Monday, June 9, 2014

Steven Pinker vs. Jacques Derrida

I will assume that Steven Pinker is not critiquing Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, but his remark resonates within the debate over whether speech or writing should be the baseline or paradigm for communication.

To be brief, Derrida promoted the notion that Western civilization had been contaminated by a cult to speech, a cult to the Logos, a cult to presence. He believed that it had done so in order to repress “writing,” because writing was more primal and gave access the dangerous instinctual energies.

In simpler terms, Derrida seems to see Western civilization as a vast conspiracy to repress the truth… of desire or instinct or whatever. And you thought that the right wing conspiracy was vast!!

In the most obvious sense, when you speak to someone you are involved in a conversation with someone who is, in principle, present. Even if he is not present, his voice is.

Thus, you will tailor your words as a function of the verbal and nonverbal cues that your interlocutor sends to you in the course of the conversation.

When you write, your interlocutor is absent. It’s just you and the paper or the screen. One might say that writing is lesser than speech or that writing is a derivative of speech, but, for Derrida speech distorts and contorts thought because we are trying to connect with another person who is present.

Writing, the theory suggests, allows a purer expression of whatever we are trying to express.

Obviously, this is debatable. There is no particular reason to believe that we do not express something that is even more important in conversational speech. Surely, we are more likely to forge a meaningful connection with another individual through speech, or else, through an exchange of writings that feels like a conversation.

As a sidelight, one day in the distant past I had an in person conversation with Jacques Derrida. Both of us were more-or-less present. I do not recall the substance of the conversation but I still remember vividly my impression. I felt like I was listening to someone who was reciting written texts. The conversation was not really a conversation; it was like listening to a lecturer who could do no better than to read his text verbatim.

For reasons of decorum I did not raise the question with him, but surely the exercise gives you the sense that you are not there, that it doesn’t much matter that you are there. It is a singularly unpleasant experience. If you believe that Derrida wanted me to get in touch with whatever it was that speech was repressing, be my guest. I took him to be rude.

Funnily enough, the current mania over texting, decried by many serious thinkers as an impediment to conversation, would be, by Derrida’s thought a blow against the Empire.

Take those remarks as a brief background for Steven Pinker’s comment in a recent interview:

Writing is cognitively unnatural. In ordinary conversation, we've got another person across from us. We can monitor the other person's facial expressions: Do they furrow their brow, or widen their eyes? We can respond when they break in and interrupt us. And unless you're addressing a stranger you know the hearer's background: whether they're an adult or child, whether they're an expert in your field or not. When you're writing you have none of those advantages. You're casting your bread onto the waters, hoping that this invisible and unknowable audience will catch your drift.

Doubtless, Derrida would denounce Pinker’s idea as proof of the need for even more deconstruction. He would call upon his minions to deconstruct the notions of natural and unnatural. He would say that they reveal a bias toward speech and against writing, and thus, cannot be allowed to stand.

Unless you are infatuated with everything unnatural, you should value what Pinker is saying. In truth, writing is more unnatural than speech. So much so that the best writing, writing that connects with and touches an audience should resemble speech. When you read good writing you should feel like you are involved in a conversation.

Of course, there are other ways to fulfill the deconstructionist project and to make speech more like writing.

Think psychoanalysis. When the patient is lying on the couch positioned so that he cannot see his analyst, he will not, in principle, be tailoring his language to the cues he receives from his interlocutor. He will be addressing an absence, rather than a presence.

And, psychoanalytic couch talk is not designed to discover facts. It aims at discovering repressed desires.

Moreover, despite Derrida’s suggestion that words do not refer to objects in the world, but gain their meaning through an interplay with other words, Pinker is closer to the truth.

Moreover, if theorists like Derrida really mean it when they say that nothing ever means what it says or says what it means, they have simply created another paradox.

Does the statement that nothing ever means what it says or say what it means… mean what is says or say what it means? If it does, it does not. If it does not, the theory implodes.

You will recognize this as a modernized version of the liar paradox. In its original form a man from Crete declared that: “All Cretans are always liars.” Other versions are “This sentence is false,” or, more simply “I am lying.”

To take a point from my new book, The Last Psychoanalyst, when you speak or write you need to find common ground with your interlocutor or readers. You write about something, not nothing. You need to be doing more than expressing your brilliant thoughts or showing off your verbal skills.

Just as an artist uses a model, so a writer observes something that he sees in the world and communicates something about it to his readers. He is not just playing with words.  He is directing his reader’s attention out of himself and into the world.

As Pinker says:

When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.


Ares Olympus said...

All interesting thoughts, and I wish I had better clarity here.

Journal writing helped me to express myself at least, and its not about communication with others, but communication with self, or perhaps our fragmented sense of self.

Like I never really realize I had moods until I started writing in a journal the year after college and didn't know what to do next. The act of writing thoughts down also helps give them more "reality" than spoken word, or thought thoughts, that can be erased or rationalized out of existence. That is to say, I found it curious that the world seemed vastly different, while I accepted the facts of the world hadn't changed, so I had to accept it was my moods that were re-coloring facts in the moment.

So whatever else writing does, it freezes a point of view in time, and it sets it off to be seen later from a different point of view, whether your future self, or someone else.

I have this idea that thinking is really hard, and sometimes you need to be able to carry a half dozen different points of view together to really see how things fit together, so writing would seem to be a sort of secondary memory system, that can hold pieces while I'm confused, and then with iteration, I can eventually integrate them all into my mind under moments of concentration, and capture something there. I guess you might call of this consciousnesses, and once you have some awareness of what was previously unconscious, you have more power to choose to override habitual responses, and try something else.

So if I didn't have writing to help me organize my mental chaos, I'm sure I'd be less conscious, and be forced to depend more on instinct, and be more fearful of things that seem beyond my control or comprehension.

I think the weakness of this "tool" is that we can fall under the spell of our own words, and so thoughts can rise and fall and before gotten, but once we write them down, they seem more real, and yet they might just be total nonsense, and so there's a greater responsibility to test what is true, once you have the power to hold onto ideas and thoughts, beliefs, generalizations, they all can lead us down a wrong path.

Sam L. said...

I would expect speech to be the paradigm--it came first. Writing is a way of casting one's thoughts out into the void, hoping someone finds the writing and understands it. (Comments on blogs are a form of conversation.) Writing must be more carefully considered because the reader often cannot or does not respond, to tell the writer what he does not understand, or thinks might be a better way of giving/making his point.

Derrida reminds me of "deriding", and his "deconstruction" being done with an axe, or chainsaw, in contrast to disassembly.

Anonymous said...

"In truth, writing is more unnatural than speech."

Not necessarily depending on how one defines 'writing'.

Writing is really putting thinking down on paper. And thinking is natural. Indeed, more natural than speech. We might have a few or even no conversation in a day, but our minds are always thinking--wondering, arguing with itself, speculating, conniving, figuring things out.

Even when a carpenter works without talking for hours on end, words flow through his head about all sorts of thing that are relevant and irrelevant to the task at hand.

Writing is merely putting thinking down on paper.

As for texting, it is technically written but really a form of speech as it's meant to be chatty.

So, writing should be defined in terms of its purpose/function than by the physical act.

If two people communicate by passing each other written notes, it technically involves writing but is really a form of speech.

But if someone writes nothing and sits alone in a room loudly thinking/talking to himself, it's a kind of 'writing'.

David Foster said...

Relevant here is Kundera's categorization of people according to what kind of *witnesses* they want in their lives:

"We all need someone to look at us. we can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. the first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. the second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. they are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. they are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. this happens to nearly all of them sooner or later. people in the second category, on the other hand, can always come up with the eyes they need. then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. one day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark. and finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. they are the dreamers."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's great. Thanks for posting it.

LindaF said...

The best writing mimics the best conversation:

You feel as though you are in a communication, soul to soul.

What is better about writing is that it transcends distance and time. It can be a letter from a distant friend, love letters from a long-dead beau, or the timeless writing of philosophers who "speak" of things that you've never shared with a living person.

Writing can also be false:
- propaganda
- slanted to promote an action (Gramsci, Alinsky)
- deliberately deceitful (both Clintons, Obama)
- re-writing and lying about historical events (the 1950s Communist spying/infiltration of our government)

However, direct oral communication suffers from the same flaws.

waterkingdavid said...

Just a suggestion. Instead of jumping on the slay Derrida bandwagon why not just take (or leave) what you get out of him and find your own truth? I loved what he said about waiting for the unexpected - waiting for someone completely new to surprise him. But it seems that for various reasons, more often or not to appear clever, all manner of armchair theorists get off on trying the game of oneupmanship vs. Derrida.
I repeat take or leave what you can from Derrida or whoever else. But most importantly find something that is original and uniquely yours instead of some half-baked attempt to cut others down.
Thats how we will build a better world.
All good things to you.