Rotman 2008

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Rotman, Brian. Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

Lettered Selves and Beyond

“as technological systems penetrate every aspect of contemporary culture, bringing about an escalating and radical series of cognitive and social upheavals, it has ecome clear that no such separation of mind and machine is possible” – we are “natural born cyborgs”

the chief “mind upgrade” is writing: writing of ideas, patterns, and procedures, and writing as an apparatus for insciribng human speech and thought

alphabet: "the West's dominant cognitive technology (along with mathematics) and the medium in which its legal, bureaucratic, historical, religious, artistic, and social business has been conducted. The result has been an alphabetic discourse, a shaping and textualization of thought and affect, a bringing forth of a system of metaphysics and religious belief, so pervasive and total as to be -- from within that very discourse -- almost invisible." (2)

concept of person related to "lettered self"

text as postmodern equivalent of soul

since 19c, new media (audio, video) have challenged alphabet's hegemony

dethroning of alphabet followed by rise of binary code that "extend[s] the alphabetic principle to its abstract limit"

text/image dichotomy "is being reconfigured by its confrontation with the digitally produced image"

the result: "technologies of parallel computing and those of a pluri-dimensional visualization are inculcating modes of thought and self, and facilitating imaginings of agency, whose parallelisms are directly antagonistic to the intransigent monadism, linear coding, and intense seriality inseparable from alphabetic writing." (3)

Connection to body, "corporeal dimension of utterance" (3) -- letters are not iconic, have no visual relationship to the body's organs, how the body produces their sounds; "disconnect between alphabetic writing and the speaking body" (3)

"what the alphabet eliminates is the body's inner and outer gestures which extend over speech segments beyond individual words ... the alphabet omits all the prosody of utterance and with it the multitude of bodily effects of force, significance, emotion, and affect that it conveys" (3)

Gorgian rhetoric is attempt to negotiate this division between body and speech

Digital media giving rise to new gesturology through e.g. motion capture

Not the widespread use of writing/alphabet that is coming to an end "but the regime of the alphabet that appears to be drawing to a close" (4) -- "giving way to an era in which the inscribing of speech sounds with letters is but one element, not necessarily the overriding one, in the ongoing bio-cultural-technological 'writing' of the body's meanings, expressions, affects, and mobilities" (4)

New "I", new "para-self, whose enunciation of 'I' will take place ... in the interior of a post-, better, trans-alphabetic ecology of ubiquitous and interactive, networked media" (5)

Rejects "instrumental view of [tech] as the use of tools and body-extending prostheses by pre-existing human subjects fully articulated before its deployment" and "the conception of technological media in terms of their representations, in terms of their content, the intentional manifest meanings they signify ... to pre-existing, self-sufficient subjects" (5)

"In both views the phenomenon that is unseen and unexamined is the direct effect of technology's materiality, an effect always outside its explicit human, socio-cultural character and which transforms the bodies, nervous systems, and subjectivitgies of its users." (5)

Subject-constituting work of technology happeens at "pre-linguistic, pre-signifying, and pre-theoretical level" (5) -- can't understand tech's achievement "in terms of its purely discursive, socio-cultural constructions"

Media never coincide with intended social uses or cultural purposes; always "something more is at work, a corporeal effect -- a facilitation, an affordance, a restriction, a demand played out on the body -- which derives from the uneliminable materiality and physicality of the mediological act itself, and which is necessarily invisible to the user engaged in the act of mediation" (6)

"always the user is used, the psyche-body of the one who views, listens, speaks, computes is activated and transformed by an undeclared affect, a force outside the apparatus's explicit instrumentality" (6)

Can't embed its action or mode of being entirely in language and discourse -- this domesticates technology as a "set of processes wholly capturable and able to be made explicit within conscious, representational thought" (6)

"Writing, like any medium, is a re-mediation; it engenders a clutch of interconnected discontinuities in the milieu of what preceded it: a disruption of the previous space-time consensus of its users and an altered relation between agency and embodiment giving rise to new forms of action, communication, and perception." (6) -- introduces domain of virtual, "unreal" objects [texts], that posit a virtual user, an abstract reader

"As a result all communicational media have about them an aura of the uncanny and the supernatural, a ghost effect which clings to them." (7)

The writing "I" -- pointing to a self in writing -- "It could be real or fictional, existent or nonexistent. It could be any writer of a text anywhere at any time for any purpose, a hypostatization or entification of the alphabet's virtual user: an unembodied being outside the confines of time and space operating as an invisible and unlocatable agency." (7)

Speech -- alphabetic writing -- digital writing -- "each transforming their environments through a wave of virtuality specific to them" (7)

The Alphabetic Body

Judaic and Greek worlds created from “encounter with a system of alphabetic writing” (13)

Israel encounter produced “transdental Jewish God inhabiting a holy text” (13)

Greek encounter “produced theatrical mimesis, deductive logic, and an invisible, disembodied Mind” (14)

Greek alphabet: ca 800 BC, modified Phoenician consonantal alphabet by adding letters for vowels; allowed for easy reading allowed

Hebrew: ca. 1000 BC, derived from Phoenician and like it voweless, so required interpretation to be read

writing: has ability “to perform a reflexive, self-citational move – inherent in the writing of ‘I’ – and thereby give rise, under appropriate conditions, to a disembodied, supernatural agency” (14)

alphabet operates by a “corporeal axiomatic: it engages directly and inescapably with the bodies of its users” (15); does this “by imposing it[s] own mediological needs on the body, from the evident perceptual and cognitive skills required to read and write to the invisible, neurological transformations which it induces in order to function” (15)


John Bulwer, pursuing Francis Bacon’s dream of discovering Adami language, turns to gestures as key

“Bulwer’s writings inaugurate a (yet to be consummated) gesturology and make him the first theoretician of the semiotic body.” (16)

Condillac, Charles de Brosse, Abbe de l’Epee and championing of a language for the deaf

mid/late-19c, gesture is feminized body, subordinate to masculine/rational speaking mind (16) – sign languages reduced, deaf people encouraged voicing and lip reading; this only changed when deaf gestures were seen as full-blown language

“In relation to the body and alphabetic writing of spoken language gesture operates in the interior of speech itself as the presence of the body within utterance and the affective, intra-verbal dimension of the voice itself.” (17)

ASL and spoken words both coded entirely by linguistic system; partial code between the two linguistic systems is “emblems” or gestures (holding up palm, jerking thumb, kissing fingertips)

emblems are speech acts but with limited function; they are “social, experiential, and interpersonal, deployed to make something happen, to impinge on the behavior of the self and others; emblems are not really interested in making statements, analyzing matters, or conveying facts and propositions.” (18)

don’t combine they way speech does via syntax; they refuse and displace speech (18); “How convincingly can speech render an emblem?” (19)

gesture prominent in ritual and practices; “as if words, so easily uttered, are insufficiently responsible, not binding enough, too fleeting and precise at the same time, and only bodily action can fulfill the relevant ceremonial and devotional or liturgical purposes” (19)

“emblem gestures do not say anything outside their own situated and embodied performance: their relation to speech is one of exclusion, avoidance, and on occasion silencing” (20)

is gesticulation just an unnecessary ghost of pre-verbal communication, having little to do with expression in speech? (21) – are they epiphenomenal, “a surface effect unconnected to the expression of thought”?

no: “gesticulation relates to the semantic, pragmatic, and discursive aspects of speech in non-trivial ways, embracing various kinds of gesture accomplishing distinct semiotic tasks.” (21)

“thinking, at least insofar as it eventuates in speech, as its beginning in visuo-kinetic images which then become gesticulated and verbalized to form an utterance.” (22)

auditory processing of speech sounds: not extracting acoustic parameters of signal and mapping them onto speech sounds (as we might in computer) but focused on what oral-vocal movements produced them – “We listen, it seems, not to speech sounds as such, not, that is, as isolatable sonic entities, but to the movements of the body causing them; we focus on what happens between the sounds to the dynamics of their preparatory phrases, pauses, holds, accelerations, fallings away, and completions – the very features of gestures we attend when we are perceiving them. ‘’’In a certain cernse, we listen to speech-sounds as signs of their gestural origins, as a physician listens to the sounds a patient’s heart makes in order to analys the movements causing them.’’’” (23)

linguistic (grammar, syntax) vs paralinguistic (prosody, tone)

Prosodic system -- originates in primate calls which become detached from instinctual control -- "This allows them to be eventually re-delpoyed in expressively and semiotically variable ways: the vocal gestures that constitute prosody become culturally malleable vehicles of human affect." (24)

Speaking and prosody parallel systems; co-origination -- seamless whole of words, tone, gesture -- lost with alphabetic text

Speech as integrated assemblage; alphabetic writing disrupts that

"Alphabetic writing is a communicational medium, and every medium disrupts what had been for its predecessor conceived as a seamless whole, an integrated assemblage. The process of remediation involves a recalibration of space-time with consequent separatinos and severings of what were spatial and temporal and physical and aural continguities and a reconstitution of (a dimension of) the original content in virtual form, which for writing is the text, speech being reconstituted in virtual from as 'speech at a distance.'" (25)

Writing "cuts speech loose from the voice" (25)

Removal of gesture "makes clear that the alphabet does not and in fact cannot write speech" (26)

Rotman is not arguing that some of language's force is lost when we don't have gesture -- this only reinforces idea of disembodied "thought" (26)

"What writing omits from speech is the body: the feelings, moods, emotions, attitudes, intuitions, embodied demands, declarations, expressions, and desires located in the voice, rather than consciously formulated (writable) thought." (27)

"the history of reading is the history of redressing what writing fails to represent. Or, the same thing, the history of writing consists principally of attempts to find readable equivalents and alternatives to the vocal prosody necessary absent from it. Lacking vocal gesture, writing was obliged to construct its own modes of force, its own purely textual sources of affect, which it accomplished through two dialectically opposed -- or better, co-evolutionary -- principles of creation: transduction (the discourse of narrative prose) and mimesis (the voices of poetic diction)." (27)

markup languages and stylesheets as augmenting electronic texts

neurological opposition between speech and writing -- this is hierarchical --cognition over affect, thought over feeling -- rooted in midbrain of gesture ser against dominating neocortex

"This means that on the one hand, writing's de-prosodized words appear incorporeal, as if they issued from a disembodied and autonomous source. On the other hand, from its beginning, writing has effaced its own role in constructing the hierrchies of mind over body, thought over feeling, and so on. By claiming (in writing) to re-present speech without loss, by systematically identifying itself as a medium which transparently inscribes speehc, it masks the radical disjunction from speech that enables it to make such a claim." (30)