John Durham Peters


The introduction of writing in its diverse forms and practices has had enormous cultural consequences. Although it generally plays a secondary role in media histories, it should be looked upon as the mother of all media. Always material and worldly, writing has assumed many forms. This chapter distinguishes semasiography from logography, notes the distinction between logographic and alphabetic scripts, and argues that phonetic practices exist in logographic scripts, while logographic practices exist in alphabetic scripts. Writing is a power technology; a means of preserving meaning; much more than simply an ancillary device for representing voice or speech; a technique that is both historically material and difficult to master; enormously diverse in its history, practice, and expression; a synthesis of visual and auditory modes of perception and of iconic and symbolic modes of signification; dependent on a complex integration of physical skills, including those of the head and hand; and, as a database manipulating spatial and temporal axes, the primordial medium.


Next to the domestication of fire, plants, animals, and of humans themselves, the invention of writing constitutes probably the greatest transformation in human history. Like fire, writing has awesome powers. Its power to preserve meanings makes it explosive and dangerous. Like all other domesticates, writing has never been fully tamed, and can occasionally leap its bounds. (We ...

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