Heim’s Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (Part I)

(Part I of II)

As part of my inquiry into research methods, I’ve been reading studies of writing technologies using different research models from different disciplinary perspectives. It’s both fascinating and daunting. At the moment, I’m reading through Michael Heim’s Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. I just finished the second chapter, “The Theory of Transformative Technologies,” and I wanted to work through some of the ideas here as a blog entry.

heim-coverThis chapter inquires into the proposition that “certain ways of manipulating symbols develop in us distinctive modes of referring to and perceiving realities” (46). I think I can boil the question down into some simpler terms: Does using a word processing program as our primary mode of symbolic composition significantly affect the way we perceive and think about the world around us? Heim begins by arguing that “Once we assume an ontological import for verbal symbols—what contemporary philosophers call the semanticity of human thought process—we take the first step in approaching the phenomenon of word processing” (48). Word processing is a tool we employ to manipulate symbols. Those symbols signify words, which in turn signify objects or ideas (a ‘thought-image’ if you Saussure lurking here somewhere). And it is these ideas, inflected in language inflected in symbols instantiated via our word processors, from which we construct our realities.

Heim draws on the work of both Eric Havelock and Walter Ong to establish an historical foundation from which philosophical questions about word processing emerge. Although he covers several ideas from each of these two major thinkers, I was particularly taken by one of Havelock’s ideas. Heim explains that Havelock, in Preface to Plato, makes a distinction between a Homeric tradition (oral) and the new technology of writing ushered in during Plato’s lifetime. In this Homeric tradition, thought and knowledge were maintained and transmitted orally, and this fostered a particular thought idiom partial to certain ways of thinking and perceiving and necessitating various verbal and rhetorical structures. On the other hand, writing offered much more freedom in the these terms, most remarkable of which was the ascendence of abstraction in knowledge and perception. Heim comes to terms with Havelock as such:

“Plato’s writing typically associate education with the dangers of poetry. The key to the seriousness with which Plato repeatedly takes up this themes lies in the fact that in Plato’s time the cultural idiom of Greek culture was still predominantly Homeric and preliterate. It is not ‘beautiful writing’ that is the target of Plato’s arguments—as though literature should be banned form the Academy. When Plato attachs poetry and the poets, he is attacking the thought idiom of the Homeric tradition; he is attacking the dominance of an oral paradigm for significant communication.” (54)

This is revelatory for me. I knew that Plato was highly critical of the poets in Ancient Greek culture, but I always thought (because of all the misreadings and over-simplifications of my Creative Writing background?) that he dismissed them as emotional and abstract. Instead, it seems that they weren’t able to be abstract enough without the written word. Or maybe just in certain ways.

There are so many different ways to see this as important to contemporary scholarship, and I’m sure they’ve been developing for decades. What interests me, and I think this is Heim’s intention is that he points out that (like Christina Haas does, too, for example) writing is thought instantiated in a medium. Therefor our media directly enable and limit the ideas we generate, consider, transmit, and used to structure our experience. Heim puts it most succinctly when he writes: “The entire human personality is configured anew with every shift in the dominant medium for preserving thought. Persons in preliterate cultures encounter one another differently than do persons in literate cultures” (58).

Heim, Michael. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 1999.