Literary/Aesthetic Cliché-Probes



In the second half of the eighties there appeared graduates from the Toronto school of media ecology who attempted to preserve the liberal, encyclopedic humanist features that they perceived in McLuhan’s discoveries. Generally, what they had in common was a rejection of the multi-media “comprehensivist” themes from the Toronto school that Barrington Nevitt emphasized as they wrestled with the question of the relevance of literate “generalist”, or multi-specialist, values in the electronic maelstrom. This Diasporic school of media ecology included:

Bruce W. Powe (A CLIMATE CHARGED: Essays on Canadian Writers. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1984, and THE SOLITARY OUTLAW. Toronto, Ontario: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, 1987),

William Irwin Thompson (PACIFIC SHIFT. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1985, GAIA: A WAY OF KNOWING: Political Implications of the New Biology [edited by William Irwin Thompson]. Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Lindisfarne Press, 1987, and IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE: Making Worlds of Myth and Science. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989),

Neil Postman (AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985),

Robert K. Logan (THE ALPHABET EFFECT: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986), and

Derrick de Kerckhove and C. J. Lumsden, eds., (THE ALPHABET AND THE BRAIN: The Lateralization of Writing. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1988).

The Diasporic school celebrated the assumptions and benefits of the Gutenberg Galaxy while cautiously recognizing, because of a McLuhan-schooled suspicion towards the former’s disservices, the opportunities for the renewal of humanist ideals presented by the Marconi Galaxy. This school was indifferent to McLuhan’s disgust with the sectarian conflicts that humanism necessarily evoked because it genuinely believed the struggles over cultural “content” were nutritious and invigorating. It lacked the detachment that McLuhan encouraged towards technological “content”

(see middle of p.22 in COUNTERBLAST,
and middle of p.235 in LETTERS)

that led to his kind of diagnosis such as the following:

“Professor Mansell Jones in his Modern French Poetry (pp.30-31) takes up this theme with reference to two kinds of symbolism which he refers to as vertical and horizontal. Vertical symbolism is of the dualistic variety, setting the sign or the work of art as a link between two worlds, between Heaven and Hell. It is concerned with the world as Time process, as becoming, and with the means of escape from Time into eternity by means of art and beauty. Vertical symbolism asserts the individual will against the hoi polloi. It is aristocratic. Yeats is the perfect exemplar. Horizontal symbolism, on the other hand, sets the work of art and the symbol a collective task of communication, rather than the vertical task of elevating the choice human spirit above the infernal depths of material existence. In idealist terms, the vertical school claims cognitive status for its symbols, because the conceptual meanings attached to art are in this view a means of raising the mind of man to union with the higher world from which we have been exiled. Whereas, on the other hand, the horizontal, or space school, appeals to intuition, emotion and collective participation in states of mind as a basis for communication and of transformation of the self. The vertical school seeks to elevate the self above mere existence. The horizontal symbolists seek to transform the self, and ultimately to merge or annihilate it.

Mr. Eliot’s position is by no means simple or consistent within itself, but as between the vertical and horizontal camps, his poetic allegiance is markedly horizontal or spatial.

To Catholics, (for all of whom pre-existence is nonsense), the anguish generated over the problems of Time and Space and the self may well be baffling. However, if you are frantically concerned with seeking an exit from a trap, it is of the utmost urgency to understand the mechanism of the trap that holds you. Are you a prisoner of time? (‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,’ says the young esthete Stephen Dedalus.) If so, there are specific dialectical resources which can conduct an elite few to the escape hatch. Are you a prisoner of space? Are you a mechanical puppet manipulated by a thread held in remote, invisible hands? If so, you can learn the techniques of Yoga or Zen Buddhism or some related mode of illumination which will show you the *way*. To learn how to make perfect your will, you need to negate your own personality and to learn that detachment from self and from things and from persons which reveals the totally illusory character of self, things, and persons. Existence is not so much an historical trap in time as a wilderness of horrors multiplied by mirrors. Existence creates itself by an endless chain of suggestions richocheting off each other, just as a symbolist poem of the Eliot kind generates its meanings by spatial juxtaposition. A Catholic poet like Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. But all he has written is strongly marked with his keen awareness of the space-time controversies in art, politics and religion. (To the European, the comparative American ignorance of these doctrines as elaborated in art, is precisely what constitutes American innocence.) Thus in his section ‘On Time’ in Poetic Knowledge, Claudel takes up the space position, then appropriates the time ammunition as well:

… Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both time and space. As a symbolist he avails himself to the utmost degree of the spatial techniques of inner and outer landscape for fixing particular states of mind. This procedure makes available to him all the magical resources invoked by the Romantics for using particular emotions as immediate windows onto Being, as techniques of connatural union with reality. But he values equally the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse. He can therefore be both Senecan or symbolist, and temporal. That would seem to be an inevitable program for any Catholic for whom Time and Space are not sectarian problems. Today many thoughtful people are torn between the claims of time and space, and speak even of The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man as he is mentally torn in these opposite directions. As the dispute quickens, the Catholic is more and more reminded of the inexhaustible wisdom and mercy of the Cross at every intersection instant of space and time. These moments of intersection became for Father Hopkins (and also for James Joyce) epiphanies.

… It is not the purpose of this paper to explain the complex falsehoods of the time and space schools of aesthetics, religion and politics. For a Catholic it is easy to admire and use much from each position. But by and large the vertical camp is rationalist and the horizontal camp magical in its theory of art and communication.”

– Marshall McLuhan, Eliot and the Manichean Myth as Poetry, Address to Spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society, April 19 ‘54, The McLuhan Papers, Vol. 130, File 29, Manuscript Division, National Archives of Canada, Ottawa.

Even though McLuhan, in his role as a literary Menippean satirist

(see p.448 and first paragraph of p.517 in LETTERS),

would be reluctant to tolerate the issues raised by the Diasporic school, he still recognized the inevitable advantages they would temporarily enjoy in the coming decades over his study of the language of media forms because he knew that the diversification of *content* was the new ground for pentadic life

(see the first four lines at the top of p.248 in THROUGH THE VANISHING POINT, and the top of the first column of p.264 in ESSENTIAL McLUHAN).

However, it was the devotion to literate “content”, profitable as it would be, that stigmatized this school with the anemic pall of the POB (“print-oriented bastard”, see bottom third of p.288 in TAKE TODAY) and left it helpless before the flood of post-literate “content” fetishism (“cultural studies”). The Diasporics had been given the ammunition to bypass the postmodern distraction via the Toronto school’s perception that James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, as a perpetual motion machine of multi-media “content”, is hardly a “book” or novel but a penetrating infiltration of the coming permeable environments. Instead, they sought comfort in sifting through the lingering afterimage of the legacy of the heroic writer, artist, or scholar while painfully aware that this niche-marketed mirror of Perseus is cracked – doomed to stall and stutter before the Gorgon of digital exuberance.

Some samples of the blowing of both horns of their dilemma:

a) “For many, Shakespeare *has* been erased from our minds and the ‘art is dead’ debate is a banality. But it is hard to smother the human spirit and wherever there are individuals, there is art. Fine poems, novels, stories, plays, and essays continue to be written, defying the prophecies of the gloom-pourers.

Still, you cannot avoid the tremors of the global climate: it has to be faced that what was once called ‘High Cult’ has decayed and what is considered serious has been confined to the new cloisters of the University. There the poem and the novel are reconstructed and deconstructed as a model or paradigm of interlocking graphs and charts and abstracted symbols. The novel and the poem cease to exist: they become Structures instead. The impact on Canadian writers has been less blatant than elsewhere, but because of electric atmospheric pressures writers have been forced to deal with nineteenth century nationalism or have leapt ‘ahead’ to what has been dubbed post-modernism or ‘fabulism’. And, as Louis Dudek has shrewdly observed: ‘Modernism is something that is still developing in Canada.’ Thus the cultural mood in the country is a combination of the reactionary and the fashionable.”

– Bruce W. Powe, A CLIMATE CHARGED: Essays on Canadian Writers. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1984, p.73.

“The literate person is an outsider today. Yet this exile, as it were, may give the literate person an advantage. To read and write may be as unique an accomplishment as it was in pre-literate societies, in the thirteenth century, the time of The Name of the Rose. Readers and writers will have the role of maintaining the freshness and ferocity of language. They will have the job of staying out of tune: to make certain that human beings remain complex. The post-literate state may tell us why those writers with nineteenth-century views of the Heroic Author sound like anachronisms. When an author exerts the same mass-public appeal on his time as a Romantic-Heroic author, then the relationship with the audience is based on a sentimental nostalgia. The word can too easily be dismissed.

Canetti has said that we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of a sentimental hope. Instant meltdown looms. What form can an eccentric literary influence take? To go beyond the wordlessness, the cynicism, and the shining surface of society, and recover the power of words. There is no way out from a critical confrontation with our world. We must probe at issues, ideas, and popular fronts; even at risk of losing a voice in the consuming-consumer rush; even at risk of having the questioning cheapened, forgotten, and flattered for the wrong reasons. Even in Canada, in the midst of post-literacy: my place, my here.”

– Bruce W. Powe, THE SOLITARY OUTLAW. Toronto, Ontario: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, 1987,

b) “The climactic work of the Atlantic epoch is Finnegans Wake. Coming from a marginal culture at the very edge of Europe, James Joyce very consciously finished Europe. First, he finished the remains of the Mediterranean vision in his Ulysses, a work that ends in the affirmation of the feminine brought down out of Dante’s heaven and put to bed. Then, having finished with the voyages of the solitary individual afloat on a stream of consciousness, Joyce went on to express the transition from print-isolated humanity in its book-lined study to H.C.E., Here Comes Everybody. At the time when the hardy objects of a once materialistic science disappear into subatomic particles, so characters as egos with discrete identities disappear to become patterns of *corso-ricorso*, and history becomes the performance of myth. Characterization is replaced by allusion, and as pattern and configuration become more important than persons, Joyce brings us to the end of the age of individualism. But like Moses on Mount Pisgah gazing into a Promised Land he cannot enter, Joyce brings us to the end of modernism, but he himself cannot pass over into the hieroglyphic thought of the Pacific-Aerospace cultural ecology to come.

McLuhan considered Finnegans Wake to be the prophetic work that pointed to the arrival of electronic, post-civilized humanity, the creature of changing roles who lives ‘mythically and in depth.’ Obviously, we are now only in the early days of the transition from the Atlantic cultural ecology of the European epoch to the Pacific-Space cultural ecology of the planetary epoch, and so no one knows for certain just where these electronic and aerospace technologies are taking us. But since I grew up in Los Angeles, and not in Dublin or Paris, I have a few hunches.”

– William Irwin Thompson, PACIFIC SHIFT. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1985, pp.107-108.

“If evil announces the next level of historical order, then evil is expressing the coming planetary culture. Unconsciously, the world is one, for global pollution spells out a dark integration that does not honor the rational boundaries of the nation-states. And so, industrial nation-states in their fullest development have contributed to their own end. Collectivization, then, must mean that the future is some sort of collective consciousness in which the completely individuated and conscious ego becomes surrounded by the permeable membrane of an ecology of Mind and not by the wall of civilization.

Rock festivals in particular, and rock music in general, seem to express this fascination with collectivization. Since we have become an electronic society, a society of information, it is not surprising that the pollution of the new cultural ecology is noise and paranoia. Rock music is about the relationship between information and noise, and if the medium is the message, then the requirement that rock music be loud to the point of physiological damage clearly indicates that noise is the form that creates the collectivization that does not honor the boundaries of biological integrity. At a recent concert in Amsterdam, the Irish rock group U2 was so loud that it registered as an earthquake on the seismographs at the university.”

– Ibid., p.133.

“So if we take a good look around us, we can observe the return of catastrophism to artistic and scientific narratives. What this means, I think, is that the rock bottom foundation for industrial society is giving out, and from the mathematics of Rene Thom to the novels of Doris Lessing we are being shown a new vision of planetary dynamics, a vision of sudden discontinuities. It is probably no accident that Ronald Reagan has come in to invoke all the old shibboleths of the industrial mentality, precisely at the moment when they are becoming inadequate, for one often sees in history that a radical shift is often preceded by an intensification of the old. Consider warfare in the fifteenth century: right at the moment when armor becomes most elaborate, with the knight lifted on to his horse by levers and pulleys, is right at the moment when the heavily armored knight is made irrelevant through the longbow, the crossbow, and firearms. Elsewhere I have called this kind of historical phenomenon ‘a sunset effect’, but one can see it as a kind of supernova, an intensification of a phenomenon that does not lead to its continuation, but to its vanishing. So much for Reagan, but what about us? One theme that I think this conference could consider is the ways in which the new paradigm in science and art will relate to a new paradigm in politics.”

– William Irwin Thompson, GAIA: A WAY OF KNOWING: Political Implications of the New Biology [edited by William Irwin Thompson]. Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Lindisfarne Press, 1987, p.18.

“President Reagan is the archetypal leader of our postindustrial unconscious polity precisely because he is not a thinker. He is almost entirely unconscious. He is indeed Walt Disney’s *Homo ludens* and not Luther, Calvin, or Marx’s *Homo faber*. During the rise of the middle classes and the emergence of the bourgeois nation-state, the thinker, and not the military knight or the prince of the church, was the architect of new polities. As Locke was to Jefferson, so Marx was to Lenin; but now in the age of global media, it is no longer the set of the theorist and the pragmatist, but the artist and the actor. As Locke was to Jefferson, so now is Disney to Reagan, for it was Disney who first constructed a media city in which the past became a movie set and the citizen was taken for a ride in fantasies with his own enthusiastic consent. It was Disney who, along with McLuhan, first understood that television would change the consciousness of literate, civilized humanity. Cultural critics like McLuhan and Adorno issued dire warnings about mass deception in the culture industry and the end of Western Civilization, but Disney seemed to have a Kansan American naivete and trust in the unifying power of popular culture. Indeed with his Snow White, Disney himself effected the artistic transition from the folk culture of the Brothers Grimm to pop culture; and to be fair to Disney one must recognize that the transition from oral folk tale to literature is as artistically presumptuous as the transition from literature to film. With EPCOT, however, the shadow side of Disney’s mass culture seems more apparent, as if his ‘Imagineers’ now felt that the way to achieve a new political collectivization was not through sad ‘communist suppression’ but happy participation in fantasies of progress. In an age when suburban Christianity no longer had the power of pagan rituals and frightful rites of initiation, Disneyland created frightful rides in which evil was distanced and laughed at, and the past became a visibly comforting artifact in a world that was invisibly hurtling toward a new scientific reorganization of society. The content of Disneyland was the turn-of-the-century small town, but the invisible structure was computerization. The content now of Disney World’s EPCOT is the ‘World of Motion’ in which General Motors proclaims the freedom of the individual to go where he chooses, but in the darkness of that ride there is neither choice nor freedom. Similarly, ‘The American Adventure’ of EPCOT brings all the American presidents of history on stage, while two old irreverent writers (Franklin and Twain) obligingly serve as ushers in a memorial service of a civic religion that seeks to give the citizen an uplifting patriotic experience. But all the automaton presidents are controlled by a bank of computers from another place and by a small cadre of scientists and technicians from another time.”

– Ibid., pp.174-175.

“Reagan’s Star Wars is, therefore, no sudden caprice or casual afterthought, but a deep social and economic expression of the Southern California world view, of that curious cultural mixture of Hollywood fantasies and Big Science. It is neither a thought nor a theory, but an actor’s intuition and a sense of timing of what is implicit in the audience and in the audience’s historical situation. Sometimes the intuition can sense the outlines of the historical situation more quickly than the intellect, for the intellect can become blinded by mountains of data. President Carter, the nuclear engineer, clearly has a higher I.Q. than President Reagan, but it was precisely Carter’s meticulousness that got in his way. Carter approved the MX missile system, a costly behemoth that dwarfed the pyramids as a public works project, but the MX would have only stimulated the cement contractor’s business. Reagan’s Star Wars, by contrast, demands the creation of whole new artificial intelligence systems, fifth generation computers, and an integration of universities and corporations that amounts to a complete transformation of civilian society. Ironically, Eisenhower’s Republican nightmare of ‘the military-industrial complex’ has become Republican Reagan’s dream….

Reagan’s intransigence in his refusal to give up his commitment to S.D.I. is understandable, for clearly both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would like to have some way of removing the threat of punk nations that act in non-European and irrational ways, and, obviously, space is the best place from which to monitor and control hostile flights and launchings; but Reagan’s intransigence puts him in the contradictory position of needing to keep the Soviets as an enemy to support the American scientific economy, and at the same time share information so that the Soviets do not drop out of the competition or become a spoiler or punk nation themselves. Since both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl demonstrate that the high technologies of the superpowers cannot be trusted to work without errors, it is clear that neither the U.S.A. nor the U.S.S.R. can feel safe from an accidental misfiring on either side; therefore, anything that makes one side feel threatened enough to move up to a state of Red Alert is to be avoided at all costs. It would appear that the cops and robbers game that the U.S.A. has chosen to play with the Soviets is to challenge the Soviets with Star Wars and secretly allow the information to be stolen to insure that the Soviets will not become discouraged to drop out of the competition altogether. And so we can see that ‘national defense’ is indeed an example of negation as a form of unconscious relationship, for the end result of the arms race is a transnational militarization that could be called the U.S.S.S.R.”

– Ibid., pp.176-178.

“A World is not an ideology nor a scientific institution, nor is it even a system of ideologies; rather, it is a structure of unconscious relations and symbiotic processes. In these living modes of communication in an ecology, even such irrational aspects as noise, pollution, crime, warfare and evil can serve as constituent elements of integration in which negation is a form of emphasis and hatred is a form of attraction through which we become what we hate. The Second World War in Europe and the Pacific expressed chaos and destruction *through* maximum social organization; indeed, this extraordinary transnational organization expressed the cultural transition from a civilization organized around literate rationality to a planetary noetic ecosystem in which stress, terrorism, and catastrophes were unconsciously sustained to maintain the historically novel levels of world integration. Through national, thermonuclear terrorism, and, as well, through subnational expressions of terrorism electronically amplified, these levels of stress and catastrophic integration are still at work today. A World should not be seen, therefore, as an organization structured through communicative rationality, but as the cohabitation of incompatible systems by which and through which the forces of mutual rejection serve to integrate the apparently autonomous unities in a meta-domain that is invisible to them but still constituted by their reactive energies. Therefore, ideologies do not map the complete living processes of a World, and unconscious polities emerge independent of ‘conscious purpose’. Shadow economies (such as the drug traffic between Latin America and the United States), and shadow exports (such as the acid rain from the United States to Canada), and shadow integrations (such as the war between the United States and Japan in the forties) all serve to energize the emergence of a biome that is not governed by conscious purpose.”

– Ibid., pp.209-210.

“Paradoxically, for my generation, one that came of age in the revolutionary spirit of the affluent 1960s, liberation from institutions and their systems of meanings was not a relationship with a specific oppressive condition but a general, eternal, and absolute value in and of itself. In challenging the rhetoric of Western Civilization, the generation that mocked the bourgeois liberal pieties of its fathers and mothers rather smugly took for granted a naive and simpleminded faith in revolt against all forms of authority and enduring value. And, as always seems to be the case in the world of fashion, the French led the way. Roland Barthes announced ‘The Death of the Author’ and tore down this idol of literate civilization; Michel Foucault exposed the ‘episteme’ that bound institutions and forms of knowing into the ‘discourse’ that was itself the system of domination; and Derrida made certain, with an ultimate Deconstruction, that no text would ever rise up again with a pretense to ultimate meaning, or high-minded and high-handed final authority. For an affluent and expanding bureaucracy of academic literary critics and behavioral scientists, this demolishing of the mystique of the solitary romantic artist who could pretend to cosmic knowledge without the necessary university credentials was indeed welcome news, and without much regret the culture of Author-hood and Author-ity was shouldered aside. ‘Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile…. We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’

Such was the Paris of 1968. Meanwhile, back in California, people couldn’t care less about such remote issues of European thought. The electronic counterculture, and not literary high culture, was giving body to the *zeitgeist* and in an elitist diminuendo, first Aldous Huxley, then Alan Watts, then Timothy Leary, and then Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead worked to extend explorations with drugs to the new postindustrial masses who were about to find themselves in the new musical economy of the global village.

Intellectual fashions, much like those of *couture*, stimulate changes that are not so much developments as reactions and a mere craving that signals boredom and a desire to mark the new decade with a new style. So the liberationism of the 1960s led to the reactionary ‘New Age’ movement of the 1970s, one in which the counterculture became caught up in the pre-civilized ‘epistemes’ of megalithic stone circles, dowsing, witchcraft, palmistry, shamanism, and all the esoteric schools of the world religions that were not popular with clerical orthodoxy: namely, Kabbalah, Sufism, Zen, Tibetan Tantra, Yoga, and the Christian mystics from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Merton. This fashion, in turn, generated its reaction in the 1980s, as the populace swung back to fundamentalisms in Christianity and Islam, and capitalist neoconservatism in the governments of Thatcher, Reagan, and Kohl.

Just as the scholarly and introverted style of Aldous Huxley became vulgarized by Timothy Leary, so the New Age movement, initiated by the quiet introvert David Spangler in a remote village in Northern Scotland, became vulgarized by Shirley MacLaine in television specials and book dumps in supermarkets. These vulgarizations at once express the distribution of a message to its largest audience but also an addition of noise picked up by the transmitting medium that overwhelms the signal and indicates that the communication has become more mess than message and has lost its integrity as it begins to dissolve into cultural entropy. Ennui quickly follows excitement and people begin to look around for new signals to flash their passage through time.

With the replacement of bookstores by supermarket chains, the only books that are now available are books by movie stars and TV celebrities. In a *differance*, the text is a sign of being famous, and the famous are simply those who are famous for being famous. An appearance on a TV show is itself an achievement, an epiphany of the culture. A text in this world is not meant to be read: it is simply another form of currency and a means of exchange. In the consequent breakup of culture into subcultures, intellectual respectability must come from its unavailability and its resistance to communication and exchange, much like the heavy gold stored under the Paradeplatz in Zurich, and so incomprehensibility becomes the essential value. Here, the Europeans come back into their own, and no American professors can hope to compete with the likes of Derrida and Habermas.”

– William Irwin Thompson, IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE: Making Worlds of Myth and Science. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, pp.5-7.

c) “The first is that at no point do I care to claim that changes in media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds or changes in their cognitive capacities. There are some who make this claim, or come close to it (for example, Jerome Bruner, Jack Goody, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Julian Jaynes, and Eric Havelock). I am inclined to think they are right, but my argument does not require it. Therefore, I will not burden myself with arguing the possibility, for example, that oral people are less developed intellectually, in some Piagetian sense, than writing people, or that ‘television’ people are less developed intellectually than either. My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling. I will say once again that I am no relativist in this matter, and that I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.

The second point is that the epistemological shift I have intimated, and will describe in detail, has not yet included (and perhaps never will include) everyone and everything. While some old media do, in fact, disappear (e.g., pictographic writing and illuminated manuscripts) and with them, the institutions and cognitive habits they favored, other forms of conversation will always remain. Speech, for example, and writing. Thus the epistemology of new forms such as television does not have an entirely unchallenged influence….

Obviously, my point of view is that the four-hundred-year imperial dominance of typography was of far greater benefit than deficit. Most of our modern ideas about the uses of the intellect were formed by the printed word, as were our ideas about education, knowledge, truth and information. I will try to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines. On what benefits may come from other directions, one must keep an open mind.”

– Neil Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985, pp.27-29.

“In 1976, I was appointed editor of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics. For ten years, I served in that capacity, and with each passing year, my respect for Alfred Korzybski increased and my respect for those academics who kept themselves and their students ignorant of his work decreased. I here pay my respects to a unique explorer, and by implication mean to express my disdain for those language educators who steep their students in irrelevancies and who believe that William Safire and Edwin Newman have something important to say about language.”

– Neil Postman, ‘Alfred Korzybski’ in CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTIONS: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988, p.136.

d) “Let us examine the mechanism whereby the integration of left- and right-brain processes could take place and see what role the alphabet effect would play in the realization of this transformation. Just as the printing press enhanced the alphabet through uniformity and the ability to create multiple copies relatively cheaply, so too the computer steps up the intensity of alphabetic writing by making it more accessible and easily controllable through word-processing routines. The ability to easily assemble alphabetic texts, to automatically correct, edit, and manipulate them beginning at the first-grade level reinforces a number of left-brain processes of analysis and rationality without requiring slavish conformity to the patterns of linearity and sequence. The ease with which blocks of text can be moved about in the larger composition promotes right-brain processes of pattern recognition and hence creates a new balance in the production of literary materials that belongs uniquely to the computer. It is somewhat paradoxical that it is the unique properties of the alphabet as a writing system that enables the computer to develop the right-brain features of pattern recognition and formation….

This is the promise of computer technology – that the vitality of alphabetic literacy will be not only maintained but also enhanced. The paradox of computers is that by stepping up the left-brain processes of linear sequencing to the speed of light, new patterns emerge, such as cybernetics and ecological analysis. These right-brain processes, however, still retain many of the analytic properties of preelectric alphabetic literacy. And it is also a reflection of the flexibility and durability of the alphabet that a machine that was designed primarily for numbers, as an automatic computing machine, should now emerge just as importantly as a processor and handler of alphabetic texts, i.e., a word processor. This transformation of the computer is another example of the ubiquity and the potency of the alphabet effect.”

– Robert K. Logan, THE ALPHABET EFFECT: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986, pp.246-247.

e) “The theory I proposed in The Alphabet and the Brain: The Lateralization of Writing is based on the observation that when the ancient Greeks created their alphabet, around the eighth century BC, they changed the direction of their written script from the left orientation of the Phoenician model to the right orientation to which we’ve become accustomed. A few years ago, to find out if there were corresponding features between the inner structure of orthographies and their orientation on the surface of writing, I surveyed all the writing systems of the world. The results were surprising.

All writing systems that represent sounds are written horizontally, but all systems that represent images, like Chinese ideograms or Egyptian hieroglyphs, are written vertically. Furthermore, the vertical columns of image-based systems generally read right to left.

All writing systems, except for the Etruscan, are written to the right if they contain vowels. All systems without vowels are written to the left. To explain this, I had to study the brain and the visual systems.

My theory, which pertains not only to the Greek situation but also to the impact of alphabetic literacy generally, can be summarized by three basic hypotheses. Each theoretical point is supported by specific historical evidence.

  1. It is the intrinsic structure of a language that determines the direction of writing. Systems such as Greek, Latin or Ethiopian, which were first modelled on right-to-left consonantal systems, eventually changed the direction of their script, but only after vowels were added to the original model.

  2. The choice of direction depends on whether the reading process is based on combining letters by context (right to left) or stringing them in sequence (left to right). This is because the typical human brain recognizes configurations faster in the left visual field, while it detects sequences faster in the right visual field. The change of direction in Greek script happened soon after a full complement of vowels was added to the exclusively consonantal Phoenician language. The presence of the vowels made the sequence of letters continuous, whereas the system from which they had borrowed was a discontinuous line of symbols, which relied upon being read in context rather than sequence.

The fact that our alphabet changed direction once it acquired vowels supports my hypothesis: that the structure of our language has put pressure on our brain to emphasize its sequential and ‘time-ordered’ processing abilities.

Since literacy is generally acquired during our formative years, and since it affects the organization of language – our most integral information-processing system – there are good reasons to suspect that the alphabet also affects the organization of our thought. Language is the software that drives human psychology. Any technology that significantly affects language must also affect behaviour at a physical, emotional and mental level. The alphabet is like a computer program, but more powerful, more precise, more versatile and more comprehensive than any software yet written. A program designed to run the most powerful instrument in existence: the human being. The alphabet found its way in the brain to specify the routines that would support the firmware of the literate brainframe. The alphabet created two complementary revolutions: one in the brain and the other in the world.”

– Derrick de Kerckhove and C. J. Lumsden, eds., THE ALPHABET AND THE BRAIN: The Lateralization of Writing, 1988 (reprinted in Derrick de Kerckhove, THE SKIN OF CULTURE: Investigating the New Electronic Reality. Toronto, Ontario: Somerville House Publishing, 1995, edited by Christopher Dewdney, pp.27-28).

The Diasporic school could be accused of shrinking before the task of discovering “the means of living simultaneously in all cultural modes while quite conscious”


because they not only failed to notice that McLuhan, in his books, satirized the pervasive twentieth-century discovery in many fields that the “medium is the message”, but they were also unable to intuit McLuhan’s strategy for confronting the pentadic fate of the tetrad-manager. Nonetheless, they can be commended for creating rich packages that stimulated the POBs with old questions inspired by the Toronto school.

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