In Paris around the year thirteen hundred,
Duns Scotus invented television;
The universal — natura communis — he sundered
To analog in a telling revision.
Refractory in his reflections on humanness,
If not in the odor of sanctity, in good aroma
He split Aquinas’ constant luminance,
Refracting life into luma and chroma.
For isn’t a living man a constant brightness
That decays slowly into an occlusion?
Haecceity’s the rapid black and whiteness —
Images formed from frequencies and illusion
Because the brain sees best extremities of gray,
And the expectant eye amplifies a slightness;
Lines resolve to a likeness palpably on display.
This scheme remains; burnt-in images persist,
Though some who have come afterward resist this
As alchemists who follow Trismegistus
Ignore the horde of colorists whose symbol is
Red-Green-Blue — the order of Tristimulus;
And they in turn claiming to construe
Original intent refute thus:
YUV: Gloria Umbra Virtutis
“Glory is virtue’s shadow” (not its hue).
Across Black Death, the century of the Plague,
And schisms as the signal faded
Among the vague, the vogues, the sordid
Isles of the wretched, rites wrecked, lights degraded,
JESUS SAVES on some debauched bodega
Shines: I am the Alpha and the Omega,
“And the Gamma,” Duns Scotus retorted.
NOTES for Students of English
“Duns Scotus on Television” contains many puns and plays on words that blend electronic and philosophical terms. For example: YUV is the standard industry abbreviation for a color television signal (Y = luma, brightness level, UV = chroma, color information). In the poem, however, it is treated as the supposed expansion of a Latin phrase from Seneca, Gloria Umbra Virtutis est — Glory is the shadow of virtue.
Other examples are:
- Comparing the difference between two portions of the television signal (one conveying individual images and the other conveying background brightness) to the difference between Duns Scotus’s concept of an “individualizing factor” that permits us to know a unique person (haecceitas) and St. Thomas Aquinas’s concept that we can know people only in general (natura communis).
- Conflating the engineering principle of Constant Luminance and theology’s Divine Illumination. Constant Luminance was a design principle for improving the compatibility of color broadcasts with older black-and-white television sets, and took advantage of the fact that human vision is more sensitive to brightness differences than to color differences. Divine Illumination meant that man could know some things only with the help of God.
- Capitalizing the physiological term “tristimulus” as if it were a Latinized proper name in accordance with medieval usage, e.g., Thomas Aquinas for Thomas of Aquin and John Duns Scotus for John Duns the Scot. Tristimulus, literally 3-color stimulus, actually refers to the basic red, green and blue color-sensing cones in the retina.
- Adding to the biblical phrase “the alpha and the omega” the television term “the gamma” — shorthand for “the gamma function” — a type of TV display correction that is compatible with enhanced human visual acuity.
The word play in the poem points to its underlying theme: That the subjectivity inherent in the human visual system was a reliable basis for the development of television, just as it is a reliable basis, according to Duns Scotus, for a rigorous vision of existence. L.G. Hertz developed this theme in an unpublished essay.