The Sound of Text

I am a frustrated, unrealised and self-conscious writer. It is not a skill that was ever preternaturally abundant to me. If I have any ability whatsoever, it has evolved through slow, moderate improvement accrued within the context of studying and working in the University. The academy itself, and specifically the humanities as a field in which the majority of my writing is situated, has had its pros and cons for improving one’s writing. Completing a 90,000 word PhD certainly instilled the discipline required to write (although that level of discipline I have been unable to match since), and my PhD supervisor was thankfully rigorous in exposing the tumultuous number of flaws I produced during the process. But I was also undoubtedly influenced by the pretentions of French poststructuralist prolix: why use 10 concise and clear words when 100 can shield the reader from what you really mean? Even now, my inability to easily write flowing sentences and a quite profound ineptitude in proofreading my own work, provide a constant battle against stilted mediocrity and flagrant over-elaboration.

I realise this might seem like rather navel-gazey self-effacement, but bear with me. My entry into the medium of podcasting over the last few years has reframed the way I think about communication and its attendant relationships to meaning and knowledge. At the forefront of my attention of late has been the intricate interrelationship between writing and speech, particularly the underlying assumption that the written text stands as the de facto architecture upon which objective knowledge is anchored, and that words materialised through sound serve to animate meaning.

The kind of unscripted dialectical conversation employed as the basis of my podcast - The Cinematologists – and many others; along with process of editing where one gets to listen over and over to the idiosyncrasies of speech – its texture, intonation, repetition, speculation, contradiction, stuttering – has exposed a messiness that has made me wonder whether the software that connects thought and speech has a fundamental glitch. I recently used an online transcription service to transpose some of my unscripted speeches and conversations; the horror of reading this raw text with its litany of ‘inaccuracies’, immediately demanded a desire to perform ruthless syntactic surgery.

This is the tyrannical finality of the written text. It is no wonder that the printing press is as central a tenet to modernity, as scientific rationality, the capitalist system or the nation state. Written text not only provides the indexical notation for speech, but the very architecture upon which the systems knowledge we take for granted are based. Yet the spoken word goes back far earlier as the underpinning of communication, and knowledge transfer. Through podcasting as a process in which the sonic mechanisms of speech are unveiled, one comes to comprehend how much the spoken word carries a contingency, a conditionality, where thought is mediated but is imbued with a malleability and flexibility that the listener is inculcated to acknowledge. Unlike any unedited indexical notation (like a written speech transcript), the sounding of the words, along with all the attendant acoustic shaping (voice emphasis, speech patterns, pauses, repetitions etc etc), intrinsically affects the articulation of meaning.

It is fascinating how when a subject starts to preoccupy one’s mind, it seems to pop up serendipitously. Not in any way connected to podcasting directly, my recent reading has unearthed commentaries that muse upon the relationship between spoken word and written text. James Meek’s extensive review (entitled The Club and the Mob) of former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s new book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, surveys the historical and conceptual malady of contemporary journalism in the digital age. In a section contemplating the experience of waking up to the news of Princess Diana’s death, Meek touches on the early utopian potential the Internet might have on the future of news dissemination in its revolutionising of immediacy and reliance on textuality:

There were two things that were encouraging for the papers about how the news happened to reach me as an individual that morning. The first was that a newspaper was actually breaking news: news in the most traditional sense, news that the most cerebral editorial writer at The New York Times and the most feral chequebook merchant at the Mail could agree was news. News of the rare kind that makes people call someone they know and say ‘Hey, did you hear…?’ was – for me at least – not being broken by a voice on the radio or TV declaring ‘We interrupt this broadcast to bring you…’ but in written form. Without realising it, I was seeing the rebirth of text as the natural purveyor of immediacy, a status that seems natural now in the age of Twitter and news alerts pushed to your phone, but in 1997 had, for generations been ceded to the oral.

The review reflects at length on the effects of digital decimation and the collapse of the traditional infrastructure of journalism, from a business and socio-cultural perspective. But here Meek intimates that the earliest reactions to the internet posited how journalism could benefit from the textual basis of online communication. If print journalism could adapt to new digital platforms, a more dispersed form of audience engagement, and attendant transformations in the conceptual mechanism of publication, then the future was rosey. In the 20th century, television and radio dominated print journalism precisely because of the speed of dissemination of information, as much as the fact of their reliance on the spoken word as the essential mode of communication. Yet the digital era has instigated an ease and immediacy of textual correspondence that redefined to only journalism but our everyday discourse. Think about the effect that texting had on the use of the traditional phone call and you can anecdotally get a sense of (before we even mention social media) how the digital technology has, almost surreptitiously, made writing rather than speaking the default mediatory mechanism.

Podcasting’s paradox: it is absolutely reliant on the digital infrastructure yet is returns primacy to speech, has make me think about how orality and aurality are not merely carriers; speech (like text) shouldn’t be understood as a kind of bridge that facilitates the unhindered, neutral  transformation of information. The very mode of communication plays a role in shaping the intention, effect and, in the end, the meaning of the message. I’m pretty sure something like that has been said before somewhere. Reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running I came across a passage that eloquently muses on writing versus speaking when giving a public talk, and the complication/simplification of having to use his second language:

When I’m in Japan I rarely have to speak in front of people. I don’t give any talks. In English, though, I’ve given a number of talks, and I expect that, if the opportunity arises, I’ll give more in the future. It’s strange, but when I have to speak in front of an audience, I find it more comfortable to use my far from perfect English than Japanese. I think this is because when I have to speak seriously about something I’m overcome with the feeling of being swallowed up in a sea of words. There’s an infinite number of choices for me, an infinite number of possibilities. As a writer, Japanese and I have a tight relationship. So if I’m going to speak in front of an undefined large group of people, I grow confused and frustrated when faced by that teeming ocean of words.

With Japanese, I want to cling, as much as I can, to the act of sitting alone at my desk and writing. On this home ground of writing I can catch hold of words and context effectively, just the way I want to, and turn them into something concrete. That’s my job, after all. But once I try to actually think about things I was sure I’d pinned down, I feel very keenly that something – something very important – has spilled out and escaped. And I just can’t accept that sort of disorienting estrangement.

Once I try to put together a talk in a foreign language, though, inevitably my linguistic choices and possibilities are limited: much as I love reading books in English, speaking in English is definitely not my forte. But that makes me feel all the more comfortable giving a speech. I just think, It’s a foreign language, so what’re you going to do? This was a fascinating discovery for me. Naturally it takes a lot of time to prepare. Before I get up on stage I have to memorize a thirty- or forty-minute talk in English. If you just read a written speech as is, the whole thing will feel lifeless to the audience. I have to choose words that are easy to pronounce so people can understand me, and remember to get the audience to laugh to put them at ease. I have to convey to those listening a sense of who I am. Even if it’s just for a short time, I have to get the audience on my side if I want them to listen to me. And in order to do that I have to practice the speech over and over, which takes a lot of effort. But there’s also the payoff that comes with a new challenge. (pp100-101)

As an academic whose day to day life revolves around speaking in front of an audience, several things struck me here. Firstly, the feeling of being confused and frustrated when public speaking, “as though lost in a sea of words” is all too nauseatingly familiar. When delivering lectures and in podcasting, there is nothing worse than the feeling that you are ‘flailing’ in the search for words. However, listening intently to my own, and many others’ speech patterns while editing, one realises that the messiness of speech, its disorderly materialisation through sound, is what gives the words a human vitality.

 This links to Murakami’s further assertion that speeches delivered by simply reading a written text are “lifeless”. A point I wholeheartedly agree with, and anyone who spends any time at academic conferences will also be painfully aware. In a sense it is difficult to criticise speakers for preparing a set text as it provides a kind of life raft in the ocean of potential words in which is so easy to get lost. (* I realise there is a whole strand of enquiry around dramatized scripts that complicates these claims but I’m affording myself the ability to sidestep that right now).

Another wrinkle to this relates to the insights in a quite brilliant chapter in Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. A final, achingly poignant memoir of the celebrated polemicist’s final years ravaged by cancer, Hitchens reveals the anxiety of being robbed by the disease of his trademark voice. It relates to the notion that the authorial voice takes on an interlinked meaning, both literal and symbolic, when one considers the voice as sound, the voice as style, and voice as essence of self. For Hitch this has multiple layers of portentous significance:

In some ways, I tell myself, I could hobble along by communicating only in writing. But this really only because of my age. If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could have ever achieved much on the page. I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of The Guardian (son of the author of The Uses of Literacy), who about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write “more like the way you talk.” At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of  being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Saifre used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice. (pp49-50)

 As always Hitchens’ insights are fascinating, but this idea of the voice as a tool for the sonic materialisation of thought, being the rudiment of the writerly voice on the page, sutures speech and writing in a way that seems, again, pertinent to the praxis of podcasting. The command: “find your own voice” conceptualises the notion that text has to hold within it the implication of speech and having this in mind when writing or speaking, would potentially improve the practice of both. Certainly, this allusion the symbiotic relationship between writing and talking is something I have proselytised to my own students, usually as a mere mechanism for improving sentence structure and ironing out typos. But the aspiration of finding one’s voice as essence of the self on the page and in the ear is of more profound important. At the end of Mortality, Hitchens’ wife Carole Blue touchingly eulogises, among many other things, his ‘perfect voice’. Anyone who has listened to his speeches and debates (and I urge you to go to YouTube and do so) will know that this sentiment derives from more than mere loyal romanticism. The man could really talk, and write. In appreciating the intricate symbiosis between the spoken and written word, one might aspire to a better understanding and deployment of both.

Myself and my Cinematologists co-host discuss writing on our latest bonus discussion available on our Patreon Page.