Too Many Words. Too Little Meaning.

What is the more primary form of communicating: speaking or writing? This loosely is the question that Derrida explores in Of Grammatology, his 1967 treatise that introducd the concept of deconstruction.

His answer to the question is that people mistakenly see speech as primary and view writing as a kind of inferior derivative, a sort of dressing up of speech in written words, a replicating or representing of what is expressed more directly (and purely) in speech. According to Derrida, it is writing, not speech, that is primary.

This mistaken view that speech is primary reflects people’s  misunderstanding of how language works and, in fact, the very nature of ideas and concepts. To oversimplify his argument: The positing of speech as primary is based on the belief that we have thoughts first and then attach words to them. And that those words refer to real things. We first have a concept in our mind and then search for the words that express it. ("I know what I mean. I just don't know how to say it.")

Another aspect of this mistaken view, according to Derrida, is that speech implies that the person uttering the words is present, and that in being present s/he can instantly clarify and confirm meaning - not only by uttering more words but through other aspects of physical presence: tone, body language, facial expression, and the like. With writing however, the speaker is not present. And so the listener (i.e., reader) is forced to make suppositions. The relation of writing to meaning is analogous to that between painting and a landscape: The landscape exists first and the painting follows as a representation, a kind of estimate of the original. The painting therefore distances the viewer from the "real thing", the landscape. Similarly, writing is felt to distance us from the meaning it is meant to convey. And because the person who issues the words is not present (as s/he would be in speech), that distance is even greater.

For Derrida, the problem is that we believe that we have thoughts and that those thoughts precede, exist outside of language. He argues that in fact there are no thoughts. There are only words. And these words don't point to things but rather to other words, which together, create a system. In the system of language, the meaning of each sound (represented by a word) depends on the meaning of all the others. (A popular way of illustrating this was to analogize this with the pieces on a chessboard, where the ultimate value of each piece depends on the positioning of all the remaining pieces.)

It is for this reason that Derrida sees writing and not speech as being primary. Writing most clearly demonstrates the fact that language is a system of signs, with each sign depending on the others for its value. (Look up a word in the dictionary. The definition contains other words. You don’t understand them. So you look them up. Their definitions contain words you don’t understand. So you look them up. And so on…until you read the entire dictionary.)

So what does this have to do with communications? 

Given that words refer to other words (and not to things) which then point to other words, with there never being an opportunity to get out of the system of signs to find the thing itself, meaning is necessarily slippery and elusive. The more we (as listeners, as readers) try to grab hold of meaning - to say, there it is! - the further it recedes from our grasp. Everything happens in language - thoughts, perceptions, even experiences. And therefore all experience, all "truths" are simply stories. And these stories are inherently elusive because they are bound by the slipperiness of words.

Which brings me to social media. Arguably the dominant medium of our time, social media has resulted in (a) the astounding proliferation of written communication, (b) the decline of speech (in-person interaction) and its replacement by writing (virtual interaction), and (c) an overall lack of precision in how language is used. With this, meaning, already elusive due to the very nature of language, is at risk of being lost. We’re walking around in a linguistic haze that’s getting foggier by the second. It’s a wonder with all this writing and reading that anyone has a clue about what anyone means about anything.

Another quality of social media - and in fact all written digital communication - is immediacy. This actually serves to offer the illusion of presence. The time lag between writing and reading (the temporal distance between the writer and the reader) that is a quality of books and even letters is no longer there. With digital, there is instantaneous response, a back-and-forth conversation. Even more so, the use of emojis and acronyms and other symbolic indicators offer physicality - facial expressions, body language, tone. In this way, when written, digital communications becomes almost like an act of speech.

There is something monumental going on here. Social media and most written digital communication gives the illusion that the writer is present. In fact, with the public nature of these communication acts, an entire community of translators is also present within writing, available to clarify, focus, interpret.

What is the effect of this on the state of communication? The illusion of presence gives one a false sense that meaning is clear. Combine this with the imprecision of social language - the casualness, the slang, the coded language and such - and the possibility of real meaning becomes even more remote.

In this world, words not only do not point to things, they don't even point to other words. Words become little more than sounds, existing on their own, pointing to nothing definitive, a howling at the moon.

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