Writing As A Technology

Walter Ong’s response to Plato’s ideas about writing being “external, alien technologies” and as external and detrimental to the mind by instead comparing writing to a “deeply interiorized technology” is an awesome way of communicating his point, and is not like something I’ve ever read before. What especially resonated with me was his comment that “technologies are artificial, but—paradox again—artificiality is natural to human beings.” He supports his claim that technology is incredibly enriching to the human consciousness and interior life by again comparing writing as an art form that has complex script and grammar rules, and rich cultural and historic traditions. Much like the creation of musical instruments to contrive unique forms of harmonic sound, the written language was born in the alphabets of mankind’s first civilizations as the product of aesthetic design and phonetics that expresses the observed sounds. Ong’s argument is that the external creations of the mind enrich humanity in countless ways, including through the process of them being discovered, but also by their application in everyday life.
His did not spend too much time and each of the several examples and comparisons that he made, which I think leaves room for several replies, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed his style and his argument!

Writing and Class Disparity

One of the main points that Brandt discusses that particularly concerns me, is that the association in the United States between socio-economic status and literacy stems from the large investment of the government into teaching and protecting reading, and from the private investments in teaching writing. She claims that this “gap in wealth” is due to “patterns of access and investment that accompany the role of writing in economic production” (149). Reading instruction is reserved for cultural assimilation of immigrants, while writing instructions are given for white-collar positions. Brandt reiterates this point on page 172 when she discusses how commercial enterprise and wealth production are linked with writing.

Brandt’s comment on this disparity in writing knowledge between the “literary-haves” and the “literary have-nots” as it stems from the priority of public versus private investments is really salient to the topic of education disparities in inner city school districts versus wealthy suburbs. I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent public school that prepared me very well for college. I began writing short fictional stories as young as the First grade, and can attribute the steady progression I have made in writing to the support and instruction I received in middle-upper class learning institutions, from my elementary school to U of M. Writing is more expensive to teach then reading, as it requires good instructors who can be supported by schools, companies, etc. Writing at a higher level also requires being well learned in various other subject matters.

I never thought until now about how privileged I am to have been taught how to write, and to have ample opportunities to continue learning how to perfect my writing skills. Brandt made me think about writing in a new context: it is a valuable skill that is taught only to those who can afford it.






How I’ll Write in “Why I Write”

What I find particularly effective in the article that I would like to emulate is both its clear, informative style, and also its nuanced argument that it offers. I’d really like to work on making my writing more clear: correcting awkward sentence structures and comma placements, wordy phrases, and overall vague language. These are major obstacles that I find in my writing which prevent me from clearly elucidating an argument. A writer may have the most creative, brilliant, insightful perspective on an issue, but it means nothing if he or she cannot communicate it effectively.

I define myself as an analytical, argumentative writer, both stylistically and thematically. Not only do I enjoy breaking down complicated scenarios by questioning and examining the work of other writers, but I really enjoy taking these situations and trying to understand them in a different way. Thinking about myself as an essayist is how I will develop the confidence to make the sometimes-bold arguments that I believe in, but I think that by considering myself as such will also make me more conscious of my words and my phrases.

I have so many reasons why I write, and right now I’m thinking of playing around with the idea of mixing styles of stream of consciousness with more direct analysis and pointed commentary. I don’t think this is possible, but we’ll find out!!

I’m a Sucker for Rhetoric

President Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009 entitled, “A New Beginning,” might be one of the most captivating and intellectually engaging pieces of the past decade, well at least for me:

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam.  It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.  It was innovation in Muslim communities — (applause) — it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.  Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.  And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.  (Applause.)

I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story.  The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco.  In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”  And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States.  They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.  And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.  (Applause.)

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.  That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.  And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. (Applause.)

But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America.  (Applause.)  Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.  The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.  We were born out of revolution against an empire.  We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words — within our borders, and around the world.  We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept:  E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one.”  

            This speech has a clear political purpose that reflects the interests of US foreign policy and international relations with the Islamic world. President Obama addresses several contentious issues the West is dealing with, ranging from the Iraq War and the US’s defense of democracy, to its stance on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and on the political and economic empowerment of women irrespective of their religious tradition.  President Obama’s speeches have become known for their ability to captivate an audience and to inspire feelings of pride and patriotism. Not only does he impart an authentic voice to the story of the American people, but he ties that story to international communities, thereby promoting peaceful negotiation and diplomacy. Yes, I believe in the political ideology of President Barack Obama. I also respect the incredible talent of his speechwriter, John Favreau, and would love to learn the rhetorical strategies that he flawlessly employs. Despite this, I cannot trust my admiration for Obama’s decisions if it is only through his speeches alone that I have come to understand them. This may seem a bit problematic if it is mainly through formal speeches that he addresses the nation and reveals his plans of action, but I simply cannot take any speech of a politician at face value. I more comprehensively understand President Obama’s stance by reading multiple sources, like this article published by The Economist entitled “A Call to Action,” which discusses the President’s recent speech to Congress on September 8:

“As job growth has ground to a halt and stock markets have swooned, the outlook for both the American economy and Barack Obama’s presidency has dimmed. The jobs package he unveiled in a much anticipated speech before Congress on September 8th was a calculated attempt to resuscitate both. His “American Jobs Act” consists of a hefty $447 billion worth (roughly 3% of GDP) of new and renewed tax cuts and spending that, he hopes, will prevent a fiscal vice from pushing the economy into recession early next year. Its provisions were carefully chosen to stimulate job growth immediately while maximizing the political price Republicans will pay to obstruct it.

Mr Obama proposed not only extending a 2% payroll-tax cut scheduled to expire in December, but increasing it to 3.1%—half the employee’s normal contribution to Social Security. He also called for an equivalent 3.1% cut in the employer’s payroll tax for the first $5m of payroll, and elimination of the entire 6.2% tax on the wages of new hires or on pay raises for current employees. At $240 billion, those provisions account for more than half the plan’s price tag…Nonetheless, there are limits on Mr Obama’s appetite and freedom to compromise. His liberal backers threatened to desert him as he repeatedly caved in to Republicans, extending George Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, agreeing to steep spending cuts in return for an increase in the debt ceiling, and just last week delaying new smog rules. His language and tone tonight were combative, at times hectoring. Noting how many Republicans have pledged never to raise taxes, he said, “Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle class taxes. Which is why you should pass this bill right away.”

Not only does this article provide an accurate synthesis of what’s going on in the country as Republicans and Democrats continue the relentless battle that defines our political climate, but the article makes a nuanced argument about the current situation while remaining relatively unbiased. Credibility of the magazine allows the reader to trust the writer and the facts he or she uses to build the message. I do not believe that this piece is nearly as excellently written or intellectually engaging as Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, but the reason why I would like to emulate its style is because of the broader perspective that it brings to the issue, its thought-provoking and dense material that may require additional research, and to its honest intention of informing as oppose to persuading an audience. President Obama’s political stance is put into context and is analyzed. The facts have been presented and an argument has been raised—both of which are not clouded by rhetorical whit. It’s now for the reader to decide for himself or herself if they’re on board.


So What’s the Role of A Writer?

Orwell and Didion seem to agree that a writer must have a certain confidence, or maybe even arrogance that makes them believe that what they have to say is worth the time of others, and that it deserves recognition. The “I” is being imposed upon the reader, and with it, a perspective and a message. The writer is egotistical, self-centered and vain, and is really only publishing his or her work for attention.

Despite this recognition of the seemingly bossy and assertive “I” that writers impose, Orwell and Didion seem to think that there are circumstances in the world that require the commentary of the writer—circumstances whose affects might not be immediately evident to all of society, and that need to be discussed, analyzed and criticized. Having a political purpose and an historical impulse, as Orwell notes, seem to be the driving force of the writer in these scenarios.

So if we push selfish tendencies aside, what should the motivations of a good writer be? It seems as though Didion would agree that a brilliant piece of writing is not the result of personal commentary of a writer. Her perspective on the role of the writer resonates with me when she discusses imagery: “The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture…It tells you. You don’t tell it.” Intense observation of detail is something that I think makes a good writer, and allowing for a situation or an event or an object to speak for itself. This is what it seems Didion is saying.

Writers are, in a sense, the medium through which the lifeless and the mute reveal their story. They are listeners and observers before they are writers. They may have motives that aren’t entirely benevolent—as all humans do. What distinguishes their work, however, is what they want it to ultimately accomplish, and the different voices and perspectives they invoke to reveal that truth.