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The Political Power of Writing

Publié le 1 février, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The written word has often been criticized as an asocial medium. However, recent actions of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah are an example of the political power of writing and suggest that writing can be a salient and influential communicative medium. In light of this recent event, Marshall McLuhan’s seminal criticism of writing as inherently isolating and apolitical demands a re-evaluation, one that recognizes the medium’s potential to inspire thought, dialogue, and political action.

Bill S., Comprehend, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah recently pardoned a young woman sentenced to receive 200 lashes for being alone with a man. The woman in question, initially arrested in November 2006, received official pardon on 17 December 2007 largely due to the influence of public opinion. Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, declared in an interview that this was good news because it also showed the strength of global public opinion. Stein remarked that the pardon in part resulted from public outcry from the international community via a flood of e-mail and online petitions demanding leniency for the accused 1. The Justice Minister of Saudi Arabia declared that King Abdullah was acting in the “interests of the people”2. In other words, public opinion influenced the King, and the electronic medium gave global citizens the power to communicate worldwide, providing the opportunity to advocate for domestic political change in other countries.

This demonstrates the persuasive power of writing: it conveys information in a manner that challenges how we normally think and act. The long-standing criticism of the medium of writing, best exemplified by the works of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, seems – in one way or another – to all relate back to the idea that writing is an inauthentic form of human communication that limits human interaction. These critiques are meant to expose the potential dangers of writing as a medium, but they also inadvertently work to shed light on the potential power of the written word. Examining McLuhan’s criticism of writing and privileging of speech provides the opportunity for a re-interpretation of writing as a powerful medium that promotes conversation, interaction and political action.

Writing: A Stagnant Medium?

McLuhan, whose most influential work dates from the 1960s, believes the medium essential to how the message is communicated. Showing incredible foresight into the effects of technology and globalization on the way we communicate, McLuhan’s thoughts on writing and the phrase he coined, the ‘global village’, make him an interesting counterpoint to the power of writing, especially in the electronic form. In an introduction to Harold Innis’ Bias of Communication, he sees speaking as an interface, or chemical reaction, and the reading/writing process as stagnant3. McLuhan asserts that speech and dialogue create this interface where a dynamic interplay of ideas occurs between two or more people.

However, what he overlooks in this assessment is that reading also enables dialogue with the self, or what Plato calls “thinking”4. Reading therefore cannot be considered stagnant if it stimulates reflexive action and self-dialogue. Where this reflexive action becomes important to this discussion is in the resulting potential for dialogue with others. If thinking provides the possibility for dialogue with others, then what inspires thinking also introduces the possibility for interaction. Writing, as inspiring thought, thus has the power to present new ideas. This potential saves it from becoming that stagnant medium McLuhan believes it to be.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan also discusses the evolution of a distinctly political element to typography, which can further exacerbate writing’s tendency to be potentially isolating. He writes unflatteringly about print as changing the nature of society itself: “The tribe, an extended form of a family of blood relatives, is exploded by print, and is replaced by an association of men homogeneously trained to be individuals.” He later explains that typography gave man the “… power to act without reaction or involvement”5. McLuhan refers to two different groups in these passages: first, to the reader, and second, the writer. Simply put, reading print ideologically homogenizes its readers; writing allows for a passive form of political action in creating these ideologies.

Writing Redeemed

Though at first blush McLuhan’s discussion seems hardly complimentary of writing, what he believes to be its isolating characteristics can similarly be considered as its assets. The writing that ‘trains men to be individuals’ is dangerous. Indeed, if those men remain asocial and isolated in their experience of the written word. However, what McLuhan assumes to be the uniquely homogenizing effect of writing can in fact be seen as unifying. Writing, as the precursor to speech and dialogue with others, has the power to bring individuals together to discuss their individual interpretations of what is written. As Gadamer writes: “Thanks to the verbal nature of all interpretation, every interpretation includes the possibility of a relationship with others6”. What McLuhan sees as the downfall of writing—in that it individualizes–becomes powerful when seen as its potential to bring individuals together.

Seen in the light of modern technology, electronic writing provides a new venue for political action, not a compromised one. McLuhan’s critique assumes that only an interactive, dynamic medium allows for action. However, seeing writing as a precursor to this interaction, as well as a medium that allows for an internalization of its ideas, ultimately redeems writing. Electronic writings like e-mail, websites and blogs make information readily accessible to individuals and provide an opportunity for powerful political action. It is not a given that writing alone will provoke a response, but the increased accessibility of information via the written word provides readers with a crucial choice, and the resultant responsibility to decide between action and inaction. King Adbullah’s pardon shows the effect of this supposedly stagnant medium and confirms the potential for politically powerful writing.

Seeing the relationship of writing to thought, speech and action provides a way to recuperate the nature and potential of the written word. It was writing that influenced the King of Saudi Arabia to pardon a woman who otherwise would have suffered a terrible fate. This power begs us to ask the question: will readers allow the written word to make them think, talk and act, or will they become passive recipients of the ideas? What are the factors that influence the former over the latter? Understanding and unlocking the potential of writing requires awareness of the choice and potential that ultimately rests with the reader.


1. “Saudi king ‘pardons rape victim’”, BBC News Online, 17 December 2007, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7147632.stm> ; CBC Radio, The Sunday Edition, 30 December 2007, <http://www.cbc.ca/radioshows/THE_SUNDAY_EDITION/20071230.shtml>
2. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22293189/>
3. H. A. Innis, The bias of communication, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1964: Introduction, viii.
4. Plato, Sophist, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, 1993: 264a.
5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding media: The extensions of man, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Publishing, 1965: 177-178.
6. H. G. Gadamer, Truth and method, New York, The Crossroad Publishing Corporation, 1989: 397.

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