The Sensual Reconfiguration of Communication

Marshall McLuhan's analysis of the effects of writing on the human mind--and on the organization of human societies--is an extremely complex one that draws on cultural anthropology and rests in large measure on a problematic dichotomy between the oral and the literate. But at the heart of this analysis is the idea that writing changes human communication from a primarily oral and aural phenomenon to one that is primarly visual. "For," McLuhan asserts,

writing is a visual enclosure of non-visual spaces and senses. It is, therefore, an abstraction of the visual from the ordinary sense interplay. And whereas speech is an outering (utterance) of all our senses at once, writing abstracts from speech. . . . The phonetic alphabet reduced the use of all the senses at once, which is oral speech, to a merely visual code (138-139).

This fundamental change has profound implications for how humans understand themselves, their relationships to each other, and their relation to the physical world they inhabit.

McLuhan is interested mostly in what this sensual reconfiguration of communication means for how humans relate to each other as members of communities and societies. He asserts, for instance, that "if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all our senses will occur in that particular culture" (136). And many scholars--notably Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, and David Olson--have pursued that line of inquiry to explore what literacy might have meant for human culture as well as for how humans understand the self. In his study of the impact of writing on what he describes as the primarily oral culture of ancient Greece, for instance, Havelock argues that writing--specifically, Plato's writings--made possible the "discovery of intellection," which gives rise to "a 'subject,' a 'me'" with a "separate identity" distinct from others and the world around us (201). Walter Ong draws on Havelock's study in his own famous analysis to make the point that "writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set" (105).

This is essentially Plato's binary: the autonomous self vs. the external world. Significantly, it is a literate self. As philosopher David Abram writes, "The Socratic-Platonic psyche . . . is none other than the literate intellect, that part of the self that is born and strengthened in relation to written letters" (113). But Abram points to a crucial absence in this large and complex body of scholarship about the impact of literacy: a sense of the physical or material. Abram writes,

It is remarkable that none of the major twentieth-century scholars who have directed their attention to the changes wrought by literacy have seriously considered the impact of writing--and, in particular, phonetic writing--upon the human experience of the wider natural world. . . . Most of the major research, in other words, has focused upon the alphabet's impact on the processes either internal to human society or presumably "internal" to the human mind. Yet the limitation of such research--its restriction within the bounds of human social interaction and personal interiority--itself reflects an anthropocentric bias wholly endemic to alphabetic culture. (Abram 1996, 123)

Abram subtly but importantly shifts the focus of the analysis of the effects of literacy from the intellectual to the physical:

The fact that one's scripted words can be returned to and pondered at any time that one chooses, regardless of when, or in what situation, they were first recorded, grants a timeless quality to this new reflective self, a sense of the relative independence of one's verbal, speaking self from the breathing body with its shifting needs. The literate self cannot help but feel its own transcendence and timelessness relative to the fleeting world of corporeal existence. (112)

His analysis, which relies on a reinterpretation of the studies of perception by phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, addresses the role of writing in our conceptions of self--as do Havelock, McLuhan, and Ong--but unlike these other scholars, Abram examines the implications of the literate self in terms of the relationship between human beings and the natural world. In this way, Abram opens up possibilities for drawing on both Western philosophy and non-western traditions in order to re-imagine the self in a way that accounts for the physical and its fundamental role in truth-seeking as well as in our ways of being-in-the-world.

All these thinkers see writing as the most important of human technologies, a technology we must continue to try to understand because of its profound influence on how we understand ourselves.