Forward to Glossolalia, an Alphabet of Critical Keyword, Edited Wolfreys, Edinburgh U. Press, 1-7
Cultures restructure the mind, not only in terms of its specific contents, which are obviously culture bound, but also in terms of its fundamental neuro logical organization. Merlin Donald
The end of the book? Yes – storehouse, producer and dis seminator of knowledge, instrument of western mono theism, begetter of civilization – the ancient, self-standing, alphabetic text which folded so much between its edges and covers, is being opened up, distributed and out sourced; its content and functions disseminated, hypertex tualized, transformed and multimediated into an edgeless web of a billion lexias, mathematical ideograms, icons and image streams circulating on the net.
Of course there are still books (more than ever) and reading will continue, increasingly dominated, no doubt, by the digital technology that obsolesced the printing press: books will be available on a chip that can be inserted into a backlit, take-to-bed, easy-to-hold, eyesight-friendly reading screen, equipped with indexing and concordance facilities, variable size typeface and other goodies. Or, further down the road, there’ll be eyeglasses projecting micro-reduced words onto the retina (further still, directly into the brain via an implant). But is this reading and how long will the retina/brain be willing to be so engaged? A
few hundred years, according to Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s estimate in Speech and Gesture from the 1960s: ‘For centu ries yet reading will go on being important … but writing is probably doomed to disappear rapidly to be replaced by dictaphonic equipment with automatic printing’ (1993,404); or, as we’d say now, replaced by voice-recognition soft ware and a printer.
The end of the book? Why not the end of the alphabetic medium in which (here in the West) the book is written . For some, the end of the alphabet would be the end of every thing: ‘Human society, the world, the whole of mankind is in the alphabet’. True, Victor Hugo, the alphabet is wonderful, out of its rigorously ordered spacing came universal codifi cation, the bible, technoscientific reasoning, abstract logic and philosophy, history, democratic literacy and confer ences on the book and its ends; a great source; more, as we shall see, than one realizes.
The alphabet is an extraordinary, simple, robust tech nology with a powerful viral capacity to disseminate and consolidate itself; a medium able to interface across multi ple linguistic platforms and inscribe the speech of a huge variety of languages. But it is only one mode of writing speech, an action it achieves by notating the smallest hearable sound bits – segments – of spoken language. Closely related are syllabaries, super-segmental systems that notate entire syllables and in the opposite direction, the sub-segmental or ‘featural’ systems (as linguist Geoffrey Sampson calls them) notating distinct sonic fea tures, of which Korean Han’gul is the only known naturally
evolved example. Distinct from these phonographic the ideographic principle plays a vital role in the larger systems and more suitable than any of them to inscribe a elaboration of alphabetic literacy.
heavily homophonic language like Chinese is the logo- The alphabet is not only a particular textual implemen- graphic system which works by notating sounds of the tation of the vocal body, a way of in-scribing it, it also smallest separate meaning bits – morphemes – of speech. impinges on and constructs this body in relation to the con- The Japanese use a mixture of both logographic and struction ofother bodies -the visual, symbolic, but also the phonographic systems. gestural – which continue to haunt it What Iwould like to In the form familiar to us, alphabetic writing is the do here is to offer a certain provocation, a hypothesis
result of a long evolution from its proto-sinaitic beginnings which elaborates one aspect of this construction. which emerged out of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The details
of this history needn’t concern us, but two large-scale fea
tures of ‘writing’, namely pictures and ideographs, are rel evant Firstly, it seems generally accepted that the alphabet resulted through the acrophonic principle whereby the consonants of a word to be inscribed are rep resented by pictures of objects whose names begin with those consonants; a system of acronyms that works smoothly for semitic languages such as proto-sinaitic whose words always begin with a consonant. Then, through scribal needs or otherwise, the visual, iconic element of the representations was eliminated to produce purely abstract graphs for consonants, which were later supplemented by graphs for vowels when the system was taken up by the Greeks. The alphabet, then, by use or design, eschews the pictorial. But not perfectly: the origi nal sonic marks – letters – have always carried some visu ally informed meaning, first through handwriting and later through typefaces and graphic design. Secondly, not all elements of what constitutes alphabetic writing notate sounds: the blank space between words, punctuation and diacritical marks, question marks, quotation marks, hyphens, marks of exclamation, ellipses, parentheses, and so on, do not indicate sounds of speech but notate sym bolic practices or operations that are performed on what is written purely through letters. Moreover, as we shall see,
The alphabetic principle
If, like any cognitive technology, the alphabet alters the brain of its user, the alteration brought about by alphabetic writing is, as we shall see, particularly dramatic. The alphabet, as is acknowledged, does not notate speech as such: it writes down what’s said but not how what is said is said, the words spoken not the manner of their saying; it transcribes, in Rousseau’s terms, the voice (voix) but is silent about the sound (sons), what he variously called the passion and spirit of speech, what is designated here as prosody -the affect, tone, rhythm, emphasis, pitch and the movements of spoken language which among other things make song possible. The action of the alphabet thus insti tutes, that is allows to come into being and then perpetu ates, a horizontal and vertical separation. In place of a balanced bilaterality – the integration within speech of right-brain prosody and left-brain syntax – there is inten sification of the left and marginalization of the right; and instead of a two-way limbic-cortical traffic there is a hier archy: a foregrounded neocortex over a weakly active or absent midbrain.
Omitting prosody in favour of the words themselves is one of several, perhaps the least important, alphabet-
driven sources of an intensified left brain. More forceful is alphabetic writing’s defining anti-pictorialism (refusal of right-brained image processing) and the ordering, lineariz ing force of inscribing one letter after another. The effects of linearization has been much commented upon positively
– ‘Writing’. Leroi-Gourhan observed, ‘has by dint of its one dimensionality provided the analytic instrument indispens able to our philosophical and scientific thinking’ (1993, 404) and negatively by many, from Marshall McLuhan’s com plaints about the baleful consequences of printing to those who, like Derrida, describe linearity, and all the scribal hierarchies associated with it, as being a ‘repression of pluri-dimensional thought’ (1976, 86).
But it is the vertical dimension which seems notto have been elaborated in relation to phonetic writing, alphabetic or otherwise, that interests me here, though the effects of the hierarchy of cortex over midbrain – as consonant (culture) over vowels (nature), for example – have been discussed ever since Rousseau. The alphabet disrupts the integrated complimentarity of upper and lower, tongue and larynx, articulation and breath, consonant and vowel; it effects a pulling apart and deactivating of circuits between the neocortex and the midbrain.The consequences of this separation constitute alphabetic writing’s greatest and most visible achievement and its undeclared and invisible legacy. The achievement was the virtualization of speech: cutting words loose from the voice, internal and external gestures, the here-and-now breathing presence and cor poreality of the one who utters them, and thereby creating the West’s spectacular three thousand year efflorescence of literate culture’s so-called ‘speech at a distance’. Less obviously, this same cutting loose, to be precise the absented prosody that is the condition for its possibility, occasions the alphabet’s hidden legacy, namely the instal lation of a certain metaphysical opposition within its texts.
In relation to its absenting and re-presencing of prosody, the alphabet’s mediation of written discourse and creation of prose has been twofold. One, the attempt at more or less immediate reconstitution of the voice and its affects in the form of poetry as that form of textuality most committed to prosody’s mimetic recuperation at its original level of the word. Two, the alphabet’s production of an entire technology of textuality and apparatus of inscribing affect that goes beyond recuperation and beyond the level of the word by distributing new forms of textualized prosody onto the lexicon and syntax through the creation of phrases, usages, figures, formulas, textual diagrammat ics and styles that make up the array of effects designated as ‘literary’. Alphabetic writing’s equivalent of prosody, then, the gestures which accompany and determine the reception of its texts, are rhetorics, figurations and styles. Styles, however, shuttle back and forth, oscillating between the written and spoken, between the poetic voice and the styled narrative, as the literary apparatus goes beyond speech to create new textual forms of affect while simultaneously forming a feedback loop that constantly reconfigures the speakable. The latter in terms of practice but also theoretical, in the sense that ‘we introspect lan guage’. as David Olson puts it, ‘in terms laid down by our writing systems’ (1994, 8). Such then is a schematic of the alphabet’s visible achievement.
The invisible effect – what I’m calling the alphabet’s hidden legacy – issues in a form of subordination, more radical than witnessed earlier of various forms of gesture to speech. Here, prosody is the gesture and the words spoken are the ‘speech’. and the hierarchy is the fore grounding of the latter over the former. Thus, to return to the vertical neurological separation, the alphabet can be seen to institute and perpetuate a primary dualism, the familiar metaphysical hierarchy of mind over body, whose
ultimate expression will be that of pure, disembodied mind. By separating prosody from words, the alphabet allows to come into existence, encourages the reality of, a free standing cortical entity, an autonomous mind-agency detached from the effectual apparatus of the limbic region. An absent or under-represented or disenfranchised and repressed midbrain and an always present, inevitably fore grounded, totalizing neocortex represent the neurological correlate ofthe hierarchy of mind, soul and spirit over body whose outworks – replicated and fractally reproduced at every level of discourse – constitute Western metaphysics. At its limit,the alphabet makes available – determines, sup ports, gives credence to, provides a matrix for, perpetuates
– a being for whom the loss of prosody is no loss at all; a psychic entity who speaks in a voice without tone, empha sis, irony, distance from itself, humour, doubleness, affect, pain or the possibility of such things; an absent, invisible, bodiless being who/which has presided over the writing of speech in the West since its inception.
In his book, The Alphabetic Effect, which argues that
the tablets of the law given by God to Moses in Sinai were written in an alphabetic script, Robert Logan points out that ‘The occurrence of monotheism, codified law, and the alphabet all at the same moment in history cannot have been accidental’ (1986, 87).Indeed not And while carefully avoiding making a causal link, he suggests that the abstractness of the three innovations must have been mutually reinforcing (which of course is a kind of circular causality). Similarly, Gerard Pommier talks in the same breath of the ‘jump from the hieroglyphic to the consonant, from polytheism to monotheism’ and observes – fusing gods and writing – that ‘(a]t the very time Akhnaton was inventing monotheism, hieroglyphics were in the process of being destroyed in writing, beginning with those which featured divinities in the Egyptian pantheon’ (cit Ouaknin,
1999, 46). Evidently, the coming into being of the alphabet whether this is seen as a de-picturing move in relation to Egyptian hieroglyphics or, as indicated earlier, a withering of the motivational content of signs as part of the action of acrophony- and the advent of a single, abstract and invis ible God in the West are unlikely to be historically separa· ble.
In any event, God, speech, writing (divine or otherwise)
and human hearing are certainly folded into each other in their original biblical appearances in Exodus. From ‘And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord’ to ‘And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of testimony, tables of stone written with the finger of God’. What, it is possible to ask, are the differences here? God communed with Moses; God wrote the words with his own hand; God spoke the words out loud; God dictated the words to Moses who wrote them down. Did God’s speech display any affect? Was the tone the same when communing (delivering the pretext or pre· amble?) as it was when declaiming? When dictating? Did or could Moses observe the presence or absence of feeling? Emphasis? Was God angry? Mournful? Jealously self-proclamatory? Businesslike, impersonal and neutral? Of course, to the author(s) of the alphabetic text, Exodus, and to theists in the Judeo·Christian tradition, as well as (with certain differences) Islamic theists, such questions have no sense, at least in so far as these traditions have no resources for establishing differences that could be humanly registered between the ways God spoke and wrote words.
How are we to imagine Moses heard the voice of the God of Western monotheism, the voice of a being for whom voix and sons coincide, for whom the question of prosody
cannot arise because speaking and alphabetically writing the words spoken are indistinguishable, identical? Such
would be the case if this being were an artefact of alpha betic writing, the manifestation of a cortex detached from its all too embodied limbic body and externalized as a being, an autonomous entity, in transcendental space. On this understanding, the alphabet operates an abstract onto-theological machine for the production of an absent, invisible, unembodied God-being; and it does this not by merely representing/alluding to it as a topic (which it has done from the beginning), or by being an origin. ‘In the beginning was the word’, or by serving as the vehicle for union with such a being.’The word was with God, the word was God’, but by constantly performing and causing to come into a transcendentally absent presence the voice of a speaker with no tone, no body.
But phenomenologically it would be more accurate to say theoretically toneless since it is virtually impossible for humans to receive a voice and not to impute tonality to words apparently addressed to them, however machini cally denuded of tone their source is known to be. This being so, maybe a more interesting description of God’s voice is to understand it as evincing and being received as an aboriginal gesture, as the murmur of language itself, as alphabetic writing’s white noise, an undifferentiated heteroglossia of all possible tones, voices and manners of utterance that the medium makes available and onto which any desired affect can be projected.
the dualism the alphabet installs – because most involved in articulating, challenging, repressing, embracing or twist ing free from it – philosophy stands out. Thus, as an exchange of alphabetic texts (which it has always been), philosophy, both in its analytic and so-called continental forms, resists the ideogram by insisting (implicitly through disciplinary and institutional means) on being speakable, on its texts being able to be read aloud in principle if not practice. The same insistence on speakability excludes the pictographic – how does one utter a picture? – though in truth philosophy’s inability/refusal to countenance the presence of images in its texts, its unease in the face of the picture, is too thorough, unexamined, universal and deep rooted not to suggest other – iconophobic or anti-visualist
– forces at work.
Thus, to cite a particularly telling (but completely rep resentative) example, consider Husserl’s essay The Origin of Geometry. Geometry, as distinct from arithmetic and algebra, and regardless of formalizations it undergoes, is a ‘pictorial’ subject in that diagrams are a means by which it furthers and creates itself and the objects and/or icons of the spatial objects it studies. Not only do diagrams (as means, objects or icons) not figure in Husserl’s essay but their ubiquitous presence in geometry – whether neces sary of otherwise – and their absence from his text receive no comment from him. One should perhaps set Husserl’s blindness to images and his silence about it in a certain context: when he wrote his essay, a group of French math ematicians operating under the name Nicholas Boubaki was implementing a project, conceptualized (and known to
Let’s leave God where we found Him, as the limit of the Husserl) earlier in the century, to rewrite the whole of alphabet’s dualizing effect, and return to the principle of mathematics in the formal language of first-order set alphabetic writing as such. Of the discourses most purely theory. The result – thousands of pages of ‘words’ made alphabetic, most rigorously committed to excluding pie- from a mathematical alphabet of a dozen or so symbolic tures and symbols, while atthe same time most affected by ‘letters’ and governed by a linear syntax, without a single
diagram; an entire corpus, alphabetizing in the name of a Platonist inspired programme of rigour, the richest, most elaborated trans-alphabetic discourse yet invented. Further, not only is Husserl’s essay on geometry without diagrams or reference to them and without comment on this absence, but Derrida’s extended commentary (whose principal focus is the question of ideality, signs and writing in Husserl’s essay) is in turn silent on these omissions and indeed on the entire topic.
Unlike Christianity which long ago abandoned the second commandment (reducing its scope to the interdic tion of flagrant idolatry), philosophical alphabeticism is faithful, like Judaism and Islam, to the commandment’s original interdiction of all picturing. Like imageless relig ious texts and diagram-free rewritings of mathematics, such philosophical texts shield themselves from any con nection to the body- of the text, of its creator, of its readers
– introduced by the presence of the explicitly visual. Of course, it needs to be elaborated, which I’ll not do here, why visual images, with their need to be looked at (and not looked through as is the case for letters and symbols) and so cognized outside the routines and protocols of ‘reading’, insist on the body, how they de-occlude it, and how such insistence counters the transcendentalizing forces at work in such faithful texts.
This fidelity to austere, alphabetic purity coupled with an inescapable mission to engage with the question of metaphysical dualism, theologized or otherwise, places a peculiarly intense burden on philosophy’s prose since, from what’s been said, it’s at the level of prose style, poetics, textual voice, figuration and internal conceptual personae, that philosophy is obliged to stage its encounter with the ontotheological consequences of the alphabet’s omission of prosody. (An obligation unnecessary in other alphabetic discourses such as history, law, scientific treatises and so
on – with no comparable mission.) In a general sense, all this foregrounding of style and claims for its importance vis-a-vis philosophy would be surprising or foreign even only to philosophers in the analytic tradition for whom the question of prose and poetics of their texts is never an issue; for those outside this tradition it is hardly surprising. The texts of many figures from Hegel and Nietzsche onward are valuable, distinguished and philosophically pregnant precisely through their styles, cognitive poetics and figures; butthe reason for it offered here, its structural necessity within the metaphysics of alphabetic writing, is perhaps novel.
Finally, and independently of the ideographical nature of literariness discussed earlier, philosophy might subvert, attempt to weaken or jump out of pure alphabeticism. Thus Heidegger’s augmenting the stock of diacritical marks through his tmetic (gestem and anti-tmetic (being-in-the world) use of hyphens and his introduction of an ideogram of crossing-out (X-ing out the alphabetic word with a letter!); Derrida’s silent, written ‘a’ of differance and his unspeakable (at least by a single voice) text Glas; and, somewhat differently, the strategic introduction of pictures into A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. On this last, one has the programme outlined by Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen: ‘While marking the closure of the Western metaphysical tradition, deconstruction also signals the opening of post-print culture. Deconstruction remains bound to and by the world of print it nonetheless calls into question. What comes after deconstruction? lmagology’ (1994, 10). Yes, but it’s the alphabetthat philosophy remains bound to and by, and imagology, manifested by Taylor and Saarinen in a consciously imagized and graphically stylized text that escapes print’s linearities, is only part of the story.
The alphabet allowed (insisted) that words become objects, discrete items of awareness that could be iso-
lated, studied, compared, replicated and systematized, giving rise to grammar, written discourse and literature, and a science of linguistics. Likewise gestures with respect to their digitally captured forms; they too are now being identified, individualized, examined, replicated and synthesized as discrete objects of conscious attention. The opportunity is thus opened for such newly digitized and objectified gestures to emerge from the shadow of speech, to be ‘grammaticalized’ and give rise to a gesturology, which might serve as the medium for Sign to possess a ‘lit erature’ and might do for the principled silences and unwords of the gesturo-haptic body, not least their produc tion of its presence to itself and others, what linguistics has done for spoken language. Or, as Artaud wanted for his theatre of cruelty, such a gesturology might displace or silence speech, subordinating it to the imperatives and possibilities of pure gesture, screams and other ‘primitive’ signals of the body.
If alphabetic writing’s particular reconfiguration of bodies at the level of neurophysiology installs a transcen dental fissure inside its texts, whose ultimate ontological form is the disembodied God of the West, then the end of the alphabet as we know it would herald a seismic shift in Western theism, a dissolution of the mono-deity that might match in its consequences that deity’s inauguration. But is such a thing possible? Is the end of the alphabet thinkable from within alphabetic writing here inthe West? And having become aware of the alphabet’s effects, one can ask about those of contemporary cognitive technologies and wonder what manner of being or beings are we facilitating, what new forms of metaphysical or post-metaphysical modes of religion are we installing inside the participatory, gesturo haptic and immersive forms of digital writing now under construction?
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