Abstract From the Sound to the Paper, Research Time, 06/01/2015

Marshall McLuhan's career as an
intellectual celebrity is fascinating. I may
pick up Douglas Coupland's book about
him, as it's highly recommended.
Eric and Marshall McLuhan focus a lot of the first chapter in Laws of Media on the importance of abstraction as a form of thinking that transforms how we conceive of and experience the world after we become habituated to it. 

They discuss two kinds of abstraction. The abstraction of alphabetic script is closely attached to the concept of logos as the speech act that makes what is said true that I discussed yesterday. McLuhan understands the alphabet as the first analysis of spoken language that broke from representing its vocal character. 

Western scripts had been syllabaries before the innovations of Greek script, according to McLuhan’s historical analysis,* each character representing a syllable. So there were many characters (usually based on pictographs and hieroglyphs of objects where the syllable was prominent in its name), each of which had a direct relation to a verbal sound.

* This historical analysis utterly sidesteps the fact that the Greek innovations in separating syllabic written characters into vowels and consonants was long pre-dated by Hebrew writing. And several Hebrew letter forms directly influenced the Greek.** I think that for the rest of this post, I’ll remind you in brackets that Hebrew did the same thing after I mention what McLuhan identifies as an innovation in Greek script.

** I bought a book several years ago at a conference, Alpha Beta by John Man, that provides a detailed history of both Mediterranean and Asian scripts.

McLuhan calls attention to an innovation in Greek (and Hebrew) script that also occasioned in innovation in the most intricate conceptual connective tissue of the Mediterranean mind, the breakdown of syllabic letters into vowels and consonants. The consonant especially is a paradigm-shifting innovation because vowels had already been added to several of the region’s syllabic scripts. They fit the voice-centric model of syllabic scripts well; vowels are a kind of pure vocalization.***

*** I admit that I have very little technical knowledge of linguistics and I’m being completely amateurish in my description of the qualities of the various sounds of language.

But consonants can’t really be pronounced at all. They require abstracting from the sound of a word or syllable to a component that can only be understood in writing. Far from returning to voice-centric writing, McLuhan considers the technical linguistic term of the phoneme a further abstraction than the consonant-vowel alphabets because it isolates individual sounds of languages with a specialized technical alphabet.

As I wrote this post, I thought of writing a book about
Derrida's intellectual influence from Heidegger: an Anti-
Semitic would-be sage whose greatest successor was a
Sephardic Jewish master of abstraction. A story of
philosophical gravity transformed into a nerdy joy. I
probably won't have the time or dedication until I'm
extremely old.
It reminds me of another common bugbear that is often made a whipping boy by philosophers hostile to European thought. But in this case, I actually think there’s much productive to learn through reading him. Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (and Speech and Phenomena, but I won’t speak to that book because I haven’t actually read it) discusses how an experience of language that centres on voice and speaking privileges tactility and presence, while a language that requires its script for fundamental understanding prioritizes abstraction.

I always read an undertone of judgment in this transition from a voice to script centricity in Mediterranean languages when I’ve gone through Of Grammatology, as if moving away from the primacy of voice cost us a wonderful element of immediacy and presence in our relationship with our language, words, and expression. Of course, that contrasts with the major themes of Derrida’s early work, his multifaceted critique of presence as it occurs throughout Western metaphysics and life. 

But what impresses me about how McLuhan describes these serious phase transitions, they allow no romanticism in their discussions of either the voice or the script focus in our encounters with language. Often, philosophical discussions of such categorical epistemic shifts grieve for the old model as a lost authenticity or innocence that can never be restored. 

Martin Heidegger certainly talked that way about human life and thought before the advent of abstraction. I find McLuhan quite commendable in simply describing the shift in cultural character so neutrally, as if he is simply describing different ways of encountering the world, each with its benefits and drawbacks. In fact, I think that’s exactly what he’s doing. Excellent.

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