On Writing and Inner Speech
(From Imagems 2)
For Will Hill
1. Writing, including printing, engraving and typing, may be thought of as ‘potential speech’ that has not been uttered by the voice or expressed through the mouth, but interrupted to be diverted and eventually articulated by the hand or hands.
2. During this process of interruption, potential speech is first arrested or, rather, delayed, so that it lingers in the form or patterning of what Vygotsky calls “inner speech”1. This pattern could perhaps be called impression (impressing) or impulsion (impelling) to distinguish it from the possible later expression (expressing) and expulsion (expelling) of inner speech into either actual speech or evident writing. Inner speech does not always or necessarily result in expression. Much, and perhaps most of it gets dissipated and lost before it ever reaches that stage, dissolving as it were back into its matrix, whatever that might be, or evaporating into nothing. Osip Mandelstam tapped deep into this mysterious process in his lines: “I have forgotten what I wanted to say, / and a bodiless thought returns to the world of shadows.”2
3. Inner speech, which only after its eventual expression may be retrospectively called potential speech or potential writing, may be changed, modified and interfered with or experimented with, in the course of its transformation into actual speech or writing. Considered from this perspective, inner speech may serve multiple ‘functions’: for example, those of a fund, reservoir, vault, memory-trigger, sorting system, etc., whose contents may get activated and unpacked for later use. Its first expression or articulation in actual writing may take the form of, for example, a private note or notes, a diary entry, a shopping list, a personal memorandum or ‘to do’ list, a set of ‘rough’ jottings for a lecture or speech, a draft for a poem, etc.
4. Such writing is “egocentric” in Lev Vygotsky’s precise sense, since in all these cases the writer is the sole or prime intended reader. And such notes are likely to be relatively cryptic, disorderly, idiosyncratic, and hurried. They are private, in the sense of not necessarily being easily comprehensible to anybody but the writer-as-reader, whether for reasons of form, such as the lack of transparency of scribbled handwriting, its illegibility to others, etc.; or of content, such as obscurity or ambiguity, the lack of knowledge by others of the context of the writing or the writer’s actual or intended meaning or meanings, and the use of shorthand, code, disguise or idiosyncratic referencing mode, etc. (When returning to jottings that I have made for myself, sometimes even I-as-reader fail fully to decipher my own handwriting or to remember its original context or my original intention. In the interval between writing and reading, whoever scribbled those notes has become no longer ‘I’ but someone else.)
5. If a piece of writing is intended functionally as a message written primarily for another or others, the writer always has the chance to read (check) it first, and indeed may wish or prefer to do so. So the writer is by implication always included among those ‘others’, i.e. as a potential reader. The writer as self-reader always becomes other in the act of reading, of re-reading.
6. That is also to say: if a piece of writing is intended to be delivered to another or others, writing has a similar relationship to speech as frozen food has to raw food. Writing is communal and social in that it always implies another or others: a reader or readers. A writer may read his/her own piece of writing both to test (taste) it privately and also later to relish it, whether alone or together with others, just as a cook may prepare a dish and then eat his/her own culinary preparation alone or with others. The difference of course is that a cooked dish or meal, once consumed, no longer exists, whereas once a piece of writing has been committed to a surface, any surface, it will be preserved and be readily available to be copied and re-consumed, again and again, by anybody, so long as at least one copy is not destroyed. Writing is refrigerated brainfood; poetry, refrigerated soulfood.
7. Through human history, the variety of material and immaterial surfaces deployed to receive and register writing (including printing, typing and engraving) is enormous: clay, shell, animal bone, turtle plastron and carapace, glass, stone, metal (from bronze and lead to aluminium and other modern metals), silk and all types of woven and knitted fabric, leather, live skin (in branding and tattooing), wood (especially bamboo), wax, paper, plastics, and photographic, filmic, digital and virtual media – have all been deployed (Tsien 2013). What is more, very ancient writing technologies continue to be used alongside new ones that are being invented and applied in the now (Edgerton 2006). Until very recently, the production of writing necessarily involved initial activation by hand or hands. Tools for writing include stylus, chisel, chalk, wax, brush, a vast variety of pens (fountain pen, ballpoint, rollerball, felt tip, highlighter, gel pen), pencil, crayon, and many machines involving printing, including fax, photocopier and dot-printer (for braille), typewriter and keyboard combined with digital printer. But now we also have machines capable of producing writing by means of voice recognition and even eye recognition. In all cases, whatever the surface, the result is text, every copy of which is capable of functioning as a new original for further replication and dissemination. Signs breed signs. Writing, the sign of a sign of a sign, the sign of signs, breeds writing. Writings breed writings.
8. It follows that a prerequisite for a written text to exist is that its author’s inner speech be purposively directed towards its making. This tallies perfectly with Vygotsky’s idea that “besides its role of accompaniment to activity and its expressive and release functions, egocentric speech readily assumes a planning function, i.e. turns into thought proper quite naturally and easily” (Vygotsky 2012: 92-92; emphasis added, RB). Is the day coming when our machines will have evolved to the point when we shall be able to transform planned and directed inner speech (i.e. “thought proper”) into writing, with no bodily mediation or intervention other than mental concentration and focus? If so, would this then not mean that inner speech, though silent and unvoiced, could be transmitted into writing by the power of inner speech itself?
9. However, not only individual words but variations on words, word-combinations and word-patterns also occur in dreams, daydreams, random musings, and all forms of non-directed thought. They range in intelligibility from glossolalia, babble, wholly or partially incomprehensible utterances, and actual or imagined ‘foreign’ (‘glagolitic’) speech, to occurrences and manifestations of language that are meaningfully articulated and wholly intelligible to the person experiencing them. They may occur as ‘heard voices’ of persons or figures, known or unknown, or they may appear not to belong to any particular voice. They may appear with the power and authority of epiphanic revelations from divine entities, spirits and ghosts, whether benevolent or otherwise. All of these phenomena, across their whole range, surely need to be classified as inner speech. What is more, when we experience inner speech, we may experience ourselves as speakers, as listeners, or as both simultaneously. The singular other is inside myself, as are all plural others. And while such utterances, together with their hearings, overhearings and underhearings, clearly belong to inner speech, it would equally clearly be difficult to argue that they have a purposive function in any purely, simply or even predominantly directional or utilitarian sense. However, they may have a heuristic function: a person who experiences inner speech in this way may ‘get an idea’ and so be or feel motivated, directed and even propelled towards action of some sort. Furthermore many experiments have been made in transmitting (transforming, translating) inner speech to writing without conscious volition or intention, for example by suggestion, including hypnosis, and through automatic writing.
10. A practised and experienced writer gradually learns to ‘listen out', or rather, ‘listen in’ for inner speech of this kind and to jot it down for possible later use as soon as it surfaces. A poet, for example, may sometimes ‘receive’ a word-combination and even a rhythmically composed phrase or line or stanza in this way. The Muses of Ancient Greece, the inspirational daughters of Mnemosyne, are as much bearers of inner speech as the angelic calls that beckoned St. Joan, or the voice of Yahweh or his Shekhinah (‘Presence’) that Moses heard outside his tent. For a poet, hearing or receiving inner speech – initially, as it were, passively rather than actively – may well be identical with the first incipient stirring of verbal impression in the writer’s mind, even when such an iteration is unexpected and far from being the result of focused or directed attention. Evidently, if not lost in the “world of shadows”, and if gathered and remembered, this impression may later be expressed: i. e. may be transformed, developed and registered into and as a piece of writing.
11. As a precondition for its existence, then, writing not only presupposes inner speech but requires it, whether such speech is sensed as the outcome of vague intention or a deliberate plan to write, or of partly or wholly unexpected inspiration, visitation or revelation. In the latter situations, inner speech is often itself experienced, or at least later processed and retrospectively described, in such terms as a gift, a dictation, a visit, a visitation from afar, a welling up from depths, a descent from on high, and so on. What is more, inner speech may also appear or later be interpreted as an imprinting, or other form of ‘marking’, and therefore, may intrinsically posit either some kind of originary act of writing or cloudy synaesthetic mental conflation of the faculties of hearing and sight. The Kabbalistic text, Sefer ha-Bahir [Book of Illumination] reports: “All the people saw the voices” (Wolfson: 347; emphasis added, RB). Based on how and what Vygotsky wrote of inner speech, can we then be justified in speaking of “inner writing” too? At any rate, all these characterisations of inner speech imply the otherness and mysteriousness of its source or sources; and all are loaded either with varying degrees of respect, awe, wonder, and even epiphany and numinosity, or with a sense of irritation, interruption, unwarranted intrusion, and even of temptation, fear, and danger. What is more, inner speech may sometimes take the form of an inner dialogue, of interplay between two or more interior voices, and even of interior drama. These factors, all of which relate to processes in dream and daydream, apply as clearly to the inner speech that informs the writing of a mature person as they do to the babble of an infant in the crib (Weir 1962).
12. The identities of the voices that utter inner speech have not been adequately accounted for in any theory, whether behavioural, psychological or metaphysical; and perhaps they never will be. Meanwhile, Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur remains not just a “semblable” or “frère”, but may well be the writer himself/herself. And Rimbaud’s remark, “Je est un autre,” may be reconfigured as “L’autre que je suis est toi (Burns 2002).”
November 11, 2014,
June 19, 2015 & August 25, 2015
Bahir, The. 1979. Aryeh Kaplan (tr.). York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc.
Baudelaire, Charles. 1968. ‘Au lecteur’ and ‘Le voyage’, in Fleurs du mal. Jacques Crépet and Georges Blin (eds.). Paris: Librairie José Corti.Consulted, June 19. 2015.
Burns, Richard (aka Berengarten). 2002. ‘Pour Toi’, Address to the Conference, Une poétique mondiale de la poésie? La Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 13th May. Consulted June 19, 2015.
Edgerton, David. 2006. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. London: Profile.
Mandelstam, Osip. 1973. Selected Poems. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (trs.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
——— ———. 1987. Tristia. Bruce McClelland (tr.). Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press.
Rimbaud, Arthur.1966. Complete Works, Selected Letters. Bilingual French-English edition. Wallace Fowlie (tr.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin. 2013 . Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.
Weir, Ruth Hirsch. 1962. Language in the Crib. The Hague: Mouton.
Wolfson, Elliot R. 1994. Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1 Lev Vygotsky was a brilliant Russian-Jewish developmental psychologist who died of tuberculosis, aged 37, in 1934. Living and working in the Stalinist period, he had to couch both his theories and experimental conclusions in strictest accordance not only with scientific methodology but with official Communist doctrine. Despite self-doubts and personal crises, it is an extraordinary achievement that he managed to do that, though I believe the strain of conforming with Soviet orthodoxy was a factor in his deteriorating health and untimely death.
One of Vygotsky’s major works, Мышление и речь [Myshlenie i rech] was published in Russia in 1934 but not translated into English until 1962. The Russian title is translatable into English in various ways, for example, Thinking and Speaking, Thought and Speech, Thinking and the Word, Thought and Word, Thought and Language, etc. Evidently, none of these alone does full justice to the echoic resonance of the Russian. The title chosen for the 1962 English edition was Thought and Language (translated by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Walker, and published by MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.). Since then, the book has had a powerful and increasingly pervasive influence on theories of children’s conceptual and linguistic development. The edition I have used, and refer to here, has been re-edited by Alex Kozulin (MIT Press, 2012).
One of the key notions in the book is that of inner speech. In the course of an extensive critique of Piaget, according to Vygotsky the young child develops “egocentric” speech, based on the social speech he/she hears in the immediate environment, but with the difference that in egocentric speech the child is both speaker and listener, i.e. intends the speech for himself/herself, talks to himself/herself:
If we compare the amount of what might be called egocentric speech of children and adults, we would have to admit that the “egocentric” speech of adults is much richer. From the point of view of functional psychology all silent thinking is nothing but “egocentric” speech. John B. Watson would have said that such speech serves individual rather than social adaptation.
In the same key passage, Vygotsky spells out that inner speech continues into adulthood:
The first feature uniting the inner speech of adults with the egocentric speech of children is its function as speech-for-onself. (Vygotsky 2012: 34)
Vygotsky then clarifies that both egocentric speech and inner speech “would be incomprehensible to others because they omit to mention what is obvious to the speaker” and that “when egocentric speech disappears, it does not simply atrophy but ‘goes underground,’ i.e. turns into inner speech.” Inner speech, then, is elliptical and cryptic; and what it does include suggests that it contains more than it ‘says’. Later he argues that “egocentric speech as a separate linguistic form is the highly important genetic link in the transition from vocal to inner speech” (Vygotsky 2012: 37).
Vygotsky’s theory, in my view, serves as the foundation for a powerful and radical rethinking of writing itself. As these ‘Twelve Propositions’ clarify, I believe writing results from the development and refinement of inner speech.
2 From the fifth verse of a much-translated poem, number 113 in the sequence Tristia, written in November 1920 and usually referred to as ‘The Swallow’. See for example Mandelstam 1973: 52, and 1987: 90-91. These lines are bravely quoted by Vygotsky as the epigraph to the final chapter of Thought and Language (1934), as a telling indicator of his theory of ‘inner speech’ – bravely, because Mandelstam was already under Stalin’s suspicion. See Thought and Language 2012: 223. Variant possible translations for Russian ‘Ьезплотная’ (‘bezplotnaya’) include voiceless, unvoiced, unbodied, unembodied and intangible, as well as bodiless.