Speaking, Writing and Living

Image Source: BYU Digital

Is language reducible to human speech? If it is so then it becomes limited. Jacques Derrida calls this reduction phonocentrism. This means there are non-phonetic/phonetic languages. Humans began to communicate in a non-phonic way through gestures and sounds (sonic images). Often images, pictographs, hieroglyphs were used to communicate. This suggests that speech that makes use of words as well as writing that uses phonic scripts is a late comer. Humans did communicate without spoken words and continue to do so even today. This is why it is important to understand the limitations of speech and its ability to represent the world. Derrida invites us to think of all human communication as involving writing. Speech is a form of phonic writing. There are also non-phonic writings. Derrida uses the science of writing that we know as grammatology to make this point. By expanding the horizon of writing to include non-phonic writings, Derrida embraces communicative forms like drawing, art, music rituals, actions etc., as forms of writing. Such thinking and reading challenge the limits of language. Speech remains haunted by these limitations.

Spoken words are phonetic. But they are not mere empty sounds. They carry ideas or meanings. Therefore, they are phonetic as well as ideographic. Since we write words, they are graphic. Non-phonic writings like drawing are graphic as well as ideographic. We may add that they are also pictographic. Motion pictures or life in general is non-phonic writing. It is ideographic, phonetic as well as pictographic. This is why we may have to grant that God, universe, nature, living beings are all actively writing. But they use non-phonic forms of writing. We will see this only when we get out of the traps of phonetic language. Human sciences have this challenge to embrace non-phonic writings. Otherwise Human sciences, will be trapped into what Emanuel Levinas calls digestive or assimilative tolatizations that reduce reality to translatable phonic language. There is no doubt that both human sciences and natural sciences are trapped in this submission to phonocentrism. It is Physics in the 20th century with developments at quantum level that challenged this logocentric reduction and opened our mind to the play of dice at the micro-particle level. We easily forget these substantial developments and get trapped into reductive modes of thought that think that speech is all language that we have.

Speech alone is not all that we have. The best example is Music. It is a form of language but it is differently alphabetized although it is sonic. One of the greatness of music is that it is not semantically closed. It remains sufficiently open (particularly when we enjoy it in its instrumental form) and allows ideographic as well pictographic content/ meaning to animate our thought and being. This means in the background of music, we are enabled to write our meanings. Each of us listening to the same piece may write differently. This is why we say music is a universal language. It makes room for our specific tastes (aesthetics) and allows us to ride our way to meanings that we bring on the table. This means in the best sense of its forms, music is a Asignifying semiology. It is Asignifying because it is open and does not carry pre-fixated ( or carries at the most in a loose sense) meaning of its own. It is a semiology because it allows its audience to insert meanings into its sonic apparatus. Life is just like music. Living is like writing on the canvas of life. All we have is writings. In this sense life is an Asignifying semiology. It offers us forms in which we insert meanings (non-meanings/ negative meanings) and live our life. This insight is important because often circumstances and people may deflate the meanings that we have inserted on the canvas of life. Will it be the end of our writing? The experience of tabula rasa can be dehumanizing and horrific. But we can always write anew and live again.

This perspective of life as an Asignifying semiology is important. It can fix our responsibility and resist passive surrender to fatalist thinking. Here we may understand why Derrida proclaimed the end of the book. The book is reductive and enslaved by phonocentrism. It is almost fixated on meaning and closes all other readings. It is a semiology. But it is not as closed as we may think. Hermeneutical thinkers like Paul Ricouer have taught us to get to the surplus meaning of text through the principle of semantic autonomy. This principle also makes deconstruction possible. There is always an excess in the text. This is why we can hold that like music, sacred texts such as Bible, Gita, Koran are Asignifying semiologies as they make room for us to read or write ( in the Derridean sense) into it. This means sacred texts are always semantically fertile and deconstructive (in Derridian sense) in nature. This means we still have phonic languages that are not closed but open to the play of life and the dance of reality. But phonic languages are not all that we have. Highest words that we may utter in faith refer to unutterability and unsayable . We can put words like Yahweh, Logos, Christ, Om etc in this category. This unsayable saying of life tells us that there is always something unsaid in everything that we say. This means our speech is limited and cannot be thought to be able to capture reality fully.

Derrida has indeed given us an expansive philosophy of language. On several counts, he has moved beyond great thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein who have their own importance. So far my experience has been that we have been caught in the hollow of deconstruction. Deconstruction has its importance but his science of writing or grammatology has opened new horizons that we are yet to fully explore. The world of the internet is writing our life with phonic, ideographic, pictographic as well graphic forms of writings. It is indeed a Asignifying semiology. It allows us to choose as well as insert the meanings that we want into its several writings. But not all Asignifying semiologies offer us this luxury of choice. Big Data analytics uses our footprints on the internet. These footprints are Asignying but the frequency of them being found on one site brings them semiotic content which is used by Big Business/Politics to manipulate us. This is why an expansive understanding of grammatology or the science of writing may enable us to take charge of writing our life. Otherwise nothing may save us from being written about and even written off. The same is true of ideologies, nationalisms and fundamentalisms that divide us. We need to discern how speaking, writing and being operate in our life. Perhaps a perspective that sees life as a grammatology may assist us to write our own life responsibly.

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