So What is Communication

In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida tackles a weighty question: What is communication? Early in the chapter he offers his definition of communication, “I have been constrained to predetermine communication as a vehicle, a means of transport or transitional medium of a meaning, moreover of a unified meaning.” (Derrida, 1) Recognizing the limitations of his definition, he proceeds to break that definition down into what he considers the two basic forms of communication: written language and spoken language.

He then addresses the merits of written and spoken language based on their value, how the idea of absence affects each form and the intentions of the author/speaker as it relates to the message they are trying to communicate. The emphasis on written communication supposes that it somehow is more accurate, reliable and accessible then spoken word, a supposition that is in many ways inaccurate.

Also, while Derrida’s discussion appears thorough, the solitary focus on spoken and written language as the sole or main means of communication, fails to adequately answer the question he poses by eliminating the import and affect of non-verbal communication.

Derrida begins his discussion on written communication by stating that, “[writing is] an especially potent means of communication, extending enormously, if not infinitely, the domain of oral or gestural communication.”(Derrida 3) Using the philosopher Condillac as a basis for much of his reasoning, Derrida states that writing trumps other forms of communication because of the idea of “thought as representation,” (Derrida 4), man’s ability to create ideas or thoughts in his mind and communicate them to others through a written method, is a complex one and required evolution on man’s part to accomplish such a feat. Also that written word’s value is bolstered by the idea of absence, written word’s ability to continue to communicate even when the originator of the message is no longer present.

On some levels Derrida’s and Condillac’s argument hold true: as a society we value the written word over the spoken word. A civilization is determined to be advanced if it has a written language. We will mark the day that civilization created its alphabet or other form of written communication as the day it became civilized and left its primitive ways behind. We also, as a society, tend to believe that communication in its written form is more valuable than communication that is spoken to us. How often have we asked, “Can we get that in writing?” when wanting to validate a piece of information someone has given us.

Information written down and better yet, that contains a signature has more authority then someone telling us something.
The problem with this emphasis on written word is that it doesn’t account for oral traditions. Spoken word was just as capable as the written word in its ability to communicate outside of the presence of the original communicator and held as much weight as the written word prior to and even after the advent of written language. For centuries town criers, griots and priests were the keepers and disseminators of information from fireside stories to a people’s history.

These gatekeepers of information passed down their responsibilities to others who were given the all important and in many ways sacred duty of continuing the traditions of a people or of simply being accurate record-keepers. The advent of the written word is in many ways like a new technology: it’s great if you know how to use it but absolutely useless to you if you can’t figure out how it works.

So, if you couldn’t read then the fact that all this information is written down is useless. Where before a person had only to speak the language to be informed, as civilizations begin to rely more and more on the written word, those who couldn’t break the code didn’t know what was going on. Think of the person who is computer illiterate. As the world relies more and more on this method of communication those who don’t know to use a computer will suffer.

And as Derrida did disservice to non-verbal communication in his discussion on communication, as will I since I am running out of space. To not give sufficient time to non-verbal communication is to not recognize that most of how we communicate is without words in any form. From a glance to posture one can communicate a wealth of information and many ways more accurately communicate that information then anything that is written or said. Derrida through his use of Austin’s writings, questions the role of intent and context and how important it is in what is being communicated.

For Austin, intent and context are the main reason why he states spoken word is the only form of communication since intent and context are harder to ascertain in the written word. For Derrida the intent of the communicator or the context in which something is said or written is secondary and ultimately not as important as the message itself. What non-verbal communication does is clarify that intent or the context of a message or it may simply allow people to communicate when words are inappropriate or insufficient; think of military communications in a battlefield or a long stare at a person across a crowded room.

Derrida begins an interesting discussion on the nature of communication but in the end his discussion amounts to only a beginning and further discussion is merited to really get at the heart of the question: What is communication?