As I’ve noted before, while Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s Before Writing has, on occasion, been cited as evidence against Ong, McLuhan, Havelock, and other “great leap” theorists1, Ong himself thoroughly integrates Schmandt-Besserat’s work into his history of orality-literacy contrasts in his 1998 essay “Digitization Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today’s Computers” (Communication Research Trends 18.2 (1998): 4-21). So it was no little pleasure that I’ve found Schmandt-Besserat directly addressing the issue of literacy and the evolution of consciousness in “The Interface Between Writing and Art2”:

In summary, in Mesopotamia, where the earliest phases of writing are well documented, it becomes evident that art borrowed far more than linearity from writing. The carved frieze used the syntactical strategies of a text to convey information. These strategies included the location, position, direction, and the relative size of the images. As a result, instead of becoming limited to simply evoke, art achieved the ability to communicate more complex and specific information. Like the Narmer palette, the Uruk vase was able to narrate the sequential development of an important event, as well as the interaction between the major participants.


The Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations that created pristine scripts, offer a unique insight on the impact of writing on cognition. The veering from a spread of images to a linear art structure, following the invention of writing, suggests that preliterate cultures apprehended images globally, but literate societies approached a composition analytically. That is to say, figures were analyzed in succession, like the signs of a text, according to their relative size and position. But how could the changes be so immediate and radical? Recent clinical studies highlight that literates and illiterates process information in different areas of the brain (Gibson, 19983; Lecours, 19954). The irreversible physiological alteration caused by literacy explains the shift in organizing information. Ancient art lends support and physiology verifies McLuhan’s intuition that writing changed thought processes” (120).

I need to get a hold of the Gibson and Lecours pieces.

  1. A straw man label which, in my more cynical moments, I’m willing to call one of the greatest hoodwinkings in rhet/comp scholarship, but, in my more temperate moments, I refer to as a classic example of academic error. []
  2. The Legacy of McLuhan. Ed. Lance Strate and Edward Wachtel. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005. 109-121 []
  3. Gibson, K. R. Review of The Origins and Evolution of Writing. American Anthropologist, 100.1 (1998): 213-214. []
  4. Lecours, A. R. “The Origins and Evolution of Writing.” Origins of the Human Brain. Eds. J.P. Changeux & J. Chavaillon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. 213-235. []