Derrick de Kerckhove (English version): “The problem is either you control language or it controls you”


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Although being almost 70 years old, Derrick de Kerckhove has a vitality and an energy that many people under 40 would want for themselves. Derrick, who used to work closely with Marshall McLuhan, is now a Professor of the French Language department at the University of Toronto and of the Sociology department at the Federico II University in Naples, scientific director of the Italian magazine Mediaduemila and research director at the UOC.

The following are a few excerpts from a longer interview, which can be read in its entirety here:

You started studying French language and Literature.

It was an accident. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. It cultivates your sensibility and you do become critically aware… you learn methods of looking and feeling. But I think I would have probable been a better architect. I loved being an architect, but I didn’t realize it was so good.

Afterwards you studied Sociology and new technologies.

That was an accident too. Now that I think of it, my life is nothing but a series of wonderful accidents. I was very much bored by French Literature and my wife, who was my fiancée then, said that if I was bored at the University of Toronto because you are only at the French department you are stupid. You should go and listen to the famous people here, who are really well-known around the world for being who they are. She gave the names of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye and Robertson Davies. Robertson Davies was a writer, a novelist, and he was OK. Frye was a really famous literary critic, a big guy, but I didn’t find it that exciting. ButMcLuhan… that was amazing! I couldn’t understand anything he said. Maybe that’s why it was interesting!

Nowadays many people have always an internet access with them, such a mobile phone. And when there is some argument about some detail (i.e. the year when a battle took place or who directed some movie) there is always someone who googles it and comes with the right answer. Is this something good?

It’s absolutely wonderful! It’s an augmented memory. Would you rather not have it?


Let’s talk a bit about Marshall McLuhan. You consider him your master.

Absolutely. Without him I wouldn’t be here.

He said that “the medium is the message”. Does this mean that everything is done and said and we cannot expect anything new to appear in arts or culture?

No, what is happening now is as big as the Renaissance, and it could be much bigger. It is a big change of being. It is not just a change of mood or politics, it is a change of being. Exactly where we are going I am not absolutely sure, but we are exploring possible ways of being. Cinema is a good example, I call it “Pinocchio 2.0”: Blade runner is one example of being a replicant, Tron is going inside the machine, Avatar is going 3D into the screen and beyond, The Truman show is being the focus of attention of the whole world not knowing that one is such… I used to throw away the American cinema because of the happy endings and so, but no, they are very intelligent and they know what they are looking for. I have always been fascinated by the way we project our image. That’s why I like Stelarc. In fact, the first time I met him was here in Barcelona. I drove all the way from Nice to Barcelona just to hear Stelarc. I left my car in the middle of the highway or somewhere, I went to listen to Stelarc and when I was back, of course, my car was gone. It cost me a lot of money to recuperate it.

Was it worth it?

Yes, it was an amazing talk. He is an example of what I was saying, he is trying different ways of being human. Mostly Physical, but psychological too. He is as famous as Marcel·lí Antúnez, globally. He has grown himself another ear. Very disgusting. And I told him one day: “Stelarc, you are the most disgusting guy I have ever seen”. And he said: “Me, disgusting?” But then I said it was a big compliment.

McLuhan wrote also about the “global village”, and it was in the sixties, when no one could even imagine internet. Was he like a 20th century Jules Verne?

No, it was different. He discovered that teaching Literature to young American students was hopeless, they didn’t get it. So he questioned which was their culture, and he saw this advertising. He wrote a book, The mechanical bride, where he was actually analyzing pictures and asking the people what did it say to them. They thought that was interesting. And that’s how he began studying culture as an object of analysis.

In your book The alphabet and the brain you explain why we write from left to right.

Yes, the reason why we write to the right and not to the left, like Arabs or Hebrews, is because our alphabet is a continuous series of signs: consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel, so it is a unidirectional succession of representations of syllables, obliging the mind to analyze what we read. Whereas if you have to guess, you have to have an iterative look, what is more important is grabbing the image, not analyzing it, and that’s why people write to the left. The shift from the left to the right came from the change of the basic structure of the writing system, and it changed because Semitic languages make a big separation between consonants and vowels. Consonants are the substance of the word, the “lexikon”, and the vowels are the grammatical connection between the words. The Greek is an Indo-European language, which means that the meaning of the words, the “lexikon”, is not made just by consonants, but by consonants and vowels. And that’s what the Greeks did. They took the Phoenician system, a Semitic language, and adapted it. In fact, the Greeks wrote continuously, there was no separation between words or sentences, you had to read aloud and figure it out.

More about Derrick de Kherkhove

The Skin of Culture





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