Why should Aboriginal peoples learn to write?

Carles Serra Pagès


Cultures and worldviews are inscribed by means of ‘writing’, or what Derrida calls ‘the perdurable inscription of a sign’ (Of Grammatology). A sign is the union between signifier and signified. The signifier may be natural (clouds indicate that it is going to rain) or artificial. All cultures are made up of relations that stay at the level of signs, that is, everything that belongs to culture is empirical and conventional. In this regard, both Aboriginal and Western culture remain at the same level. Moreover, both cultures produce objectivity by means of contrast and experimentation, in the design of a sharp object, for example an arrow or a knife. In Ancient Greece, Havelock contends that the invention of writing dramatically increased the possibilities of objective thought (The Muse Learns To Write), but it also created a logic of binaries that transcended the objectivity of science and transpired into the ideology behind colonialism. In this context, the role of writing is analyzed in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. How does writing affect Gemmy all throughout the book? Already in the first Chapter, the teacher and the minister of the colony analyze Gemmy ‘in writing’. Gemmy knows what writing is but hasn’t learnt its ‘trick’: he does not know how to read or write. All he can see is that what he tells about his life, all his pain and suffering, is translated into marks and magic squiggles on the paper: only the spirit of the story he tells is captured. But little by little, the cognitive effects of writing get hold of Gemmy, until he starts to understand his life within the framework of the logic of binaries and identity upon which all reflective thought and science rest. All in all, this deconstructive reading can be seen as a critique of Europe’s modern idea of the autonomy of reason, in the name of a heteronymous rationality in the form of writing.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1344/co201049%20-%2013


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