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First postcard image 

Picture This...


New Media Linguistics

by Sally Pryor

reviewed by Edward Picot

Postcards from Writing explores the concept of picture writing, and its significance for new media, via the theories of Roy Harris, who is Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics at Oxford University in the UK. It contains numerous extracts from Sally Pryor's interviews with Harris, and extensive paraphrases and illustrations of his theories. But this is no mere academic essay: it's also a fullblown new media work, complete with nonlinear structure, animations, interactive elements, sound-effects and music.

Some screens in the work resemble postcards more closely than others, but the idea of the postcard as a (fallacious?) paradigm of human communication crops up regularly, and every screen is basically postcard-shaped, usually with several different things going on in different areas. Pictures turn into words or vice-versa; planes and cars zoom across the screen accompanied by jet noises or the squealing of tyres; postage-stamps twirl round on mouseover; phrases are uttered; text-fragments appear and disappear; and funky music with a slightly Middle Eastern feel plays in the background. There is the mixture of humour and seriousness, creative play and intellectual rigour, which characterises some of the best new media work of the last few years.

The structure is nonlinear, meaning that when we reach the end of a postcard we are often presented with several choices of where to go next. Up until now I haven't been a big fan of nonlinear structure in essays, mainly because it tends to equate with the use of annoying mid-sentence or mid-paragraph links: but Sally Pryor's method is quite different. Each postcard is designed to play right through before the next jump is made. The format isn't without its moments of disjunction: there are times when you follow the development of an argument through several consecutive pages, only to be left dangling, or returned to a page you've already visited, before a conclusion has been reached. On the whole, however, the effect of the nonlinear structure is to give the feeling that "Postcards from Writing" explores and expresses a number of related propositions which have been arranged into associative groups rather than hammered into a single sequence. The effect is feminine and friendly, and encourages frequent re-reading; it is also greatly helped by the excellent navigational aids, which allow you to replay individual cards at will, to backtrack, or to see an overview of the whole work, showing which parts have been visited and which have not.

Second postcard imageThe intellectual marrow of the work is provided by the linguistic theories of Professor Harris. He is a leading proponent, as Pryor explains in her voiceover, of "a new theory of human communication called Integrationism, that rejects some of the assumptions about communication that we tend to think of as common-sense". Language as a code is one of these assumptions: as Harris argues,

The notion that there has to be a code in operation, and that the participants have to understand the code before they can do anything else, so that the code then takes priority over everything else: that's exactly the point of view of traditional twentieth-century linguistics... There may be some situations in which you could make that kind of assumption, but to take that as a basis for explaining communication in general just won't do.

Other "common-sensical" notions which Harris rejects are that "writing is simply a transcription of speech - that's totally false"; that speech is the archetype of communication; that language is a system of labels for things which exist in the physical world; that communication "involves thoughts or messages travelling from one mind to another"; that the symbols in writing are abstract representations of the sounds in speech (this is "just a pedagogically inculcated illusion that made it easier for us to learn to read and write"); and, conversely, that writing somehow evolved out of pictures, with picture-writing as the middle stage. In fact a good deal of Postcards from Writing is given over to an invigorating crash-bang-wallop attack on our common-sense ideas about human communication. Less lively, and more difficult to grasp, are the sections which attempt to convey exactly what the Integrationists would like us to believe instead:

Human communication is an essentially creative enterprise, part of a continuous attempt to integrate the present with the past and the future... In every act of human communication there's an implicit integration of past, present and possible future activities. This relationship is called reciprocal presupposition: and that means that the possibility of a later operation depends on the execution of an earlier operation, which in turn derives its significance from the anticipation of that possibility.

The language and concepts may seem knotty at times (although the paragraph above is probably the most difficult on the whole CD), but they are worth grappling with. The Integrationists, as stated earlier, do not believe that language is a code which must be understood before an act of communication can take place. Instead, if I undestand them correctly, they believe that we begin to communicate before we understand the code, and we learn the code by participating in acts of communication. When you think about it, this is just as common-sense as any of the ideas Professor Harris rejects: it's much easier to learn a language through interaction with native speakers than by sitting in a classroom chantings lists of vocabulary. You enter into communication first, and learn the grammar and vocabulary of a specific language afterwards. Babies do the same when they first learn to talk. Furthermore, the rules of the game are never fixed: in everyday acts of communication malapropisms are commonplace and don't usually cause any serious problems; we can tolerate tremendous deviations from the dictionary and the book of grammar before things really begin to break down; and as any writer or critic will testify, people don't generally wait to understand precisely what they are hearing or reading before they start to make their interpretations. In any case we neither use nor interpret words according to their dictionary meanings, but according to their context: "Context first, code after" as Professor Harris puts it. The Integrationists see communication, therefore, as a creative enterprise at both ends, for both the communicator and the communicatee, governed by very loose and associative rules; and instead of regarding it as a series of discrete acts by which packages of meaning are transferred from one person to another, they represent it as a continuum in which all of us are immersed, a continuum like the flow of a stream, where what is taking place at any given moment takes its shape both from what has already passed and what is on its way.

Spoken language, argue the Integrationists, is not the archetypal form of communication, but simply one form amongst many; and writing should not be thought of as secondary to speech - an attempt to represent and record spoken words through a code of inscribed signs - but as a different method of communication altogether, with its own rules. Granted, some types of writing - what Harris terms "glottal" writing - can be made to resemble speech quite closely, while others (such as algebra, computer codes, musical notation and pictures) resemble it much less. But even glottal writing includes a whole vocabulary of effects which cannot be reproduced in speech: the line-endings and white spaces in poetry, variations in the size and colour of the text, visual puns such as printing the word "spl it" with a gap in the middle, symbols such as *, subscript and superscript, and so on. And although some types of writing resemble speech more than others, there is one respect in which they are all unlike speech and akin to each other: "the essential nature of writing is spatial relationships".

Any form of communication relies on the linking-together of signs into a chain or network of meaning, and this in turn implies a reliance on "temporal relationships". As Harris says, "Language itself couldn't work if... I couldn't remember the beginning of this sentence before I got to the end." When we listen to somebody talking we make connections in our minds between the different words they have uttered, and we can only do this by remembering the earlier words while we are hearing the later ones. In the same way, when we read the words on a page, we don't look at all the words simultaneously: we look at some, remember them, then look at others, and build the sequence in our minds. But whereas the sequence in which we hear and remember spoken language is mostly governed by the sequence in which the words are uttered, the sequence in which we view written signs is governed by their layout on the page or other surface.

In the case of text, our awareness of these "spatial configurations" is almost entirely blotted out by the overwhelmingly strong convention that text should be read in a certain way. In our culture, we read each line of print from left to right, the whole of a page from top to bottom, a double-page spread from left page to right page, and whole books from front to back. Such is the power of convention and training that it hardly ever occurs to us that other sequences are possible. By contrast, convention permits us to scan a picture in many different ways: but both text and pictures rely on spatial relationships between their disparate elements as the means of creating larger structures of significance; and in this respect they are more akin to each other than to spoken language, from which spatial relationships are absent.

Third postcard imageThis is where Sally Pryor's interest in picture-writing gels with her interest in linguistic theory. Postcards from Writing, with its nonlinear structure, its animations, its sound-effects and its interactivity, is more than just an attempt to give a potted version of Integrationist ideas in a new media style. It is also an attempt to demonstrate how the new media environment allows us to unlock the different languages available to us from the roles to which they have traditionally been confined. Her use of nonlinear arrangements for the different sections of her work - and, indeed, for the different sections of individual postcards - derives from her belief that writing and pictures share a common ground of spatial configurations; and that although we normally think of text in linear terms, when it is set free from the constraints of this linearity, and thus from its usual subservience to speech, it immediately becomes much easier to combine with pictures. As she says in her Abstract for Postcards from Writing, Integrationist theory

...teases [writing] apart from the transcription of speech... In Harris's view, writing is firmly re-aligned with spatial configurations and there are no fixed boundaries between writing and pictures... In "Postcards From Writing"... I offer users an experience of these ideas rather than simply an illustrated lecture.
One interesting aspect of this "experience", however, is that most of the actual burden of explanation is carried by the spoken word - either recordings of Sally Pryor's voice or of Roy Harris's. The snippets of text, animations, interactions and sound-effects usually serve as illustrations and diagrams, clarifying points which have already been made in speech. She admits herself at one point:
I'm finding this quite difficult. I'm trying to express a new theory of writing, that doesn't assume that words are our fundamental mode of communication; and yet I'm having to use words a lot more than I'd like to...

Spoken language and glottal writing may not be the only vehicles for reasoned thought, or the only tools through which the power of reasoned thought can be expressed and brought into focus, but they remain supreme as vehicles for reasoned explanation, and "Postcards from Writing", despite its clever and successful adoption of nonlinear structure and other new media devices, finds it hard to challenge that supremacy.

© Edward Picot, January 2005

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