The Lifespan of Writing

It is only as a language is written down that it becomes possible to think about it.  The acoustic medium, being incapable of visualization, did not achieve recognition as a phenomenon wholly separate from the person who used it.  But in the alphabetized document the medium became objectified.  There it was, reproduced perfectly in the alphabet… no longer just a function of “me” the speaker but a document with an independent existence. (Havelock as cited in Schlain, 1998, p. 64)

Writing has a life of its own.  A spoken conversation is lost once it is finished, reliant on the recall of the participants, and the inevitable biases of their perception.  It is easy to look back on conversation and misremember where the meaning and emphasis lay.  Furthermore in order to share that conversation it must be passed through the unreliable filters of the mind, paraphrased, adulterated.  But the written word lives on in its form, just as it was set down.  For better or worse it goes out into the word blind to its witnesses: Telling its message over and over for as long as it exists or at least as long as there is someone to come across it and read it.

Writing also spans time in a way a spoken conversation cannot.  Writing is always projected forward in time, “The written word’s message is deciphered sometime in the future and usually in another location” (p. 43), and conversely when we read we are inevitably looking backwards in time.

The written word is essentially immortal.  To a hyper-conscious primate who had become aware that death was inevitable, the discovery of a method to project one’s self beyond a single life span seemed nothing less than miraculous. (p. 79).

Writing therefore becomes an artefact, a communication that is somewhat solidified (rather than hanging on the air like the spoken word), it becomes a text. It can be pretty, poetic, meaningful, functional, even nonsensical, but once it is set down it becomes more than its author.  It gains its own lifespan that is unpredictable, it might last a single day (like a shopping list) or hundreds of years (like a Shakespeare play), it may last longer than its writer ever intended it to.

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