Writing Technologies

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Postphonetic Writing and New Media

Lydia H. Liu

Postphonetic writing has inaugurated the future of new media. As the technology continues to evolve and morph into something we may not yet know how to characterize, one of the first things we should interrogate is the idea of the phonetic alphabet. Inasmuch as the alphabet lies at the foundation of our literacy, literary theory, linguistics, and information theory, the theoretical implications of this construct need to be rethought in light of the advent of postphonetic writing and new media. Is the alphabet necessarily phonetic? This somewhat facetious question leads us to that other enduring, but contentious, issue which had troubled the philosopher Jacques Derrida: What is writing?

Derrida’s insistence on the primacy of writing is well known but somewhat curious from this perspective because it coincides with the development of biocybernetics and the discovery of the genetic code. On closer inspection, what seems like a coincidence is actually the philosopher’s reaction to the news of biocybernetics. Derrida evoked the ‘information within the living cell’ and ‘the cybernetic program’ to elaborate the notion of the grammè or graphemein his essay ‘The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing’.1 More interestingly, he treated the biocybernetic developments of his time as contemporary instances of a generalized ‘writing’ that would seem to suggest radical possibilities for the project of critiquing Western metaphysics. This attempt to fold biocybernetics into grammatology raises the issue of whether the so-called ‘information within the living cell’ can supply the kind of evidence Derrida was looking for or whether it exemplifies the same rhetorical loop as he was unraveling elsewhere, in particular with respect to the European metaphysical tradition. No doubt that the decades-long deconstruction of logocentrism has proven extremely fruitful in clearing the way for innovative views of writing but it is time, I believe, to reassess the critical project of grammatology and its relevance for writing technologies.

It is often said that the technology of writing has been instrumental in the making of cities, empires, civilizations, long-distance trade and communication over the past millennia and brought about electronic global capitalism and increasingly networked societies in our own time. Nietzsche made his prescient remark in 1878 that ‘The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw’.2 In this Nietzschean picture of future technologies, writing clearly dominates. The sheer amount of written and printed record, and electronic information stored in data banks, libraries, museums, archival centers and global communication networks indicates the profound degree to which writing has transformed our lives and consciousness. But apart from a general consensus concerning the power of writing as technology, everything else seems up for grabs. Contemporary theorists who continue to work under the shadow of Marshall McLuhan exhibit a tendency of taking alphabetical writing for granted even as they analyze its relationship with print technology on the one hand and with electronic media on the other. The slowness in recognizing the metamorphosis of alphabetical writing across the disciplinary divide has prevented us from knowing exactly how a given idea of writing migrates from discipline to discipline. For instance, did Claude Shannon and Roman Jakobson share the same view of the alphabet? How was postphonetic writing invented? Why was this writing deemed necessary by engineers of communication systems? Where does it stand in the making of biocybernetic systems?

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1. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 9.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R.J. Holingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 378.

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