Grammar: Collecting Texts, Making Links, Teaching Content

The grammarians of antiquity, the middle ages, and the early modern period functioned analogously to contemporary linguists, historians, literary scholars, and anthologizers. They were the teachers, collectors, sorters, and sifters of knowledge, but without contemporary disciplinary divisions shaping their methodology or final collections. McLuhan (2006) starts his definition of grammar and grammarians with French Classicist Henri Marrou’s Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique and the observation that ancient grammar was “an important basis of scientific method, both during antiquity and continuously throughout the medieval times” (p. 15). The study of grammar in antiquity to the middle ages meant the study of the “book of nature”; it meant “the allegorical exegesis of natural phenomena, as well as of folk myths and even the works of Homer and Hesiod” (p. 16-17). The grammatical methods persisted in science as long as alchemy did (p. 17); after being displaced by the mathematical logic of Descartes and modern science, the grammatical returned in the 20th century, more commonly referred to among contemporary scholars as “the linguistic turn,” but noted by McLuhan in 1943 as the “re-establish[ment of] grammar . . . (in the old sense)” in anthropology and psychology (p. 17).

McLuhan (2006) does not make sharp distinctions between individuals as grammarians or rhetoricians, arguing instead that the rhetoricians, either through their own historical, literary, and/or linguistic studies, or by drawing on the existing work of the grammarians, achieve “eloquent wisdom” through an encyclopedic knowledge made possible by the work of grammarians (p. 88). Cicero’s promotion of widespread literacy, Francis Bacon’s Nuvom Organon, and Vico’s Science Nuova stand out as prominent projects in the grammatical tradition. However, McLuhan notes that the less prominent and public work of missionaries teaching religious texts, Latin, and grammatical exegesis throughout the middle ages defined the continuity of the grammatical tradition from the early Christian era to Bacon (p. 146). According to McLuhan, the grammarians’ work continued to flourish during the Carolingian renaissance, and was not significantly challenged until the re-discovery of Aristotle via the Crusades in the 10th century, the re-emergence of dialectic, and the founding of universities in the 12th century (p. 162). It is the teaching, collecting, shaping, and preserving functions that we want to retrieve from the grammarians of antiquity through the middle ages, recognizing that the contemporary grammarians have been secularized and are more likely to do the work of writing histories, collecting anthologies, and building databases.

McLuhan’s scholarship, especially Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Laws of Media (1988) are 20th century examples of new media grammatical scholarship, with Understanding Media attempting to provide an encyclopedic account of media from alphabets to roads and television (and 23 other media), and The Laws of Media providing a grammatical method of exegesis: the tetradic analysis. Bolter and Grusin’s (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media follows in this encyclopedic tradition, although less wide-ranging and more fully a blending of some dialectical, analytical strategies with their larger, grammatical project. The five principles of new media identified in Lev Manovich’s (2002) The Language of New Media—problematic for those with dialectical and rhetorical preferences—is exactly the kind of analysis and development of “eloquent wisdom” that McLuhan would identify as a grammatical. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s (1996) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design identifies its grammatical bias right in the title. Donna Haraway’s (1997) deft synthesis of Doonesbury cartoons, magazine ads, the Patent Act of 1952, and Lynn Randolf’s paintings (to name only a few of the many linkages she establishes) exemplifies contemporary grammatical scholarship. She even began the book with a chapter entitled “The Grammar of Feminism and Technoscience.” Haraway’s centrifugal attempts to collect diffuse materials and connect them without erasing the situated “I” distinguishes her efforts from the dialecticians who attempt to collect and then erase distinctions through abstraction.

Despite the success and widespread influence of scholars like Manovich and Kress and Van Leeuen, according to the (2006) survey results of multimodal researchers and teachers reported by Cheryl Ball, the modern grammatical component of the trivium seems the most threatened or marginalized of the three. Rhetoricians often find these texts disappointingly a-rhetorical and dialecticians find their eloquent constructs problematic or reductive, and remain understandably vigilant against canonization of new media texts. Educational trends away from content and towards critical thinking skills and communication skills short-change the content-focused, encyclopedic tendencies of grammarians. In our own curriculum at North Dakota State University, students encounter grammarians like McLuhan, Bolter and Grusin, Kress and van Leeuwen primarily in advanced undergraduate courses, or Manovich and Haraway in graduate courses. They encounter these eloquent, synthesizing texts without having significantly encountered the new and old media these grammarians draw on. The anthologies students might encounter in first- and second-year courses, like the New Media Reader (Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort, 2003), Writing Material (Tribble & Trubek, 2002) and Multimedia from Wagner to Virtual Reality (Packer & Jordan 2001) are still print-based texts, with writings about multimedia and new media, rather than the primary texts of new media. While there are other wonderful grammarian projects to undertake, we would like to speculate on one possible new media anthology shaped by the grammatical tradition of the classical trivium, and then speculate on the ways in which 21st century students can engage in modern grammatical scholarship.

The contemporary scholar-as-grammarian would do well to take as his or her field of study a broad range of media, and work closely with the primary products of late 19th and 20th century media. The New Media Reader has come closest to doing so, including both print and multimedia texts—in the broadest sense—starting with the experimental fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” through experimental hypertext fiction and poetry, technological and artistic manifestos, video games and video art, and a number of scholarly reflections on new media. Despite the more expansive notion of collecting and sifting—with its more catholic perspective of what belongs in a "Reader", the New Media Reader still contains and ameliorates/demediates many of these multimedia eruptions within many of the conventions of the codex book. The Reader is arranged in a chronological linearity and includes the multimedia elements in an attached compact disc at the back of the book. The accompanying website is still primarily a brochure, with only snippets of text. What we envision is a more expansive, and even more digital “reader” or anthology, sketching a technological, social, and expressive history from the invention of photography and film, through to the growth of mass media and the emergence of guerrilla, viral, and personal media. The scholar and student of new media needs to take on the challenging encyclopedic tradition of the trivium’s grammarians, understanding the relationship between art, advertising, Hollywood film and home video. The grammarian of the 21st century might explore and establish links among Marcel Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan, the advertising industry, Nam June Paik, Cindy Sherman, MTV, Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, and Maya Lin. This anthology or collection is one that we might try to build together, online, as the encyclopedic work of the 21st century seems most likely to be a collective endeavor, a building of greater collective consciousness even in the face of history’s erasure. This anthology is certainly one we can build with our students, rather than for them.

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