The ABCs...are ruthless?

10 November 2009

I've never considered the affect of the phonetic alphabet upon our culture, but Marshall McLuhan (originator of the famed "the medium is the message" concept) discusses its power to disconnect the individual from the community and one sense from another:

"This stark division and parallelism between a visual and an auditory world was both crude and ruthless, culturally speaking. The phonetically written word sacrifices worlds of meaning and perception that were secured by forms like the hieroglyph and the Chinese ideogram . . . Many centuries of ideogrammic use have not threatened the seamless web of family and tribal subtleties of Chinese society. On the other hand, a single generation of alphabetic literacy suffices in Africa today, as in Gaul two thousand years ago, to release the individual initially, at least, from the tribal web. This fact has nothing to do with the content of the alphabetized words; it is the result of the sudden breach between the auditory and the visual experience of man. Only the phonetic alphabet makes such a sharp division in experience, giving to its user an eye for an ear, and freeing him from the tribal trance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship . . . Separateness of the individual, continuity of space and of time, and uniformity of codes are the prime marks of literate and civilized societies."

("The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear" in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan)

No comments: