Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
Civilization is unthinkable without writing. This statement is a commonplace, and like all commonplaces its reiteration merits critical reflection, especially when we ponder why stakes become so high whenever writing is concerned. The shared modern Chinese and Japanese kanji rendering of the word for “civilization,” for instance, means “enlightening through writing/text” ( [wenming in Mandarin]), which puts emphasis literally on the value of writing. For centuries, writing has been invoked as a positive index to the hierarchy of human societies and their intellectual attributes, whereby orality is relegated to primitive and pretechnological cultures. The presumed dichotomy of writing and orality often relies on a flawed, representational view of writing that is phonocentric to the core, à la Derrida, and remains almost always blind to the presence of script or medium—including that of alphabetical writing—which requires a different kind of analytical approach.