The Awkward Marriage: Speaking, Writing, and (Digital) Media


[Each semester Illinois State University’s College of Arts & Sciences sponsors a lecture by a faculty member. The piece below is a lightly edited version of the lecture I gave as part of this series, March 16, 2016. For the most part it survives, I think, its conversion from script to be heard (with a few visuals projected on a screen) to text to be read, though there are a few places where the conceptual play on the difference between language as writing (a visual system) and language as speaking (an aural medium) is altered in this re-performance/re-presentation. That this would be so is, I’d suggest, implicit in the argument informing the piece.

A couple of preliminary glosses:

  • Spring 2015, my colleague Robert McLaughlin opened his lecture in this series (focusing on the American musical) with a virtuoso performance of “Makin’ Whoopee,” the Donaldson-Kahn composition popularized by Eddie Cantor in the 1929 musical, Whoopee!
  • Aspects of this discussion draw from the critical approach explored in The Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

I would thank Dean Gregory Simpson and my colleagues in the College of Arts & Sciences for including me in the series.]


I can not hope, alas, to open tonight with anything to rival Bob McLaughlin’s mellifluous, slyly delectable rendition of “Makin’ Whoopie,” when he gave this lecture two semesters ago, but, even so, I’d like to start by sharing a couple of bits that relate to points I’ll be sketching tonight. The first is a brief clip of country blues singer, Mississippi John Hurt, performing “Talking Casey” in concert at Oberlin College in 1965. In the song, Hurt, as he puts it, “makes the guitar say what I say,” and in this clip Casey Jones, a railroad engineer, has stopped the train to move some sheep off the tracks. As he steps down from the cab, Hurt’s guitar mimes the spoken inflection and cadence of “God damn you sheep”:


For Hurt, music is not simply something to perform but something one performs in a manner that derives from, relates to, and resembles performing speech—as if speaking and playing music are alternate realizations of the same process, with both drawing from the same cultural archive, both immediately social, and both rhetorically interchangeable. But it’s also important to note (at least for my purpose this evening) that Hurt’s performance—his intertwining of spoken and instrumental gestures—cannot be represented in writing. Neither alphabetic characters nor musical notation nor their combination can represent his inflections. Nor can they preserve or convey his interaction with his audience. Hurt’s exceptional artistry as a folk performer is not “textual” in the original sense of the term. It neither, that is, derives from or leads to being encoded in alphabetic writing or in musical notation. Were it not for the relatively recent development of analogue sound recording, a quite different mode of textuality, Hurt’s various performances of “Talking Casey”—and his artistry—would be largely lost. It would exist only as impressionistic traces of memory in those who happened to hear him—at Oberlin that night, or at the Newport Folk Festival, or on the back porch of his sharecropper shack in Avalon, Mississippi—or in even more attenuated form in someone’s written description of a memory of hearing him (or an imagined occasion of hearing him used to occasion a piece of writing, a poem perhaps: see “Mississippi John Hurt (Oberlin College, 1965),” third poem down at this link).

Analogue recording preserves Hurt’s performance in a quite different manner than textual notation. It replaces alphabetic letters and musical notes as black dots mapped onto a stave with the aural action of Hurt’s voice and guitar, preserving the pacing and inflections—indeed allowing us to hear them as central to his artistry. Tape recording allows us to glimpse, or more precisely overhear, Hurt as he performs to and for his actual audience. It can even draw us into the illusion that we are, in our imagined as-if-present, that audience and (in a way quite different than writing) as-if present to his presence. My purpose here is not to praise Mississippi John Hurt, though I’m happy to do that. Rather, my purpose, with this brief example, is to illustrate that tape recording, like writing and musical notation, is a textual medium in that it stores cultural action in physical form for later retrieval, reproduction and distribution, yet to illustrate, as well, that tape recording is a different type of textual medium.

Both writing and musical notation require symbolic encoding (linguistic action converted into alphabetic characters, musical sound imagined as notes and converted into dots placed against a grid of horizontal lines). In reading writing or reading music we interact with the work’s aesthetic and cultural action by decoding the creator’s encoding. Analogue media (as do their subsequent conversion into digital media), such as tape recording, operate quite differently. Mississippi John Hurt is not converting “Talking Casey” into a symbolic textual code for our later decoding. He is performing it. The machine (in this case a tape recorder) encodes an image of the sound of his performance as he performs (as magnetic ripples on tape), and a matched machine decodes this image of his performance as we listen. We interact, that is, with an image of the cultural action rather than interacting with a notated (abstracted) encoding from which we construct a further cultural action as we decode the textual object. That our deep familiarity with the process of writing (encoding) and reading (decoding) makes this process (and the notational system necessary to it) seem as natural as listening to a recording of a folk singer may make us less likely to notice this distinction, but the distinction matters if we are to understand writing as a technology and medium and to understand aspects of how the current redeployment of writing in digital form(s) can alter our relationship to writing.


This second introductory example, “Another Way,” the opening poem in The Tao of Twang, is more personal:

Another Way

Remove the words, each
One until the few
d • o • t
The white sand—
A rock garden.

Perhaps a gingko.
Whether the green
Is there
Or the eye sees
As if it is
Does not matter.

Make the poem
Of what isn’t there.


Or sit where the river
Cuts beneath the rock,
The light stepping
Across the water. But do not
Watch the light, watch
The water, until the day
Is the one moment
When the current
Disappears and you see
Into the river.


But in this celebration
the three women drinking iced
tea, Lipton’s, are sisters, telling
stories that start somewhere and never
quite end, because in real stories
what happens is never
the point. Turn and turn
about, they stack the mismatched
bits higher, higher, then build
again, as if these moments and
remembered somethings are blocks, each
side with a painted letter, an image, a
moment. In their poem
the words mustn’t be cut away. In
their poem the words must
tumble, then pool out as the creek
does, pausing to gather again.
Close your eyes.


[For the lecture itself, John Hunt kindly prepared this broadside presentation of the poem using the field of the page to emphasize it as a textual tryptich:

While this piece is, clearly, writing, and I am reading something to you that’s been composed previously instead of creating something through performing, as Hurt is in “Talking Casey,” writing in this poem is not, I’d suggest, a stable medium. It shifts in its nature across the sections. In the first two, writing as a technology is sufficient in and of itself—and unto itself. As a compositional medium, it captures the material and makes the poem’s language, its writing, publically available. The writing, it might be said, is organized on the page as writing, and it is there, on the page, for the reader to retrieve and process as writing. While the two sections enact (and reflect) slightly different aesthetics, in both sections the language of poetry is writing, and writing stores and transmits what has been fashioned in writing (both the action of writing and the linguistic object made of writing, which more accurately would be termed “the written” rather than “writing”).

In the third section, though, the language of poetry is speech and speaking—not writing. Writing stores and evokes an approximation of the spoken action that is actually the poem. While writing in the first two sections is a medium conveying writing (generated and fixed through composing), in the third section writing points to several dimensions of speaking—the interactive, collective improvisation of the three women and the attempt of the poem’s speaker to speak about this speaking to the reader who is imagined as an auditor, a “you.” In the third section, the reader’s task is not to see the words on the page. Instead, the reader’s task is to hear them as encoded arcs of spoken action. In the third section, writing isn’t constructed to be read; it’s stored speech to be heard, to be listened to.

In the poem, then, writing functions in two different ways: the opening sections treat writing as if it is itself language: a self-sufficient visual system operating as groupings of letters and the syntactical protocols for using these groupings. The third section instead treats writing as a secondary, rather than primary, matter. In it speaking (not writing) is language and writing is a system for storing approximations of the aural action of speech in visual code for later retrieval and re-voicing (re-speaking). In the poem, that is, writing initially functions as if it is language, then becomes, instead, a means to store language—an encoding of language.

We seldom think about the different ways writing can function as technology or about the different ways it can function as a textual medium or about the differences between speaking and writing as practices of language (as if they are perhaps even different “languages”). Tonight, though, I want to suggest that these differences between speaking and writing and the ways they interact are more complex than we typically credit. These differences, I’d argue, matter for how we make things with writing and how we interact with things that have been made from writing. In particular, I want to suggest that writing—precisely because it is built on and from speaking yet neither contained nor controlled by speaking—can function in a variety of ways. And if this is so, the alternately dialectical and dichotomous relationship of writing to speaking has implications for understanding the various ways literature is written and read, and it has implications for understanding how digital technologies are destabilizing and altering the role and practice of writing—just as the introduction of writing and later the introduction of print altered the role and practice of speaking.


This talk has its roots in literary studies, my original training, but my concern is not literature, per se. In literary studies we typically focus on what has been made from writing and the varied ways written works, texts, circulate and operate. My focus, instead, is on writing itself—as medium and procedure. Specifically, my focus is writing’s problematic and varied relationship to speaking and how taking this into account might help us better understand what writing is as a technology of language (a medium); how this can, in turn, help us understand the nature of textuality; and how this might provide a way to begin to assess the impact of digital technologies on writing as a medium and as a mode of textuality.

Like most questions, this one has a backstory. In the northern California foothills where my family is from, reading was (at least among my kin) a secondary matter. What mattered was talking and fashioning stories in the collective give and take around the kitchen table, the oil heat stove, or out on the porch to the soundtrack of the black walnut tree playing the afternoon light. I lived, as it happened, in two linguistic worlds—one visual (a world of reading, to which I was avidly committed); one aural (a world of listening, which offered a sense of belonging and identity that school did not). I didn’t realize how much these two worlds were at odds (and not just regionally or in terms of such socio-economic matters as class) until I went off at 17 to some place I thought was called Eye-thack-ah, where I learned that “d-o-g” did not, at least at Cornell, indicate “dawhg” and that “w-a-s-h” wasn’t to be said “warsh.”

More to the point this doubled commitment to language as written craft and language as spoken performance inclined me to figures such as the west coast poet Robinson Jeffers and the Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, who in quite different ways, sought to enact (and not simply represent) a speech-like immediacy in their writing, who sought to use spoken cadences to control their writing, and who understood writing as the storing of speech and speaking rather than as itself language. Eventually my search for ways to make sense of what I heard in these two quite different writers, their (at that time) rejection by the academy, and the advice that I often received that I should focus on writers who actually wrote “literature” led me to Walter J. Ong’s, Orality and Literacy, which remains an important synthesis of the research into what his colleague, the anthropologist Jack Goody, has termed the “literacy hypothesis.” Ong, Goody, and others have tried to make sense of how the introduction of writing into societies that had lacked writing (were, that is, “oral” rather than “literate”) might alter our relationship to language and how language functions.

The work of Ong, Eric Havelock, and others helped me recognize that some poets might understand poetry as artful (composed or performed) speaking stored in written characters, while other poets might understand poetry as artful writing (and not the result of a speaker speaking). These two brief poems from the early 20th century, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig” and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” illustrate this difference:


My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!



The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Millay, I’d suggest, understands writing in this poem as dramatized speech, shaped as a kind of script and stored on the page. The reader is not simply to hear the phrases but to hear them as if being spoken to, and the counterposed “ah” and “oh” of the third line (functioning more as emotional gestures than “words”) set up the final line as a complex mixture of pride and regret, of loss and gain. In Millay’s poem (if we listen to it, rather than simply read it) we respond to and through our shared humanity with the speaker. Pound, though, imagines (and treats) writing as something quite different. While the writing’s sound is part of the poem’s artistry and part of its pleasure, the words in Pound’s poem function as writing, not speaking. In Millay, writing conveys speech. In Pound, writing conveys writing.

The last statement is, I realize, an odd one, but these two additional authorial presentations, texts, of Pound’s poem may make the comment seem a little less tautological. Here is the poem as Pound first published it in the journal Poetry (my thanks to Willard Bohn for pointing me to this appearance some years back):


The apparition         of these faces         in the crowd   :
Petals         on a wet, black       bough   .

This presentation of the material underscores that Pound is treating the writing as conceptual chunks (perhaps increments of perception) rather than spoken or speech like action. In addition, Pound presented “Metro” in an essay where he discusses its composition. His first attempt, he claims, was a “thirty-line” piece that he “destroyed because it was what we call a work ‘of second intensity.’” He then made his “metro emotion” into “a poem half that length” and from that distilled what he calls “the following “hokku-like sentence”:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals, on a wet, black bough.”

Pound’s comments in the essay make it clear that he indents the second line here to signal the recognition “are like” and as such the colon that ends the first line functions much as an equal sign would function in a mathematical question. For Pound, the poem is cognitive action realized through the process of writing and composed into writing taking the form of a poetic equation (not poetic speech) in which Line A equals or is similar to or drives or occasions Line B.

That Pound and Millay had very different views of poetry, even though they were writing in the same era, is widely recognized. What I’m suggesting here is that one factor, and I do believe it’s a pivotal one, is a difference in how they understood writing as technology and medium. For Millay writing transmits linguistic action that operates as a variation of speech and speaking. For Pound, writing is a medium for the construction of linguistic objects, and it is governed by the structures and dynamics of writing—its interplay of spatial pattern and linearity—rather than the dynamics of speech and speaking. Or to put it another way: For Millay, the dynamics of speaking governs writing; for Pound, writing governs the spoken. Which is also to say that for Millay language is speaking, while for Pound language is writing.


While Ong’s dichotomy of Orality and Literacy helped me understand something of how and why Millay’s and Pound’s work developed along different lines, the more I tried to draw on this dichotomy the more I faced a fundamental problem. While writers like Millay, Jeffers, and Kerouac were clearly (each in quite different ways) imagining writing as a medium for presenting artful speaking, they were, each, clearly writers. They were not oral storytellers or oral folk poets. Writing, whatever it is, clearly is not speech, and how to make sense of the interplay of the two within writing (rather than their opposition) was the question. I’m indebted to the composition theorist, Victor Villanueva, my colleague when I was at Washington State University, for pointing me to the work of Josef Vachek, a mid-20th century linguist. Vachek’s research into spelling conventions, of all things, provided a way forward: alphabetic characters can, Vachek suggests, function as a protocol for encoding/storing/evoking approximations of sound (visual signs indicating sound), but they can also function directly as visual meaning. The difference between

w-a-s-h and w-a-r-s-h

reflects the first point. The difference between

to        too      two     2

reflects the second. If I were composing something for you to read (instead of hear) and wanted you to snicker at my California redneck dialect, I could write “w-a-r-s-h.” But if I ask you to listen to the differences between “to” “too,” “two,” & “to,” I would be asking you to hear a distinction that—aurally—doesn’t exist, even though the writing system as a direct visual code delineates them with absolute precision (even if our students often use the wrong form of “to” or “its” or “there” and the like).

For Vachek this doubled potential of the technology of the alphabetic system—its capacity to function as an analogue of language as speech by storing approximations of sound for later retrieval and its capacity to function as itself a visual system of language that can be processed directly without having to be converted back to speech—has led to writing over time coming to function primarily as itself a direct and self-sufficient visual system of language. Historically, that is, the way we use writing parallels how we have been taught to read—first learning to sound the letters from the page (ah the joys of “See spot run”), but then being drilled in silent reading (in my early years to sub-vocalize was an occasion for public shaming). As a result, writing (writing, that is, as itself directly language) and speaking have come to have, Vachek suggests, different functions, because they have different strengths and weaknesses. Writing, with its capacity to stabilize, structure, and specify complex material, works better than speaking for technical documents. Speaking works better than writing for the interactive immediacy of social exchanges.

Writers of literature, though, want their cake and want to eat it, too. They seek the control, stability, and precision that writing as itself language offers, but they also want the participatory immediacy and emotional resonance that speech and speaking offer. For writers of literature, that is, in contrast to legal writers, technical writers, and the like, both potentials of the alphabetic code—its capacity to represent sound and speech and its capacity to function as language stabilized in written characters—matter. And the way specific writers solve, or exploit, or contest this doubleness is a kind of linguistic fingerprint that can be a key to understanding their style and rhetoric.

Here are two sentences that are similar in what is being represented but function quite differently because they exploit the doubled nature of the alphabetic code in different, contrasting ways:

The coffeehouse cat with the scraggly goatee plays the bongos, the kitty cats purring their cappuccinos, the dimmed spots, like Eddie Poe on the nod, staining the smoky shadows.

Oowee! That caaat is sooo hip the cap’cino sippin’ kitties are lappin up his bip ‘n bop as he blohowowows his top. Maan!

In the first, though sound matters to the sentence, the writing emphasizes writing as itself language rather than treating it as a representation of speech or speaking. In it the letters C+A+T mean by being a sign rather than being a stored evocation of the gesture of saying “cat” (or cue to articulate “cat” and hear the word), and the sentence develops its inflections through the progressive interaction of the words and phrases. In the second, the letters are manipulated to evoke sound. Words are present not as themselves (sets of letters fixed by convention) but as the gestures of sound the letters imply, and while meaning is still partly through the syntactically controlled interaction of the words (our good ol’ buddies denotation and connotation), meaning also inheres in sound itself with the words and phrases evoking spoken inflections that operate (mean) as performative gestures.

These two sentences suggest, I hope, that the technology of writing is an inherently bifurcated medium, and in the array of actual practices of literary writers these two potentials—language-as-speaking stored in writing and language-as-writing stored in writing—do-si-do, left hand and right hand allemande, in various square danced ratios and combinations. In an often invoked essay, Roland Barthes announced “The Death of the Author.” The approach to writing as technology and medium that I’m pointing to here is not “The Resurrection of the Author,” but it does open the possibility that the death Barthes was theorizing relates, actually, to one way writing can operate as a medium rather than to all of the ways it can operate as media. Barthes acutely diagnoses the dynamics and implications of one mode of writing but perhaps his analysis does not account for the entire field of imaginative writing, what might be termed literature, but only certain well-lit and oft-frequented districts where one can sit in a sidewalk café sipping an aperitif—the death of one mode of author within one regime of writing.


Writing (as I’ve tried to suggest) can store approximations of speech or it can store writing. As a textual medium, writing can be used (through the intermediary of textual storage) to transmit linguistic action, or it can be used to construct linguistic objects. We have, though, tended to approach the textuality of writing as primarily the study of linguistic objects—texts, works, complex structures. The dynamics of print, especially as practiced by large publishers in the middle of the last century have contributed to this (a claim I hope you’ll allow as if on credit, because there isn’t time this evening to ground it properly). Another factor in our tendency to focus on literary works as linguistic objects rather than linguistic actions has been the advent and increasing prominence of competing textual media such as sound recording and film, which more clearly and directly emphasize the transmission of aesthetic action (the art work as performed action rather than thing). It is possible, that is, that the analogue textuality of what the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler has termed “mechanical media” has helped shape our understanding of the symbolic textuality of writing and musical notation. And this leads to a final suggestion (or provocation?): and that is, that digital textuality may be further altering our sense of writing as practice, medium, and textuality in the way it re-emphasizes writing as linguistic action rather than composed written object or field.

In mid-20th century publishing, a writer constructed a work in language (i.e. writing) that a publisher then transformed into a printed object that was then circulated (marketed) to an audience. In digital publishing, though, there is no physical object. Digital publication is transmission of a doubled code (alphabetic and binary) with writing becoming a kind of broadcasting. Moreover digital devices and protocols are altering and expanding our writing practices. Txtng (no vowels needed, thank you) is alphabetic (as is writing for the page) but txtng as a mode of writing has something of the immediacy and interactivity of speaking. It foregrounds writing as performance rather than composition. Similarly blogs function as a mode of publishing, but one where the audience potentially becomes a community of responding readers (followers who “like” and who comment and whose comments other followers can “like” and respond to). Increasingly the publishing of a “text” or work involves embedding it in a weave of social media, affiliated material, and digital bonuses. The “work” as we once knew it—and have tended to theorize it—increasingly functions as an interface rather than linguistic object, and increasingly the work is a nexus for communal exchange. Instead of the audience as market, the audience becomes a collective of receiving readers and potentially responding readers, and the textual object increasingly exists to occasion other discourse (fan fic anyone?), and begins to disappear into its multiple supplements and array of circulations. It would be, by the way, fascinating to see Barthes’ analysis of this: “The Death of the Text”? “The Death of the Written”?

My point here is actually reasonably simple. If the analogue textuality of sound recording and film have helped to foreground one potential in the symbolic textuality of writing and print (i.e. writing as the construction of textual objects), the redeployment of textuality under a regime of 1s and 0s may be leading to a renewed awareness of that other potential in the symbolic textuality of writing—writing as a performative mode of linguistic action. The question then becomes what forms will the textualities of writing take now and in the coming years. What hybrids will emerge as we enter an era of what might be termed “mixed textuality” and for those of us interested in the category of literature, what will it take for us to develop an adequately productive “poetics of mixed textuality” to study what writing is becoming and, thus, to some extent what we also are becoming.


A contextualizing note:

For those of us in literary studies, Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (currently published by Routledge) remains the central presentation of the literacy hypothesis. The anthropologist Jack Goody’s “Objections and Refutations, the introductory chapter to The Power of the Written Tradition (Smithsonian Institution Press) is an incisive consideration of the controversies surrounding the literacy hypothesis. For the purpose of this text-as-talk-as-text, the central piece of Friedrich Kittler’s work is “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter,” published in slightly different translations as the opening essay in Literature, Media, Information Systems (G+B Arts International) and as the first chapter in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford University Press). Josef Vachek’s Written Language Revisited (John Benjamins) collects a number of papers that probe the distinctions (yet also interplay) between speaking and writing as modes of language. Ezra Pound’s discussion of “In a Station of the Metro” are from his essay “Vorticism,” published originally in the journal Blast, then incorporated into Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (currently published by New Directions).


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