I learnt about Cadmus from reading McLuhan – was he onto it! Here is a snippet from a small potent piece about the Greek god of the alphabet (and hence, eventually, the Internet!). This is from a site, Mots pluriels “a refereed electronic and international journal open to literary-minded scholars wishing to share their points of view on important contemporary world issues.” I can’t find the context or the author of this item.
The alphabet is a magic technology. These dragon’s teeth/letters contain the magic of fertility and trans-substantiation. Teeth/letters grow magically into soldiers. The alphabet, as we see again when we reread the story of Moses in the court of Pharaoh, unleashes a new power in its users to convert one thing into another. The secret lies in the alphabet’s magic ability of abstraction. This can become that because more information can be held more compactly and meaningfully in the head, and manipulated mentally. Pictographic writing is either literal – this is this – or else it is iconic: this stands for that (and only that). The alphabet endows its user with a mental plasticity that is impossible for pictography. Letters signal hidden connections and correspondences, tracing the roots of meaning that lie beneath the surface of language. To illiterates or to cultures still using pictography, the alphabet fulfills Clarke’s Law: it must seem like a form of sorcery for the powers, the grammar and glamour, it grants to those who commandeer it.
Another snippet – variation – on the Cadmus story, DRAGONSTEETH
When Jason sows the dragon’s teeth, each tooth transforms into a fierce warrior. But Jason, by magic, kills all of them and claims the golden fleece.
The myth goes on from there, but our concern is with the sgnificance of the dragon’s teeth. The dragonteeth-become-warriors represent the letters of the alphabet (also credited to the legendary Cadmus). Why warriors? Because the invention of writing made possible extending communication to aid long-distance strategy in warfare. A strategic leader would send a long-distance runner to a tactical leader in the field. The illiterate runner might be able to remember many details (illiterates often compensate thus), but within serious limits. An illiterate messenger bearing a long, written scroll could transmit extensive military orders to a field commander. Thus was the city-state extended to the empire — BY THE ALPHABET!
This is from John Hays – and is the thesis I have understood as coming from Harold Innis.