Re: [xmca] Vygotsky vs. Derrida

From: Kellogg (
Date: Sun Oct 22 2006 - 17:21:39 PDT

Dear (Wolf-)Michael and Mike (Cole):

Thanks (to the former Mike) for the two Derrida refs (which I will get to in a few weeks when my students go on their practica), but above all thanks to the ref to your own book on language and science learning; I'm gestating an article on the subject at this very moment, and I will certainly order and read your work.

Like most people, I came to Derrida through "Grammatologie" and "L'ecriture et la differance". And like Mike (Cole) I came to him looking not for philosophy or "performative" writing, but rather for some fairly empiricial, practical, even programmatic conclusions.

At the time I was writing an article on "native speakerism", that is, the unpleasant fact that any backpacking credit card exile from the USA can step off a plane at Inchon airport and put a Korean Ph.D. in English, TESOL, or even applied linguistics out of work simply by virtue of their dulcet mid-Western twange.

I thought Derrida's attack on phonocentrism, the belief that language is overwhelmingly spoken and that writing is merely a pale shadow of its spoken body, might help here. This is actually related to the work I'm doing on the language of science teaching, because my data showed that Korean teachers tended to written, decontextualizable, scholarly English while the so-called "communicative" English being packaged for export by TESOL inc.USA is a service language designed for face to face interaction with flunkies in the neo-colonies (not to put too fine a point on it).

But I was very disappointed with Derrida. Yes, it is true that Derrida rejects Saussure's position on the primacy of spoken language. But his "method" is simply to turn Saussure on his head: written language is primary (because all meaning-making systems are constructed through the opposition of "traces" and absences") and spoken language is derivative (because spoken language is simply writing on air).

I think that turning Saussure on his head in this way leaves the fundamental problems with Saussurean linguistics completely unaddressed. That includes the most fundamental problem of all--how do "concepts" and "acoustic images" develop in minds in the first place? IT also includes some problems which, although they do not appear fundamental from a European perspective, are fairly close to our hearts in Asia (for example, what about Chinese writing?)

Vygotsky really DOES tell us what is different and distinctive about writing--its decontextualizeability, its relative freedom from temporal context, and above all its role as a mental tool, which is similar to the role played by foreign language learning. But Derrida repeats all of Saussure's ignorant gobbledygook about Chinese and ends up with a Eurocentric idealization of Chinese writing that is simply the reverse of Saussure's.

Above all (in answer to Mike's request for some empirical implications) I think that Vygotsky's view of writing as emerging from two different genetic roots (that is, drawing and spoken language) allows him to understand the "pre-history" of written language in the child (I am still incensed that Chapter Eight of "Mind in Society" was translated into Korean as the "Precedent of Written Language" rather than its "prehistory"). If we accept Derrida's view that all language is written language then it is very hard for me to see how there can be any such thing as pre-history, in either ontogenesis or sociocultural development.

(One reason this is hard for me to see is that I believe that human language is simply a socio-cultural exaptation of animal communication systems, much as speech is an exaptation of organs originally evolved for respiration and the ingestion of food. Derrida's view, that is, that writing is the real source of language, seems very hard to square with this.)

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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