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Phonetic Literacy, the Romans, and the Catholic Church

Page history last edited by Mark 9 years, 11 months ago

Phonetic Literacy, the Romans, and the Catholic Church

 

As I have described elsewhere,

 

…phonetic literacy is a very ingenious invention and proved to be an excellent choice for expanding empires, spheres of influence, and spans of control across vast geographies. The written word travels well, alleviating the necessity for transporting the person along with his ideas or pronouncements. Instrumentally, phonetic literacy takes what is integral – the words coming from someone’s mouth – and fractures them, separating sound from meaning. That sound is then encoded into what are otherwise semantically meaningless symbols that we call letters. Those letters are then built up hierarchically, from letters into words, from words into sentences, from sentences into paragraphs, and from paragraphs into scrolls and later, books. (Federman, 2007, p. 4)

 

More important, the phonetic alphabet, when introduced into an extant primary-oral culture, produces a cognitive shift in that culture concerning not only what is known, but what can be known. Instead of knowledge being a direct experience that passes from person to person, in a sense of a bard or story-singer[1] reliving the experience for his audience, literacy means that what is to be known is only a written representation of the actual, visceral experience that comprises knowledge. Literacy separates the knower from that which is to be known. It inserts a proxy representation – words – of the experiences to be known, as well as an author who asserts his authority with respect to that representation.

 

In my examinations of the ancient historical roots of knowledge construction (Federman 2005; 2007), I argue how separation of the source of knowledge from an ultimate knower and the insertion of proxy representation create the enabling conditions for action at a distance. The ability to literally effect remote control is significantly different from the circumstances of societal interactions within a primary-oral culture. In a primary-oral culture action is a result of direct, face-to-face contact with individual or societal authority. For a society in which phonetic literacy has become the dominant means of communication, written language conveys both the proxy representation of an authoritative author’s words, as well as the proxy authority of the author’s station or office. The remotely located, literate recipient of an authored document not only ascribes attributes of reality to words—themselves proxy representations that are, in actuality, merely ink marks on linen or papyrus or sheepskin. A literate person is also able to call into existence the power and authority of an unseen, and often unknown, author by uttering the sounds represented by those ink marks. In a society in which relatively few people have command of the word, that literate person inevitably inherits aspects of that author’s authority by the proxy vested in those written words. He[2] becomes, in effect, the personification of proxy authority. For example, in the case of the growing dominance of the Church in the early Middle Ages, he who had command of the Word became the proxy of God, himself[3]. It is perhaps not surprising that the New Testament Book of John begins with the invocation, “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1; emphasis added).

 

Hierarchical structure – the basic construct of phonetic literacy – and proxy delegation of authority are key characteristics of a bureaucratic organization. Hence, it is little surprise that, by the Middle Ages, the Church began to emerge as a remarkably functional administrative agency, taking on characteristics of coordination and control that, in retrospect, have become known as bureaucracy. As the Roman Empire declined, so too did secular administrative authority. The Church administration filled the power void, assuming many of the responsibilities of local municipal and regional administration (Miller, 1983).

 

Prior to the ninth century, local churches were privately founded and maintained by a local patron. Local clergy – bishops and priests – were primarily subjects of the patron, with little control exerted by Rome. In most instances, the lay patron appointed the local clergy who owed primary allegiance not only to the local patron, feudal lord, or king, but as well to the local diocese cathedral chapter of clerics that advised the bishop. As Maureen Miller describes,

 

…all in all, the Church in the ninth century was local, decentralized and intertwined with the secular power. The bishop or abbot answered to his king more than the pope, many proprietary churches were just beginning to answer to the bishop rather than their lay proprietor and the pope can hardly be said to have exerted universal authority. This local and feudalized organization of the Church matched the local, feudalized, “tribalized” nature of society during the ninth century. (Miller, 1983, p. 280)

 

This description corresponds well to a society fractured by the effects of literacy: the literate elites creating an administrative bureaucracy that oversees the illiterate masses who still live within a “tribal” – that is, primary-oral – subculture. Still, the early Church did not yet possess a truly effective, universal means of wielding and enforcing its administrative control through the proxy exercise of power at a distance. It was only in the ninth century that the practice of excommunication began to establish what Miller (1993) terms a “corporate identity” for the Church, thereby enabling it to assert more centralized power through delegated control.

 

Although it had been previously available as a disciplinary measure, excommunication served only as an ecclesiastical sanction in the early Middle Ages. By the ninth century, however, those who were excommunicated could hold neither military nor public office, and civil magistrates enforced excommunication dictates of the local bishop. Excommunication evolved into a powerful force for corporate discipline, not only removing an individual from participation in the spiritual realm, but from the realm of civic engagement, as well.

 

In practical terms, the extension of excommunication from its strictly ecclesiastical context to one that affects all of one’s community life – in this case, effectively separating an individual from active participation in the society in which they lived – is consistent with the environmental influences of phonetic literacy. As I mentioned earlier, phonetic literacy separates that which is integral into individual, functional components, constructing distance between an individual and what they once possessed as intrinsic to their being—be it creating distance in knowledge via an author’s authority, in governance via proxy delegation, in craft skill via functional decomposition, or even in one’s place in society through excommunication.

 

Although similar to the relatively rarer practice of ostracism in Athenian democracy, there is a key distinction – a reversal (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988), in fact – that, again, is indicative of the environmental differences between primary-oral, and phonetically literate, societies. Ostracism (lasting ten years) required a consensus vote of thousands of fellow citizens in the ecclesia—an expression of a common societal mind that the ostracized citizen had accumulated too much individual power. Excommunication permanently banished a non-compliant individual on the say-so of one man who possessed the delegated proxy of what was becoming supreme authority in the Church and through much of Western European society.

 

Through the codification of canon law, and its universalizing throughout Western Europe, papal legal authority was effectively established by the eleventh century. Pope Gregory VII, in the late-eleventh century, implemented a more formal, bureaucratic system of Church offices and functions. He eliminated both the influence of local, lay patrons to install clerical officials, and the earlier practice of nepotistic and hereditary influence, the latter corrected by instituting clerical celibacy. Church power and operations were grounded in legal authority, ultimately arbitrated by the central authority of the pope and officials in Rome. Those in relatively superior positions appointed officials in subordinate positions, with the rule of (canonical) law holding supreme. Even for the pope himself, the office was distinct from the individual holding it (Miller, 1983). The effect of literacy in enabling the solidification of bureaucracy as a governing principle is demonstrably evident:

 

Although Church government from the earliest times depended upon written records, the increased dependence upon law and central authority in the governance of the Church made written documents even more essential to Church administration. Whereas the Chancery under Gregory VII consisted of seven notaries, soon thereafter it grew to one hundred scribes and a corresponding number of higher officials to carry out the responsible duties. (Miller, 1983, p. 285)

 

The emerging bureaucracy of the Church influenced secular organizations throughout European society as well. From the twelfth century, bureaucratic and administrative practices common in the papal chancery began to be introduced into royal chanceries. Primarily because of their literacy – but equally, because of the opportunity for Church control to infiltrate secular institutions – bishops, cardinals, and other churchmen populated, and were highly influential in, royal administration throughout the Middle Ages. Note, for instance, the derivation of the word “clerk” from “cleric” (Tierney, 1992). Miller sums up the significance of organizational change through the Middle Ages and, consistent with literacy, its slow, but pervasive, replication:

 

The High Medieval reorganization of Church government created a streamlined, hierarchical organization and increased papal power so vastly… These papal claims aided the growth of civil government … by sharpening ideas about secular authority. And, on a practical level, the Church aided secular rulers in developing their own administrations by supplying a model of administration and trained personnel. Most important for the development of modern organization was the Church’s borrowing of Roman law which, incorporated into the canon law, was most influential in developing public law in the emerging nation states. (Miller, 1983, p. 289)

 

None of this organizational evolution could have occurred without the presence of phonetic literacy both to enable the instrumental skill of those who possessed it, and to create an appropriate cognitive environment that could conceive of, and create, bureaucracy.

 

 

Read On: Gutenberg’s Influence: Mechanization, and the Rise of Modern Organization

 


[1] The term “story-singer” is a reference to the discoveries of Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the primary-oral society of South Serbia in the early 20th century. See Adam Parry’s (1971) The Making of Homeric Verse, and Albert Lord’s (2000) The Singer of Tales.

[2] Among European societies that had recently become literate in that historical epoch, literacy was exclusively a male prerogative.

[3] Arguably, this situation remains true in contemporary evangelical Christian communities. See Elisha (2008) and Lindsay (2008).

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