Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Writing as sound

Richard Powers’ essay in today’s New York Times is very much worth reading for two reasons. First, he explains in brief the need for speech ("the hum is what counts") even in writing, and how writing ("a barrier to cognitive flow") by hand (that is, stumblingly with one letter at a time) is a hindrance to writing by voice (the old-fashioned thing to do, a la Aquinas, Milton, Wordsworth). Second, he uses a speech recognition device (software, I think) on his laptop to "write." Apparently these things are now virtually perfect. And sound, (interestingly, in Hebrew, I am told, a single term means both "event" and "word") or language, for an illiterate person is a kind of mode of action (and not only "thought" as we say) and that action of the word cannot be stopped. This is why such a person (Homer, Lincoln?) gives word as sound such great power, and probably why all writers want their writing to be read aloud. All sound is dynamic, it is an event in time. (The eye, by contrast, prefers to see things that do not move, or at least prefers to slow movement down so it can be "better seen.") In our attempt to reduce sound to script and even worse to the alphabet, we are forced to step on time and divide it in an artifical way. We remove movement, and therefore power, from sound. Good writing, I believe, is ineluctably grounded in sound. I’m going to look into this speech recognition software. My time may have arrived! It is amusing, to say the least, that modern technology (computer, voice recognition software, etc.) may help us get over the technology of writing, the artificiality of writing, and allow us to move toward the naturalness of speech.

Discussions - 15 Comments

Interesting. Someone called sight "the dissecting sense" and sound "the unifying sense." Sight takes apart while demanding clarity and distinctness, while sound is a putting together, a harmony.

Amusing article, but disingenuous. Obviously it was proofread, so someone’s "fingers were tortured in producing these words." And what of the punctuation? Does he speak comma, quote marks, dash, period, question mark? That would really sound silly telling his story around the campfire.

No, the software is not perfected, yet. Note again, page 2. It is a problem of using a machine as if it can think - it hasn’t the wit.


I was thinking about something like this while riding alone on a long drive in the car today. I had been composing a poem in my head and saying aloud for the pleasure of the words. Naturally, I have now forgotten it. I thought that if I had a small tape recorder I could have spoken the poem, then later transcribed it and doubtless have improved upon it with punctuation and so on. As it was, it was an event in time and is now lost as the time is gone.


But maybe a little tape recorder would be an answer, as it is not trying to think for you, and you, or another person who has the wit, can write out the words recorded.

Peter, I hope you will follow up on this post. I’d like to know what kind of software you try and how it goes -- e.g., how you handle punctuation, how much keyboard editing is required after dictation, etc.

All very good, but for this: I put my foot in my mouth more often than I put it into my keyboard. Learning to write, in my view, improves rather than detracts from thought. The written word allows for more reflection and careful construction because of the difficulty one encounters in making oneself understood. It demands great skill and effort and that demands thought. Moreover, the keyboard has a delete button and it works much better than "eating words" has ever worked. Once said and heard, a word cannot be taken back no matter how ill-considered. But writing has the virtue of being, in almost all cases, a private activity. Of course, if your speech is done in private on one of these machines for the purpose of creating written words, that’s another matter. Yet, even then, you still have not removed the artificial barrier of reading for your interlocutor. But the truth is that speech itself is also artificial. Speech is but a mere translation of thought. And so is music and art. But is there really a better kind of understanding or communication (or, one might say, communion) than the kind that comes without anything artificial at all? All words, whether written or spoken, seem to me to try and take us to that place where a knowing look or a feeling is all that is needed. Blessed few do. Oh but what joy there is in the trying!

Moreover, all the best writers rewrite. Are we really supposed to believe that Powers speaks his fiction once, off the top of his head, and then leaves it as is without any changes? What a genuis he must be. Like no other ever.

No, Dick Stanley. You know Powers doesn’t just use what the computer hears, because he complains about the mistakes, the mis-recognition. Of course he corrects what the computer writes of his spoken words. Can it be called a rewrite, though, if he has never first written the words at all?


Some people, maybe many people, as I find myself teaching people who hate to write, are happier expressing themselves in conversation or direct speech. Harnessing the tedium of writing is so much busy work for them.


But I do like to write. Yet I find that in the classroom, things come out of my mouth and I am barely listening to myself, just spouting off on the topic, so engaged in the idea that I forget myself. Then I am thinking aloud, without much translation. Once I get going, words fall out of my mouth alliterated or rhythmic, and truly, it is direct thought: mind to mouth. Students repeat to me what I have said, or worse, ask me to repeat myself, and I remember the idea, but never the words. Perhaps they have improved upon or embellished what I said, but it shocks me that it is good stuff. I don’t think I could sit in a room and talk to myself, to my voice-recognition software. No, that does not appeal. It is not the same thing at all, not to have a face to speak to. It is not private, speech, and privately I would prefer to write.


I feel better, more confident about what I say when it is written and rewritten. There is that problem of irrevocability that Julie mentions, though taking back written words is even more impossible. Of course, one can be more careful with written and reconsidered words, because this process takes time. But I like and need clear definitions and sound meanings to the words I use and hear. A knowing look, a feeling, we might misunderstand those, (and I know I have) as such things are necessarily ill-defined. To think we understand those might be presumptuous and words are really better.

There is no doubt that one can and does misunderstand a "knowing look" but, it is also true, that when it is there and it is understood, there is nothing that can be added to it with words. It is as close as we come to the godly in this life. We speak in order that we might understand. Understanding is the destination. When it occasionally comes without speaking it is beyond exhilarating. Words--whether spoken or written--are but a means to that end and probably, therefore, always imperfect. But my point is not that we should abandon words! God, no! We needwords. But the needing of words should also be humbling. We need them because of our imperfect understanding. Our use of words makes us higher than the beasts--who cannot understand but only experience the world around them. But this is not the end of it. It does not mean that there might not also be a kind of being where words are unnecessary and perfect understanding is just a matter of course. We attempt to approximate that through our language--but it is only an attempt. I mean only to remind us that words themselves are an artifice--our poor attempt to describe what we know or think we know or feel or think we feel. We may be better than beasts, but we are not gods. No improvements in speaking or writing will ever get us past this intractable fact.

How do you know you understand the knowing look? I think you cannot be sure without conversation.


God knows, I am a mother, and I’ve used knowing looks, of all kinds, on my kids. I don’t know about the godliness of that interaction. But whose face do they know better?


Being human, I do not think we can ever get to a point where words are unnecessary and understanding is perfect without them. Even with words, well ... God help us to understanding. I do not think words are artifice at all. I think we were made for words and words were made for us. Our brains have a part for processing speech, and another for hearing it, and another for reading it. We, our understanding and our thinking, are all about words in every form. We have to have them, or nothing is clear. I don’t know about you, but for me, thought is in words and images. Yet, while I love the imagery, I also love the words that explicate the images and which let me understand what I see by telling that to myself.

My guess would be that if writting was an activity that came closer to duplicating speech...it would be more honest, and therefore less thoughtfull, and probably at times more angry, but perhaps happier and more care free. In writting we are bouncing a conversation around the neo-cortex...The written word requires more reflection and careful construction because of the difficulty one encounters in making oneself understood as one wishes to be understood. But the written word therefore is more "selectively honest" or "selectively dishonest"...when speaking the harmony selected is less consciously thought out...less constructed...more spur of the moment, more limbic brain. When writting one can drive at a central theme, or support a particular position without giving away contradictory tells. Writting is the first step in dishonesty...and it is easier to be dishonest in writting than in speech. Immagine what a good/consistent liar you could be if you kept track of everything you had ever written/said. The easiest way to lie is therefore in print...because opponents...or rather I should say readers have a more consistent sterilized construction to go on, without the benefit of verbal clues/tone, inflection, posture, feet hand and eye movements...

I find purposed dishonesty difficult, in any case: spoken or written. If I’d lived a life wherein I had to be dishonest, then perhaps I would be good at it. Which is to say that I do not boast of this as a virtue (surely dishonesty in a good cause would be virtuous) but am happily lazy in not having to keep track of what I write/say. The selectivity point is good, though, because I do not feel I need to say/write/reveal everything. Is it dishonest not to say/write something? In living with one another, surely, concealment is a kindness.


At Christmas time, shopping, at one store there was a young woman by a Salvation Army donation bucket, ringing her bell and talking. She was alone. No one stopped to drop money in her bucket, people hurrying by, swerving around her. A pity, I thought, as I drove by, that no one was donating. Then, I could hear her voice as soon as I left my car and she never stopped talking as I walked from the back of the crowded parking lot. As I came closer, taking time because I was rooting in my purse for change and cash, she became more distinct. She was simply ranting against the wind, her station, those who dropped money in, the world. Mind to mouth, most truly and awfully, and no wonder all avoided her. "God-damned cold. It’s so god-damned cold. Stupid, stupid, god-damned wind is freezing my ass off." There was more. She was not quiet in her raving and her enunciation was excellent and clear beyond the sound of the bell, ringing. I dropped my money in the bucket, smiling, and she said "Thank you, you bitch."


Honest, angry, not at all thoughtful, with misery as the central theme. Tourette’s Syndrome?

Kate, I don’t know what to make out of the story you told above but, I will tell you this: I laughed my XXX off! Oooh, see the dishonesty of my writing John Lewis? If I had been talking, I guess I might just have said the word. Which is better? Writing, it is true, places a kind of restraint upon the author. You might call it dishonesty and I might call it prudence. I think the difference between us is that I acknowledge that occasionally, you’ll be right--it will just be a lie. But it’s too simple to say that it always is a lie or that the form lends itself to lies. Do you forget how easily some people (Bill Clinton, for example--but if that’s too "controversial" you can think of any slick Willie you want) can speak a lie? I don’t think it has anything at all to do with whether the words are spoken or written--it’s just a question of character. If writing is to be judged against speaking at all, I suppose I (if I am to give what I consider an honest as well as a true answer) I would have to say that I favor writing partly because I think it requires more reflection but mostly because I am better at it than speaking!

Kate, as for all that business above regarding the "knowing look"--I am certainly not arguing against words either written or spoken in favor of telepathic communication. We couldn’t achieve that even if we tried. And, even if we could, it probably would not be good. Our natures, being limited as they are, most likely could not handle all that information, knowledge and emotion. I am just saying that the occasional experience one may have in shining brief moments (and, if you have to talk about it afterwards, you haven’t had it and more’s the pity) should serve to humble us in the face of our speech. Speech, being a reflection of us, is imperfect. And that is probably why I cannot do a better job of describing this kind of speechlessness that is higher than speech--there are not words to describe it. Perhaps nuns or monks experience it in their deepest prayerful communion with God? My own experience with it has been more pedestrian but, when it happens it is more delightful than the best poetry. (And it usually doesn’t happen with the kids. My, "Go Clean Your Room" look is not the most appealing!)

Julie, I meant to make you guys laugh. The incident just exemplified the logical extreme of the pleasure of speech in self-expression. I was thinking about the issue of honesty in John’s comment - selective honesty or dishonesty. Prudence IS a virtue.


Peter’s point in the original post was more about the poetry of words well chosen than where we have taken the topic. Written language ought to take account of the way it would sound if spoken, to be very well written.


I actually have encountered the type of look you describe. One such tumbled me right down an emotional well from which I have never quite recovered. Yes, it was too much information, knowledge and emotion.


I have also had the type of spiritual experience you discuss, which makes folks who claim God can not be, can not exist, seem impossible fools to me - as I seem a fool to them. It is impossible to explain. Bernini tried to show it in his sculpture of St. Theresa, but he give Theresa a very sensual response, which is NOT it. However, that was probably the kind of ecstasy that Bernini understood.

Kate, if it tumbled you down an emotional well, then I think you’re talking about yet another kind of "look" (perhaps, a la Bernini?) that is not what I meant to convey. But . . . prudence must prevail and I am humbled by my inability to use words to describe what I’m talking about. Perhaps this is one of those cases when the spoken word would be more effective as inflection, tone and emotion could be of some use here.

Julie, No, it was not exactly Bernini-esque, but clearly, there are many "looks" that convey meaning. How delightful that as humans we have so many ways to communicate, even if one does not always stand in effectively for another.

I wonder how much your "Clean Your Room Look" bears similarity to mine?

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