Mosaic Writing

McLuhan suggested we pay a price for literacy. There’s a difference between illiteracy and non-literacy. An illiterate person can neither read nor write written texts in his native language, while a non-literate person’s language has no written text, no alphabet.

It’s moving from non-literacy to literacy where a price is paid: “The visual makes for the explicit,” McLuhan said, “the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space'” (GG, 73).

Thus the “World Wide Web” may be promoting a kind of non-literacy, where the mosaic form of presentation dominates the chronological, the linear, the literate, where the literate means a fixed point of view: “This visualizing of chronological sequences is unknown to oral societies, as it is now irrelevant in the electric age of information movement” (GG, 72).
Yet, McLuhan reminds us that “only a fraction of the history of literacy has been typographic” (GG, 93).

So, what’s the price? For one thing, McLuhan said, “the divorce of poetry and music was first reflected by the printed page” (GG, 240).

And all the effort we’ve put into learning to read left to right, up to down, front to back – when presented with a mosaic, we don’t know where to begin reading. We may not know how to read mosaic writing. The Internet is a mosaic. And as we learn to read on the Internet, we may be losing our preference for, and the skills required to read, sequential writing.

Some excellent examples of Mosaic Writing include:
“Silence” and “A Year from Monday,” by John Cage
“Finnegans Wake,” by James Joyce
“Love’s Body,” by Norman O. Brown
“The Guttenberg Galaxy,” by Marshall McLuhan

6 thoughts on “Mosaic Writing

  1. I’m very intrigued by McLuhan’s ideas, though I’ve never read him. I’ve read Neil Postman’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I’ve read a bit about both McLuhan’s and Postman’s relationship to Walter Ong. From what I’ve read about McLuhan, it seems he takes a non-critical stance to media and simply describes what is occurring, following Ong’s idea that we’re moving from a print society back to a non-literate society. Whereas when I read Postman, it seemed he was more critical of the new media. From what I remember, he seemed to be nostalgic for those by gone days of the highly literate. I’ve got to read these guys more. Thanks for the reminder. I like the idea of the Mosaic. To be honest though reading Finnegan’s Wake, It made me feel non-literate. Perhaps I’ll try to read it again embracing this perspective instead of simply feeling woozy:)

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  2. You pull all these interesting characters from your shelf.
    McLuhan also foresaw the web as an extension to our nervous system.
    What’s interesting is the larger psychic reality this mosaic in cyberspace mirrors back to us, individually and collectively. Hasn’t nature already wired us up in a universal calculus, without anything as cumbersome as wires?
    To balance the linear, and reason, the web seems to show our potential for creating mythical realities, virtual illusions that serve the expansion of consciousness.
    The challenge – we must decide our coordinates, create new forms, identities.
    Walter Benjamin saw technology as confronting as a force of a second nature just as overwhelming as the forces of a more elementary nature in archaic times.

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    • Ashen: Interesting comments. For McLuhan, a technology is an extension of the body (glasses an extension of the eyes, a bicycle the legs), and every extension re-arranges the sensorium, the senses, or the whole, the body. So the computer, as McLuhan explains technology, is, yeah, an extension of the central nervous system. But it’s also media, and then there’s his hot and cold metaphor for explaining different kinds of media. … I suppose nature is “wireless.” … Yes, I keep coming back to these same books: McLuhan, John Cage, Joyce, Norman O. Brown, Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era,” Beckett. But I’m not a specialist, not a scholar, nor do I want to be. I’m just a reader. Here’s a perfect life: surf in the morning, read and write in the afternoon, sit out with friends talking in the evening. That lasted for a couple of years, once. … The early Pocket Poets series from City Lights (“Paroles,” Jacques Prevert, Number Nine – excerpts, some written on napkins outside restaurants in Paris in WWII). What are these blog posts? Notes on napkins written at a sidewalk cafe in some city and of course somewhere there’s a war on. Actually, the driveway. A sense of urgency? Then I pick up Li Po again, and what’s the use of pretending anything is urgent? One should take one’s time getting through a book, and re-read books. But I am just now thinking of coordinates and forms for the blog and some other things – thanks for that. Joe

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      • You must be a reincarnation of Li Po, leading a carefree life, reading, writing, surfing 🙂 or at least attempting to such wisdom.
        I like the image of blogs being like notes on napkins written at a sidewalk outside a restaurant in Paris, or Munich, or London, or Portland …

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        • Attempting and experimenting. You see what we have of Li Po, though. It’s his poetry. Which is where I started, and somehow I think I should get back to. So much depends upon a pink napkin covered with ink beside the empty glasses!

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