EXCURSUS \ writing
1: G. Buccellati, March 2009
Antecedents of writing
Writing and culture
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Antecedents of writingSome of the details about the introduction and early development of writing are important for a better understanding of the full significance of "digital thought." (I prefer the term "introduction" over "invention" in order to emphasize the gradual process through which the phenomenon took shape.)
The first step (linking a symbol with an object) took place in Mesopotamia with the use of tokens that referred to a given object. The identification of the referential value of the individual tokens was first proposed in 1966 by Pierre Amiet: he pointed out the conceptual link between the tokens and the individual signs that occur in early Elamite cuneiform.
Already in 1958, A. Leo Oppenheim had described an administrative system that made use, as late as the 15th century B.C., of tokens enclosed in a clay ball (which we call a bulla) for counting and handling animals. Conceptually, this explained what the second step had been in the development of the new technology, i.e., the aggregation of the individual symbols (the tokens) in a whole that displayed it own rudimentary syntax, i.e., the ordered clustering of the tokens.
The first systematic catalog of these tokens, across the Near East, was produced by Denise Schmandt-Besserat in her pioneering 1977 article: developing from her research on the use of clay before and apart from pottery, she showed how the use of tokens was widespread throughout the region, beginning as early as the ninth millennium B.C., and offered the first detailed typology, with ample documentation. Combining the original insights of Amiet and Oppenheim, she developed (p. 25) in greater detail the argument that the writing on tablets originated from the clustering of tokens in bullae.
Some fifteen years later, she published her comprehensive catalog (Before Writing): while the principle of the syntactical sequence is not explicitly brought out in this work, it underlies the basic assumption that the tokens are more than isolated referents, because the syntactical sequence that eventually arose in a self-contained medium (the clay tablet) was mediated by the physical juxtaposition of the tokens as discrete objects, and this was the real jump-off point for the "invention" of writing as a full-fledged communication system.
Her continued research in this area culminated recently (2007) in a slender book on art When Writing Met Art. This has come closer to clarifying the syntactical principle by dealing with the issue of composition in the figurative arts.
Schmandt-Besserat's main contribution has been in assembling a vast collection of pertinent data, while her theoretical presuppositions and some of the basic conclusions she draws from the data remain questionable (Lieberman 1980, Michalowski 1993, Zimanski 1993)
An important earlier contribution to this topic (not considered by Schmandt-Besserat) is the book by Anati in which the theoretical aspects of representational means in the earliest rock art are discussed, with particular reference to the importance of order and logic (i.e., syntax).
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Neurological considerationsIn her 2007 book entitled Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf reports at length on her attempt to "imagine what the Sumerian brain eventually looked like" (p. 34) and to reconstruct "the ancient Sumerian reading brain" (p. 35) on the analogy of the "Chinese reading brain" of which she even offers a graphic rendering (p. 35 f.).
Interestingly her conclusions, as they pertain to the role of the alphabet in the development of writing, are that, from a neurological point of view, the earlier introduction of writing as such had a much greater impact on the transformation of human thought than the alphabet did: "by taking a meta-view of this entire history, we can see that what promotes the development of intellectual thought in human history is not the first alphabet or even the best iteration of an alphabet but writing itself" (p. 65). "From a cognitive perspective ... it is ... not that the alphabet uniquely contributed to the reproduction of novel thought, but rather that the increased efficiency brought about by alphabetic and syllabary systems made novel thought more possible for more people, and at an earlier stage of the novice reader's development" (p. 66).
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Writing and cultureHaarmann
1981 Origin of Writing 2009 Alex de Voogt and Irving Finkel, The Idea of Writing: Play and Complexity