Writing can be defined both by its material aspects as well as by its place in the media world and as a social practice. The Oxford English Dictionary defines writing as “wording or lettering scored, engraved, or impressed upon a surface; an inscription”. (see type print) Indeed, the concrete materials used to write consist of both the markings themselves and the surface upon which the markings are made. However, the OED defines writing in several other ways as well, as “the occupation of a professional writer”, and as “the action of composing and committing to manuscript… literary composition or production,” giving a nod to the function of writing as a social practice and form of media in our society.
The two material aspects of writing, the markings and the surface for those markings, have evolved from the ancient form of writing as markings chiseled into stone into today’s technologically innovative ways of writing such as the typewriter, the computer, and the use of binary code. The introduction of technology into writing creates a distinction between the more personal form of handwriting and current day typewriting or word processing. Kittler touches on this shift in his work Gramophone, Film, Typewriter , describing handwriting as “[leaving] strangely unavoidable traces” of oneself in the inscription (8), while typewriting is a “blind” art that remains “untouched by the writer’s hand” (203). As writing has become more efficient and succinct, the relationship of the author to the writing has shifted as well.
As a medium, writing is made up of both visual and verbal components; when one reads a book they are meant to “hear” the words vocalized in their head and “see” the words on the page, all the while letting those two aspects of writing fade into their subconscious and concentrating on the meaning that those words convey. Mitchell discusses the multifaceted nature of writing in his essay “Word and Image”, saying that it is always possible while reading to shift our attention from the meaning of the writing and let those ” black marks on a white background become objects of visual or aural attention” (47). Systems of written language, comprised of symbols that only have meaning in reference to an object or concept, are intertwined with the images from which they evolved. The difference between the written word and the drawn image is difficult, if not impossible, to discern; Mitchell laments that the situation “threatens to become paradoxical”. Both have an aural and a visual aspect, and both function as representations that can be inscribed on paper of ideas or objects. Thus writing, even writing composed from a traditional written word system, reveals itself to be more dependent on image and icon than one might initially expect.
Writing and speech are often considered to be “sister arts” in a way (Mitchell, Picture Theory , 113); both mediums are used to communicate on a basic level. Defining “mediate” as “forming a connective link between one thing and another” (OED), both writing and speech could be considered the primary mediators used between people in a day-to-day basis. One of the major differences between these two mediums is that the message communicated (see communication) through each is experienced by the receiver through contrasting senses – the primarily aural and the primarily visual. Speech has no visual aspect, appealing only to one’s sense of hearing, while the authorial process of writing is mainly visual and the reader depends on the visual aspect of writing to gain the meaning of it much more than the verbal aspect (unless he is reading aloud). Writing is also considered to be more of an artificial and mediated medium due to the fact that it is consciously transcribed onto the page, as opposed to speech, which is often unpredictably spouted from brain into words. Writing, comprised of symbols and immutable on the page, is often considered to be the medium of “absence and artifice” ( Picture Theory , 114), while speech has a much more real aspect to it. Kittler calls the phonograph, which records speech, “the only suitable model for implementing the brain or memory” (33) because it presents speech just as it left the brain, real and unpredictable.
Both writing and speech serve as self-referential building blocks for other forms of media. Newer media such as newspapers, magazines, and books contain writing as their content, in accordance with McLuhan’s point that “the ‘content’ of one medium is always another medium… the written word is the content of print” (8). All forms of print and inscription in the media world, including the newer mechanized forms such as WebPages (see internet), owe their beginnings to writing. Both writing and speech are the original mediums, dating back as far as we can be aware of history, since before either writing or speech there was no way to record history. Kittler describes the time before writing as “prehistory” and refers to writing as having the original monopoly on recording history and the world of media: “[the field of media] began with the monopoly of writing. History was the homogenized field that… only took account of literate cultures” (4).
The ideologies of classic philosophers Saussure, Peirce, and Lacan can help us to understand the functioning and elements of writing as a medium. Each ideology has a specific language to describe the parts of writing and language that work with each other to form a basic sense of writing as a medium of symbol and representation. Saussure, in his work “The Nature of the Linguistic Sign”, discusses language as being made up of linguistic signs that unite a concept (the “signified”) and a sound-image (the “signifier”). He uses the example of the word “tree”, which unites the concept of a tree that one has stored in their brain and the sound that the word “tree” makes when spoken aloud. Thus, language to Saussure is the combination of sound and concept; the written word has the power to evoke both a sound and an image. Saussure does point out that the linguistic sign used is arbitrary, but the fact that the sign is closely linked to the idea of symbol reinforces the idea of writing as symbolic. Going a step further, Peirce’s ideology directly calls words and language “symbols”, defining symbol as “a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of… an association of general ideas” (102), such as the general idea of the alphabet forming words that we attach to concepts. (see symbol/index/icon) According to Peirce, a Sign is “a First which stands in… a genuine relation to a Second, called its Object ” (99), and of the three types of signs- icons, indices, and symbols- “all words, sentences, books and other conventional signs are Symbols” (112). In contrast to icons, which are direct representations of their object, and indices that suggest their object and would be meaningless without their object, a symbol is a representation of its object only because convention has said it is. This relates to Saussure’s idea of linguistic signs as arbitrary; Peirce’s symbol is arbitrary in the same sense that the symbol is not directly related to the content of the Object it represents. Writing as defined through Peirce’s ideology is highly similar to Saussure’s, aside from the terminology that they use; both consider the written word to be a symbolic or sign-based representation of real concepts and objects. Lacan’s philosophy is also perfectly in keeping with this idea of words and language as symbolic signifiers. (see symbolic/real/imaginary) He defines the “symbolic” as “signifiers, in the sense developed by Saussure… in themselves without meaning, which acquire value only in their mutual relations” (Sheridan, 279). Words and language are once again arbitrary symbols.
Kittler picks up this thread of Lacanian philosophy in his work, describing writing as “symbolic” as opposed to the phonograph representing the Lacanian “real”, a measure of unpredictability and authenticity. He explains how history was mediated through this symbolic medium before the advent of the phonograph: “Texts and scores… are based on a writing system whose time is (in Lacan’s terms) symbolic…. All data flows, provided they were really streams of data, had to pass through the bottleneck of the signifier” (4). Writing is a media comprised of symbols that have traveled from the unconscious through the “bottleneck” of the signifier; it is a mediated and structured form of media that does not allow room for unpredictability, especially once it has been produced. Once it is a document, a piece of writing is immutable.
The major criticism of writing stems from this idea: that it lacks the ability to argue back and respond in the way that speech does, especially speech in the form of dialogue. Once an author writes a text, that text is likened to a helpless child, defenseless against its critics to modify or explain its content further. Plato levels this specific criticism against writing in his own “Phaedrus”. He pits writing against dialogue and calls writing inferior due to its immutability: “You would imagine that [writings] had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer” (278-9). This criticism speaks to not only writing’s static quality, but also its non-immediate nature. Writing being read is always a part of the past, a past that can only continue to grow more and more distant. It is no wonder that Kittler references a cartoon of skeletons running a printing press to express the concept of writing forming a link between the living and the dead (5).
Is this aspect of writing, its non-immediate nature and immutable nature as compared to speech, a fundamental and unchangeable part of its nature? In the arena of new media, some writing-based media are beginning to counter this idea. Writing that is done in cyberspace, such as online chat rooms and Instant Messenger, offer instantaneous written communication with other people all over the world, a written version of the type of dialogue Plato and his counterparts engaged in. Icon as well as symbol is often included: the Instant Messenger setup includes icons referred to as “emoticons”, which are simple yellow round cartoon faces each imbued with a different generalized emotion, such as a happy smiley face, a blushing embarrassed face, and so on. However, this new form of written communication, though as close to speech as possible in terms of mutability and instantaneousness, is still intrinsically different in terms of sensory perception. One still reads and writes during the conversation as opposed to speaking, forcing thought through the “bottleneck of the signifier”. And even in this new non-static fashion, writing continues to be concrete and immutable once the process of writing is completed. The reader can read the transcript of a finished online chat in the same way as any traditional piece of writing; it is only during the dialogue that the receiver of writing can challenge and discuss the author’s ideas. As forms of writing adapt and change in the growing field of new media, these boundaries continue to be pushed.
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
McLuhlan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message,” in Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
Mitchell, W.J.T. “Word and Image”. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
—. “Visible Language: Blake’s Art of Writing”. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Peirce, C.S. “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs”. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications.
Plato. “Phaedrus”. The Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Random House, 1937.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. “Nature of the Linguistic Sign”. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959.
Sheridan, Alan. “Symbolic, Imaginary, Real”. Translator’s Note to Lacan’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.
“Writing”. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Edition. 2003.