In the beginning was the letter

Roy Harris is unconvinced by a muddled treatise on the abstractions of 'God' and 'Mind'

November 20, 2008

Mathematician Brian Rotman attempts to resuscitate a thesis once known, in days when it was more fashionable, as "the alphabet effect". This purports to trace various features of human thinking to the introduction of alphabetic writing.

Rotman's is an extreme version. We are promised that the author will present an argument to the effect that God and Mind are "media effects of the alphabet". Further, that "once revealed as media effects, God and Mind along with 'soul' become no longer tenable items of belief and begin to feel strange and of diminishing relevance within the increasingly networked contemporary scene, the lettered self which co-evolved with these agencies and gave them credence now past its heyday and increasingly overshadowed by a new self-enunciation".

The initial promise is never kept. In the dense undergrowth of Rotmanesque prose, nothing remotely resembling an argument can be detected lurking among the mixed metaphors. We are told that after the computer, allegedly "a machine for investigating mathematical reality", "mathematical thought will never be the same". But that is never cogently argued either. What difference a machine could make to whether two plus two equals four remains obscure.

Rotman writes as if he were attempting to outdo Marshall McLuhan and the 20th-century "communications technologists". But McLuhan had some crisp and original phrases to disguise a basic woolliness of thinking. Rotman has none. He carries McLuhan's obsessions to the point of mediaphobia, painting a dismal picture of the Western mind as helpless slave to its own forms of communication. The medium is no longer just the massage: it is now the master.

The trouble with this book starts with Rotman's own capitalised abstractions, "God" and "Mind". History has seen many different views of divinity and divinities and many different accounts of minds and the mind. Could all of them be media effects? Could the alphabet be the original culprit in every case? Were the churches, synagogues and temples of the world set up to worship a mediatic illusion? Were all those patients with mental illnesses just suffering from the side-effects of literacy?

The hallowed half-truths about writing are solemnly trotted out once again without any critical analysis: the hoary old shibboleths about primacy of speech, linearity, "codes" and metasigns. Rotman gets the relationship between scripts and iconicity completely wrong. It is perfectly possible to have an iconic alphabet, as the survival of Korean hangul writing demonstrates, or Melville Bell's "visible speech".

Although Rotman talks vaguely of "the alphabetic principle", he never explains what he takes that to be. He seems to think that the minimum alphabet consists of the two digits 0 and 1 as deployed in computer "languages". But how these two items are alphabetic he never explains. Elsewhere he describes the alphabet as "a collection of indivisible phonemes". Anyone who can reproduce grossly garbled misinformation of this order can hardly expect to be taken seriously as a pundit on modes of communication.

Rotman engages with the English sentence like a man locked in gladiatorial combat with a more powerful adversary, but vowing not to go under without putting up a brave fight. His education must have missed the lesson on the full stop. In wasting much verbiage reiterating the banal truism that the alphabet does not render the oral complexity of speech (was that ever its function?), Rotman misses something far more important altogether: alphabetic literacy remodelled human conceptions of "a language" in ways that logography, the modern media and even "motion-capture" technology never could. Despite his limitations, Homo alphabeticus still rules, and is destined to for a long time to come.

Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being

By Brian Rotman

Duke University Press

216pp, £49.00 and £12.99

ISBN 9780822341833 and 42007

Published 19 August 2008

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