Friday, September 14, 2012

Innis: Empire and Communications (1950)

I've always thought it sounded quite odd when Derrida said that Western philosophy has a preoccupation with the spoken word. How could a genre almost be more rigidly text-oriented than European philosophy?

Now that I've been reading some of Harold Innis' Empire and Communications, I'm beginning to see the contours of a different historical hypothesis that I hadn't originally read into Derrida's arguments. This concerns the extremely high value that European 19th-century philology put on phonetic alphabets as opposed to syllabic or idiographic scripts.

I think Innis sort of reiterates the valorization. Take a look at the kind of words that he uses to describe the "progress" of the Babylonian writing system:
Conventionalization of pictographs began with signs most frequently used and advanced rapidly with the replacement of strokes by wedges. Pictographic expression became inadequate for the writing of connected religious or historical texts and many signs were taken to represent syllables. By 2900 BC the form of the script and the use of signs had been fully developed, and by 2825 BC the direction of writing and the arrangement of words according to their logical position in the sentence had been established. (p. 27)
It's not that it must necessarily be a progress history—he might just mean "fully developed" in the sense of "to its known final form," or perhaps in some pragmatic sense (as the word "inadequate" suggests). But surely, there is quite a lot of directionality built into the metaphors he is using.

He continues as follows:
By 2900 BC the introduction of syllabic signs in a vocabulary which was largely monosyllabic had reduced the number of signs to about 600. Of these signs about 100 represented vowels, but no system was devised for representing single consonantal sounds or creating an alphabet. Cuneiform writing was partly syllabic and partly ideographic or representative of single words. Many of the signs were polyphonic or had more than one meaning. Sumerian had no distinctions of gender, and often omitted those of number, persons, and tenses. An idea had not fully been developed to the symbol of word or syllable. Pictographs and ideograms took on abstract phonetic values, and the study of script became linked to the study of language. (p. 28)
Weird, isn't it? It's almost as if he takes gender/number/person/tense marking as the mark of a civilized and modern language.

Here's what he writes on alphabets in the beginning of the chapter on ancient Greece:
The alphabet escaped from the implications of sacred writing. It lent itself to an efficient representation of sounds and enabled the Greeks to preserve intact a rich oral tradition. The ancient world troubled about sounds. (p. 53)
Maybe there's something to this. It is strange that Plato, the number one critic of the poetic tradition, should also be the main proponent for the use of structured conversation as a learning tool. Don't we have any ancients that thought that books could do something that the spoken word couldn't?

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