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

And I learned some new things (or they just fit better now, into my existing knowledge about these discussions) about Ong, too. For instance, I’d read his work on the difference between “chirographic” and “typographic” cultures, but the difference between the two had never seemed all that significant to me. Heim notes that “one of Ong’s most striking studies concerns the connection between the ascendency of typography and the inauguration of modern logic” (63) (see Ong’s discussion of Ramus’s typographically reproducible diagrams on logic). The logical and methodological extension of mutations through oral cultures, to literate, to chirographic, to typographic cutlures culminates in the ascendancy of a post-typographic world (my working term) which he calls electronic media. This progression and working endpoint are rich with ideas for exploration, but I see a couple of cautionary signs.

First, all of this leads Heim to conclude that “transformation theory seeks to illuminate the impact of writing technologies on the human thought process” (65). That’s great, but I don’t see myself pursuing cognitive research in order to get at the significance of some of Heim’s claims. That’s not to say that they are worthy. I really think they are. It’s just that I don’t have much of a background in cognitive theory, and my vocabulary for talking about the relationships between cognition and writing is embarrassingly inadequate. I am much more interested in studying what’s on screen than I am what’s in someone’s head. (That’s why I’m always trying to turn shit toward discussions of rhetoric and discourse, rather than logic and thought.)

Second, and this is a relatively insignificant hesitation, is his use of the term “electronic media” (66) to refer to digital word processing technologies and practices. I’m sure the terms was less problematic in 1987 when the first edition of this book appeared, and slightly more problematic in 1999 when the edition I’m reading was published. But in both cases, electronic media was still emerging as an everyday composing technology. And it is still emerging. Heim isn’t insensitive to this potentially troublesome term. He invokes Ong’s discussions of “secondary orality” (radio and television, for instance) to acknowledge that things are going to evolve increasingly faster. It’s going to take a closer reading of Heim’s text, and he may address it directly in later chapters, in order to forward his ideas into discussions of New Media composing and (the dreaded word) multimodal writing.

I also hope he addresses more directly the ways in which digital writing is perceived as increasingly virtual, while remaining (see Matt Kirschenbaum’s Mechanism) very much concrete. In other words, I’m waiting (sort of impatiently now) to get at what exactly is the ontological and phenomenological difference between typographic writing practices and those of “electronic media.”

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