Writing vs. Speaking: Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners

I’m wandering my way through Donald Palmer’s Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners.  (And even the beginner-oriented explanation of this theory/school of criticism/worldview is tremendously hard to comprehend, but this book does a decent job of at least making you able to speak the language of the theorists.)  In section on Jacques Derrida, Palmer talks about the precedence set by past thinkers for shunning written language and favoring spoken language.  This pretty much blew my mind, for a reason I’ll get to later.

Palmer begins with Socrates, who believed that “true philosophy had to be a living, conversational exchange of ideas.” This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s studied philosophy, since it’s well known that Plato, speaking for Socrates, wrote in dialogue.  The tradition of seeing writing as an empty version or hollow imitation of speaking continues.  Palmer lists a series of people who felt the same way: Aristotle, Paul the apostle, Rousseau, Saussure.  For theorists coming from a tradition of Freudian thinking, this makes sense to me. Spoken language can reveal underlying beliefs and motivations, providing information about people and society that written language cannot as easily show.  (Think Freudian slips.) That’s because written communication (minus the infamous 2AM drunken text message, of course) is a more self-censored, deliberate form of expression.

But Palmer even discusses the fact that Claude Levi-Strauss felt guilty about introducing a written language to a tribe in South America that, presumably, only communicated via spoken word. What confuses me most about this point of view is that people lump spoken and written communication under a general umbrella so unquestioningly.  It’s as if the communication forms are washing machines, and people need to check consumer reports to see if the Maytag or the Kenmore unit is superior.    In my mind, the spoken word and the written word are completely different, and they give us opportunities to do completely different things.  Spoken word allows us to give multiple meanings to what we say through intonation and facial expression.  The wonderful addition of sarcasm to our communication arsenal is a purely conversation-based development. (I’d argue that any writing that is sarcastic can only be identified as such from our experience of it in interpersonal interactions.) Banter and repertoires are  more easily established from spoken communication.  We also get immediate feedback on what we say, on which we can base our next word choices. But writing allows us, as I said before, to be deliberate.  It allows us to craft an entire intricate story spanning thousands of pages, with every detail worked out. It lets us think carefully about our sentence structure without the jarring choppiness of long pauses.  It gives us the opportunity to go on the record as saying something a certain way, which (ideally) is a documented defense against people reshaping your words.  This is why it’s amazing to me that Levi-Strauss felt guilty for introducing writing to the Amazonian tribe.  Their oral communication wasn’t being watered down; they, instead, were gaining a whole new method of communication in addition to the one they had.

For me, the difference between writing and speaking is so great, the two forms are barely comparable.  At no time has this been more apparent to me than in the last few months as I’ve been interviewing. I’ve been applying for editing and writing jobs–in essence, jobs where I’d be paid to be a wordsmith.  On paper–where it counts, in this case–the right way to say things comes naturally.  I imagine authors often feel the same way. I’m thinking of reclusive, awkward novelists who struggle with real world relationships but are somehow masters of human interactions in their stories. In person, I struggle mightily for the right words, I draw blanks, and I put my foot in my mouth so often I’m surprised it isn’t stuck there.  Now, over the course of the last few months, interviewing has been a kind of boot camp for me. I’ve managed to develop an in-person professionalism that is no longer feels stilted and like a mask.  But the difference between my spoken communication and my written communication is still so vast that I hardly consider them comparable.    And it isn’t just that I’m better at one than the other anymore–they just aren’t the same thing.  They serve different purposes, and they add different things to our communication.

What gets really interesting is when these two communications come together.  The journal I interned for just had its release party, and I was asked to do a reading of one of my poems.  I had written a poem that I absolutely intended to be read aloud, so I was excited for the opportunity to share it.  It’s ugly on paper, frankly.  But, when performed,  it has a flow that it lacks on paper, and it becomes a kind of hip-hop song (which is appropriate, because the poem’s setting is a club). This piece can’t live or breathe without both forms of communication.

So, is speaking vs. writing a battle worth having?  Is one better than the other?  Simple answer–in my world, it’s not even a question to be asking.


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