Into the digital, oral era

Print edition : November 01, 2013

Chatting on an online platform in Karachi, Pakistan. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, SMS, blog, or any of the many chat-and-interact fora in the digital social media, there is an oral multi-sited discourse that adapts to the technology that enables or “pushes ” it . Photo: Asif HASSAN/AFP

A statue of Greek philosopher Socrates in Athens. Writing was an illegitimate offspring of the original spoken word for him. Photo: John Kolesidis/REUTERS

Jacques Derrida. He rescued writing from subservience to speech, to which influential intellectual opinion had relegated it for long. Photo: JOEL ROBINE/AFP

Umberto Eco. He traces the origin of the spoken word, in the Western tradition, to genesis, pointing out that creation itself arose “through an act of speech ”. Photo: T. Singaravelou

AS we lurch into a future mediated by digital technology, we cannot but notice that the oral has returned with a bang and vies with the written to exemplify our communication and expression. It is not just that in this interactive, multimedia-enabled ambience, video, audio and text can combine seamlessly; that you can see what you hear what you read. Even what may be only written acquires an orality; a manner of “oral writing” comes into force — somewhat as envisaged by Jacques Derrida as he rescued writing from subservience to speech, to which influential intellectual opinion had, for long, relegated it. The Derrida discourse was set against the phonocentric Western tradition of Socrates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Levi-Strauss and Ferdinand de Saussure—privileging speech over writing.

The spoken versus the written debate goes way back to the Socratic dialogue of around 370 B.C., as recorded by his pupil Plato. Socrates tells Phaedrus about the Egyptian god of invention, Theuth, waxing eloquent about his new creations—numbers, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and letters—to the Egyptian king Thamus. The king responded with appropriate enthusiasm to each of these until the presentation came to letters. On Theuth’s self-applause for his invention of letters as enabling writing, which in turn would, he claimed, aid memory, royalty gently rapped divinity on the knuckles and told him that it was not for the inventor to judge the usefulness or otherwise of his handiwork; it was for others to do so. The king went on to express his own concern that writing, far from helping memory, would in fact make people less reliant on their memory, since they could now record, and afford to forget, what they otherwise had to remember. Himself a man of the spoken, never the written, mode, Socrates was, of course, in full agreement with the king here. Writing, for him, was an illegitimate offspring of the original spoken word.

The origins of logocentrism were implicit in the Socratic parable of Theuth and Thamus. Speech came to be seen as superior to writing not only because it was anterior, but also because it was the originary act of language, writing being the derivative; and because speech implied presence, whereas writing implied absence. In his Confessions, Rousseau, in the 18th century, refers to writing as a means of absence: “The decision that I have taken to write and hide myself is precisely the one that suits me. If I were present, people would never have known what I was worth.” However, writing is by no means a virtue in itself. It connotes “destruction of presence and disease of speech”. It is clear to him that “languages are made to be spoken” and that “writing serves only as a supplement to speech”—supplement construed as an add-on to something that is already autonomously whole; thus, education becomes a supplement to nature which is otherwise whole; and masturbation is a “dangerous supplement” to wholesome sex.

Into the 20th century, Saussure railed against the “tyranny of writing” and against linguistic theory dealing with writing, declaring that “the object of linguistic analysis is not defined by the combination of the written word and the spoken word: the spoken word alone constitutes the object”. Levi-Strauss brought in the element of nostalgia for pre-literate cultures, suggesting that the practice of writing entailed a loss of innocence. More fiery opposition to the written word came from Dadaists like Tristan Tzara who called for all books and libraries to be burnt so that a fresh oral era could begin. For the media guru, Marshall McLuhan, the oral and the auditory had precedence over the visual which, he recognised, became dominant with the emphasis placed on seeing during the Renaissance and on reading with the advent of the printing press.

Umberto Eco traces the origin of the spoken word, in the Western tradition, to genesis, pointing out that creation itself arose “through an act of speech; God spoke before all things and said ‘Let there be light…’ . He called light Day, darkness Night and the firmament Heavens…. We are not told in what language God (later) spoke to Adam…out of the ground God formed every beast of the field, every fowl of the air and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.” Thus Adam, says Eco, may have been the first “nomothete”; when he first sees Eve, he says: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman.”

Earlier, Walter Benjamin had described the essence of language as “communication of mental meanings”, the use of words for the purpose being only a part of the exercise. Thus, Paradisiac language provided the perfect mental lexicon and was symbolised by the Tree of Knowledge. In this scheme, “The Fall marks the birth of the human word” —the word becomes a byproduct of the loss of innocence.

Ancient Indian tradition, of course, was pre-eminently oral and the languages of both the elite, Sanskrit, and of the masses, Prakrit, were ritually transmitted by word of mouth down the generations. The written form was disincentivised, considered infra dig and seen as resorted to by those who did not have it in them to memorise and remember. There was a sophisticated approach to the spoken word, distinguishing it in terms of “dhvani” (word) and “sabda” (sound), and the phonetic speech was considered superior to the non-phonetic. Writing was seen as polluting and was ritualistically tabooed in certain contexts. The Vedic text, Aitareya Aranyaka, stipulates that “a pupil should not recite the Veda after eating meat, seeing blood or a dead body, having intercourse, or engaging in writing”.

Well until the 1970s, historians considered the oral source and resource, drawing on a bank of memory, suspect categories for their study and research. Early in that decade, the socialist and social historian Paul Richard Thompson sought to cut through this mindset by setting up the British Oral History Society; in 1978 he published his The Voice of the Past: Oral History, which not only treated the remembered life and experiences of the community as valid historical information but also, in the process, was able to direct attention to silent and hidden or suppressed areas of history like the condition of women, or of the working class. Paul Thompson initiated a new approach to history which, as he described it, “allows heroes not just from the leaders but from the unknown majority of the people. It brings history into, and out of, the community. It helps the less privileged, and especially the old, towards dignity and self-confidence. It makes for contact—and thence understanding—between social classes and between generations….”

Social voice

That characterisation of oral history may well also fit the hubbub now obtaining in the new media online, which has an oral impulse both in terms of its freewheeling spokenness and in its drawing on the opinions and experiences of a teeming cross section of society. It is an oral multi-sited discourse that adapts to the technology that enables or “pushes” it—whether on Twitter, Facebook, SMS, blog, or any of the many chat-and-interact fora in the digital social media. It is more than and beyond the formal mainstream news media, more than “a nation talking to itself” as Arthur Miller described a good newspaper; it is more like a people discovering their social voice and themselves producing the information that sets the agenda for their lives, for their times. Variants of an autodidactic language suited to the requirements of the particular digital device or software quickly take hold and effect, and become accepted jargon for all participants in that space.

This is a continuous process, keeping pace with technological innovation on the one hand and seeking to cope with technological obsolescence on the other. Indeed information has to be deconstructed to fit the new bill. Shunya Yoshimi, Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Tokyo University, returns to the basic meaning of the term, information, as “the process of giving form to something” (cited in the recent work New Media: The Key Concepts by Nicholas Gane and David Beer). The physicist Hans von Baeyer (in his Information: The New Language of Science) elaborates on this idea of information and says it is “infusion of form on some previously unformed entity, just as de-, con-, trans-, and re-formation refer to the undoing, copying, changing and renewing of forms. Information refers to moulding or shaping a formless heap—imposing a form onto something”. Information, therefore, conclude Gane and Beer, is always in-formation on the new media. It is not surprising that the language of such information comprises a good proportion of neologisms, mostly with an oral inflection.

There is a frontline activity of mutating language and expression to match the emergent digital culture and technology of the new media. On the other hand, the written text and the writerly mode continue to exert a strong vestigial influence on the television and cinema screens. At least in India, we have still not evolved a spoken tongue for television. News presentations, as much as dialogues of serials, on our television continue to be text-heavy and read, rather than spoken.

In our typical box-office cinema, punchy message-suffused stretches of stilted dialogue evoke the virtual looming presence of the written script. The oral and the aural, even in these modern media, have by and large been literary, even if vocalised, representations of the written word. At the same time there are bursts of creative digital energy that are manifest as new-generation cinema or showcased on the numerous sites and offerings online as text, sight and sound, which indicate a new confidence and assertiveness, and come across as first-person presentation rather than representation. These forces, various and uneven, are, moreover, moving rapidly from the margins to the centre.

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