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  • Kate West

The Tyranny of the Letter: Dyslexia and the Writing-dominant Academy

Updated: Jul 15, 2019



The twentieth century philosopher Jacques Derrida didn’t much like that his nineteenth century not-so-intellectual-ally Jean-Jacques Rousseau preferred speech to writing. Rousseau located speech in the natural world when he described it as ‘the first language of man’ and ‘the cry of nature’. By contrast, he located writing in the social and cultural world when he said that ‘[w]riting is nothing but the representation of speech’. For Rousseau, nature was 'good’, and culture was ‘bad’ since writing distanced language from its original meaning in speech.


Derrida exposed the natural quality that Rousseau ascribed to speech, arguing that it is was socially and culturally contingent to his eighteenth-century milieu. Moreover, Derrida argued that the presence of writing demonstrates something missing in speech. To put it another, more Derridean (sigh) way, writing demonstrates the present absence or absent presence of speech.


Anyway, I reluctantly side with Rousseau. But I have a good excuse: I’m dyslexic. I like to think that Rousseau preferred speech to writing because he was dyslexic, too (and not because he had some fairly reprehensible views about nature and culture, mentioned above). I find his argument about speech as the ‘boss’ of writing theoretically unconvincing, but at the same time, it’s reminiscent of my lived dyslexic experience. On the other hand, I find Derrida’s argument convincing, but it isn’t my lived dyslexic experience. In sum, there is a neurological explanation as to why writing is not the boss of speech for we dyslexics. I’m good at talking; I’m shit at writing (and reading). In fact, there’s a pretty gigantic gap between my ability to communicate orally and my ability to communicate in writing.


My dyslexic profile is not unique; it’s characteristically dyslexic. We dyslexic scholars are perpetually reminded of it because the academy prioritises writing (and reading). Teaching requires us to read for and write lectures and research requires us to generate written publications. BTW, the latter is the metric by which our ‘excellence’ is measured.


To put it another way, a dyslexic scholar’s excellence is measured in the same terms as one of the most profoundly felt aspects of our disability. Now that’s a pretty shitty metric.

I've spent my education developing strategies allowing me to write and read so that now I can teach and research. However, I was not prepared for administration. As a dyslexic scholar the difficulties of administration are borne out, for example, through e-mail and the Microsoft Word and Excel spreadsheets attached to them. All academics moan about e-mail, but not for the same reasons as their dyslexic colleagues. E-mails that are long (say, more than a few lines) are impenetrable (my first post offers a snapshot into what it feels like to read when you are dyslexic). Also, they are increasingly more frequent as academics retreat from our campuses to our preferred workspaces (including home, the library, bed etcetera—yes, I said bed). As such, I haunt the desolate corridors of the C21st University hoping for chance encounters, face-to-face, spoken responses to those e-mails that arrive like sawn-off shotgun fire in my inbox. If there’s one thing worse than electronic mail, though, it’s the constant reminder that it should take the form of its analogue and apparently-not-quite-yet predecessor, the letter (see, ‘Dear x’, ‘Best wishes, y’). I’m quietly awaiting the rise of the e-voicenote because, as an oral medium, it'll dispense with conventions peculiar to written media and usher in the death of the letter. In sum, forget the so-called tyranny of email because for dyslexic academics it’s the tyranny of the letter (that thing in an envelope transposed into e-mail as well as the alphabetical character strung together into words and writing).


Anyway, back to Rousseau. This isn’t the first time his scholarship has been used to defend we dyslexics. One scholarly article cites Rousseau’s declaration that ‘man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains’ (read speech as freedom and writing as chains, oh, and 'man' as woman and enby (non-binary) person, obvs, here, as well as in the context of my note about his reprehensible views, above). As the authors of that article put it, ‘[d]yslexics were born differently-enabled’, but everywhere they are ‘dis-abled’. The writing-dominant practices that characterise the academy make me feel dyslexic. To put it another way, the writing-dominant practices that characterise the academy make me feel disabled.


The academy doesn’t need to be this way. It's fucked up that in the digital age we rely on those literary media developed in the later modern period and which came to prominence especially the nineteenth century (articles and books). The ultimate ambition of the Dyslexic Academic project is to develop a framework that departs from the writing-dominant (aka neurotypical) academy. That enterprise is about to begin with the making of a five-part podcast exploring what and how learning-different academics research. I, for example, work on sensorial ways of knowing (looking, touching, and hearing) precisely because I am dyslexic. The podcast will eventually be transcribed as a book manuscript for publication. This book, that is orated rather than written, will subvert the written word, that oppressor of dyslexic scholars.

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