I always find it particularly enlightening when a writer uses the word ?is? in a series of interconnected thoughts and comments. This is because, while I am not a mathematician (nor do I ever pretend to be one), I remember well the trials and tribulations associated with solving ?word problems? in math. We were told, as I am sure every math student has been told, that the word, ?is? in a math problem can be substituted with an ?equals? (=) sign. This bit of mathematical knowledge crosses disciplines and can be directly applied to what we read, particularly if what we read is of a technical nature. Enter McLuhan?s "The Gutenberg Galaxy". While reading it, I was struck with the number of ?is? statements he made in relation to writing. Here are just a few and a few comments or observations of my own:
?Alphabetic writing? = unique & late: This point is interesting for a relative newcomer to the kind of investigation and research that McLuhan is undertaking. I never thought of an Alphabet as being a unique form of communication, nor have I ever pondered what an alphabet does that is distinctly different from what all other forms of writing do. If, as we have been told, ?All writing is information storage,? than, apparently, alphabetically storing information brings with it a whole new set of problems and solutions when compared to other forms of information storage such as pictographs or simple memory devices. Not only that, but McLuhan is careful to point out as well that Alphabetic writing arrived quite late on the scene, which is also interesting to think about because, as a 21st Century person, I take alphabetic writing for granted and I view it as elementary.
People settling down and seeking sedentary work = readiness to invent writing. I have some issue with this point because McLuhan is not clear as whether this writing is alphabetic or not. I think that it must be because even a nomadic peoples would or could need to somehow store information concerning agriculture, livestock, and perhaps cartography or even family lineage. These, I think would be important things of which to keep track. So, I think that McLuhan is suggesting that once the nomad stops moving, once he or she finds a place to settle, then more and more pieces of information become important as does the storage of that information. Hence, an alphabet would be important because it would allow for the storage of much more information in a smaller space than would, say, a series of stacked up shells, or even a series of pictures.
Writing = Visual enclosure of non-visual spaces and senses. We see writing and it presents to us or represents for us thoughts and ideas that are not tangible or concrete, but can instead be abstract. And this is, I think, the most important point about writing. It allows for the communication of much more than just concrete notions of, say, the number of men in an army, or the amount of fish bought or sold. Writing instead can communicate ideas and details that can be felt and understood by the reader. Whether or not that information is correctly decoded by the reader is another story altogether, but the act of writing such abstract concepts can store those concepts for an indefinite period of time and can be returned to time and again.
Phonetic writing = A visual code for speech. And how important a point this is. In essence, what makes phonetic writing so unique is the fact that, if it can be said, it can be written and vice versa. Not so, McLuhan points out, with pictographic writing. Phonetic writing allows us to record a person?s speech. It allows us, some time later to see what they said, to analyze and examine it. This year, for example, is the 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson?s birth. Because of a phonetic alphabet, we can read the words that he said at various times to various people. Boswell, his biographer, made a point of recording for his readers the various utterances of his biographical subject. Yet, these words are only written. While they may be read aloud, they cannot be truly reconstructed and uttered in a fashion as they once were. And here is where I disagree with McLuhan?s point that, Speech = The content of phonetic writing. While it is true that we can turn writing into speech, we cannot turn writing into the original voice in which it was uttered. Even a note left on a kitchen table telling the reader that the writer had, ?Gone out for milk,? cannot be translated into its original speaker?s voice with all of the emotion and sentiment with which it was originally written. So, to McLuhan?s point, speech may be the content of phonetic writing, but there will always be something lost in translation.