“Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience co-exist in a state of active interplay.”1
1967 from”The Media is the Massage”
Speech units or phonemes are represented by sign and symbol which evolve through repetition and convention into a working tool of communication. Signs become letters, and letters, alphabets; ideas become pictures which, [in symbolic representation and combination], become words. Words, arbitrary in origin, [extended in translation through derivative root, added suffix and prefix] are then made conventional by use. Use, in response, becomes contingent upon convention.
In origin, writing systems were generated by the need to tally and record food production. Counting grain and creating seasonal calendars of planting and harvesting demanded a uniformity of mark-making in order to retain utility. From the earliest tallying of crop production to the flow of dissemination of information to the masses in reaching our contemporary state of universal literacy, writing systems have continually evolved and produced for us both the necessary invention for ultimate mass communication, and, in their respective states of physical record and object preservation, provide for an extensive anthropological and cultural/literary study.
Other than a spontaneous human utterance of fear or joy, what else can be noted in its origin, its original context that has not gone through some sort of historical transcription? 2
J. G. Herder
Every academic discipline contains a language, a patterning of elements, be they composed of number, word, letter, shape, color, symbol, image, or any repeated system of mark-making. The repetition, structuring and replication make possible the language; the physical (legible) mark-making acting as both the means (to a communication) and an end (that which is [eventually] communicated). The written shapes and letters in their manufactured pattern create as they record (in real time) and, if remaining active in communicating, continue to offer meaning within an ongoing historical context. If no longer used in the act of communicating, the language [in its (now) purely formal state] resides in residual pattern.
Whether composed of letters, words, mathematical symbol, numerical notation, etc., all written language systems rely upon a conventionalized patterning (structure) for their survival. In order for the individual voice to be heard, it must conform to an existing convention. Here lies one of the many paradoxes of language regarding its utility and unique reception.
“The more alive a language is, the less one has thought of reducing it to letters, the more spontaneous it rises to the full unsorted sounds of nature, the less, too, is it writeable…” J. G. Herder
If the overall goal of language is communication, the formal language with which the artist ‘speaks’ is contingent upon the language of the society it intends to speak both to and about. The artist who breaks with the traditional language of its discipline in creating a new form of communication (i.e.: Courbet, Millet, Van Gogh) is initially rejected due to this change in form. Eventually, within the context of history, the society catches up with the new form, [the artist is then identified as being one “ahead of his time”] and the discipline itself is altered, and cannot return to its “time before”.
Language too, moves in this linear fashion, and is as mutable as the society which uses it. The paradox of language is shown here, with the unique voice of the artist “the less, too, is it writeable” having to submit to the conventional in order to be heard. The proverbial misunderstood artist with his “illegible handwriting” is often misread (or, unread?), only to be deciphered much later by the privileged spectators of history.
The way in which we communicate is no doubt being altered by 21st century digital technology with its pace, immediacy, and accessibility. Information is transmitted and made available all of the time, and foremost, is generated in “real time”. This poses all sorts of changes made in how we write, read, gather and assess, streamline and interpret, and, ultimately, make changes to our existing language. The form is inseparable from the content, thus, our language can only reflect our existing medium.
If the medium for writing changes from handwritten correspondence to instant messaging, the language in turn, follows suit. The limited time and space of the text message and the tweet makes no room for the contemplative lengthy passage, the periodic sentence. The abbreviated word in the rising use of acronym is just one of the changes taking place in the field of digital communication. The phonetic translation of these acronyms could certainly find their way (back?) to the logogram. A three word expression taking the form of three letters in acronym could eventually turn into a furthered shorthand symbol. The new shape is no longer phonetic, but logographic. Our written language is changing.
The earlier theories of Johann Herder realign themselves with the current flow of our digital language. Noting Herder’s claim that words are rooted in verb form seems to make perfect sense today, with our activity demanding a new word to be formed to not only identify it, but (actively) participate in its identity. In order to understand the world around us, we naturally, by our given nature, give things names. ‘To blog”, ‘to Google’ and ‘to tweet’ are infinitive forms of verbs which have successfully risen out of the necessarily mutable nature of language and its newest placement in the medium of electronic communication. Conventional use mixes with historical change and gives to language its life. Without both components operating, (and, both seemingly contradictory) [a] language would cease to exist as a language, and would become instead, an historical record of a once-used (but now antiquated) pattern.
In the field of Linguistics, Benjamin Whorf claimed that the content of a language is directly related to the content of a culture and the structure of a language is directly related to the structure of a culture. If this is true, the culture of the tweet, text, and blog (the form) alongside the globalizing power of the Internet (the context of influence) will invariably alter our existing language, or, evolve into a completely new system of sign and symbol all of its own.
Our earliest use of the computer gave to us the Word Processor, a tool further advancing our facility (of writing) while distancing ourselves from the uniqueness of a personal penmanship. The term “word processing” itself gives us a reading of [a] manufactured item being distributed large-scale and to the masses [in the same manner as did Warhol’s images, with the ‘making of’ image through the mechanism of factory-built process, and then, engaging both marketing strategy (the selling of image) and the mass assembling (in the gallery exhibition) of its parts. Image was the subject; mass production (and, mirrored manipulation), the content.
As for image, the computer software program Adobe Photoshop also gives us change in the way in which we take photographs. We no longer take photographs, we “make photographs”. Again, facility and ease of doing this run alongside the distancing of the personal; all images can be manufactured with this software tool, and, the tool, made available to anyone with a computer and the purchasing of the software. The “Photo-Shopping” of image denies any such vestigial concept of “original” or “authentic”.
The shattering of aura (of an art object) with the advent of mechanical reproduction [unveiled for us by Walter Benjamin in 1935] (and made real by Warhol) can now be compared to the advent of the blog, twitter, and text in terms of its own altering of established academically ruled fields. Journalism seems the most affected, along with that of publishing and the copyright. As for language itself, its rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling along with the formal nature of [its] written translation is transforming as rapidly as is the technology we use to communicate.
On another level, the digital transcription and then storage of texts in electronic form [without the need of any actual physical written record, any tangible piece of paper, or reel of microfilm, [or, furthered – any clay tablet, carved vessel or hidden scroll] is the current stage set for the recording of a culture’s history. Electronic blips of translated shapes of 1’s and 0’s house the “history” we now make. The tactile objects of the past will remain just that, (becoming even more of a museum treasure) while the scanning and processing of literature turns what used to be individual books and references into one large electronic ball of page-less citation. If we are lucky, the works existing in their secured digital form will not be lost to technical whimsy, or, political nightmare.
After years of creating odes to writing’s formal cadence and aesthetic script, there is now the revolutionary text message, hypertext translation and abbreviated use of an existing alphabet. I am trying to concentrate my own work in this direction, with the idea of writing and its grammatical form and physical translation of history losing itself in this same stream of advancing technology; both out-running society’s own comprehension of its quickly changing form.
- Marshall McLuhan/Quentin Fiore “The Medium is the Massage”. copyright 1967
- J. G. Herder – from “On the Origin of Language” – copyright 1966