people who are really shy do not seem as shy this way. It seems that a this barrier doesn’t exist anymore for shy people while they write. But strangely, I have heard very talkative people (orally) who found that writing post was taking away some of their spontaneity. They felt they were not able to communicate at the same level as if they would have been in a f2f situation.
Isn’t it interesting? I guess in the equation we should also consider the personality of an individual.