Re: Levels of Consciousness

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Wed, 2 Oct 1996 10:54:19 -0400

In message <> Jesse S. Cook III writes:
> Dear Ron,
> It came to my attention yesterday, through a book I am reading, that
> Marshall McLuhan's "quips and aphorisms were not simply wiscracks about the
> media, they were expressions of a theory of the evolution of consciousness.
> At each stage...a new medium of communication comes forth...We begin with
> the origin of language...and we end up with...the Internet. For McLuhan,
> there were five evolutionary stages or quantum jumps:
> 1. Oral
> 2. Script
> 3. Alphabetic
> 4. Print
> 5. Electronic

Jesse et al.,

This is an interesting hypothesis, and I believe some anthropologists (Jack
Goody, maybe?- again, I'm at home and at a disadvantage) have suggested that
literacy creates a different type of or "level of" mental processing. I have to
say I'm not convinced yet. Reading, of whatever sort, seems to involve the same
sort of mental processing involved in the processing of oral language (or sign
language, for that matter). The only "quantum leap" it seems to me is the
ability to interact with people, thru their writing, who are either somewhere
else or even dead. Again, this implies that "consciousness" means something
like "knowledge of a world beyond the immediate environment." Does this
necessarily imply a different organization of the WAY the brain works?

Also, I think McLuhan is wrong about "script" being first after "orality".
Doesn't the first (known) writing occur among the Sumerians, in the form of
symbols which are logographic and eventually evolve into cuneiform? And, the
earliest alphabetic writing, I believe, is found among Semitic speaking peoples;
the Greeks borrowed the alphabet from them, modified it to fit Greek, and added
symbols for vowels, a real innovation. And, of corse, the Romans borrowed the
whole thing from the Greeks and modified it for Latin, and here we are. Anyway,
"script" I think is a special way of writing alphabetically, not a separate
means of writing.

One interesting thing is that, as far as the evidence shows, phonemic
(alphabetic) writing was only invented once, by those Semitic speaking

Also important to point out is that "orality" is not a passing fad or a "stage"
on the way to something else. Evolution is not a ladder; it is a bush. Orality
is still the most important means of linguistic interaction for most of the
people on the planet. It's pretty important for us, too (he typed!).

In the course of my fieldwork in the Caribbean I have met (here I go again...)
illiterate people who were as aware as anyone of the wider world- they were
sailors, who have literally been all over the place. Their brains seemed to
work fine, too. Some are boat builders who can, from "plans" inside their
heads, build a very impressive wooden sailing vessel (I'm not talking about
rowboats here, I'm talking about inter-island schooners that sail from South
America to the Virgin Islands). They build these boats without benefit of
blueprints and, until recently, without benefit of electricity. When they're
done they paint the water line on the boat, and then put it into the water.
Guess where the water line is. This beats anything I can do with my biome; I
spend most of my time just following instructions (Point! Click!).

And, by the way, my point here, as with the story of the Yanomami mother*, is
not to "prove" anything. I'm just trying to show, with real world examples,
that people can and do act in ways that violate stereotypical notions of
"primitive", "illiterate" and so on. Maybe this is one of the "great ideas"
that John M is asking about, and that we should be more involved in spreading.

Ron Kephart
University of North Florida

*For some more details, see Into the Heart, by Kenneth Good, which tells the
story up to just before she decided to stay in the jungle. I probably don't
need to tell most of you this, but DO NOT trust the National Geographic Society
film ("Yanomami Homecoming") except for the visuals of life in the Yanomami
village and Yarima's reactions to life in the US.