Whether to privilege speaking or writing as the primary form of communication most closely representing and/or governing humankind's expressive potential — and the form that exists closest to thought itself — is a debate that has interested philosophers for some time. It is also what Bergson would refer to as a false problem, formed by the badly analyzed composite that considers the two as the same in kind.

The first critique we must address is that to even begin to approach the debate presumes we may distinguish pure forms of speaking and writing process, and indeed between the speaking and writing subject. But this is trickier than it appears. Those that seem to be writing may at times be speaking and vice-versa, depending on the context and the relation. Plato's dialogues, for example, are clearly spoken forms that have been committed to text. And with a sports television news anchor reading from a studio teleprompter, the spoken is but a temporary transformation that sees teletype become voice become the writing-with-light of video photography and electromagnetic transmission. Most modes of communication are in fact some hybrid of the two.

recorded waveforms

If we insist on understanding speaking and writing as pure forms, however, at least as they are used in common parlance, then we must first make the relational nature of their form explicit. That is, we must also consider the whom to which our communication is addressed and the ontogenetic character of our messages and technical apparatus. As Avital Ronell queries in "Delay Call Forwarding",

When does the telephone become what it is? It presupposes the existence of another telephone, somewhere, though its atotality as apparatus, its singularity, is what we think of when we say "telephone." To be what it is, it has to be pluralized, multiplied, engaged by another line, high strung and heading for you (p.5).

Should we not change the form of our written language in this document (a spoken dialogue to be sure), then, and first name these processes speaking-listening and writing-reading instead? This is not to suggest a purely dialectic approach. Even if we are to take the liberty of divorcing these binary relations from the total multisensory contexts in which they emerge, they nonetheless remain permeated through with noise, multiple codings, ignored bits, signal filters and suppressed utterances, all of which prove troublesome for what could otherwise be perceived as a cybernetic model of communication. The form is further compromised once the binary becomes several with the third-party audience member, innocent bystander, eavesdropper, translator or witness: the resultant multiplied fibres of relation and modulated degrees of exposure ensure that the acts of speaking-listening and writing-reading are never dialectic in their syntheses.

But this is not satisfactory, either. The left-to-right linearity of writing in Western languages is such that the first term of the composite usually becomes the privileged one (think first author status on a journal article). The speaker and writer purportedly become active agents in this scenario while the listener and reader remain mere passive vessels for message reception, or at best participants who actively formulate in response when the roles shift. To listen for the call is as significant a form of communication as the expression of the call itself, however, at times a priori or at least co-emergent. And to offer the call a response, re-route it to a more appropriate listener, or ignore it altogether are also significant forms of expression that further undermine the privilege of the first term in considering speaker-listener or writer-reader.

Should we acknowledge the generative potential of the relation between these two terms that continually unfold and fold back into one another, then, by substituting the infinity symbol for the hyphen? Should we name these concepts speaking∞listening or listening∞speaking or writing∞reading or reading∞writing, the first term in the pair receiving privilege in that particular context but each always existing at the flip?

calligraphy by gail frost, photoshop by sportsbabel

This focus on relation leads to a second critique of the debate between speaking and writing, which is that the two forms are different in kind because they infold time in different ways. We might suggest that speaking∞listening (again, as an ideal form) is aware of its relation in a particularly intimate fashion, owing to both a flesh-oriented spatial proximity and a simultaneity in time. Speech exists in a perpetual present, the utterance evaporating or dispersing into thin air along with the breath that gave it expression. Only the question of memory is left in its microturbulent wake.

Due to the complex relational interplays each brings to the process — along with their unique temporal trajectories and rhythms — both speaking and listening subjects resonate more or less harmoniously with one another at any particular moment in the dialogue or discourse. While there is a simultaneity in time that allows for the encounter, it does not necessarily imply a synchronicity. Speaking must thus be considered an emergent process towards the possibility of a tangential moment, or a touching of sorts. It is in this possibility of the tangent that simultaneity may become synchronicity.

As is well known, writing∞reading introduces what is called historical consciousness. "History began with the invention of writing," Vilém Flusser notes, "not for the banal reason often advanced that written texts permit us to reconstruct the past, but for the more pertinent reason that the world is not perceived as a process, 'historically,' unless one signifies it by successive symbols, by writing" (p.63). We should not be so quick to dismiss the banality of reconstruction, however, as it is grounded in relation: writing understands a different sense of history and future in that it abstracts its audience. One who writes can only approximate the relational nature of communication insofar as it is left open-ended; the future constructed by the written document is presumed in many ways to remain stable.

We may summarize the material aspects of relation in these ideal expressive forms as follows: a speaking body is met by a listening body, the threshold or interface between the two at the skin of the tympanic membrane; a writing body, on the other hand, is met by a reading body, the threshold between the two at the skin of the archive.

Courtesy of Zhang Huan

zhang huan
family tree

The skin is a surface, however. It wraps around a volume, encloses gesture.

Gesture precedes both speaking and writing. The latter two are not the same in kind but rather the same, or at least variations of a topology emerging from gestural expression. Gesture can either co-exist with or become one of these two more highly-coded forms — or some hybrid that finds them both interwoven — depending on the concepts of time performed by the moving body+bodies in question. It brings the coded acts of speaking and writing to the plane of immanence and the fleshy resonance of affect. Gesture is time in the always-becoming of volumetric embodiment.

If we are to continue considering "pure" forms and relationality, then the embodied movement of the gesturing body is likewise met by another gesturing body; nothing is in stasis. In some cases a coded gesture is given a coded response that more closely resembles speaking or writing, while in others the gesture itself is replicated. In yet other cases still the gestural codes are less apparent and the gestural response simply exists in the always-imperfect negative space of its other(s). Whichever case we are describing — and understanding we are bound to lapse into more abbreviated linguistic habits later in the document — we should for now name its process gesturing∞gesturing.

(from the introduction to "body+politics: towards a sporting multitude," a work-in-progress doctoral dissertation for the european graduate school of media and communications)


2 responses to gesturing∞gesturing

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  1. sportsBabel » my skin is (y)our relation says:

    [...] He hath wrought an annihilation of the difference between speaking and writing as pure forms: gesture is revealed to be the kinetic substratum that animates both. second, with electricity He hath also wrought a shift from space to time as the primary feature [...]

  2. sportsBabel » Wolfgang Schirmacher: In Memoriam di Imagum says:

    [...] conclude that its performance and gesture require an interpretation to be disseminated. And since gesture precedes both speaking and writing, as well as reading and listening, for the performance to retain its virtuosity each interpretive [...]