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True language has always been argued to be divided into speech and writing. The dichotomous nature of these two traditionally positions writing inferior to speech. This is because it’s always been considered that words are derived from voice—an assumption that says speech is closer to the truth. However, if we’re going to analyze, presenting ideas is all about finding identity and purpose. Human expression is subjugated by our own perception and that discernment’s fabrication of our world.

Western philosophy is mainly responsible in promoting speech as inherently superior to written language. In this ideology, spoken words are believed to be “symbols of mental experience,” whereas writing as the second-class symbols of the spoken words. It is also said that writing serves merely as the representation and supplementary to speech, and it corrupts the original nature of language which is why its effects on speech are always condemned from a moral point of view. As Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, writing had poisoned primitive cultures more than had pure speech communication.

Let’s take for example the term “onee-sama.” On its most literal sense, “onee-sama” refers to a highly respected older sister.  However due to the evolution of literature in Japan, especially the popularization of yuri fandom, it rarely refers to an actual sister anymore—it’s now being used by a younger girl to address an older character with connotations of attraction. Sometime ago when I wasn’t a blogger yet, I raised a question in MakiMaki’s website that summarizes into:

how come Mari—from Girlfriends— find the term “onee-sama” odd after having glimpsed of Tamamin’s yuri manga.


Thanks to AwesomeSauce for responding and for sharing an interesting insight:

@abscissa – It’s because the first shoujo ai novels were class S novels by yoshiya nobuko (who is basically the mother of all things shoujo ai). Most novels took place in a school setting complete with dorms and girls having crushes on the older girls. So oneesama is an archetype and carried down to be so common in today’s manga and anime. I hope that kind of answers your question…

Honestly, since I’ve been exposed to yuri manga, I’ve no longer seen the word “onee-sama” on its literal form and since then I’ve always linked it to the lesbian culture of anime and manga. Could this be what Lévi-Strauss, meant by writing poisons language or culture?

Nowadays, anyone who legitimizes appraisal of ethnocentrism, excesses and horrors of Western imperialism, and for someone betrothed in the objective, systematic study of culture, would concur that writing is a western mode that has eclipsed, colonized and served to eradicate primarily oral cultures. Hence, using this lens in analyzing Nobuko as an active novelist in Taisho and Showa period, one may argue that her writings are by-products of Japan’s modernization—one of the roots which led to the distortion of the truest sense of the word, “onee-sama”.

Deconstructing this argument using Derrida’s principles, writing as a supplement to speech may imply that there is a loss of presence in speech which must be supplemented by writing. If an absence expands within the presence of speech, then writing may become a means of recovering whatever presence is lacking. Most importantly, writing cannot properly be viewed merely as absence, just as speech cannot properly be viewed merely as presence. Speech may occur within writing, and writing may occur within speech. So we can say that the yuri behind the term “onee-sama” might have been existing all this time, however due to lack of acceptance in homosexuality, especially in a patriarchal society, it just happened that it took until Japan opened its doors to the world to push somebody to liberate a word from what the tradition has limit it to be. Hence, writing may occur either before or after speech.

In addition, language is not a fixed system. It’s chaotic in a sense that words not only have many different meanings and uses, but as signifiers they don’t just simply correspond with their definitional meanings—which are dependent on other signifiers.  For instance, Nopy made a very interesting query of what actually moe means. When I searched the web for moe’s definition, I couldn’t find an exact description of it. Instead, I was confronted by so many words—signifiers—trying to describe moe in their own way. As Derrida argued, language is independent on a correspondence among established codes and the fixed meanings attached to them, but that language subsists in an unsteady, “free play” of signifiers. Words are always threatened by the intrusion of new or unanticipated meanings and constantly evoke other words and meanings.


Some Useful FYIs:

  • Claude Lévi-Strauss is the “father of modern anthropology.”
  • Jacques Derrida wrote the Of Grammatology. His paradoxes of binary oppositions are extremely interesting.
  • Nopy wrote an interesting blog post, Death of Kawaii, which elicits how  “moe” changes the culture of anime lingo.
  • The Revolutionary Girl Utena reference is so funny.