The Alienation of Symbolic Communication: Oral and Written Language in Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous

[After watching the above video today, I thought about this review I wrote of "The Spell Of The Sensuous" and David Abram's mentioning of language extinction in this book.]

“It is our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced, from the sensuous moment of knowing, which leaves a gap that the symbolic can never bridge.”

-John Zerzan[1]

Language is an “ephemeral perceptual boundary […] established by a common tongue” (256).  In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram demonstrates how, through the development of the alphabet, this division between the human and non-human worlds amplifies. Abram demonstrates the socio-cultural evolution of the written language replaces experiential communication with and about the natural world with a symbolic representation of it, an abstraction of speech represented in phonetic signs or letters.  In oral cultures, speech is tied directly to place, and the breathed word with the air.  In Western civilization, the written language is a simulation of and instruction on mouth-sounds. The written language and the characters of the alphabet refer to human speech, rather than depending “upon the larger field of sensuous phenomena” (257). “The letters of the alphabet, each referring to a particular sound or sound-gesture of the human mouth, begin to function as mirrors reflecting us back upon ourselves” (187).  The irony is that those illiterates many see as bar-barous[2] seem to have a significantly more cognizant approach to language than the civilized, with our billions of tomes[3] that tell us how to grunt.

Abram is concerned not only with the separation of human from non-human as an essential component of written language, but also with the separation of space and time. “[Writing] must be recognized as a necessary condition for the belief in an entirely distinct space and time” (193).  As I will discuss briefly later, the adaptation of the alphabet also closely mirrors the separation of space and time. We might consider, in this respect, Derrida’s discussion of presence.

In oral cultures, language is transmitted verbally, and is in a constant state of flux, as “the linguistic patterns of an oral culture remain uniquely responsive, and responsible, to the more-than-human life world, or bioregion, in which that culture is embedded” (178).  Never solidified in written form, transmitted through literacy, the language, like the land that is home to these cultures, is evolving with the passage of time.  Language, in oral cultures, is a living, evolving, breathing entity unto itself.  To peoples who use an exclusively oral language, their tongue is but one of many which surround their daily lives. “In the oral, animistic world of pre-Christian and peasant Europe, all things – animals, forests, rivers, and caves – had the power of expressive speech […]” (253-54).

For Abram, oral cultures are active in a much broader world than literate society:

“[For] those indigenous cultures still participant with the more-than-human life-world, for those peoples that have not yet shifted their synaesthetic focus from the animate earth to a purely human set of signs, the riddles of the under-the-ground and the beyond-the-horizon (the inside of things and the other side of things) are felt as vast and powerful mysteries, the principal realms from whence beings enter the animate world, and into which they depart” (217).

The connection between the language of oral cultures and the non-human world in which they are connected is explained by Abram’s reference to the Koyukon (who name birds according to the sounds they make), the Apache (who name places with a brief description that not only signify place but also maps the land), and the Aboriginal Australian’s Dreamtime stories (which connect the history of the people and their land with creation that is inseparable from their space and their now).

The earliest of written languages was the pictograph.  Pictographs are images that represent the object – or an object that exemplifies the quality – which is being referenced. This shift away from a purely oral tradition to “these pictorially derived systems necessarily entails a shift of sensory participation away from the voices and gestures of the surrounding landscape toward our own human-made images,” but they are indeed “signatures not only of the human form but of other animals, trees, sun, moon and landforms,“ and “continually refer our senses beyond the strictly human sphere” (97).  While the pictograph represents the beginning of a path that historically leads to a symbolic replacement of direct experience of interaction and sensuous experience of the human and non-human worlds merged into one, “pictorially derived characters cannot help but remind the reading body of its inherence in a more-than-human field of animate forms” (256-57).

The critical shift in the history of the written language, in which symbolic representation moves away from representing, directly, part of the non-human world, was the rebus.  The rebus is a “visual pun,” a “pictorial sign” that sequentially orders the phonetic sounds for the word, “used to directly invoke a particular sound of the human voice, rather than the outward reference of that sound” (98).   Abrams uses the example of the word “belief,” that may be represented by a rebus including a picture of a bumblebee and a tree leaf (ibid.).

The successive historic shifts, from the oral language to the pictograph, and from the pictograph to the phonetic rebus, brings us ultimately to 1500 B.C.E., when Hebrew scribes developed the first alphabet, the aleph-bet (99).  The Hebrew aleph-bet contained only consonants, “was never complete in itself,” had to be “actively interpreted,” and thus “overtly demanded the reader’s conscious participation” (243).

The sea-faring Greeks learned of the aleph-bet from the sheepherding Hebrews and implemented this written language with their own developments, most particularly the addition of vowels.  The Greek language, like Greek philosophy, is the foundation upon which the abstract thinking of the entire Western world is built.  Abram demonstrates that “the advent of phonetic writing further rigidifies the perceptual boundary enclosing the human community” (257), only furthered by the separation of the psyche from the physical world, and of time from space, by the Greeks.  “Greek thinkers were the first to begin to objectify space and time as entirely distinct and separable dimensions” (197).

While this short history of the written language provides us with an essential developmental process, it does not fully explain the universal shift away from oral culture in the West.  Abram points to two socio-cultural scenarios that universalized the written language in European civilization.  The first is the invention of the printing press, which spread literacy as far and wide as the continent was Christianized.  The second scenario is much less innocuous:

“The burning alive of tens of thousands of women (most of them herbalists and midwives from peasant backgrounds) as ‘witches’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may usefully be understood as the attempted and nearly successful, extermination of the last orally preserved traditions of Europe – the last traditions rooted in the direct, participatory experience of plants, animals and elements – in order to clear the way for the dominion of alphabetic reason over a natural world increasingly construed as a passive and mechanical set of objects” (199).

The socio-cultural history of the alphabet is vast, and concisely explained by Abram.  I have only touched on the most basic, yet most crucial elements of this history, as he explains it.  But also essential to this story, which I will explain, even more briefly, is the cultural development – dependent on the abstraction afforded by the development of the alphabet – of a metaphysical and ontological philosophy that separates space and time.

For oral cultures, space and time are inseparable and cyclical.  The many stories from many cultures spanning the globe that unite their people, explain their cosmology or place in the universe, are full of references to a metaphysical understanding of the world, in which past, present and future are not thoroughly distinct, and place and time are one. The Distant Time, for the Koyukon, and the Dreamtime for the Aboriginal Australians, do “not refer to the past in any literal sense (to a time that is finished and done with), but rather to the temporal and psychological latency of the enveloping landscape” (193).  The Dreamtime “is not a set of accomplished events located in some finished past, but is the very depth of the experiential present – the earthly sleep, or dream, out of which the visible landscape continually comes to presence” (ibid.).  “Unlike linear time, time conceived as cyclical cannot be readily abstracted from the spatial phenomena that exemplify it […]” (188-189).

The printing press universalized “a thorough description of homogenous ‘space’ and sequential ‘time,’ as objectively existing entities” (199).  The psyche of Aristotle, the physics of Euclid, and the mind-material split of Descartes all rely on the abstraction of the written language and of the separation of space from time.  However, perhaps most important, the success of these ideas to span centuries and continents relies on the printing press and the spread of literacy.  Perhaps we cannot undo the damage done to the connection between ourselves, our culture and the Earth but such separations of mind from matter and space from time.  But we can certainly challenge the psychic hegemony of such thinking.  “[When] we let time and space blend into a unified space-time, we rediscover the enveloping earth” (216).

Abram explains that with the separation of the human from the non-human worlds we seem driven to – or at least prevented from self-regulation from – the destruction of the world around us.  We may not only be faced with a moral imperative to heal this split, but forced for the sake of our health and survival.  “[… It] is only at the scale of our direct, sensory interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world. […] We can know the needs of any particular region only by participating in its specificity – by becoming familiar with its cycles and styles, awake and attentive to its other inhabitants” (268).


[1] Zerzan, John. Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House. p. 4.

[2] This refers to the origin of the word “barbarism,” created by the ancient Greeks to refer to uncivilized, non-Greek speaking (and illiterate) peoples.

[3] Eden, Scott. “A New Chapter: Independent Booksellers Hope to Find Strength in Numbers.” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2000. 1.1 billion books were sold in the United States in 1999.

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