Myth and symbol slide and skid,
It’s lost for good, the fine old trail.
They don’t thrill at the sign as we once did,
Trapped as we were between the ego and the id.
A commonly-expressed sentiment, expressed in uncommonly delightful form. But is it true? Is the trail lost? And if so, is are there traces, scents worth sniffing out and following? That’s the question we Savage Readers will be asking.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
It’s said that Lévi-Strauss in fact suggested using the phrase “Pansies for Thoughts” as the title for his book in English. Shakespeare’s plays are dotted with such evocations of the folk wisdom of flowers, which have been held up as proof of the Bard’s humble origins; a Francis Bacon or an Earl of Oxford might have known the classical names of plants, but the peasants’ categories would have been beyond his mien. The meanings of flowers are documented at great length in Victorian “floriographies,” or flower languages, which elaborate the passions, attributes, and states of mind symbolized by dozens of varieties of wild and cultivated trees, shrubs, and herbs. The Ash Tree represents Grandeur, or Prudence; the Bee Orchis, Industry; the Chickweed, Rendezvous. One could compose a message to one’s beloved in the form of a bouquet—although by the time the dear one would have decoded the terms, the posie would have withered away. The floriographies all include a flower that arouses the curiosity of someone looking into traces of reading and writing throughout the culture: a flower called the Abecedary, symbolizing Volubility. The (far more common) non-floral use of the word abecedary is in connection with alphabets written out or printed and illustrated for children, a usage which dates back to the Middle Ages, and covers alphabets reproduced on hornbooks and school slates and carved into headstones. The floral meaning of abecedary isn’t documented by the Oxford English Dictionary, even though it’s in alI the floriography volumes—at least the ones I’ve checked thus far in Google Books, including the most famous one illustrated by Kate Greenaway (published in 1885; alas Kate made no illustration of the abecedary flower). The fullest explanation appears in The Language of Flowers (1835):
Volubility, Abecedary. This plant is a native of the island of Fernalus; when you chew its head, or roots, the tongue feels a stimulating sensation, that gives it a singular fluency. This plant is employed in looseing children’s tongues, whence comes its name abecedary, or children’s grass.
A flower that gives a singular fluency: that’s one for my garden, to bloom between the poppies and the morning glories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s as though in a Structuralist move the Victorian floriographers had identified the need for a Volubility flower, a necessary node in the paradigm of the flowers pertaining to the quality of comprehensive and compulsive loquacity, which they answered with a postulated blossom named (naturally enough) for the alphabet.
Yes, and no. Yes if we sheer away some of the fleece these terms have grown in the age of the internet. Because while memetics has gained popular currency in the age of LOLcats and rickrolling, it’s worth remembering that Richard Dawkins’ coinage (in The Selfish Gene, 1976) predates the full investiture of networked computing in the culture.
I’ve always been suspicious of memetics. It’s an intuitively attractive concept—and yet the meme as a functional unit is notoriously difficult to define and impossible to measure. And the concept seems too tidily fit to contemporary life as well. It’s harder to imagine memes at work in premodern or early modern cultures. But I’m realizing that it’s not a problem with memes, really, but how I see them.
If you want to track memes into the wilderness of deep history, I’d suggest taking historian Daniel Lord Smail as your guide. In his book On Deep History and the Brain, Smail explores an emerging synthesis between history and the third culture sciences like cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Smail’s perspective allows for emergent patterns and something like natural selection in cultural life without giving up on individual agency and intention.
Watch Smail braving the wilds of the alleys and courts of early modern Marseille as he tracks a simple meme, the street address. Previously, people had located themselves in urban space by making reference to landmarks, topographical features, and infrastructure (“near the bridge of the street of the Change”), or by naming the neighborhood or artisanal quarter in which they were resident (“the Cobblery” or “Bookbinder’s Row”). Street addresses seem to emerge as property transactions increased in number and importance over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s the notaries, semi-public officials who preside over property transactions, who are using them. What’s the notary’s attraction to the street address? Historians have often interpreted the rise of such features by employing a kind of conspiracy theory: in this case, notaries seek to increase their hegemony over time and space by imposing a gridlike system, cold and arbitrary, on the vernacular structure of the urban landscape. And our historical explanations are full of such conspiracies, in which classes “articulate their worldviews” or “assert themselves” by erecting some new social or cultural structure by which to overthrow the old.The trouble with conspiracy theories like these is that rarely does anyone, let alone an entire class, know what the “next thing” will actually look like. We operate on a much more intimate and immediate scale than that in daily life. According to Smail, who has patiently sifted through thousands of property sale records in European archives, there is no evidence that anyone consciously imagined the power of street addresses to increase their power in social life. But those immediate, off-the-cuff choices are the stuff of history—for they’re precisely where memes live and die. With the notaries, Smail explains, conversations about urban space were important to their livelihood.
[T]hough buyers and sellers might have this conversation several times over their lives, notaries engaged in these conversations dozens, if not hundreds, of times per year. Categories emerged naturally in this conversational field, and the notary, steward of these conversations, naturally had the greatest influence over the field’s evolution…. In these circumstances, it’s easy to appreciate how a very slight and unacknowledged preference on the part of the notaries would gradually fix it in the conversational field. One can posit an evolving form that promotes the political goals of the notaries without having to attribute any purpose or intention to the notaries themselves (my emphasis).
Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure. What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.
What do e-books look like from the vantage point of bedtime?Reading’s deep roots in our consciousness are grown during the lengthy period we spend playing with books, looking at them, and hearing them read by loving adults. The symbiosis of reading with intimate domestic scenes is in part a product of the technologies that made inexpensive, colorful books possible. And as Maryanne Wolf discusses in her thought-provoking book Proust and the Squid, this relatively late-emerging nexus of print and childhood produces much of the framework—not only the cultural, but the cognitive—that makes our culture’s particular kind of literacy. Now technologies are changing. Where is bedtime reading in all of this? It occurs to me that despite the enormous commercial importance of the children’s book market, the new e-readers aren’t really designed with such reading in mind. Certainly one can read YA novels, fantasy books, and such on a Kindle or a nook—but this hardly begins to encompass the spectrum of the book in modern childhood. Despite its name, the Kindle is no kindergarten. The possibilities are legion, and I hope designers publishers will entertain many models. The notion of a kind of Kindle for kids, a Speak &Spell-esque plastic thingie that beeps and sings, frankly horrifies me. Kids don’t need opportunities to buy digital books, or to parrot answers in exchange for Skinneresque rewards like bleeps and jingles. Kids don’t need to read their way into markets and commercials; better is the feral, recursive, ever-growing jungle of the imagination that books can make. Perhaps e-reading for kids will work best if it’s disintermediated and incorporated into interesting objects of all kinds. The kind of thing I’m thinking of is represented well by Siftables, invented by David Merrill and Jeevan Kalinithi at the MIT Media Lab. Siftables are programmable blocks with displays, which can interact with each other to build stories or songs or games. (If you haven’t seen them, check out the embedded video; they’re amazing.)
Pointing out that “the Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book,” Jason Kottke urges us to think of reading, and not shopping, as the focal activity of an e-reader. In any ideal e-reader, he argues, blogs, magazines, web sites, PDFs, and email, along with books of all kinds, would be accessible and interpenetrating.
In a discussion of single-use devices at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody suggests splitting the difference between e-readers and digital Swiss Army knives like the iPhone. “Tear down the walls between the ’separate’ functions on multi-function devices,” he writes. “It should feel like a device that has one function — just that the function is complex, multilayered, integrated.”
Carmody and Kottke remind me of one of the greatest fictional single-use devices ever:
“What is it?” asked Arthur.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s it’s job.”
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.
“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
“I’ll show you how it works,” said Ford. He snatched it from Arthur, who was still holding it as if it were a two-week-dead lark, and pulled it out of its cover.
“You press this button here, you see, and the screen lights up, giving you the index.”
A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface…. Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still, quiet, measured voice….
Fortunately for Ford Prefect, the Earth had just been destroyed by the Vogons, so he didn’t need to worry about getting a takedown notice from the Author’s Guild over the question of audio rights.
A notable, dark-horse entry in the race to create the RL version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the Wikireader. It’s a small gray-screened device with three buttons, two AAA batteries, and an SD card with the entire contents of Wikipedia loaded for browsing anywhere.
There’s something appealingly quixotic about the Wikireader. It’s less like the Hitchhiker’s Guide than one of those “20 Questions” games—more of a hardware stunt than a product with real commercial appeal. But at $99, it seems way to expensive. It should retail for something like $29 tops. And come with a towel.
In the midst of the current explosion in e-readers; as the number of iPhone apps climbs beyond one hundred thousand; as standalone devices for reading Wikipedia arrive on the scene; I begin to wonder: where are the new genres these devices should be spawning? The emergence of the cellphone novel, or keitai shosetsu, in Japan seemed like a harbinger of this sort of thing. But despite the vastly increased capacity of smartphones, and despite the new reading niches opened up by devices like the Kindle, little or no generic innovation has occurred.
It’s possible that I’m missing something—if I am, let me know. iPhone apps that offer ebooks may be the answer, but the innovation there seems one of delivery, not genre. But if I’m correct, then why the dearth of invention? Maybe it’s simply a matter of time. Genres are a species of idiom, after all; they need time to evolve. Or maybe it’s because devices like the Kindle are content silos. Or maybe it’s because the iPhone app is the literature of the future.
When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death … it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.
Tying newspapers to civic health is nothing new; anointing them the very fountains of materiality is another turn of the handle. The ties between newspapers and places can be profound, but we can have places, and a sense of the same without newspapers. San Francisco is the home of several new online writing ventures that bring sense of place alive in the context of the web; Bold Italic, one of the newest, is especially exciting. Here in Boston, Universal Hub gives sense of place a lively, webby new twist; author Stephen B. Johnson’s ambitious venture outside.in seeks to offer geospecific, hyperlocal web experiences in communities across the continent. Do any of them alone replace the newspaper? No. But to answer that question is to be not even wrong when it comes to the state of the public sphere.
It was the pride and function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could write itself into existence. We were Gutenberg Nation.
Sententious, metaphor-sprung, declaratory sentences like these epitomize the Harper’s style. They’re deeply seductive to the liberal imagination—hiding the utter nonsense that frequently lurks deep within subordinate clauses, or in this case, in the plain garb of a simple sentence. American city dwellers indeed did use the newspaper to help define their sense of place; it was but one tool, an important one, but subordinate and retroactive. Furthermore, Gutenberg Nation is an utterly meaningless epithet. Johannes Gutenberg lived a century before anything called “low church” could have existed. Furthermore, he didn’t produce newspapers, but a Bible, one designed to look and function like the manuscript Bibles of his time, only at a lower price. The merely causal connection between Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the existence of the nineteenth century American newspaper does not mean that Gutenberg somehow represents the essence of American public sphere, much less that the public sphere its natural, ideal and inevitable end result. Between the 15th and the 19th centuries, as throughout history, contingency rules. History is exactly like the future in one respect: both are but other names for “unintended consequences.” Here’s a far more useful parallel to draw: like the newspaper in the 21st century, Gutenberg went bankrupt. And yet the emergent public sphere flourished nonetheless.
I’ve heard from blogger Danny Bloom about his campaign to coin a neologism to describe the behavior we undertake when we seek to decode and comprehend text displayed on computer screens. He’s concerned that this behavior and its impact on brains is fundamentally different from “reading,” and that neuroscientists may not be paying sufficient attention to this emergent phenomenon. As Bloom himself puts it,
to search for a new word (if needed, and if useful!) is to point out the need for scholars and scientists to study the very real differences between reading on
paper and reading on screens, and not just with learned opinions and surveys, but with hard science — that is to say, MRI brain scan studies in laboratory settings and hospital rooms to study — firsthand! up close and personal! — white matter and grey matter neural pathways and try to ascertain if reading on paper surfaces lights up different parts of the brain compared to reading on a screen.
Indeed there already is a great deal of interest among neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and educators in the neurology, the biology, of reading. Researchers are using MRI and other technologies, along with tried-and-true cognitive testing, to limn the circuits that reading forges and follows in the brain. And some of these researchers are turning their interest on the question of reading v. “screening,” as Bloom says. A few links—
Jonah Lehrer, a friend of mine and a great science writer, covers this topic in a recent blog post (see his book Proust was a Neuroscientist for much more):
And Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid, subtitled The Story of Science and the Reading Brain. Wolf (who also gets space in the Times feature linked to above) is especially concerned about the neural implications of the switch from paper to screens.
Of course to say “paper to screens” is a massive simplification of the transformation that’s underway. The cognitive, cultural, and technological shift we’re experiencing goes well beyond the medium of the literal surface to embrace electronic networks, the durability of texts, the ways we experience and share them … every aspect of reading and writing. But reading is always already undergoing constant transformation. Try reading a gothic manuscript from the 14th century with its many scribal abbreviations, its exotic letterforms, its strange way of organizing and managing words on the page. It’s nearly impenetrable, even to the student of Latin. What’s the implication? In the 14th century, brains were different. They were different in the 17th, and the 19th; they were different in Greece in 600 BCE. As we’ve gone from “claying” to “papyring” to “velluming” to “papering” to “screening,” our brains have reorganized themselves—reorganizing the media as they go. But where do we locate “reading” in that history? Is there one essential point at which it all culminates? Or does the process of transformation itself represent the essence of “reading”?
New means of putting text together are also new ways of putting the brain together. But that neural plasticity is what we do as humans; that, in a word, is reading, whatever the media.
In a “Room for Debate feature at NYTimes.com called “Does the Brain Like E-Books?”, computer scientist David Gelertner praised the codex as “the best of all word-delivery vehicles,” asserting that “technologists have (as usual) decreed its disappearance without bothering to understand it.” He then goes on to limn a compelling picture of an e-book in reverse:
Many books already have such electronics on board, in the form of RFID tags worked into the binding or slipped among the pages. These tags serve the simple function of security, but also carry enough unique data to make the book identifiable by title and individual copy to networked systems. But of course much more could be done.
I assume that technology will soon start moving in the natural direction: integrating chips into books, not vice versa. I might like to make a book beep when I can’t find it, search its text online, download updates and keep an eye on reviews and discussion. This would all be easily handled by electronics worked into the binding. Such upgraded books acquire some of the bad traits of computer text — but at least, if the circuitry breaks or the battery runs out, I’ve still got a book.
With Gelertner’s post as a goad, I wonder what electronic functions would be desirable as “enhancements” to the traditional book. Twitter friend (and Infinite Summerer) @WaltPascoe imagines “walking up to any web node w/ my copy of Infinite Jest and having pertinent links firing up automatically, or maybe get a little warm when other copies are nearby! Alert(ing) me to presence of other DFW fanatics.” What else could be done? Could little piezoelectric sensors be incorporated in the binding to furnish a digital “bookmark”? Would it be useful to store the resulting data somewhere to track how quickly you read the book? How could the digitized text of a bound book be linked to/accessed/interacted with, within the confines of the codex, to enhance the reading experience?
The steampunk e-book! Please comment with suggestions (or tweet me, @mbattles).
The old fashioned novel is really dead, and nothing can revive it nor make anybody care for it again. What is to follow it?…A clever German who is here suggested to me last night that the literature of the future might turn out to be the daily exchange of ideas of men of genius—over the everlasting telephone of course - published every morning for the whole world….
There are a couple of ways to look at this rich quote. In the first, Crawford’s vision is prophetic, if hasty. The nascent, steampunk, fin-de-siècle telephone network took a century to evolve into an internet. The struggle now is to comprehend and accommodate a daily exchange of ideas not among “men of genius,” but among everyone with a connection. But another way to spin this is to recognize the apocalyptic mode for what it is: not a harbinger, but a self-renewing mode of modern consciousness. The telephone didn’t kill the novel; neither did radio, television, or rock ‘n’ roll. Yesterday, Barnes and Noble has announced that its own ebook reader, the nook, will connect using the AT&T wireless network—the evanescent digitized great-grandchild of Ma Bell (who was still in utero in Crawford and Gardner’s time). I like to think the two perspectives aren’t contradictory. Eras end, media grow old, new modes of consciousness emerge. And so human life is enriched.
More mind-tickling calligraphy via the marvelous Ministry of Type: this the work of Capetown letterer Andrew van der Merwe, whose medium is beach sand.
Van der Merwe spent several years developing tools to incise letterforms in sand without leaving the ragged ridges and dikes that are familiar to anyone who’s dragged a stick along the beach. Merwe’s instruments carve v-shaped trenches, causing an effect like that of classical Roman letters in stone. But Merwe’s characters aren’t Roman in origin—in the work pictured here, they’re based on figures found in West African writing systems with ancient pedigrees (which I shall be revisiting) dating back to the Phoenician. Van der Merwe’s characters, however, are asemic—they don’t refer to speech sounds, but only “play with form.” The piece illustrated above and below is sixteen meters square.
Recommended: Van der Merwe’s portfolio, where you can see him turn this practice to commercial use in another lovely piece that plays with sans serif letters, light, and the tides.
While van der Merwe’s calligraphy is unique, it plays with atavistic and ephemeral form, something akin to doodling, mark-making behavior barely worthy of notice. And yet I want to hypothesize that the origins of writing itself are bound up in the play of sticks and sand. Cuneiform, after all, was made by dragging specially-formed styluses through clay. Surely people made designs in sand and mud for thousands of years before durable writing emerged, playing with form and meaning.
In the 1990s, a development program called “Reflect” sought to bring some of the benefits of literacy to people in rural communities in Asia and Africa. Aid workers would bring farmers and traders, husbands and wive together in dusty town centers, where they would draw simple charts in the sand to outline their work schedules, their supplies, and their crops. Populating their charts with abstract, metonymic symbols for corn and rice, for wood-carrying and cooking, they could make the patterns of their lives visible—and then they could revise and play with alternatives. Although we think of writing as private and durable, the texts of the Reflect program were communal and ephemeral—and perhaps this is something like writing’s original condition.
To Freud, typical writing media like the paper notepad and the slate offered imperfect versions of memory: either they are too finite and fixed (as in the former case) or too ephemeral (the latter). Conventional writing fell short as a “materialized porton of (the) mnemic apparatus”; “an unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces,” he wrote, “seem to be mutually exclusive properties in the apparatus which we use as substitutes for our memory: either the receptive surface must be renewed or the note must be destroyed.”
Freud observes that while other technologies for extension of the senses—ear trumpets, spectacles, cameras—are models of the sense organs themselves, writing “seem(s) imperfect, since our mental apparatus accomplishes precisely what they cannot: it has unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down permanent—even though not unalterable—memory-traces of them.”
While most writing media make for very imperfect virtual memory systems, Freud found a more suggestive example in the so-called “mystic writing pad,” versions of which are still sold in drug stores and toy stores for the use of children. Modern examples consist of a wax-covered card with a two-layered plastic overlay attached at the top edge. Using a stylus, one writes upon the plastic overlay, pressing it into the dark wax, which shows through as a mark on the lower translucent plastic overlay. A clear sheet of plastic atop this layer protects the lower overlay (which in Freud’s time was wax paper) from permanent inscription. By peeling these overlays from the wax one “erases” these marks, as it were magically.
In the short essay “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad,’” quoted throughout this post, Freud explores the erasable wax tablet as a near-perfect illustration of his idea of the links between perception and memory. Perceptions arrive, making contact with the substrates of memory and the unconscious; their traces last awhile, until the outer surface is swept clean. Atop it all, a clear layer seeks to protect the fragile ego (I mean the plastic) from indelible damage by limiting the force of impressions intruding from the outside world. And yet a trace always remains—beneath the superficial layers, down in the dark wax, the traces of remembered inscriptions mingle indelibly.
If only Freud had lived to experience the Etch-a-sketch! Its ungainly mechanism seems more suggestive of our labored grasp of reality—and its mechanism of forgetting, akin to suppressed memory, is effectuated with the trauma of a vigorous upside-down shake. Or consider the Auquadoodle: a tablet impregnated with “hydrochromatic ink” which turns color with the application of water by brush or pen, only to fade back to a blank slate as the water evaporates—just as memory itself slips implacably as the once-indelible marks give way to dessication and senescence.
The title of Freud’s essay is punning—read wrong, it makes it sound as if he composed his work upon the very “Wunderblock” he describes. Like writing on the mystic pad, Freud’s theories have largely been peeled away from the surface discourse—and yet they remain impressed into the dark, sticky stuff of the collective unconscious, where they’ve taken up residence among an uneasy palimpsest of gods, mythology, and the constellations. The bright lines have faded, but the grooves remain.