Aug 072017



They were known principally for the clarity of their communication, having abolished speech, leaving them only writing. This happened in the reign of Graphus I.

The technology of speech was first banned from public use on grounds of its fallibility in conveying the intended meaning and its restrictiveness in access. Recording media, until then ubiquitous, had failed to convey all of the complex nonverbal visual cues that not just accompany but are integral to oral communication and modulate its sense. At the end of decades of crippling unrest, a time known as “the Troubles” and sparked by a series of miscommunications of this kind, writing emerged as the only viable solution. All communication of political importance would be instantly disseminated in the written language used by all—“taught until learned” in every school in the realm. The program (“Taught until Learned,” or TUL) was instrumental in the enormous advances in clarity and transparency that came with implementing the resolution.

Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness. Gradually and naturally, even private communication was being conducted exclusively in writing. Writers seen in the act of writing adhered strictly to the no-expression rule, which diverted attention from their face to the text committed on the transparent scroll interposed between interlocutors. Emotional concepts and terms, after a period of proliferation (when they were desperately needed to substitute for previously unconstrained nonverbal expressions), all but vanished as the suppression of expressiveness became normalized. The gestures, habits and practices that underpinned and imbued words like “love” with meaning were gradually lost. The reduction of conflict which this unforeseen consequence brought about was hardly to be believed.

While speech did become obsolete, it never disappeared completely. The long reign of Codus II saw periodic mass protests against the hegemony of writing. The latter, once so elementary, had evolved a number of distinct symbolic systems, such that it was ever less likely for any one individual to be fluent in all of them. In effect, while most speakers could communicate in one or another system, the occasional cases where no common “language” could be found became a source of social upheaval. Predictably, the development of further specialized government-sanctioned “languages” to handle increasingly complex defense and security operations made such incidents, where communication between groups was impossible, more frequent. With the erosion of trust entailed by this state of affairs, many accused the government of fostering divisions among the people. The government in turn charged the protesters with conspiratorial activity and with undermining the legitimacy of the state. The regime of Cryptus I, under whom most of these de-universalizing changes took place, became known as cryptogarchy.

Then ambiguity began to creep into the practice of writing, much of which was again being done by hand in a broad movement to re-personalize communication. It started with the attribution of significance to any number of previously “invisible” features of the writing act: the urgency and speed of typing, the angle of the hand, and of course the formation of the symbols themselves, whose decoding exceeded the skill of our most competent graphologists. This attention eventually resulted in the development of a secondary system, whose significance took a long time to become known but whose meanings were notoriously ungraspable and uncommunicable in any language, detracting from the clarity of the written word. Over time, this delicate emotional dimension and the potential for “equivocation” with which it corrupted all writing became the main invisible threat to state power. As the art of reading by insinuation spread so the conscious use of this new communicative channel became more pronounced and its connection to the written message more legible. Arrests followed of those seen as responsible for its promotion; tremendous amounts of funding were funneled into the effort to decipher “chirographics.”

The threat, however exaggerated, was real. It soon became clear that things would not stop at communicating by hand, and that this “supplementary” system would claim the whole body, and finally, despite all counter-measures, also the face. And from there it was but a short route to the vocal chords. By such slippery-slope arguments radical changes could be justified that would otherwise seem irrational, lending support to the government’s repressive policies. Once the inept Cryptus II succeeded his uncle, the paroliements rallied popular support to outlaw writing altogether. Everyone agreed it was the best thing. And then they fell silent.

—S. D. Chrostowska

S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission(2013),  and Matches: A Light Book (2015).  She teaches at York University in Toronto.



  One Response to “The Writing on the Wall | Fiction — S. D. Chrostowska”

  1. Great short fiction with sharp political bite.

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