Monthly Archives: October 2023

Being & Literacy

It is sometimes forgotten that Heidegger had a sense of humor. In his Basic Concepts of Aristotelean Philosophy, he at one point renders “rational animal” as “a living thing that reads the newspaper.” He was trying to emphasize that we are “discursive” beings. “When the Greeks say that the human being is a living thing that speaks,” he explains, “they do not mean, in a physiological sense, that he utters definite sounds. Rather, the human being is a living thing that has its genuine being-there in conversation and in discourse.”* You are born into your mother tongue just as you are “thrown” into existence. You have a language, we might say, before you know it. By contrast, literacy is something you accomplish. You learn to read and write, you spell your way through it. You can persuade me that you didn’t have a choice — like me, you suffered compulsory education, suffered and learned (πάθει μάθοςas, as Aeschylus put it) — but you deserve some credit for your effort nonetheless. While a language, then, is a form of life, literacy is a way of being. It is this distinct way of being human, this particular species of suffering, that I teach.

*Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Indiana University Press, 2009, p. 74.

The Reader

To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination!
William Carlos Williams

Writing is behavior that addresses a reader. This paragraph is an act of writing because I intend for you to read it. Granted, I don’t know you as anything other than my reader; I don’t have any biographical information about you. How, then, can I address myself to you? I must, of course, imagine you as someone who is literate, as someone who is able to read, but must I imagine that you are able to read in English? Actually, no; to write is to engage in behavior that is essentially translatable. I am addressing myself to you, either directly, as the reader of the blog into the text editor of which I am literally typing this, or indirectly, as the reader of a (human or machine) translation or a (charitable or uncharitable) quotation. In fact, I am even addressing myself to you as the reader of an interpretation, a paraphrase, of this paragraph by a (friendly or unfriendly) critic. Importantly, I am addressing you as a reader who would have gotten this far in the paragraph’s original context. You are a reader who is interested in writing.

Note: for the next four weeks I’m writing one paragraph like this a day. My plan is to practice what I preach and compose them deliberately in writing moments.

What Writing Is

pace Mark Coeckelbergh and David Gunkel

My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter. In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, The diving bell and the butterfly, pp. 5-6

Bauby was not just completely paralyzed when he wrote his book; he was “locked-in”. When he says that an emissary will arrive and “take dictation”, he means that she will patiently say each letter of the alphabet and write down the one she got to when he blinks. That is, he composed the book in his head and then communicated it to a scribe one letter at a time with his eyes. He was clearly a “writer”. He “wrote” a book. But what part of this process was the actual writing?

The transfer of letters from his head to the page is, of course, an essential part. Without that, he would not be writing, but is he actually writing when the dictation is going on? Interestingly, even though it would not be writing without the transcription onto the page, I want to say that the letter-by-letter communication of the text to the emissary is not actually “writing”. In an important sense, the writing has already happened by this point. He has, literally, written the chapter “in his head”.

Borges has a character “write” a play in his head, too, just before he dies. It never sees the surface of a page. But here, too, I think we would say the writing did get done.

I have elsewhere said that “writing is something we do with our hands”. But this case shows that this statement is not at all accurate. People who have no hands or hands tied behind their backs or hands but no motor neurons to use them can still write. Bauby describes the process much as we would describe writing on paper or with a word processor (much like what I’m doing now): churning over sentences, deleting and adding words, composing paragraphs. Writing, it turns out, is, first of all, a mental activity. It can literally, almost, be all in your head.

That does not mean that our inner monologue is always an act of writing. I want to say that we are writing when we are thinking about putting words on a page — or, of course, when we’re actually doing it. We are writing when we intend to represent our thoughts or feelings in a durable linguistic form. Bauby was not just daydreaming; he was composing. And though he did at each point have those paragraphs in his head (or, better, by his heart) — a whole chapter at a time, as I understand it — the act of transcription must have been important to him. The moment where he has “set it down” must have felt very special — he has “gotten it off his chest”. That’s what I mean when I say that, while most of the writing was already done before the emissary arrives, the transcription is nonetheless essential to the process. Bauby wanted those words to end up on a page. That desire is part of writing.

To write is to imagine words on a page. If you can manage it, it often helps to actually put them there. For most of us, it’s the only way to be sure we’ve actually done it.

What Is Writing?

This isn’t a new question. But it has been coming up lately in my encounters with David Gunkel over the question of whether large language models like ChatGPT can write. I keep saying that they’re not doing anything that people like Barthes, Foucault, or, especially, Derrida would consider writing. He keeps asking me how I, then, would define “writing”.

I should have an answer to that question, of course. This post is just a reminder to me to come up with something a little more interesting than “words on a page” and a little less mysterious than “any differential trace structure”.

Let’s see what I’ve got tomorrow morning!

Real Writing

Is writing seemly? Does the writer cut a respectable figure? Is it proper to write? Is it done?

Of course not.

Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”

Yesterday David Gunkel said something puzzling. I have been trying to argue that “ChatGPT can’t write” in a sense that Derrida would acknowledge as such. David’s position is that

ChatGPT is not a “writer” in the human sense. It doesn’t have something it wishes to say (the logocentric conceptualization of “writing”). But it does output sequences of words in/on a medium (the screen). So it does produce writing.


I responded as follows:

I’m pretty sure that for Derrida real writing (human writing) is somewhere between logocentric vouloir dire and producing sequences of words. My argument is that he would not countenance the latter as writing without a trace of difference.

Here’s his puzzling response:

You presume to speak for Derrida. The very concept of ‘real writing’ (as opposed to what would be “apparent writing”) is submitted to the movement of deconstruction. See “Plato’s Pharmacy” and the essays in “Writing and Difference.”


What puzzles me is that David, who is such an enthusiastic reader of Derrida, would, first, reduce the concept of “writing” to the mere production of a sequence of words and, then, dissolve the distinction between a “real” act of writing and a simulacrum. Even humans can fake it, pull one over, dial it in. Surely we can tell when a sequence of words isn’t really a piece of writing? To say that there is no interesting difference to trace here is very strange to me. Especially for the author of book called Deconstruction.