The McLuhan Galaxy: Punctuation as Medium

Last week, I was thinking about punctuation that is authorial and punctution that is editorial, trying to argue that the former does not necessarily take precedent over the latter in the understanding and appreciation of a literary piece of work. This led me to re-read McKenzie’s lectures on the sociology of bibliography, how meaning is created at the interface of writer, transmitter, reader, textual material, and circumstances of production. And this, in turn, led me to dip into the work of Marshall McLuhan, which is a fun and crazy ride through a prolific oeuvre of thought that becomes particularly curious with hindsight, now that we have the internet which he predicted in the 1960s, that return to an oral culture of collective identity and tribe-like affinities and behaviours. Although, of couse, it’s the written oral, or oral written, as we translate speaking into a hyper-literate world of digital communication (emoji emergence might qualify that dominance of phonemic writing, perhaps).

I had my brain definitely massaged, trying to wrap my head around McLuhan’s concepts of form, content, and social effect. A medium is anything that extends us into the world, mind and body. So a sword is a medium, extending our arm, and text is a medium extending our thought. Language in itself, speech, oral speech, is also a medium, as it extends our thoughts into the world. Today we would probably say the sword or speech are tools offering us certain kinds of affordances throughan experience of the world as embodied cognition (or consciousness?).

In McLuhan’s aphorism, the message is not content, what is semantically or metaphorically said, but the social effect of the characteristics of the medium. The ground, as it were, or context, of culture, religion, beliefs, values, practices, attitudes. Things that change imperceptibly, and are hard to notice. For example, planes are not hard to notice, but the change of attitude that goes with travelling so quickly is. A different perception of time, and connectivity, of distance, how to bridge it physically, in reality.

In that sense, punctuation is a medium, and the changes of cognition and attitude that it brings with it are the message, even (or particularly) changes in cultural practices that go beyond the individual, and affect the customs of large groups of people.

Quentin Matsys, The Banker and His Wife, 1514, Antwerp.

One hypothesis for the increased introduction of several signs of punctuation within just two hundred years or so, between 1400 and 1600 (in comparison to the slow diffuse evolution of spaces, dots, colon, and comma over 2000 years) is that it improves reading speed: as you don’t have to pore over letters forever trying to figure out syntactical relationships as well as tone and emotional meaning, you can get the gist quickly through the clarification afforded by punctuation. You can react faster, dash a reply off, and continue with your business. Quite literally, the hypothesis argues, since the faster pace of epistolary communication particularly concerned merchants and other kinds of business people who were able to do more in less time. Fifteenth-century proto-capitalists.

So, in the McLuhan world, punctuation is the medium which allows for faster communication, hence better trade relationships, hence enabling capitalism (the message).

While I think that this is a valid and useful way of understanding punctuation, I also believe it’s too neat. Would McLuhan subscribe to this way of applying his dictum? Perhaps not. But he did say that reading is guessing. In a televised interview in Australia, McLuhan explores the etymology of ‘to read’, coming from the Old English ‘raedan’, going back to ‘raten’, to guess, which is still used in modern German for example. He says a reader needs to guess, or pick rather, one of the manifold meanings of any one word based on its wordish neighbours and the general drift of the text, the word’s environment, word-wise and sense-wise. A good reader is thus someone who is good at guessing, someone who takes decisions quickly, snatches them out of the mist of their mind, their intuition, experience. A good reader is a good executive.

And punctuation, speeding up this guesswork, is a handmaid, then, to the executive. But punctuation is also more headstrong than that, it also slows reading down, and it also complicates meaning, multiplies polysemous possibilities and connotations.  Take, for example, one of my favourite poems by Kim Addonizio.

Obviously, most work of punctuation confusing-where-one-sense-stops-and-another-starts is done by the mere space between words. And then there’s the enigmatic ampersand and forward slash in the penultimate and last lines of the sonnet, just before the volta, preparing us for the jolt of the personal pronoun and the expression of affection and the promise (mark the lack of full stop: it’s a promise, it’s future, it’s ever coming towards us).

I have to admit… I have no idea (yet) what’s up with the ampersand. It’s like Addonizio tries her best to avoid writing ‘and’, instead offering us strings of conditional clauses, all governed by the one ‘if’ at the beginning of the octave, and again another at the beginning of the sestet. ‘And’ would compartmentalize all those enumerated experiences, but without any conjunction or actual mark of punctuation in between, all experiences are somehow all one, and if you have experienced one, you’ve also experienced the others, and so this poem is for you, and for you, and for you, and for me. For all you who have and so on.

In literary criticism jargon, the rhetorical device governing the structure of the syntax and poem as a whole is apo koinou. A word, or expression, referring backwards and forwards at the same time, belonging to both clauses, providing the link between them, a conjunction without ‘and’, as it were. For example: ‘if you swam across a river under rain sang/using a dildo’ (lines 8-9). The apo koinou here is ‘under the rain’, because it connects swimming across a river and singing with a dildo as mic. The (lack of) punctuation of the poem thus mimics the multi-directionality of reference, of pointing here and there, to you, and me, and her, the woman in the next stall.

None of this explains the ampersand.

Perhaps it’s a case of the ampersand’s sinuous involved shape, folding back on itself while leaning forward. The perfect form representing the apo koinou.

Perhaps we’re also not even supposed to replace the ampersand with a spoken ‘and’ in our mind’s voice or otherwise. Just registering the shape and what it does is enough. It’s an elegant visual marker, allowing the eyes and the mind to rest after the rolling avalanche of if-clauses.

The last line puzzles me, too. Should we efface the forward slash into ‘no one can listen’, or does it provide a true stop, refusing the workings of apo koinou while still nudging towards it, acknowledging that this has been its way of thinking all the way through – but now the poem refuses pointing everywhere and at everyone, because now it’s about ‘I’ and ‘you’.

The Old English etymology of reading also includes ‘making sense’, ‘interpreting’, and also ‘counseling’. Reading gives counsel and comfort. Punctuation confuses and clarifies. Literature, good literature (good punctuation!), is always more wayward than one thinks.

Many, many, and very many meanings for ‘to read’.

Punctuation is a medium with a galaxy of messages.

Stop. Start Again.

One of the more straightforward tasks of punctuation is to clarify the boundaries between words and sentences in a written text. Visual cues are spaces between words, and marks, such as hyphens, commas, full stops. In contrast to scriptio continua of classical times, whenwordswouldbestrungtogetherwithoutsuchspacesorsigns, it was impossible to sight-read a text. So, punctuation helps us realize where one word ends, and another one starts. This makes relative sense. But what about speech?

How is it possible that, when we speak, we don’t have such signposts as punctuation marks or spaces telling us about word segments? Well, because we don’t need them. Even when someone speaks one word after another without change of tone and without pause between words or sentences at all, the hearer can still tell the difference between them.

Most of the time anyway. A notable exception being ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’. Of course, even if the hearer did stumble across the two homophones the first time round, they’re likely to correct their mishearing through the context. And apart from that, recordings have in fact shown that there is a difference between the /ai/ sound of ‘ice’ and ‘I’. There is a greater emphasis on the verb, and a greater pause between pronoun and verb, and the equivalent sounds of the nice dessert.

The /ai/ of the pronoun is longer, and the verb is stressed.

So, although there’s plenty of potential for comedy in the flowing together of ‘might rain’ and ‘my train’ or ‘that’s tough’ and ‘that stuff’, and indeed ‘fork handle’ and ‘four candle’, we’re generally pretty adapt at “juncture”, the speech boundary where one word ends and another starts in continual talk. Tools of juncture can be minuscule pausing, changes of pitch, gesture. And probably also familiarity with words, and the language that contains them.

The same probably counts for music. I remember participating in an experiment about making sense of unfamiliar musical phrases when I was a student: you had to listen to music from China and India (if you were unfamiliar with that music), and push a button whenever you thought a musical phrase had ended. I have forgotten what the outcome was, and the purpose, but I distinctly remember the feeling of being completely lost, trying to listen for some kind of sense, or at least repetition of a sound I had already heard, but all my attempts at realizing the music’s structure dissolved in increasingly frantic pushing of buttons, and eventually giving up to befuddled confusion. I just couldn’t read that music.

So, what we do naturally, without ever thinking about it, and without seemingly spending much energy on, juncture that is, is quite extraordinary really.

Just like turn-taking, the bigger sister of juncture, as it were. That’s us taking turns in a conversation, the transition from me to you, and back to me.

Telling quite when somebody is (or rather will be) finished depends on gestures, facial expressions, gaze, grammatical cues, pitch, and (very much so) pauses. Those pauses, though, are incredibly short, and, amazingly, nearly universal in all kinds of languages. 200 milliseconds. That’s how long (short!) it takes to pick up the mantle of speech of someone else and make your own contribution. But because it takes three times the time to retrieve even a single word from memory, and get ready to say it, that’s 600 milliseconds, and some 1500 milliseconds to get a short clause onto our tongue, we by force need to prepare our answer while the other is speaking. Else conversations would take for ever.

This simultaneous comprehension and production of language does not mean not listening. It simply suggests how incredibly adept we are at talking, talking together, that is. Our brains are working hard to minimize the gap between conversational turns, trying to smooth that tricky transition period. There’s always something that can go wrong when we move from one state of being to another. Witness all those promising revolutions turning sour.

Transitions create a momentary vacuum into which something, someone, else can step, pulling the flow of what should be into what could be. Something else. Transitions are the vulnerable Achilles heel in the body of talk.

Perhaps, there is also opportunity in that gap. Someone can seize the word whose turn it wasn’t.

Interruptions might happen, regardless of pauses, effectively forcing a turn.

Overlap occurs when we wrongly predict, or when someone keeps talking although their cues suggested they wouldn’t.

Le Jeu royal de la paume, Charles Hulpeau, Paris: 1612.

There’s lots that can go (productively) wrong in turn-taking, but the overall bent remains: humans are good talkers, and we’re smooth-talkers, bouncing the tennis ball back and forth effortlessly, as Montaigne imagined 400 years ago.

And the role of punctuation in all of that? Well, since speech comes first, and writing is a representation of that (first and foremost, at least), punctuation imitates what we do without thinking about it. The spaces between words signalling their boundaries are the juncture, the rest of the marks indicate those things helping us take turns: question and exclamation mark symbolize a rise in pitch and final emphasis; comma, colon, and semi-colon create different kinds of light pauses after which there may be a turn, but the transition is iffy; a full stop is the big pause signalling a definite turn; a dash represents a rebel turn, an interruption.

I like the thought of punctuation being rebellious. It’s so much more than clarifying signposts, or self-effacing functional traffic lights managing the flow of words, the less visible the better. Punctuation, as much as junctures and turn-taking gaps, can also be stumbling blocks purposefully hindering speech. They show a red light, but push you over the crossroads anyway. And then you’re off to something way more interesting.

For how turn-taking plays out in drama, especially Shakespeare, check out the brand-new book by my friend and former colleague Dr Oliver Morgan.