Issue 1.2, May 1986


On Being Out of Words    

Stephen A. Tyler

Department of Anthropology Rice University  

"Yes, I know but ..."  

The papers in this collection are part of a larger discourse that takes discourse itself as the object and means of understanding.  As in that wider discourse, they are more concerned with the means of sentiment than with the structure and means of knowledge. They resonate to the discourse that questions the hegemony of rep­ resentation and epistemology in Western thought and they echo its concerns with the tropes that legitimate and justify thought and action (cf. Rorty 1979; Lyotard 1979).

As in that discourse,  the discourse on orality and literacy resounds with the clash of two master tropes. One is the modernist trope of "loss  and liberation," of "the  past surpassed"; the other is the post-modem  trope of "resistance and recovery,'' of ''the past recuperated.'' The first tells the tale of how speech was overcome and surpassed by a writing that, though it destroyed the warmth, inti­ macy, passion, and spirit of the participatory oral world, created a powerful new form of consciousness capable of ever-increasing abstraction and precision (Ong 1982; Goody 1977; Barfield 1985). It is the modernist fable of technology trium­ phant, of the creativity-in-destruction  of the technology of the alphabet,  of the rise of civilization from savagery, and the surpassing of the life-world of common sense and oral mnemonics by science and technology. This story of the glory of the eye is also an elegy that tells of loss and alienation, for the price of civilization is the fragmentation of the wholeness of a form of life, and liberation from nature is paid for in alienation from nature. The kingdom of the liberated, autonomous cogito is a lonely place where others are only ghosts out of a romanticized past, summoned like natives from far off places to justify and legitimize alienation by their outlandish otherness. The difference that is the past is overcome in a utopian future still to come, but surely just around the comer.

The post-modem trope of resistance and recovery tells a different tale. It speaks of the irony of representation,  of that inescapable difference between ap­ pearance and reality, and exposes writing as the means that makes reality acces­ sible only by occulting it in a simulacrum that substitutes itself for the reality it pretends to represent. It parodies the sign that seeks to become speech by canni­ balizing the reality it represents. It stigmatizes writing as the enigma that seeks to enclose within itself both the representation and what the representation repre­ sents. It speaks of writing as the identity of means and ends that overcomes  its object by becoming it (cf. Derrida 1974).

Paradoxically,  orality is also the name of the counter discourse that resists the hegemony of the written word by recuperating the past, by reminding us that speech and communication  ground all representation,  not in the sign's  alienation of the world,  but in commonsense  practices when word and world meet in will and deed. This part of the story is told polyphonically in fragmentary episodes in the writing ofHeidegger, Wittgenstein,  Gadamer, and Habermas.

"On the other hand ..."

So long as we write as we do, we can never understand the world as a non­ literate might. That is the real message of Derrida's Of Grammatology (1974). It asserts again and again the necessary priority of writing to orality. Writing en­ compasses, precedes, and grounds orality. And if, as Ong declares (1982:78- 117), literacy means a change in consciousness, we must ask how writing then could describe that consciousness it replaces, except as it recreates it in its own image.

The discourse on orality and literacy reflects this conundrum. Having posited the absolute difference between orality and literacy in the writing of Parry, Hav­ elock,  Ong,  and others,  the writing of that difference  must necessarily seek to erase the difference by comprehending  it within the understanding that writes the difference.  Predictable dialectical  responses seek to soften or obliterate the dis­ tinction between orality and literacy by questioning the difference of the differ­ ence (cf. Tannen 1980). This reduction of difference never quite succeeds; a stub­ born, residual orality resists final absorption into the literature that created it, and engenders a suspicion about writing, for each attempt to erase the difference re­ creates it and encourages suspicion about the instrument and purposes of reduc­ tion.

This riddle is effectively  expressed in the phrase "oral  literature,"  which conveys exactly this sense of irreducible duality. Oral literature is not oral, but neither is it exactly literature, as the adjectival sense of "oral" clearly tells us. So long as we write alphabetically, so long will the world or orality seem to us at once strange and familiar, for orality and literacy are correlatives, the one un­ thinkable to us without the other. Our thinking is projected out of a con-text that presupposes writing and must necessarily render occult whatever proceeds from another presupposition. At best, we only mark and remark the difference in a writ­ ing that presupposes the possibility of the difference and seeks to relativize it to its own project.

The point of Derrida's exercise is not that orality is at last overcome by a writing that no longer presupposes it, but that so long as we write as we do, we will only re-establish the difference we seek to extirpate.  All our efforts to rep­ resent it tell us only of the re-presenting and mark the absence of the represented by pointing to the difference between the representation and what it is a representation of. This is the contradiction at the heart of the idea of the sign-that it has a meaning that is other than itself. One way out of this dilemma is to get rid of meaning by transforming the sign into a sign of itself, as the sign of another sign. Signs, and writing too, would then become simulacra that portend no beings beyond themselves or their com­ binatory possibilities. Semiotics, the combinatory possibilities of signs would overcome and obviate the semantic and representational aspects of the sign (cf. Derrida 1974:45-65). Not only would signs represent no thing-which would be only a failure of reference-they would not represent at all; they could only rep­ resent themselves; they would fill up their hinterland.

This move establishes at once the impossibility of "de-scribere" as realities "out  of" writing, and the absolutism of "de-scribere" as realities out of "writ­ ing." Writing makes realities out of writing but those realities are not outside of writing,  which means that we are out of writing in at least one of these ways. Paradoxically,  we could no longer speak (if ever we could) of the arbitrariness of the sign, for it would have no other of which it could be the arbiter. Its only other would be other signs from which it differed,  but which it could not represent. It would be a new kind of natural sign to parallel a new kind of nature. We could thus erase the otherness of the sign just as we have erased the otherness of the cultures it writes about. Having destroyed otherness in the rest of the world, we rend the otherness in the bosom of its creator.

If there could be no prior being for which signs could substitute and thus make the possibility of representation, how, but for sound, would this differ from speech? Would it not be the "pure being"  and "self  presence" of the monad wrapped in the self-evidence of its own incorruptible essence-the veritable spirit of speech as the simultaneous co-presence of word and world in the sign, the alpha and the omega of the Derridean reading? Derrida's deconstruction ofthe sign does not call being into question, it destabilizes the idea of the sign and ultimately un­ dermines the whole system of alphabetic writing. Derrida finds the sought for full presence of the word by a kind of negative capability,  by not seeking it, but by inventio, coming upon it in its denial. He retrieves orality not by appropriating or representing it, and not by describing it, but by a misrepresentation that amounts to a ''de-scribing.'' He confirms that when we tum a deaf ear to speech we also tum a blind eye to writing.  

"How can you ..."  

The neologism "computer literacy" seems to adumbrate some new kind of writing that will spell the end of the alphabet's  magical spell, even as it impends its apotheosis,  but the computer's artificiality and its uncompromising literalness are parodies of the fictions writing conceals, for they show us how writing was always a discourse shaped more by the demands of its technology than by the demands of production.

The computer is the sign of the triumph of parology, but it does not overcome writing any more than did moveable type. It undermines the meaning of writing, but it does not alter the means writing represents, for the alphabet is the model, source, and means of analysis and representation. It is not just the facilitation of reason and the instrument of abstraction, it is that reason and abstraction. What is abstraction that is not already the idea of the letter-as-sign,  and what is reason beyond the idea of rules for combining letters-as-signs? Analysis is a kind of ap­ plied alphabetism, a decomposition of wholes into elementary units-as-signs and the reconstitution of totalities synthesized by recombining elementary units. Rep­resentation is the substitution of one appearance for another, of the sign for the thing. It is the idea of mimesis that mimics the substitution of the letter for the sound.

Because it takes over, virtually unchanged, these fundamental features of alphabetic writing, the computer cannot overcome writing. It merely carries for­ ward writing's  project of the "matrix mind"  (Hartog 1985). It emulates, even though parodically and often without vowels, the basic operations of alphabetic writing. Its arrays, columns, and rows are a verbless text that recapitulates writ­ing's aversion to narrative, time, movement, change, and mutation. It provides metaphysical foundation to the post-modem  suspicion  of meta-narratives  that have beginnings, middles, and ends or "heavy" characters whose acts have moral consequences, but it does not portend the end of writing.

Only a writing that gave up analysis and representation could overcome al­ phabetic writing and that is why speech and the heiroglyph have always been writ­ ing's occult others and symbols of another form of life and way of knowing. Whenever we question representation or the analytic presupposition of discontin­ uous, autonomous, interacting parts, we look to some analogue of speech or the heiroglyph, and so today when analyticity and representation seem more and more inappropriate  in disciplines  concerned  with continuous, non-discrete processes and events, or with change, mutation, creation, and destruction, it is not surpris­ ing  to find people  searching for  some  new holographic writing  (cf.  Bohm 1980:27-64, 111-157). In other words, when we seek to understand "kinesis" in its full Aristotelian sense as something more than just local motion, then anal­ ysis and representation are inappropriate, for they are fitted to the matrices of mi­ mesis, to static,  spatial structures consisting of discontinuous,  discrete,  autono­ mous, interacting parts.

In the history of Western thought, speech, not writing, has rightly been as­ sociated with the "lively" aspects of kinesis, and it is worth remembering that it was this changeable,  impermanent character of speech that led Saussure to reject speech (parole) as the basis of semiology. We can thus understand why, for some, interest in orality,  rhetoric,  and dialog  implies  a rejection  of the easy totalitar­ ianism of Platonist semiology and a recuperation of Heraclitus.

Orality then,  is not just a counter discourse that can be co-opted and sur­ passed by the computer,  as Ong and others seem to think. It is part of the larger resistance to what Habermas has characterized  as the "colonization of the life­ world'' by scientism and the creaky futurist ideology of modernism. Orality is a discourse that articulates post-modernism with a different nuance.

"Really  . . ."

"So long as we write as we do,'' could we write differently, could we change the conventions of writing, could it be other-wise? Something of this sort is imagined above and in the idea of dialogical anthropology as a kind of "re-oralization" of writing, but inasmuch as dialog is understood as a better representation of na­ tive thought and culture it is still trapped in the allegory of alienation, for it is the anthropologist who represents native speech within the context of anthropological writing for his/her own reasons. So too, with the idea of poesis in anthropology where the exaltation of reflexivity merely reconfirms that anthropologists write of the native not for the native's  sake, but for themselves, out of their own interests or as an act of contrition or atonement (per contra Prattis 1985:266--281). Their elegies confirm the right to write and remind us that from Longfellow to Diamond the right of representation is the means of a morality.

Anthropologists invoke native speech out of nostalgia, a guilty longing for a past before writing and the corruption of civilization that writing creates and sym­ bolizes. Their "in  memoriam" in the incorruptibility of writing is the corruption of speech. Anthropologists play out the myth of the ''letter  that killeth,'' for they play the role of tricksters who out play the natives and spirit away the spirit of speech in a played out writing that hides the theft and exculpates them from any complicity in corruption (Derrida 1974:101-140;  Swearingen this issue).

The post-modern world countenances no surpassing or overcoming,  those peculiarly modernist motives. Our interest in orality tells us that writing sup­ presses but does not surpass speech. Speech irrupts again and again in one or another of its Adamic guises as we tell and retell the tale of origin-al-ienation. We can neither leave this past behind nor overcome it through a critique of writing that dismisses it as a mere correlative of a necessary future. We can neither forget the past that is speech nor represent it as other than past. Except in our speaking, speech is withheld from us. Writing puts everything in the past; it has no future. The past is the incurable illness of writing, for the myth tells us that writing is only our way of remembering something that never happened. That too, is why we tum to speech as a kind of therapeutic from an overdose of the past, from a writing that promised a truth it could not deliver.

Writing is an illness we cannot treat but only recover from. Our interests in dialog, poetry, and orality are vectors of a single urge to recover a sounding sense deadened by algebraisms without the sense of sound or the sound of sense. Our recovery of rhetoric and poetry, those writings marked by the presence of speech, signifies our discontent with plain style, with a form of writing defined by the absence of voice and the pretense of an absence of interest. We acknowledge not so much the presence of speakers and hearers as the presence of interest evoked by the presence of speakers and hearers. Our recovery of this past is our recovery from the illness of writing.

Discontent with the form of writing is nothing new. Writing reform has been the hallmark not only of modernism, but of the whole modem age from Bacon and Descartes to the present, but the plain style that separated itself from rhetoric and rhetoric from poetry in order to make itself more transparent to the independ­ ent order of things is snared by representation. It was the economy of style that mirrored the economy of things, but in a world where things have been swallowed up by their signs, who needs a style of writing that pretends to represent something other than itself? Our recovery of orality is our recovery from a kind of writing that more and more gets in the way of what we want to say.

The text of orality implicates participation, common action, common sense, reciprocity,  communication, and the communis as key concepts in place of our "letterized" epistemology of being, knowing, and representation founded on the distanced,  alienated,  and impersonal  observation  of a transcendental, panoptic ego. Speaking implicates a reality that constantly remakes itself, a reality whose total structure is never realized and cannot be known, yet can be participated in as if it were known or as if participation grounded itself. Our understanding, growing within participation, is autotelic; it develops its own standards of right­ ness and interpretation from within itself rather than from an exterior, transcen­ dental method. In place of the metaphor of seeing and observing it encourages a metaphor of saying,  hearing,  and doing that undermines the primacy of reason and apodictic proof as the work of an autonomous cogito. It relativizes knowledge and representation to communication, to the purposes, interests, and agreements of the communis which creates them as aesthetic fictions, after-the-fact by-prod­ ucts of making,  doing,  and acting.  Being and knowing are situated within the world of work and are not its means, justification, or foundation. Orality makes us think of many voices telling many tales in many tongues,  in contrast to the inherent monologism of texts that only tell different versions of the one true tale, each  version recapitulating-even  unwittingly---the  founding allegory of Q.E.D., which is its source, terminus,  and standard.    


Orality is the difference alphabetic writing invents for itself as the ground of the arbitrariness of the sign. It is the difference that enables the sign's origin and justifies its other-ness.  Without it, the whole possibility of arbitrary and unnatural signs collapses.  Signs become once again marks of a determinate natural order. Orality is the obstacle writing creates and seeks to encompass and overcome, for orality is to it the symbol of all that is chance,  passion, mutability, and indeter­ minateness in writing's  story of its own origin and essence. It is the miraculous residue of time in the all-memory of the timeless text. It is the remainder of nature, reminder of that past before civilization that civilization both disdains and eulog­ izes. It is the lack that is source,  justification, and obstacle.

Orality and literacy are contemporary reflexes of an ancient argument be­ tween the ear/mouth and the eye, between "saying" and "seeing," between ki­nesis and mimesis. Ever since the Greeks learned to write, the eye has dominated the ear/mouth  in the West.  The argument reemerges  now because writing,  the instrument of domination, has undermined itself and is being challenged by new technologies of representation.  The whole idea of writing and literacy, at the very moment when this hegemony seemed most assured, is now suspect in a way that it has not been for many centuries in the West. There is no need here to reiterate all the formidable cliches that intone the futuristic possibilities of computerization and their implications for literary's key notions of "book," "word," "reading," and "writing," except to note that these further triumphs of the eye portend the end of the domination of the eye, for they imply a logographic writing that will entail a pattern of sensorial integration different from that of the alphabet. They will engender a new struggle for domination, not just between the eye and the ear/ mouth, but between the eye and the hand that will finally end the hegemony of mimesis over kinesis in a consicousness that does not overcome orality but re­ covers, without repetition, the miraculous, the mutable, the chance, and the pas­ sion of speech.

But this age of ours, the one just before the age of the new writing, is a stage in which not even the eye can long survive. In order for the new writing to be born, it must first be disconnected  not only from the voice, but from the eye as well. It must break the whole spell of representation and project a world of pure arbitrariness without representation. It must be disconnected from any world that is not built into its own circuitry and programs. The new writing will be preceded by this writing that closes upon itself and no longer pretends to represent the voice or the eye, or anything but itself. For us, "orality" is the name of the resistance to this algebraism-this soundless shuffling of meaningless signs. Our redemp­tion in/from this tale of loss and liberation is not in sight, nor at hand. Could it be just on the tips of our tongues?    

References Cited

Barfield, Owen 1985 Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. New York: Harcourt Brace Jova­ novich.

Bohm, David 1980 Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Ark.

Derrida, Jacques 1974 Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goody, Jack 1977  The Domestication of the Savage Mind.  New York: Cambridge University Press. Hartog, Curt 1985   Matrix Mindsets. Datamation July:201-204.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois 1979 The Postmodem Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ong, Walter 1982 Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Prattis, J. lain, ed. 1985 Reflections: The Anthropological Muse. Washington, DC: American Anthro­ pological Association.

Rorty, Richard 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tannen, Deborah 1980 Implications of the Oral-Literate Continuum for Cross-Cultural Communication. In Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics. James E. Ala­ tis, ed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Stephen A. Tyler is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Rice University.