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 Unlike his peers of narrower purview, Dehaene refers pointedly to structural anthropology (e.g. Lévi­-Strauss, Gourhan) as he reports, “we did not invent most of our letter shapes: they lay dormant in our brains for millions of years, and were merely rediscovered when our species invented writing”—yet his intent is undermined by teleology. That is to say, his evolutionary argument is sufficiently coherent but insufficiently cohesive, as the statistical data (of e.g. Changizi et al) warrant stronger assertions than he can make given weak rhetoric. First: such shapes no more “lay dormant” than the (ITC) mechanism itself, in that prior to phonological writing we (by it) previously read territorial marks of kin and clan, as we (by it) previously read traversal vestiges of predator and prey, just as every sensate animal must read environmental cues. To wit: as you scan our panel of glyphs, German Hausmarks, Roman monograms, Mongolian tamgas, and American ranch brands, your left ITC parses fragments of phonemes (sound­-shapes of your written tongue) while your right ITC parses indexical cues (bent twigs, claw marks) and iconic shapes (medicinal leaves, sharp horns)—but can you read them? why not?

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fig.48—the composite syntagmatic mark, then and ... now?

 Second: “did not invent [but] rediscovered” as the ITC “relies on a stock of geometrical shapes and simple mathematical invariants” evokes popular bones picked over whether a mathematical proof is ‘discovered’ (as a priori given) or ‘invented’ (as a posteriori datum). We shan’t expect expertise in classical rhetoric—but, on one hand, Dehaene’s “Artificial Signs and Natural Shapes” harks unawares to Cicero’s distinction of memoria ad verba from memoria ad res (artificial memory vs. natural memory); on the other hand, inventio, in the Scholastic sense, was to draw cognitions from the collective inventory inherited by our species. Insofar as “some neurons code for a black dot on a white background—an eye detector, clearly an essential device [... others, for] hand and finger shapes,” to limit ‘writing’ to recorded speech is an impoverished notion. With a few notable exceptions (logo designers, brand strategists, semioticians, campaign managers, etc.), most of us suffer from a marked illiteracy—or, to redouble Tufte’s term, we might say ‘iggraphicacy.’

© 2008-2012 Ian C Thorne. all rights reserved. about credits privacy contact share