Writing Technologies

Postphonetic Writing and New Media

Lydia H. Liu

If informatics and linguistics each depart from different assumptions about writing, they must arrive at rather different results in view of the ambiguous identity of alphabetical letters in respect to phonetics, visuality, and spatiality. Whereas modern linguistic theory has tended to perpetuate the phonocentrism of European comparative philology, algorithmic thinking has always revolved around the ideographic potentials of alphabetical writing thanks to the non-phonetic character of mathematical symbolism. In other words, writing persists in algorithmic thinking in spite of the linguistic sign.

In a recent study I devoted to exploring the interrelations of James Joyce, Claude Shannon, and Derrida, I tried to draw attention to one of Shannon’s theoretical constructs called ‘Printed English’. Shannon conceived of his Printed English as an ideographical alphabet with definable statistical structures which is composed of a 27-letter alphabet including letters A to Z plus a ‘space’ sign. Printed English entails a symbolic correspondence between the twenty-seven letters and their numeral counterparts and has nothing to do with phonemic units in the spoken language. As a post-phonetic system, this statistical English functions as a conceptual interface between natural language and machine language. As one of the most significant inventions since World War II, Printed English is a direct offspring of telegraphy because it is based on a close analysis of Morse code conducted by Shannon himself. The novelty of his Printed English lies not only in its mathematical elegance for encoding messages and designing information systems beyond Morse Code but also in the reinvention of the very idea of communication and of the relationship between writing and speech. 3 Printed English functions as postphonetic writing precisely in this alphanumerical sense with profound implications for what Walter Ong has called ‘secondary orality’ 4 because it refigures the biomechanics of human speech in such a way as sound and speech can both be produced, rather than reproduced, as an artifact of AI engineering, the example being TTS (text to speech) synthesis. 5

It is worth pointing out that the ‘space’ symbol in Printed English is a conceptual figure, not a visible word divider as is commonly observed in some writing systems. The centrality of printed symbol for technology has been well captured by Friedrich A. Kittler as follows: ‘in contrast to the flow of handwriting, we now have discrete elements separated by spaces’.6 The letter ‘space’ owes its existence to the statistical, rather than visual or phonemic, parameters of symbols. It has no linguistic meaning insofar as conventional semantics is concerned but it is functional as a meaningful ideographical notion. However, this point is difficult to grasp until we tackle the long-standing attribution of difference among non-alphabetical writing systems along the spectrum of pictography, ideography, and phonetic writing.

Ideographic writing has long been opposed to the phonetic alphabet as its non-phonetic other. The binary thinking exemplifies a metaphysical turn of the mind that Derrida tried to dismantle, although the exact relationship between the two appeared to elude his grasp for reasons I do not have the space to elaborate here. For a preliminary understanding of the subject, the first thing to do is NOT to associate ideographic inscription too quickly with the Chinese script. 7 Despite the various claims to the contrary, the written Chinese character can no more be equated with ideography, much less pictography, than alphabetical writing can be reduced to phonocentrism. We must remember that ideographic inscription has been a European idea, like that of hieroglyph, which would be foreign to the Chinese scholars who have written voluminously on the subject of the zi (individual character) or the wen (text/writing) over a period of two thousand years.8 The equating of the Chinese script with an ideographic system has been the unfortunate result of misunderstandings and motivated translations by early Christian missionaries and linguists who were poor intermediaries when it comes to reporting on the state of Chinese writing to their home audiences and to unsuspecting philosophers. The situation has not improved much since the time of Leibniz.

But there is no reason why one should dismiss ideographical writing as a false idea. Even if this notion fails to inform us about the Chinese script, it has enjoyed a productive career in the West with a penchant for prolepsis, that is, a dream that some day alphabetical writing would be able to shed its local phonetic trappings to become a universal script. It is this Leibnizian dream of transcendence that has given ideography its aura of alterity in Western thought, so one can continue to fantasize about direct graphic inscriptions of abstract thought the way mathematical symbols or deaf reading and mute writing transcribe conceptual objects, namely, without the mediation of speech or sounds.

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3. Lydia H. Liu, 'iSpace: Printed English after Joyce, Shannon, and Derrida', Critical Inquiry 32 (Spring 2006): 516-550.

4. See Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York: Routledge, 1982), pp. 133-34.

5. 'Text to speech' conversion denotes a branch of artificial intelligence that deals with the computational problem of converting from written text into a linguistic representation. This is one of the areas where the relationship between writing and speech can be fruitfully investigated for both engineering and theoretical purposes. See Richard Sproat, A Computational Theory of Writing Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

6. Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young & Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.16.

7. A report not very long ago in New York Times suggests that the world outside China is still very much in the dark about Chinese writing. See Emily Eakin, 'Writing as a Block for Asians', New York Times, May 3, 2003.

8. For a discussion of the strained translation of the zi by the concept of the 'word' and the troubled beginnings of modern Chinese grammar, see 'The Sovereign Subject of Grammar' in my book The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

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