Re: [xmca] Vygotsky vs. Derrida

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Mon Oct 23 2006 - 08:42:15 PDT

If I may join in on this theme, since much of my own research has
been on the role of language and also visual media in science and
science education (classically my own 1990 book _Talking Science_,
but much since then that you could find on my website), I think you
might find some useful perspectives on the nature of writing as a
sign system in its own right in _Signs of Writing_ by Roy Harris. I
think he's much better informed about non-alphabetic/syllabic writing.

Michael Halliday also has a short book, _Spoken and Written
Language_, that makes the case very clear for their differences,
while affirming their underlying grounding in a common grammar.
Halliday is an expert on Chinese, among many other matters
linguistic, and has also worked on language development. There is
other work on the developmental transition from spoken to written
registers, quite important for education, and the main point is that
somewhere around the 7th year of schooling, students need to make
this transition but are poorly prepared to do so, and poorly
supported by schools and teachers, because the nature of the
transition is still largely invisible to the educational world. In
simple terms, it's the acquisition of competence in academic
registers through processes like nominalizations and other sorts of
non-colloquial constructions and their special semantic uses.

As to Derrida, I think one has to read him as being deliberately
oblique. You cannot take what he writes literally. His style is
neither academic-scientific nor Anglo-Saxon philosophical, both of
which lead us to expect explicit and literal argumentation. Think of
his writing more like literary style. So what he says about writing
is really a point being made about semiotic systems in general, and
at the time he wrote Grammatology semiotics and its critique was at
the center of intellectual discussion (cf. Roland Barthes) in France.
He is playing with Saussurean conventions to tweak the structuralists
of his own day. It's almost a roman a clef. It's a very complicated context.

Phonocentrism itself is a fascinating issue. It's an aspect what is
formally studied these days as "linguistic ideology" (e.g. M.
Silverstein), and as we all know from GB Shaw, it's a very
social-class centered phenomenon in the history of modern English,
but not so different for French (centralism) or German and Italian
(nationalism). It's all about stamping out the dialects and elevating
a privileged standard. Somehow this evolved into Chomskyan doctrine
about "native speaker competence", which was really just a way to
avoid having to base his linguistics on empirical data and led him
into his bizarre neo-Cartesian views on innateness. It is this
ideology that is still with us, and that puts intuitive knowledge of
a language ahead of scientific knowledge (a rare reversal in
modernism and the academy!). It's interesting that in the US, the
radical advocates of Ebonics (African-American English) have argued
that linguists pay too little attention to sound and style and too
much to grammar in deciding what is a distinct language variety. This
is a neo-phonocentric argument that challenges recent syntax
imperialism, and is again about our linguistic ideology (i.e. our
cultural and value-based beliefs about how language is and ought to be).

A mid-western twang will not help you write a good postgraduate
essay, and if I heard a Korean-born student speaking with one, I'd
certainly be curious how he came by it, and why. As I'm sure you
know, the issue of non-native-English teachers of English in Asia is
a serious concern in many countries. I've recently had some online
discussions on this for Thailand. Sometimes you just have to politely
tell people that they are wrong and their ideas foolish. That should
be easier for others to tell us, the would-be imperial overlords of Anglo-USA.


At 08:21 PM 10/22/2006, you wrote:
>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
>xmca mailing list

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
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