ARTS3091 Blog 2 – Levinson reading

March 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Medium Controls the Message

‘Sometimes an idea can be too big for a medium to convey’  

Before this reading, McLuhans famed statement, ‘the medium is the message’, was lost upon me. Paul Levinson’s reading and the contextualization he provides really helped me better understand this statement.

The piece begins by analyzing hieroglyphics and their logographic properties; ‘the components of each hieroglyph were usually rooted in some visual depiction of the word’.  This notion is difficult for us, with our modern alphabet, to understand. This is because logographic text could only ‘preserve the spoken word’ with symbols rooted in visual depiction. It may have been easy to write about the nile or the pyramids but how would you write down words such as liberty, justice or democracy?

Levinson looks at how this affected the societal notion of ‘God’ or omnipotent things.  He notes that while written communication was rooted in visual depiction (logographical), ‘Gods’ were associated with physical things, for example the sun God, Ra, was literally the sun, while a falcon depicted Horus.

Levinson then analyses the phonetic alphabet, particularly Hebrew, and how this allowed for re-imagination of ‘God’, that which we use today. ‘By breaking communication up into tiny letters, they correspond to nothing complete and recognizable in the world’ making them ‘meaningless individually, but therein capable of meaning anything in proper conjunction’ (16) This new medium allowed for a much more complex notion of ‘God’ to emerge, one who is immanent (with and within all things) yet also transcendent (outside time and space), along with many other complex characteristics.

Hieroglyphics were unable to communicate such a complex notion of God. The idea of an omnipotent God, as we know it today, was too complex for the medium of hieroglyphics to convey.  [I’m a poet and I wasn’t previously aware of it]

Levinson’s analysis of how different mediums affect the complex notion of omnipotence stop here, but it definitely got me thinking. The notion of today’s God may have seemed difficult to convey through hieroglyphics, but in comparison to scientific concepts such as gravity the idea of God seems quite simple.

McLuhan believed three inventions reshaped the world, the phonetic alphabet, the printing press and the telegraph. It could be argued that the printing press mediated the more complex ideas of science, much like the phonetic alphabet helped mediate the more complex notion of ‘God’ as we know it today. While there are many other forces in play, it is interesting to look at the dissemination of printed text, in comparison to what is considered the scientific revolution and the enlightenment. The scientific revolution is associated with the 16th and17th century while ‘the enlightenment’ is considered to have occurred during the 18th century.

As you can see by this graph, the distribution of printed books throughout this period grew predominantly. It is clear that there is a correlation between these two factors, but does this imply causation? If so it would be a clear example of technological determinism.

A more interesting question to ask however: were people’s ways of thinking prohibited by their method of communication? Did Egyptians not have concepts like liberty or justice, or where they simply unable to ‘memorialize the spoken word’ which articulated these concepts. Does the medium in which we communicate truly affect the way we think, or simply affect our ability to communicate our thoughts? It is an interesting question to consider, one which cannot be answered here, however this reading has prompted many thoughts for me.

Levinson, Paul (1997) ‘The First Digital Medium’ in Soft Edge; a natural history and future of the information revolution London: Routledge:11-20


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