An Essay on Language and Scribing

As it turns out, “literacy” is the problem. No, not in the sense of “a little stupid” versus  “a lot stupid,” but literacy with respect to how we understand human language.  

In the 19th century we got really good at setting up assembly-lines to build cars, refrigerators and tractors; and somehow, we came to apply the same organizational tactic to educational models. If you were interested in mixing potions, you took chemistry. If you wanted to build things, you studied engineering. If you were interested in the stars, you studied astronomy.  It’s easy to understand how this approach worked, but you can’t help but suspect, guys like Socrates would be freaked out by our efficiency atsegregating enlightenment.

To Socrates we might say: “But with the explosion in knowledge, how can one person keep up with it all?”

In reply, Socrates might say:  “But with your info-segregation, you gain knowledge at the expense of wisdom. What advantage have you won?”

“Hey Mr. Socrates, what are you saying? That we’re an unwise generation? Well … okay then. You might have a point. But I can build a lawnmower ALL BY MYSELF!”

In no place does segregated enlightenment bite us with more teeth than in our models of language. Say … it’s 1969 and you’re looking to get a Ph.D. in the field of language. What’s your post-grad track? Well, you could focus on grammar. After all, you have to understand the rules of punctuation before you can legally violate them. Something softer, perhaps? How about literature? But do you really want to read Beowulf again?

If you’re slightly more with-it, how about a course-setting into mass media? Or lacking that sophistication, how about a degree in film-television production, with a little radio thrown in? Or … the relational values of throat-singing to modern dance?  Of course, if your head is seriously pointed, you might chase a Ph.D. in the psychology-of-language, or cognitive theory, or neuroscience. But take a look at your classmates before you sign on. Are your reading glasses thick enough?

Forget the Ph.D. for the moment. To understand human language, as it is practiced, you have to erase and redraw the boundaries. In its aboriginal state, language happens in real time between two humans, and Jack Russell terriers, on occasion. There are all sorts of language modifiers that enrich the words being said. Often misidentified as sub-languages, these modifiers include pitch, intonation, cadence, gesture, posture, body-pose and dialect. All these things, taken together, represent the landscape of language in its “aboriginal” state, or “context.”

But there’s more. There’s “extra-aboriginal” too. The 19th century model exalts written text, with its attendant grammar, as the solitary record system.It’s easy to see the temporal provincialism here, because today’s record systems include film, video, audio-recordings and … Morse Code. If “language record” refers to “just writing,” what do we call this other stuff? Well, we don’t actually have a name, nor even an accepted understanding for it, nor how it relates to grammar. Still, these elements are important to the landscape, or “ecology of language.”

Without a name, how are we to implement a revised strategy for enlightenment?

Well, ignoring the Morse Code bit, there is a fairly reasonable way to understand our post 19th century record-systems. Film, video and audio-recorders capture our aboriginal language transactions … wait for it … in “context.” Tell your boss, to his face, that he’s a “freak,” and say it within a context of: gesture (use of a single finger during the utterance, for instance), tone, emphasis, facial expression and/or posture.

Now, if you’re brave, call him a “freak” again, but do it in front of a camera/audio recording device. What kind of language record have you just authored? In addition to a possible letter-of-termination, your words were captured by a context-record system. This offers us a significant, revised understanding. A context-record, for all intents and purposes, is identical in terms of merit and meaning to its written counterpart. The “context-of-time, tone and gesture” modify the intentionality, however.

There’s another curious thing about context records. Given the evolution of technology, “authoring a context-record” is vastly dissimilar to the act of “authoring a written-record.” For one thing, written grammar is held together by rules and ancient rhetorical practices that provide the scaffold for transmission. “Context-records,” on the other hand, are held together by a “grammar of technology,” where discreet units of measurement run at about 30-frames per second, in the US — a technical grammar, governed by chip logic and format standards.

If there’s an advantage to context-records, you might not ever have to spell “chrysanthemum” again. If there’s a disadvantage, the practice of context-authoring ranges from dismal, to non-existent. Until the last couple of decades, context-records have been somewhat limited to “event-capture” and playback. To author intentionality under these conditions, your option has been to butt-edit two pieces of surveillance footage together, trimming the visual “period-placement” in your “visual-sentence.”

Within the domain of context-records, there is one amazing and curious example of authoring. Animation. The word brings to mind Disney, Tex Avery, Terry Gilliam and maybe, Nick Park. The significance of animation is: it’s NOT captured as a live event, but “iterated” into existence, just as the written word is iterated into a sentence. In a nutshell, everything on screen in an animation is given placement, much as every word in a written sentence is assessed and placed according to the author’s intention.

Obviously, authoring context records at the level of animation is an extravagant enterprise, but it can be about as powerful a narrative-form as the planet as ever seen.

Enter the notion of scribing.

Related to animation is a rather recent language-form known as “scribing.” It’s a context-record in that it’s a specialized record composed of symbols, temporal placement and audio, all of which are wrapped in a grammar of technology. (A scribe without technical grammar is most-likely a cave painting)


This scribe was taken from the lecture on hybrid narrative technology at NC State.

 As citizens in a post-19th Century setting, how are we to understand  “scribing, ” then?

Scribing is a modifier, comparable to adverbs and adjectives, as well as metaphors, similes and analogies in written text  — a parenthetical.

There’s so much that remains unknown about scribing, but there are a few attributes we feel somewhat safe in suggesting.

·        scribing is a zone of intention

·        scribing deals in sets and subsets

·        scribing plots relational value

 .        scribing revels in demonstrating induction and deduction

·        scribing amplifies meaning through overstatement,      understatement, restatement and analogy

·        the best examples of scribing invite “user-completion” and “timed revelation”

At present, scribing is often thought of as a hand-drawn “whiteboard.” If you think about it, though, a “zone of intention” could be made-up of video, time-lapse photography, line-art, or … whatever else I’ve forgotten here. If there’s one seriously important rule to scribing, and perhaps the only one at this point in history, it is that as a zone-of-intention, a scribe should not be a coma-inducing snippet of media production. The human brain seems to have been conditioned to go to sleep, analytically, in a media environment where every intention rides into the mind, fully digested and exquisitely rendered. A scribe should “demand” a cognitive transaction from the viewer, through interpretation, agreement, disagreement, or just plain effrontery. The viewer should be contextually-required to “complete the line or fill,” or infer meaning. Of course, this could be a preamble to sloppiness and nasty picture-making, but for the time being, the idea is the thing, not the visual aesthetics.

Post 19th  Century, human language should be understood as either text … or context.

Now, excuse me while I go scribble a creepy little animation for what I’m trying to say here.

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* Feel free to quote any, or all of this article, but please include an attribution, somewhere. This particular excerpt was drawn from a production (MLTMB) in 2003, which was taken from an article written in 1974. My research over the years is just about the only thing I own, at the moment. Please remember me kindly by honoring me as your humble fan and contributor: © Copyright 2012 by Floyd Wray, All Rights Reserved

About admin

I converted to technologist victim in 1970 with my first film camera, a 16-millimeter Bolex Paillard. I reconfirmed my vows in the 1970s with the purchase of video gear. I lost all faith in technology when I embraced computer tech in the 1980s. I've been trying to figure out what I've done with my life, ever since.
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