Saturday, July 15, 2006

Schmandt-Besserat on Writing and Consciousness

Critiques of Ong's and others' account of orality and literacy contrasts, especially those leveled by Beth Daniell, sometimes cite Denise Schmandt-Besserat's monumental Before Writing and other works as evidence their theory. This argument is, of course, based on a misreading of Ong, Schmandt-Besserat, or both, and, in fact, as I'm sure I've mentioned here before, Ong himself thoroughly integrates Schmandt-Besserat's Before Writing into his account or the history and evolution of communication in “Digitization Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today’s Computers” (Communication Research Trends 18.2 (1998): 4-21). So, it was no small pleasure yesterday that I came across Schmandt-Besserat's essay "The Interface Between Writing and Art" (in The Legacy of McLuhan Ed. Lance Strate and Edward Wachtel. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005. 109-121). The last paragraph of the essay speaks for itself:
The Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations that created pristine scripts, offer a unique insight on the impact of writing on cognition. The veering from a spread of images to a linear art structure, following the invention of writing, suggests that preliterate cultures apprehended images globally, but literate societies approached a composition analytically. That is to say, figures were analyzed in succession, like the signs of a text, according to their relative size and position. But how could the changes be so immediate and radical? Recent clinical studies highlight that literates and illiterates process information in different areas of the brain (Gibson, 1998; Lecours, 1995). The irreversible physiological alteration caused by literacy explains the shift in organizing information. Ancient art lends support and physiology verifies McLuhan's intuition that writing changed thought processes" (120).


Gibson, K. R. (1998) Review of the book The origins and evolution of writing. American Anthropologist, 100(1), 213-214.

Lecours, A. R. (1995). The origins and evolution of writing. In J.P. Changeux & J. Chavaillon (Eds.), Origins of the human brain (pp. 213-235). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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