Notes on Of Grammatology

It took me a bit to get started, but here we go...

If, as Derrida suggests, writing threatens language, then digital technology extends this threatening, by engaging so many more people in the “play.” As the actors gather, as the stage widens, the stakes increase. In 1968 Derrida suggested:

The advent of writing is the advent of this play; today such a play is coming into its own, effacing the limit starting from which one had thought to regulate the circulation of signs, drawing along with it all the reassuring signifieds, reducing all the strongholds, all the out-of-bound shelters that watched over the field of language. (7)

Forty years later, what better sign of this coming (change for Derrida is always a specter of the future) do we have than wikipedia? Wikipedia realizes much of what Derrida refers to as the death of the book, “the death of the civilization of the book, of which so much is said and which manifests itself particularly through a convulsive proliferation of libraries” (8). Rather than further replicate the logocentrism of language through a further proliferation of libraries, we are witnessing a transformation- a transformation incited by digital writing. Writing not as a noun, not as objects proliferated across places, but writing as an action "collected" in placeless spaces. We have a proliferation of writers, many of whom are alien to the traditional strong-holds of language and Thought. There work appears, but it does not multiply or collect arithmetically. It appears and disappears. It transforms. Dynamically authored and edited, texts transform. It is these new movements- especially the disappearance, that so differs from the culture of print, presence, and permanence. Rhetoric has long been the art of shifty wordsmiths; it is ready for a digital word in which words actually shift in real time. Digital writing, especially wikipedia, is a celebration of “the human and laborious, finite and artificial inscription” (15). Web 2.0’s open opposition to “expertise” is a rejection of a logocentric divinity that positions truth as external to humanity, especially to the masses. Rather than libraries, we have librarying (and, of course, LibraryThing).

A task that I will face: is librarying logocentric? This is not a question I as of yet feel qualified to answer. But my initial suspicions are yes... and no. Digital technologies are not an absolute break from print/literate culture. They are a transformation. Just as with the transitions from orality to literacy and then from literacy to print, the transition from print to digitality will retain much of what has come before: especially the desire to know, to learn, and to exchange. What will be different, I suggest, is that our knowing, learning, and exchanging will transpire with a stronger exposure to the Face of others. Our contact will knowledge (and others) will be tempered by the ethical encounter with the Face of the Other. Words will not be dead, but uncomfortably living.


Casey said...

How does wikipedia make me face the other more than a book?

Also, you're approaching the concept of palimpsest, which you might find useful in your dissertation -- Mary Leader gave a big speech on this last year at one of the poetry readings. The idea is that something is written (say on a chalkboard or on wikipedia) and then it is "overwritten," but sometimes traces of what was underneath remain.

But for the record, are you making a value-judgment with any of this? Is wikipedia in its ever-effacing way somehow better than a collection of Shakespeare's poems? The idea with poetry and literature has always been effacing (this is why Shakespeare wrote more than one sonnet, and why Hawthorne wrote more than one novel)... the only thing that is lost is the record of previous incarnations.

That is, the wikipedia entry for "truth" right now looks a lot different than it did seven years ago and will look different in another 70 years, right? But doesn't wikipedia keep a "cache" of every change made--sort of like a collection of ever-developing efforts at perfect sonnets?

Does this make sense?--I feel like I'm not making my question clear.

I'm most interested in that point about valuation: is it valuable to know that the most intelligent people alive 200 years ago thought A and the most intelligent people 100 years ago thought B and our parents thought C? Or should we just focus on D, D, D, D!!!!

You know?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Good questions Casey. Let me see if I can offer some kind of answers. Freud talks about something similar to the Palimpsest early in his career (I forget where) in relation to consciousness and dreams.

1. I am always making value judgments, I won't try to present myself as neutral or objective. When it comes to digital technology, what we're doing right now, what I'll be doing later today (checking my RSS feeds, commenting around the blogsphere), I'm a big fan. I believe the form of rationality developed in literate / print culture is egoist and violent. It is, for reasons I will address in future posts, unethical (in a postmodern sense). It imposes upon others. So, I am looking to the possibility of digital culture as resisting ethical imposition. It is much harder to impose rationality upon someone speaking back to you. In short, it is potentially harder to be condescending here than it is in a book. Maybe. My hope--and I embrace it as a desire and not a Truth--is that contact with others is good. History can either support or challenge my desire. I supplement this desire with a second: that education will turn to collaboration, to shaping the ways we encounter otherness.

2. I'm a bit confused on how you are using "effacing" here. Certainly a series of poems plays with a kind of erasure or disappearance, but I would recall how many of Shakes' sonnets champion the poem's ability to trump time (sonnet 15 comes to mind, but I know there's a better example of this...)- the power of the printed word as permanent, as the opposition of transience. This is biblical, no? The power of God's word to call the universe into Being? Word = Being. I am suggesting that digital textuality creates a different relationship to language- or I should say suggests a different way of perceiving our relationship to language. Word= Becoming. Part of this transformation is signified in the very thing you mention: the cache of changes (along with the discussion pages that correspond to every entry). Imagine if we had a running daily dialogue with Hawthorne of every decision he made while crafting a novel... Well, that's a different point entirely. My point, my dissertation, is built around the idea that metaphysics and ethics emerge alongside our relation to language. I'm trying to avoid the chicken or the egg question (chasing down the origin of this relation, what precedes what). And digital technology, its transience, its multiplicity, its accessibility, etc., institutes a very different relationship to language (whether this will produce metaphysical/ethical change or whether these changes already took place and thus determined the form of a new technology I'll leave unto others). My goal is to demonstrate, to highlight, to expose how this transformation appears in the public sphere. How it engages millions of people world wide. How it extends beyond the walls of the academy. If the printing press generated a "reading public," then the net is cultivating a writing public. Perhaps this reads too simple and naive, but I'm o.k. with that.

3. All questions of value come packed and loaded- I'll speak to my own work. Historicity (obviously) plays a huge role in my work. I'm beginning to think of my work more and more as a kind of cultural evolutionary theory. I'm not approaching this in an Hegelian fashion; rather, I am trying to understand the development and proliferation of cultural memes and technologies, of social movements, as responses to "history" (the positions in time/space we inherit, into which we are inserted, into which we call into being- we both write and read history, perhaps this placing into history is rhetoric's ultimate function: the determination of context) and to "desire" (and I have no rational explanation of what this means). For me, it is intensely necessary to know what Locke thought of language, what Hegel thought of dialectic, what Nietzsche thought of Hegel, etc. But it is just as necessary to attempt to understand how our historic moment differs from theirs, how their answers, their determinations, their desires may or may not correspond with our own. A, B, C, and D need to be put into conversation with each other, even if we [Levinasians, postmodernists] know these things cannot speak for themselves, but are voices in Ourstory [that thing formerly possessed by the third person: History].

Wow, there's a conference paper or two in there. I feel like I should go read a bunch of De Ceretau. Thanks for the great question.

Casey said...

I think what I'm imagining is a violation of ethical principles from the other side than you seem to be interested in. I agree that imposing upon others is unethical--that seems to be your keystone. But would you allow that perpetually resisting the imposition of others is ethically neutral? That is, if someone is trying to tell me something, either in print culture or on wikipedia, or in person, do I have some ethical responsibility not just to not impose on them (i.e., not force them to change their views) but also to "authentically" listen? I realize that "authentic" is a troubling word here; I'm going to let it linger there undefined for now, hoping that you know what I mean.

All of this to say (regarding point #1) that sometimes it might be better to be unable to "talk back." Am I not wholly attentive to the other when I am reading/"listening to" a book they have written?

On point #2, I agree mostly, but I think Shakespeare might've been a bad example. Someone like Wallace Stevens or Walt Whitman might be a better example: really only trying to express one idea over and over again in many different poems throughout a career... so the effacing happens every time a poem gets printed and still seems to "just miss."

I think I'll let your words in #3 be the last word, for now. Cheers.