Writing on the brain

Adam Shatz’s recent review in the LRB of a biography of Derrida makes the latter sound eminently reasonable and humane, beneath the obscurantist bluster, and despite the bullying use to which that obscurity lends itself. Actually reading a page or two of De la grammatologie could well make such a rosy picture look like a mirage; but it is heartening to learn that Derrida refused to endorse the Cultural Revolution when Maoism was all the rage in Paris. So when Shatz writes that, according to Derrida:

Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that [spoken] language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’

it sounds like a sturdy rejection of language mysticism, no more a repudiation of “common sense reality” than Kant’s assertion that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. The priority ascribed by Derrida to writing over speech would thus place him on the side of the angels.

Jonathan Franzen’s collection How to Be Alone opens with an essay on his father’s death from Alzheimer’s. Franzen’s novels satirise fashionable reductionisms, pharmacological in particular, and here he is explicit. Recalling how perusing his mother’s letters helped reconstruct the events of his father’s illness, he describes the urge to record stories in writing as:

akin to the conviction that we are larger than our biologies. I wonder if our current cultural susceptibility to the charms of materialism — our increasing willingness to see psychology as chemical, identity as genetic, and behaviour as the product of bygone exigencies of human evolution — isn’t intimately related to the postmodern resurgence of the oral and the eclipse of the written: our incessant telephoning, our ephemeral e-mailing, our steadfast devotion to the flickering tube.

Writing provides a peg to hang memory on and renders it more potent. Writing is the theatre of our cultural memory, a theatre where new writing is in dialogue with its tradition and the world beyond the stage door. The technology that preceded writing was oral poetry such as Homer’s (but examples from other cultures are recorded); a technology with the flaw that its main scope for creative engagement with the tradition was to overlay it with embroidery, reducing the length of its reach.

By eroding memories, piece by piece, Alzheimer’s obliterates the sufferer’s very self. In memory lies written a narrative, wherein we and others are the characters. Writing is a kind of prosthesis to enrich, strengthen and broaden memory’s grasp, opening the individual to a wider circle of sympathy and a more reflexive, elaborate self-understanding. In using the word “prosthesis”, I’m thinking of Bruno Latour, who argued (I’m afraid I can’t find a reference) that the limits of the self don’t necessarily coincide with those of the body, but may include various gadgetry. Perhaps the computer keyboard and its graphical interface are an example. The blind man’s stick (or even dog) might be another. Information technology has certainly changed the intimate tenor of life, so that although it seems reasonable to hope that humanity will find new sea-legs or surf-legs, and not be submerged in an ocean of ephemera and froth, it would be risky to regard it as a sure thing.

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