Mulcaster’s Tyrant Sound

Abstract

The privileging of writing, often not simply metaphorically, over the “fantasies” of a pristine orality has been the impetus of much recent scholarship built on the foundations laid in Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967). But such explicit privileging is not new. Richard Mulcaster (1531/32-1611), an Elizabethan schoolmaster and educational reformer, declared in his Positions (1581) that “though writing in order to traine do succeed reading, yet in nature and time it must needes be elder,” a stance Jonathan Goldberg (1990) has perceptively discovered at work even when Mulcaster claims, one year later in the Elementarie (1582), to tell an allegory of sound’s originary position in the history of writing. While it does not seek to restore the primacy of orality in his works, this essay argues first that Mulcaster’s displacement of sound is not as tidy as both he and Goldberg would suggest, and therefore, second, that the consequent perception of “nature”—here that of children—is not as determinative.

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