It is exceptionally bad that we don’t have Marshall McLuhan around today to make sense of our electronic world. The Canadian thinker became well known in the 1960s when his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man somehow made into the public eye’s. What was astonishing is that McLuhan not only became well known as a media thinker, but practically everyone who wrote about him has no idea what he was saying. McLuhan became famous, because he was misunderstood.
McLuhan had spoken about hot and cool media, the electronic global village (years before the Internet was invented), and he wrote in a pithy aphoristic style. The most famous of his phrases is “the medium is the message,” which later was punned properly to be “the medium is the massage.” McLuhan saw something no one had seen in the modern world: that the media create human environments in which various parts of the media act as “extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.” For example, the wheel is an extension of the foot, while clothing is an extension of the skin. Major changes in technology and in the media change our environment where the content of that environment is the former environment. For example, our electronic age has for its content the previous mechanized environment of the industrial age. Television created a new environment that subsumed the movie, which became the content of television. What happens to us is that we continue to maintain an awareness of the old environment, but it takes quite a while to become aware of how really everything has changed us in the new environment. Most of think we are living in the present, when in fact we are living in the past. The old environment becomes the art form of the new environment. The written Platonic dialogue turned the oral dialogue of Socrates into a new art form. These changes change the way men look at the world. For example, when typographic printing became widely spread, the eye, not the ear, became the primary sense, because the book is an extension of the eye. For thousands of years, the world was an orally communicative, through dialogue, though speeches. It is no accident the rhetoricians and sophists roamed the Greek world, because the only medium by which a man could rise above others in the public sphere was through his oral communication skills. When, in the Phaedrus Socrates says that writing is an invention of dubious worth, one of the points he makes is that writing will undermine men’s memories. What he meant in terms of the media is that the book can be used to preserve memories that properly speaking perhaps is best to be remembered in the human mind instead. In an oral world, the memory was critical to success. Today, we have google.com and we don’t have to remember anything. We use a search engine. The brain’s memory is now outside of ourselves in large data bases which we access through our computers. The computer world is a huge extension of our entire nervous system and has given us the ability to instantly communicate with people throughout the world at once (the global village).
My intention here is not to do a large study or a small essay on McLuhan, I want to say a few words about the very strange change it must have been in ancient Greece and Rome when men invented or learned to read silently to himself. Julius Caesar, for example, astonished people, because he didn’t read anything out loud. He read everything to himself. St. Augustine in his Confessions finds Ambrose completely eccentric that he can read to himself. That this oddity existed in ancient Greece made men who could do it very distinctive, distinctive enough to make into the theatre. In the Hippolytos by Euripides (performed first in 428 BCE), the character of Theseus reads silently as the chorus is singing and recounts what he has read through a synopsis he gives them. He does not read Phaedra’s letter aloud. In the Kights of Aristophanes, there is a funny exchange between Demosthanes and Nikias where the joke is about silent reading. From the evidence, it appears that all the writing in the Sumerian world was meant to be read aloud. Today, when reading the Koran, not only must the holy book be read out loud, but the body must move in a certain way as well. Certain Jews do the same. In a world where communication is done out loud, that someone can read to himself isolates this individual from everyone else, because it has absolutely no use except perhaps to the silent reader. In this kind of oral world, the meaning of the text for the vast majority cannot be separated from vocalization of the words. Sounds and the letters are one. Writing is a kind of storage for speech to come, where the eye works at the behest of the ear that must hear to understand.
If you think about yourself a moment, you the silent reader do not even think about the sounds of the words, especially if you are a very proficient and fast reader. All speed-reading systems are based on making sure you do not vocalize the words you read even to yourself.
Consider also that archaic Greek was written without any division between words, in the same way Sanskrit was (very annoying to make out the words as I don’t read Sanskrit aloud very well). The writing was long lines of words that meshed together. That meant that the reader when reading aloud was vocalizing the letters in a way that also created the individual words. The understanding of the words is not its written form, but in how the words are spoken as they are read. To decipher the continuous lines was done solely by the ear, while as you are probably reading this post silently the eye is giving you the meaning, not the vocalization of the words. In McLuhan’s words, we would say that ancient reading was an extension of the ear.
This kind of ancient reading is also critical to understanding the nature of the revelation to the ancient Jews. The Torah is not meant to be read silently in the way we read. No, the Torah are the words of the prophet Moses who speaks to the Jews aloud. It is always, “Hear, O Israel…” Similarly, the Koran, which exists prior to the creation of the world and sits in a special place in heaven, the Koran is meant to be the storage of the vocalization of the prophet as he directly communicates with god and the angels.
Apparently, it was in the Middle Ages when people started to learn to read silently. I remember distinctly when I first started to learn to read in the first grade. We would read aloud, “Look up Spot; look up, up, up.” After doing that for a while, the teacher then told us to read the words silently to ourselves. We read the words one by one with an inner voice that we spoke only to ourselves. We were taught to have an inner voice.
One change that has to be made for silent reading is the elimination ofcontinouswritinglikethesewordshere. Note, when you try to read that continuous writing, you are actually sounding it out, more than using the eye. That makes the fact that there were silent readers in a time of continuous writing even more remarkable. Moreover, silent reading, to repeat, is simply faster, and it is believed that the speed is what converted Herodotos, and perhaps the poet Simonides to reading silently. We do know that Simonides is credited with developing an incredible artificial memory system, which enabled him to remember far more than we computerized people can. Simonides was also the first professional poet, i.e., a man who wrote verse that was not divinely inspired, but could also be had for cash. An artificial memory system, the ability to read silently, and to write poetry on demand, not from divine inspiration or revelation, made Simonides a very wise man. It is not an accident that Xenophon chose Simonides as a stand-in for Socrates when he wrote his dialogue on tyranny, the Hiero.
When a text is understood and inseparable from its vocalization, it is also inseparable from its performance, both privately and in publicly, as well as on the stage. The actor may memorize his part as Aristophanes gives it to him, but when he did, even when wearing a mask, creates the illusion that the actor is actually vocal writing. The text is meant to be vocalized, but when it goes to the stage the performance vocalizes the vocalized text that was in the playwright’s writing. The interesting thing about the oral world where reading is aloud is that it makes the audience or the hearer a greater participant in the reading than the silent reader. In effect, both the reader and the audience for the text are engaged in the text. Augustine writes about deeply emotional a moment he had when reading with a friend. When a writer wrote a book, copies were made by scribes or copyists, and then the book was read aloud to an audience either by the author or someone else. It was performed and the audience was engaged in the same way we are when we go to the theatre (well, the last of us who still like going to the theatre). The world of the oral readers is far more theatrical, while in our world we are all performers, taking on roles, without an audience. The theatre is dead.
We now all have an internal voice, but I am not sure that the ancients had the same one we have today. When everything has to be expressed out loud, there may be not distinction between the internal and external voice, which is probably the reason that the ancients and the Medieval peoples were so passionate in their actions and words, far more so than we are today.
There is so much to be said and investigated in this problem. However, I want to conclude in this way: For centuries, education, especially the most rarefied education, was done orally by master to pupil. It is not just Socrates to Plato, but education about god in the Middle East, or the vast tradition of Scholasticism in Europe, where all the education was transmitted orally and individually from one master to pupil who in turn became the next master and so on.
When Gutenberg invented movable type and made books available readily available throughout Europe, overnight, all the oral education, especially in that great Aristotelian Scholastic tradition died. You don’t need a master, when you have a book where you can learn it on your own with some help from others. The eye quickly supplanted the ear as the main sense of learning. Writing, too, went silent. The effect on poetry was devastating, although there were always some who maintained the oral performance. For example, Dylan Thomas kept that Welsh tradition of poetry alive somehow. However, when I used to hear W.H. Auden, it was clear that although he was very precise in his measures, he, nevertheless, wrote for the eye.
Abstraction replaces the thing in the word of the printed book.
Today, the technology is changing once again. Amazon.com has announced recently that it sold more books for its Kindle digital-book reader than it did paper books. That means that the new environment is, once again, another extension of the nervous system, but one that will subsume the old books, which will turn out to be an art form. People will want the old books, because they will be quaint or pretty or something nostalgic or antique. But in the way we rely on books today for the transmittal of knowledge and pleasure will be transferred to the electronic to e-books, alas. Writers, too, will change, as they will write for the new technology, including videos, hyperlinks, etc., etc.. I am facing the future, and seeing that I will never get there. I will be forever trapped in the past out of choice, because I am not happy with what I am seeing in the present. McLuhan used to say that if you want to know what the future will be, look at what is going on in the present. Practically no one does that and thus when the present solidified, those who don’t see the present are changed in the future without them realizing it.