Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Story of (full) Writing


Andrew Robinson's The Story of Writing provides us with a lot of background on the earliest systems of writing and debunks the myth that some writing is completely ideographic with little relation to sound. For Robinson, "full writing," implies "a system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey any and all thought" (14). This is not a bad definition, but it already situates writing as an expression or communication of thought. Writing, at least in some of the broadest definitions I've explored since beginning to study writing, is not necessarily connected to a consciousness. Furthermore, writing is not restricted to a system (particularly a closed system of graphic symbols) of graphic symbols. Indeed, Niklas Luhmann argues that we, as conscious beings, do not communicate -- "only communication communicates." This means that other systems (or nonhuman beings) can "write." That is, writing is not necessarily restricted to language. Although Robinson points out that language is different than script, he still adamantly maintains at the close of the introduction: "full writing cannot be divorced from speech; words, and the scripts that employ words, involve both sounds and signs" (17). But when do we decide language is "full"? We know from comparative linguistics that every language cannot express every thought -- that language structures the possibility of what can be thought just as much as thought influences our writing. 

 The question for me is: What do we get out of this book besides a relatively detailed history of the decipherment of several different languages? Furthermore, what does it mean that the book takes such pains to focus on the process of how a script was "deciphered"? (In almost all the cases, the "decipherment" of a language was educated guess work -- constant trial and error-- how can we be sure they are even correct now?)

Silly Arguments about Film

For me, the most interesting part of the entire book was the last chapter, where Robinson speculates about the (im)possibility of a logographic utopia -- a universal communication, concluding that achieving this is doubtful. I agree, given the untranslatability of languages. Robinson has a particular desire to keep the importance of words (as if words were not visual) as he says we have a "visual bias" in our culture. He even makes a silly argument about cinema: 

"Today, to watch a silent film--even one of the most imaginative--is to feel that something is missing. The same is true, a fortiori, of our reaction to one of the early Sumerian tablets from Uruk or a series of unknown pictograms such as those on page 210. They lack a dimension" (214). 
First, silent films were usually accompanied by music, so it is not that sound is not a part of silent films. Furthermore, silent films frequently employed written word frames in order to explain the action. To claim that something is "lacking" in Mayan glyphs I think is a bias toward alphabetical/phonetic language because I frankly want to now write in Mayan glyphs. There is something beautiful and excessive about them in the same way that elaborate or intricate typography affects the viewer more than a standardized Times New Roman font. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the book is formatted in "textbook" style, where the visual "protowriting" is distinctly marked from the "full" writing of Robinson's text.

Assumptions about Extraterrestrials


In the final pages of his book, Robinson contrasts an Ice Age cave painting and Carl Sagan's Pioneer plaque. Robinson writes that in contrast to the Ice Age painting, "Sagan has given a written explanation of every part of this plaque. 'It is written in the only language we share with the recipients: Science." (side bar, 216). Although Robinson doesn't explicitly comment on this quote by Sagan, it seems clear that he is in agreement; the only part of the plaque that Robinson assumes the "advanced civilization" will not be able to calculate are the human figures. The "spacecraft leaving the solar system" will "surely be understood." They also "should be able to calculate that the plaque belongs to a very small volume of the Milky Way Galaxy" (sidebar, 217).

Science is not a universal language because this "language of science" requires an abundance of cultural knowledge that we cannot assume any being (not even human beings!) will be able to understand. The only thing I understand are the human beings! The other drawings just look like random scratches. Hell, how can we be sure that the aliens won't think we are saying that human beings are bigger than the solar system? The amount of cultural knowledge assumed in this plaque is nothing short of astounding.

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