For example, if I know that in America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.
I started working with a French company in America, and they were trying to sell French cheese to the Americans. And they didn’t understand, because in France the cheese is alive, which means that you can buy it young, mature or old, and that’s why you have to read the age of the cheese when you go to buy the cheese. So you smell, you touch, you poke. If you need cheese for today, you want to buy a mature cheese. If you want cheese for next week, you buy a young cheese. And when you buy young cheese for next week, you go home, [but] you never put the cheese in the refrigerator, because you don’t put your cat in the refrigerator. It’s the same; it’s alive. We are very afraid of getting sick with cheese. By the way, more French people die eating cheese than Americans die. But the priority is different; the logic of emotion is different. The French like the taste before safety. Americans want safety before the taste.
“It is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals—full though it may be of beauty. We feel a rubicon has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves. We doubt the decency of our own inventions, and are certainly in terror of their possibilities. That our culture has accelerated every line of advance into the territory of physical science is well appreciated—but not so well understood are the unforeseen, subsidiary effects of this achievement. We stroke cats, pluck flowers, tie ribands, assist at the manual acts of religion, make some kind of love, write poems, paint pictures, are generally at one with that creaturely world inherited from our remote beginnings…. We who are of the same world of sense with hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognise these creatures of chemical effusions as true extrusions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a true native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old—candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands, and Swords, to choose at random.”—From the Preface to In Parenthesis (1937), by poet and artist David Jones (1895-1974). Thanks to @andreshax for pointing me in the direction of this singular and arresting work.
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.
With the news that Claude Lévi-Strauss died three days ago at the age of 100, I’ve been following a minor detail down the rabbit hole of translation and primitive categories. As is often remarked, the title of Lévi-Strauss’s most famous book, The Savage Mind, is a bit funny in the original French: La Pensée Sauvage, which also may be translated as “The Wild Pansy.” We might chalk this up to the fuzziness of cognates in translation, but there is more at work. As Lévi-Strauss knew, there is an traditional, likely ancient folk association between pansies and thought. After Hamlet’s driven Ophelia away, she appears before Laertes mumbling strains from an old ballad (Act IV, Scene 5):
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.
Memes are things that go viral, right? And their native habitat is the web, right?
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.
print on demand ii: reverse engineering the pictorial webster's
Feast your eyes on some bibliomachy: John Carrera of the Quercus Press in Waltham, Massachusetts—and a host of friends—build a fresh edition of the classic Webster’s Pictorial Dictionary. It’s moving to watch the book embodied in this way—and staggering to realize that these crafts, exhibited here by artisans of such painstakingly high caliber, once were practiced at industrial scale.
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.)
Maryanne Wolf worries that whatever comes next in reading won’t offer the same cognitive development as the book has given us in the modern era. Siftables are just one example of the beginnings of a solution. Of course, Siftables aren’t books (although I’m sure you’ll agree, the possibilties of a Siftables edition of Goodnight Moon, or Where the Wild Things Are, or some altogether new kind of children’s storybook experience, are pretty spectacular). But they seem to offer one way to offer a meditative, deeply immersive play with words, stories, and ideas that looks a lot like childhood reading. And failing that, or in addition to it, there’s nothing should keep us from lowering the lights and pulling out a battered copy of Where the Wild Things Are. With
My favorite bookshop, Harvard Book Store, earlier this month installed an espresso print-on-demand machine. I’ve been for a visit, but haven’t cooked up anything to print on it. Yet. A post on Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG gives notice of Pike Loop, an exhibition at Manhattan’s Storefront for Art and Architecture that features a truck-mounted robotic arm building an elegant, undulating brick wall. And it reminded me of an art installation I’ve dreamed of: a team of robotic arms printing a book using letterpress techniques—setting type, running the press, folding signatures, and sewing a fine bound book. How’s that for print on demand? If anyone has access to industrial robots idled by the economic downturn, who’d like to learn the craft of fine press, let me know.
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.
"There was a quiet to the room, a hush. And then there it was." The trailer for the Norton publication of Jung’s Red Book features the scanning of the volume.
The Red Book’s publication is a remarkable case of synchronicity. In the midst of the agonies of the lettered culture, with the fortunes of the physical book falling, along comes a codex that demonstrates the glorious possibilities of the form. It’s hard to imagine the process by which Jung excoriated and remade himself embodied so thoroughly in any other medium, analog or digital. Surrounded by its worshipful coterie, Jung’s tome here appears not as merely one special book, but the last. Bathed in light, its scanning approximates a ritual apotheosis of the book.
the lugubrious middlebrow & the agony of the newspaper
In the 20th century, middlebrow celebrated its interests as timeless and universal values. With those interests under fresh assault, it now paints their demise as signal of the End Time. Call it the middlebrow apocalyptic mode.I’m reading “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper,” Richard Rodriguez’s piece in the current Harper’s. A couple of passages provoke me to reply:
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:
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.
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.
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). — m@
My friend Kristin Parker is the archivist for Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Recently she shared this snippet of a letter Gardner received from novelist F. Marion Crawford, August 23, 1896:
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.
“If we consider the occasions on which the Iliad-poet himself appeals to the Muses for help, we shall see that it falls on the side of content and not of form. Always he asks the muses what he is to say, never how he is to say it; and the matter he asks for is always factual. Several times he requests information about important battles; once, in his most elaborate invocation, he begs to be inspired with an Army List—”for you are goddesses, watching all things, knowing all things; but we have only hearsay and knowledge.” These wistful words have the ring of sincerity; the man who first used them knew the fallibility of tradition and was troubled by it; he wanted first-hand evidence. But in an age which possessed no written documents, where should first-hand evidence be found? Just as the truth about the future would be attained only if man were in touch with a knowledge wider than his own, so the truth about the past could be preserved only on a like condition. Its human repositories, the poets had (like the seers) only their technical resources, their professional training; but vision of the past, like insight into the future remained a mysterious faculty, only partially under its owner’s control, and dependent in the last resort on divine grace. By that grace poet and seer alike enjoyed a knowledge denied to other men.”—E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, pp. 80–1. Dodds shows us that the urge of the letter is primordial: a retrospective hunger that is twin to prospect. Like the rationalism that was its supposed daughter, the urge to write and read was driven as much by a lively and mystical religious imagination as it was by cool, tabular calculation.
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.
"Now, if you read this line, remember not / The hand that writ it…." Sonnet 71 is traditionally understood as defining the zenith—or the nadir—of the recklessly selfless path Shakespeare’s speaker charts throughout the cycle. Here he importunes the beloved to forget him when he’s gone, warning that their association will only cause him trouble with the “wise world” (it had also been “vile”) which, he fears, will “mock you with me when I’m gone.” Many critics have found what Helen Vendler terms the “overmastering passion” of the sonnets here edging into hyperbole, too fierce and self-consuming.
But there is another trope being played here; Shakespeare is also ruminating on the durability of writing and the evanescence of the lifeworld.
The connections between writing and death are ancient and powerful. In myth the Greeks received the alphabet from the Phoenician prince Cadmus, reputed founder of Thebes in the Mycenaean age. According to myth, Cadmus’s army was slaughtered by a dragon; Cadmus slayed the dragon, and following Athena’s instructions, sowed its teeth in a field. From them sprang up a troop of armed men to replace the lost army. The mythical formulation linked those dragon’s teeth and the letters of the alphabet—who as zombie-like drones serve the spirit of language tirelessly and with perfect skill.
Socrates would draw the connection between writing and the dead, describing letters as dead forms that cannot speak their own words, but only endlessly repeat those of their authors. And in China, the literate understood the connection writing granted them with the dead—the ancestors—to be intimate and profound, even to the point of describing letters (which in ancient China were first inscribed on bones) as skeletons of the departed.
Of course, Shakespeare isn’t riffing on Chinese notions of death and letters. But he is recognizing the powerful—the uncanny—power over death of the medium he mastered. His speaker’s self-abnegation is forcible; not only does he wish his existence to be forgotten, but that all connection with his written traces to be erased. Writing endures; true erasure is a task only the mind and heart may accomplish. Sonnet 71 damns the speaker to oblivion—or rather to occlusion, but not utter perdition. For the poem shall live. The beloved—who even now spurns the graying speaker—may moan in his absence. It’s that moan which the wise world shall judge; the poem will endure unblemished.
Writing is durable in its evanescence. This is one of the observations made by John Donne, who follows Shakespeare in limning writing’s capacity for documenting lives beyond their compass. His is a rich and strange valediction, for in scratching his name in his beloved’s window, he leavess a palimpsest which shall mark and transform every subsequent relation. Memory in Donne’s poem, like writing, is a kind of enduring ephemerality. His diamond-etched name give firmness to glass by troubling its transparency. Thinking of the fickle reflectivity of clear glass, he imagines his beloved seeing her own visage complicated by the presence of his name: “Here you see me, and I am you.” Beyond existential consideration, however, Donne wishes her simply to remember—and as with the ancient Chinese, the “ruinous anatomy” of his “ragged and bony name” serves as a literate memento mori.
But for Donne, writing’s power outstrips mere reminder; lodged in his beloved’s consciousness, the written name becomes transubstantial. “Emparadised” in her, the written characters are like to the scattered bits of his remains which rapture will “recompact” when the dead awaken at the end of all things. The written name forces open the window and refenstrates the soul, which like a swallow or a memory returns with the seasons. And when it flies again, the written name will stand in its stead to efface the new lover’s name, an a priori correction: “So, in forgetting thou rememb’rest right, / And unaware to me shalt write.”
No longer mourn for me when I am dead Than you hall hear the surly sullen bell Give warning to the world that I am fled From this vile world with vildest worms to dwell; Nay, if you read this line, remember not The hand that writ it, for I love you so, That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot, If thinking on me then should make you woe. O if (I say) you look upon this verse, When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay, Do not so much as my poor name rehearse, But let your love even with my life decay, Lest the wise world should look into your moan, And mock you with me after I am gone.
MY name engraved herein Doth contribute my firmness to this glass, Which ever since that charm hath been As hard, as that which graved it was; Thine eye will give it price enough, to mock The diamonds of either rock.
'Tis much that glass should be As all-confessing, and through-shine as I; ‘Tis more that it shows thee to thee, And clear reflects thee to thine eye. But all such rules love’s magic can undo; Here you see me, and I am you.
As no one point, nor dash, Which are but accessories to this name, The showers and tempests can outwash So shall all times find me the same; You this entireness better may fulfill, Who have the pattern with you still.
Or if too hard and deep This learning be, for a scratch’d name to teach, It as a given death’s head keep, Lovers’ mortality to preach; Or think this ragged bony name to be My ruinous anatomy.
Then, as all my souls be Emparadised in you—in whom alone I understand, and grow, and see— The rafters of my body, bone, Being still with you, the muscle, sinew, and vein Which tile this house, will come again.
Till my return repair And recompact my scatter’d body so, As all the virtuous powers which are Fix`d in the stars are said to flow Into such characters as gravèd be When these stars have supremacy.
So since this name was cut, When love and grief their exaltation had, No door ‘gainst this name’s influence shut. As much more loving, as more sad, 'Twill make thee; and thou shouldst, till I return, Since I die daily, daily mourn.
When thy inconsiderate hand Flings open this casement, with my trembling name, To look on one, whose wit or land New battery to thy heart may frame, Then think this name alive, and that thou thus In it offend’st my Genius.
And when thy melted maid, Corrupted by thy lover’s gold and page, His letter at thy pillow hath laid, Disputed it, and tamed thy rage, And thou begin’st to thaw towards him, for this, May my name step in, and hide his.
And if this treason go To an overt act and that thou write again, In superscribing, this name flow Into thy fancy from the pane; So, in forgetting thou rememb’rest right, And unaware to me shalt write.
But glass and lines must be No means our firm substantial love to keep; Near death inflicts this lethargy, And this I murmur in my sleep; Inpute this idle talk, to that I go, For dying men talk often so.
Commonly attributed to John Locke, the concept of the mind as a tabula rasa, a ”blank slate” as a description of the human mind before it receives the imprint of experience, is deeply rooted in scribal culture. Perhaps it was first articulated by Aristotle in the de Anima where he describes the originary mind as an “uninscribed tablet.” But tabula rasa in fact means an erased or scraped tablet—a clear reference to the wax tablets that were a major writing medium from Aristotle’s time to not long before Locke’s. It’s an image strikingly different from the “white paper” of Locke. Unlike the blank page, wax tablets are not imprinted, but incised with a metal stylus—and they can be rubbed out and reused. They’re not only blank, they’re malleable, adaptable, reusable. As an image of mind it is more amenable to Plato’s theory that the psyche existed in some perfect state before birth, and was somehow scraped clean of its scripture by passage into existence. For Plato, the pursuit of wisdom consists in reading the palimpsests of our scraped tablets, holding them in raking light to discern the ghostly shapes of the characters originally inscribed upon them.
What is Writing? Remembering and Adapting, Nurture and Nature
Describing the work of his colleague L. S. Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist A. R. Luria offered this formula: “the young child thinks by remembering, an adolescent remembers by thinking." (Cognitive Development, p. 11).
Luria and Vygotsky championed a “materialist” approach to psychology, one at least formally in line with Marxist doctrine: consciousness in humans is shaped not primarily by the primordial traits selected by evolution, but by the vicissitudes of social change. Our minds are nurtured by history, Luria says—in fact what we call “history” may be seen as an adaptation that evolved in humans to front the challenges of nature. If by history we mean more than the written record, but instead embrace consciousness, experience, and identity with the term. History, perhaps, is simply another word for human nature.
But as the quote above hints, Luria and Vygotsky didn’t eschew the developmental biology of the brain. The meeting point of nature and nurture is no either/or fault line, but an intertidal zone in which uniquely hardy and adaptable forms survive.
What has this got to do with writing? Not only the limits of writing systems, but the nearly-endless variety that flourishes within those limits, is nurtured by our nature. The coterie of sensory, perceptual, and cognitive traits that accompanies consciousness—traits formed and forged by natural selection—set the table for the efflorescence of the whole range of graphic, narrative, enumerative, ordinating behaviors we call writing.
Writing is often taken as the root-system of history, at least in its grammar-school definition. History, we typically teach, begins when we start writing things down. Before that, it’s all prehistory. Of course, any historian knows that history is more troubled and complex than that; the written record is full of holes, cæsura and palimpsests; even (and especially) what is recorded can deceive and mislead; writing only effaces the absence of times past. Like everything else in nature, knowledge doesn’t accumulate; it evolves.
I’m getting started on the relationship between writing and gesture. Like everything, it offers circles within circles, from the most subtle and intimate movements of the body to questions of expressiveness, deportment, carriage, moral fortitude, and social responsibility.
Like writing and speech, the magisterium of gesture is vast and diverse. We shake and flutter, grasp and wave, and the effects of those movements ripple with instantaneous impact throughout our social sphere. Both reason and intuition lead us to the notion that many movements of the body have natural, hardwired, primordial meanings—and yet cultural history provides ample evidence that even seemingly basic and instinctual gestures (nodding and shaking the head, slapping the thigh) partake of an essential arbitrariness. Like the sounds of speech, the gesticulatory stream is continuous and infinitely divisible. This aspect of gesture is taken as fact by linguists who accept deaf sign systems as natural languages, in which human minds have formed the plastic clay of bodily movement into flowers of meaning, evanescent and yet reproducibly precise.
But as with speech, gesture invites not only the multiplying of meaning, but of social distinction as well; its freedom-making capacities also breed division. The territory of gesture is readily carved up into cantons and commons, exclusive precincts and duty-free zones. In the West, for instance, there is an implicit distinction between gesture and gesticulation. The gesture (rude ones notwithstanding) is polite, domesticated, at once comprehensive and chastely subordinate to language. Gesticulation, by contrast, is manual noise, the nervous habit of the incoherent.
Norbert Elias concluded that control of the body was part of the “civilizing process,” and that austerity of gesture was so to speak a handmaiden of technological and cultural sophistication. Writing furthermore has been compared to gesture; it might be said that writing is frozen gesture in much the same way that architecture is frozen music. Following Elias, we might conclude that writing consists of a channeling or domesticating of the gestural impulse. And as northern cultures sought to restrict or repress gesticulation (a move discussed in the marvelous book A Cultural History of the Gesture), they sought to pare away aspects of communication rooted in the corporeal, organic lifeworld of the spoken word—in a sense, making even speech more like the austere, angular, and rationalized written language.
But I’m resistant to such rigid, teleological explanations. Certainly writing partakes of some of the possibilities of gesture. The arabesques of calligraphy, the variety of weights and spacings available to the typographer, all seem resonant with the emphatic, framing power of gesture. And writing’s origins in the graphic impulse—the drive to mark and inscribe pattern, to create visible and durable sub-worlds of significance—likely indicate some primordial move towards making gestures visible and durable. Humans seem compelled to animate the inanimate and to freeze the fleeting—desires that likely originate in the predatory impulse, but which make a foundation for religion and art as well. There’s no necessary movement towards, or away from, gesture and gesticulation—no movement that’s inscribed in genes or prescribed by the angel of history. It’s proliferative, a flourishing of the signifying drive that precedes and pervades meaning.
Gesture’s magisterium is shaped by circles beyond these. Roland Barthes called a writer’s work his or her “essential gesture as a social being.” There is here the implicit notion that in whatever work one does, as a social being one presents oneself—carries oneself—into the company of others. By doing work we throw ourselves into life, to borrow a notion from Heidegger—we recapitulate the “throwing-in” that characterizes our very arrival in the world, an arrival that reorients and recreates everything. This is why work is world-making—a sub-creative power made visible in the writing of stories, in the making of verbal inventions.
But if streams of sound, symbol, and gesture are equally pregnant with possibility, the vessels into which they flow, the channels and canyons they cut, are hardly congruent and symmetrical. Considering Barthes’s assertion, Nadine Gordimer observed that the gestures demanded of one set of writers will vary from those demanded of others. Some may gesticulate with abandon; others risk all to do so. “Ours is a period,” she asserted in her 1985 Tanner Lectures, “when few can claim the absolute value of a writer without reference to a context of responsibilities.” Responsibility and freedom impose their possibilities on the magisterium of writing as much as noun and verb, line and point, black and white.
Freedom evolves. But in place of a telos, it offers only a texture—the fabric of being, the human qualities. In the case of gesture as with oral language, it’s the continuous and endlessly divisible medium of bodily movement, like the stream of speech sounds (which are themselves movements of the body), which is the thing that evolved. Human bodies evolved to preserve the spasmodic and uncoordinated movements of the immature organism—which exhibit a flexibility and comprehensiveness that the mature body lacks—while human cognition evolved to exercise its power of manipulation over them. It’s the capacities, and not the forms, that evolve. There is no great chain of gesture and gesticulation, of carriage and habit (at a deeper level, of course, the capacities are forms, as much as the pigeon’s wing or the porpoise’s tail). As with so much else that is human, there is only the endlessly unfolding principle of possibility, the dance of freedom and responsibility.
“These characters, illegible to hundreds of millions of Chinese, never entirely lost their meaning. Excluded from the inner circle of the literate, the peasantry looked upon these characters without, admittedly, understanding them, but sensing nonetheless that they came from the same place as themselves: those nimble signs, predecessors to the incurvated rooftops, to dragons and theatrical figures, to cloud drawings and landscapes with flowering branches and bamboo leaves….”—Henri Michaux, Ideograms in China. Translated by Gustaf Sobin. Michaux points out that for those outside writing’s magisterium, all characters are asemic. And yet they’re alive—alive not only with the power of mystery, but with graphic force, with rhythm, with evoked symmetries in human forms, our lifeworld, and all of nature. Alive with meaning. And beyond signification and denotation, the totemic power of characters lives for the literate as well. It’s been argued that the strokes of Chinese written characters early made reference to human bones. And think of the nineteenth century, the age when the printed word came into its own in mass-produced books and newspapers: men began to dress in black and white, costumed as letters.
Brian Rotman quotes Victor Hugo: “Human society, the world, the whole of mankind is in the alphabet.” After adding the caveat that much of humanity uses other writing systems than the alphabetic ones, Rotman offers his assent: “for Western civilization each of the two originating worlds, Judaic and Greek …. was indeed created out of an encounter with a system of alphabetic writing.” Many thinkers note that writing’s pattern seem to echo throughout cultural and social forms of civilization. For Eric Havelock and Walter J. Ong, this resonance is a force that shapes civilization, determining structures of governance, modes of narrative and argument, even consciousness itself. Does Western civilization really look like the alphabet? And if it does, is that because writing forces us into alphabetized boxes? Similarity doesn’t imply causality—although perhaps it points to deeper causes. Writing didn’t create our impulses to order, to compare, and to taxonomize; it built upon these inclinations, and brought them to flower. That many cultural forms—from music to architecture to politics—participate in such flourishing doesn’t point to the reign of the alphabet, but to more profound and rudimentary dispositions that evolved over the millennia prior to writing’s emergence. Different writing systems engage other evolved impulses. The rhyming cultural forms of civiization don’t evince the overweening power of writing, but the fundamental wellsprings of human orginality—itself a trait that evolved. Ordered political structures, the column and the arch, patterns in weaving, music, and storytelling—they’re like butterflies with eyespots on their wings, or orchids that evoke the sexual structures of insects. Mimicry, convergence. But we can take heart from this. For patterning, symmetry, and economy aren’t only the stuff of evolution, but of poetry as well.
I’ve written here about Henri Michaux & Xu Bing, masters of asemic writing in works of art. At The New Postliterate, curator Michael Jacobson shares new works in this ancient form. Jacobson is the author of the asemic novella The Giant Fence.
“The only way for you to do it … would be to talk of something else, looking steadily out of the window, and this note, not with a pencil in a notebook, but in the shortest of shorthand, in words that are hardly syllabled yet, what happens when Olivia—this organism that has been under the shadow of the rock these million years—feels the light fall on it, and see coming her way a piece of strange food—knowledge, adventure, art. And she reaches out for it, I thought … and has to devise some entirely new combination of resources, so highly developed for other purposes, so as to absorb the new into the old without disturbing the intricate and elaborate balance of the whole.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, page 84. Shifting and enlarging the magisterium of writing to include women’s consciousness is the subject of Woolf’s great essay. It has been a work of many generations, from Jane Austen and the Brontës to Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson to (the massively underappreciated) Sarah Orne Jewett, through Woolf herself and on to Maxine Kumin, Elizabeth Bishop, Jeanette Winterson, and countless others—my list is far too short, and the work far from finished. But here Woolf charts how the seismic shifts of writing’s place and purpose in human life not only operate on historical and geological time scales, but also occur at the most intimate measures of individual observation and notation.
"Certainly, for at least the last half millennium," writes Brain Rotman, "the very concept of a person has adhered to that of a ‘lettered self." In Becoming Beside Ourselves: the Alphabet, Ghosts, and the Distributed Human Being, Rotman explores this paradigm of the soul—or at any rate its ruins. He follows a long line of thinkers in linking the notion of a certain kind of self—vigorous yet enduring, unitary yet disembodied—to alphabetic writing. Now the technologies of inscription are shifting again, rattling the old Cartesian cage where we live suspended by chains within a body.
Computer technology plays a Oz-like game—pay no attention to the code behind the curtain. We don’t really see what we read; instead we see an instantiation, a ghostly apparition, an avatar. Like Necker Cubes and Penrose Triangles, the figures on the screen can only be read from one narrow angle; shift one’s perspective, and the illusion breaks into irresolvable shards. Hyperlinks fracture the text; motion capture technology promises to make our very gestures into inscriptions. Add these to the shocks already delivered by photography, film, and the broadcast media, and it’s clear: "the regime of the alphabet,” in Rotman’s estimation, “appears to be drawing to a close.” The end of this regime looks like the fragmentation and distribution of the self, the parceling out and networking of that consciousness originally formed by writing. Of course, writing had already altered consciousness; the technologies that now emerge from it will alter that consciousness yet again, perhaps into forms unrecognizable to us from within writing’s regime.
Rotman’s book is fascinating, and my dialogue with it will continue as I write Urge of the Letter. But I’m not so sure that the alterations to consciousness made by technology proposes are as total or profound as thinkers from Ong to Rotman have thought. For all its abundant variation, natural selection is quite conservative. Successful adaptations need stable foundations; they’re likely to persist in the face of all but catastrophic conditions. Humankind, curiously, had evolved to rely on mutability for its survival. Our intellectual flexibility, our cunning, tool-making, world-changing propensity, is itself an adaptation. And as such, it’s built to survive. Perhaps the forms it takes—from cave paintings and music to hieroglyphics and the alphabet to cloud computing and motion-capture—are the various expressions of a single (albeit composite) trait. If our number comes up—if the computers take over, or (far more likely) the byproducts of our technologies prove fatally toxic—the die will have been cast not in Alamagordo or Tokyo or Mountain View, but in the Rift Valley, Lascaux, and the Fertile Crescent.
That’s not to say I’m not hopeful. The barcode readers I mentioned in the previous post (on vyaz) prove that adaptive, conservative principle is still at work. In barcodes, we gave our computers an alphabet of their own; but we also design spectacles to read along. The magisterium of reading and writing isn’t broken—it’s expanding. To do so is in its nature—which is to say, it’s in our nature.
“Citizens of the Republic (of Letters) carried no passports, but they could recognize one another by certain marks…. They looked for learning, for humanity, and for generosity, and they rewarded those who possessed these qualities. Any young man, and more than a few young women, could pay the price of admission. If they mastered Latin and, ideally, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; became proficient at what now seem the unconnected skills of mathematics and astronomy, history and geography, and physics and music; visited any recognized scholar—from John Locke in London to Giambattista Vico in Naples—bearing a letter from a senior scholar, and greeted their host in acceptable Latin or French, they were assured of everything a learned man or woman could want: a warm and civilized welcome, a cup of chocolate (or, later, coffee), and an hour or two of ceremonious conversation on the latest editions of the classics and the most recent sightings of the rings of Saturn.”—Anthony Grafton, Worlds Made by Worlds: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, pp. 20–1. The Republic of Letters was a web; its nodes were the printing houses and libraries of great scholars; its members were scholars but also printers, artisans, apothecaries, botanists, and the like. This motley network emerged in the violent years of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The printing press was its engine, perhaps, but its media were travel, learning, and letters in which, as Grafton puts it, “the outlines, highways, and capitals of the Republic can be seen most clearly.”
"That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library," Virginia Woolf observes quite early in A Room of One’s Own. “Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever.”
Woolf (in the person of the protagonist of this barbed and brilliant, fiction-kissed essay) has just attempted to follow a train of thought through the library doors at “Oxbridge,” intending to examine a Milton manuscript mentioned in a stray quote which, it seemed to her, might illustrate t
he fragile nature of just such trains of thought. She was stopped at the door by a kindly old verger, however, who explained that women were not allowed in the library unless accompanied by a fellow of the college or a letter of reference. For the second time in her story, a fragile, nurtured fancy has been injured by male privilege.
It’s one thing to observe that a Fellow, necessarily male, would enjoy a standing not given to a woman; it’s another thing to grant that same privilege to a written document, to grant it a kind of surrogate masculine standing.
It would be useful to explore the ways in which written things are granted such standing, but that’s not my purpose here. The relation of writing to gender deserves a chapter unto itself—or better, its presence demands acknowledgment in every chapter of a book about writing. From those clay-smudged scribes of the Fertile Crescent, to the Chinese elite and their calligraphy examinations, to the Grub Street Hacks who strove to colonize writing’s provinces with all the rough vigor of a commodified vernacular, writing has been an overwhelmingly male enterprise. But this doesn’t tell us anything important about writing itself—except that it is born as an intrumentality of power, and as such suffers the gendered cramps and tensions of all such instrumentalities.
What it does remind us is this: alongside writing’s career as an instrumentality of power, it has pursued a flickering existence as a modality of conciousness. It’s this career, I’d wager, that matters more to most of us in the end. And in this regard, writing has far to go in achieving anything like a full flowering. Writing’s achievements are woven through with a yellow thread of injustice and alienation; pull it, and the whole thing unravels into a tawdry tapestry.
Woolf’s contribution to the mode of literary invention called “stream of conciousness” is a staple of standardized tests. And yet it’s not often remarked how thoroughly Woolf demonstrated (in A Room as well as Three Guineas and much of her political writing) that the putative “stream” itself is already a material thing, subject to expropriation and alienation long before it’s bodied forth in writing. For Woolf (and, she shows, for all women of her time) this most ephemeral product finds its enemies long before it is committed to the page—in the sons and brothers who are chosen to receive the fine education, in the restrictions and proscriptions that guard the library door. Like other women writers before her, Woolf transformed those provinces of writing traditionally most open (or restricted) to women—the letter and the diary—into sumptuously productive sovereignties of invention. But she explored further countries by bringing the material power of writing to bear upon ever more intimate (and previously unassailable) regions. In bodying forth consciousness itself, she wins a kind of triumph over writing, a desegregation of writing’s gendered magisterium. Her achievement of style is in fact one of substance, irrevocably transforming and expanding the possibilities of writing itself. She turned her back on the library that Oxbridge morning—but she did not leave it to sleep complacently. In her wake, the library was altered in all its arrangements.
Among the phenomena of writing explored in Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy is the rise of the “grapholect,” which he defines as a “transdialectical language formed by deep commitment to writing.” The national languages and of course the literary languages that we know today are scarcely imaginable without such deep commitment to writing; one of Ong’s themes is the ramifying effect of writing upon the minds of literate speakers. Linearity, classification, all forms of “study” in its recognizable sense, as well as the awareness of vast archipelagos of words beyond one’s immediate cognitive and expressive control, are some of the dubious endowments of the native grapholexic, in Ong’s reckoning.
Do grapholects exist as such? If a language is a dialect with a navy, is a grapholect simply a language with a dictionary? Is writing a rupture not only in language, but in our natural history? Or do the literate endowments of reading, studying, and patterning actually manifest a biological propensity (even if, as it would seem, it’s a propensity for “defying” biology)?
Clearly writing and language are deeply intertwined. Yet there are grapholects, and then there are grapholects; the climate imposed by writing is not distributed equally in either expression or intensity from one forest of words to the next. Even (indeed especially) within the most massively ramified of grapholects, such as English, there exist microclimates of expression, idiom, and effect—running from the literary genres and idioms of commerce, office, and academy down to the inflorescences of individual style. Such languages have their stratigraphy also; the dialects and modes of earlier times lie buried in the libraries and scholarly apparatatuses, out of which intrusions, upheavals, and eruptions occur with varying frequency and local intensity.
And then there are the scholarly and classical languages. Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Classical Chinese, often derided as “dead languages,” are hardly morbid in the same way as a language like |Xam (a Bushman language of South Africa whose last few speakers died in the first decades of the twentieth century). Perhaps the scholarly tongues would more properly be termed “zombie languages”—with writing as the magic formula that sustains their existence.
But even among these last, the variation is extreme. Classical Chinese, the idiom of both poetry and the foundational texts of Chinese philosophy, seems to manifest a continuity of some three or four thousand years’ duration—and yet within that continuity there is marvelous diversity of genre, form, and style. Historically, Chinese has been understood as a language that divides its speakers into classes; the gulf between a tiny literate elite and the illiterate masses, it’s often said, has been created and enforced by the difficult tuition of written Chinese. And yet with its compound of dense allusiveness, compacted vocabulary, and spacious syntax, the rudiments of Classical Chinese texts can be decoded by most speakers of the modern tongue with a felicity unthinkable for nonlearned speakers of Western languages faced with Latin. Rupture and continuity provide far more complex patternings than any reflexive Orientalism or Western progressivism would allow.
Writing’s effects are radical—its emergence, its intimate role in our culture and consciousness, its very appearance strike at the roots of language, memory, and civilization. But that’s what radical means, of course—it’s from the Latin radix, for root.
In semantic terms, a word’s uninflected meaning is termed its radical. Chinese dictionaries are organized according to fundamental graphic units out of which characters are compounded; the Chinese word for this is bùshǒu, or index character, but in Chinese-English dictionaries, these base characters are called radicals. But this usage is a bit of a misnomer; these radicals aren’t semantically or etymologically fundamental to the words they play a role in representing, or the characters they compose.
What are the roots of writing? What makes it look like it does? Despite vast differences in their appearance and in the systems that govern them, most forms of written characters share profoundly similar traits: they’re made of lines that cross, connect, and loop, and they arrange themselves into linear sets. Why is this the case? Why don’t we have writing systems that convey meaning by, say, color or hue, or size, or relative location?
In a 2006 article called “The Structures of Letters and Symbols are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes” (M. Changizi, Q. Zhang, H. Ye, S. Shimojo. American Naturalist, 167:5), the authors compare the structure of Chinese characters, alphabetic letters, and corporate logos, finding great similarities in the topology of signs. By topology they mean the essential shapes or configurations—we could say the true graphic roots—of the conjoined marks that compose the letterforms. Of these there are remarkably few—the cross, the circle, the line, to name most of them—which together give scope to considerable meaning-laden variation.
The authors go on to suggest that the basis or stock of such topological formulae consists in “natural scenes”—especially in the junctures or overlappings of forms in human visual experience. The skeins of roots and limbs in the forest; the long curl of the river across the plain; the scatter of tracks made by birds in wet sand; such are the templates of writing, in the authors’ conjecture. Specifically, they argue that the shapes of characters “have been selected (by cultural evolution or by trial-and-error design) so that more common configuration types among visual signs are the more common configuration types among natural scenes, thereby exploiting what humans have evolved to be good at visually processing.” The authors admit that if their hypothesis is true, visual signs should prove difficult to detect—they would essentially be camouflaged. On the other hand, letterforms “have been selected to be read and distinguished from bare sand, plain soil, paper, papyrus, walls, and so on, not distinguished from natural scene backgrounds.” It’s such constraints—striking a balance between standout novelty and the inefficiencies of invention, between familiarity and transparency—that drive evolution, be it of memes or genes.
But is topology significant? Are we somehow “tuned” to be especially discriminating about topological arrangements? Is this a universal in visual perception, or something privileged by human vision?
All this speculation about the roots of perception glosses over the basic history of graphic signs: whether alphabetic or ideographic, they start out as pictures of things. The fundamentals of perception provide a basis for understanding why writing works for us, and why it has conserved these signs so well over these three millennia. It’s remarkably conservative, the alphabet, at a root/radical/topological level. And this, too: characters don’t evolve only to be seen and read, but made. Written. And line is a handy tool for this kind of making.
The question is, are letters like roots—or are they more like flowers?
I want to say that we’re wired for writing—although it’s likely more accurate to say that writing employs our wiring, as it must do. Were we wired like dragonflies, or even dogs, our writing would take remarkably different forms.
And yet this isour world, not that of dragonflies—there are no natural scenes, no standard configurations, without our particular perceptions. We are fibered together out of the world that our fibers weave.
"As their vocabulary increased, so did the wrinkles on their skin." Novelist Elise Blackwell points me in Atxaga’s direction, noting that he “links the Fall with the acquisition of language”—a Rousseauvian move. Axtaga appeared at the recent PEN World Voices Festival in New York; he writes in Euskera, and his poems and other works are known around the world.
Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages: writing and the Fall
For Rousseau, writing inscribes a defeat—but in a battle already long lost by the time writing makes the scene. As Cad Goddeu or the Battle of the Trees of Welsh folklore symbolized for Robert Graves, for Rousseau early language is the issue of a primordial battle for meaning and freedom. But for Rousseau it is not root and branch, but consonant and vowel that go to war against one another, dividing and corrupting the universal language that all men spoke before the confusion of the tongues.
"Natural sounds" in Rousseau’s reckoning "are inarticulate," born of the open mouth. In the originary language of Rousseau’s mythology, consonants interpose themselves across this natural soundstream, rendering vocalizations articulate; out of this segmented ululation, words are born. The originary language “would have been sung rather than spoken”; “it would deemphasize grammatical analogy for euphony, number, harmony, and beauty of sounds.”
Before long, however, the consonantal complication of language runs amok. “To the degree that needs multiply,” Rousseau writes, “that affairs become complicated, that light is shed, language changes its character. It becomes more regular and less passionate. It substitutes ideas for feelings. It not longer speaks to the heart but to reason. Language becomes more exact and clearer, but more prolix, duller, and colder.”
Writing for Rousseau emerges from this dynamic, progressive, metastasizing alienation. And with its advent, language ends its long wrestling match with the snake and departs the garden. "Writing, which would seem to crystallize language, is precisely what alters it. It changes not the words but the spirit, substituting exactitude for expressiveness." And this chilling exactitude is a feedback loop: “The means used to overcome this weakness tend to make written language rather elaborately prolix; and many books written in discourse will enervate the language.”
“Much of human play, perhaps even most, remains unseen. I mean, of course, the play of imagination, daydreaming, or fantasy. This fantasy does sometimes leave its traces. Is that what we see in Paleolithic art? I think so. It had to be that nucleus that generated most of Paleolithic art, as indeed it must underlie most art. That is why their art allows us a glimpse into their fancy, their imagination itself. Like them, we live amid relentless internal fantasy…. We are, in essence, more playful than we think. The perspective of natural history reveals us as profoundly creative animals.”—
Perhaps you’re wondering where I’m going with this graphomania. What am I doing with all these trivial observations on ink, wax, print, and pixel? How can I hope to draw together the strands of writing, cognition, evolution, art, literature, religion? What’s the epitome, the gloss, the nut graf, the takeaway?
Well, the easy answer is, I’ll tell you when I’ve found it. But I do have a hunch, or a hope.
Though the ways of writing have proliferated through time, they’re connected like some existential cursive stretching from clay tablets to computers. The letterforms with which we’re most intimate—those of the Roman alphabet—have traveled a long way since their birth as sketchy renderings of oxheads and houses. But they still carry those shapes, along with marks left by Greek scribes and Roman stonecutters, medieval monks and Renaissance goldsmiths, designers and sign painters and artists and engineers.
And all this stuff we’re doing with pixels and silicon, with networks and nodes, tweets and tumblelogs? It’s not the negation of all that came before—it’s not the end of the world as we know it. It’s just the next loop, part of the cursive line.
A species like ours can do perfectly well without writing for millennia upon millennia—but once we take the plunge and blunder into writing, we had better be all in.
"O that my words were now written! O that they were printed in a book!" Job 19:23 would seem to have presented an puzzle for translators of the Authorized Version. What could the Old Testament scribe mean by “printing”?
In the Latin of Saint Jerome the relevant verbs are scribantur and exarentur (quis mihi tribuat ut scribantur sermones mei quis mihi det ut exarentur in libro). Exarentur conjugates exarare; a verb frequently used in antiquity to mean “to note” or “to write,” and frequently translated as “to print” by later writers, its literal meaning is “to plow.” It’s no metaphor, however, but a simple descriptive term—for the ancients wrote most frequently not on paper or vellum or papyrus, but by gouging their words into tablets of wax.
Such tablets consisted of shallow panels of wood or ivory filled with beeswax and bound together into little booklets called tabellae or pugillares or sometimes cerae (pluralized “wax,” here used as synecdoche). The literate used them as notebooks, or address books, or PDAs, perhaps—inscribing their thoughts and lists into them with a sturdy made of bone or wood tipped with iron. Exarare, “to plough,” describes perfectly the act of making marks in wax by gouging or scratching.
Wax tablets were the most common medium for writing from ancient times well into the middle ages, from the near East and North Africa to Western Europe. Ancient images such as the fresco from Pompeii above frequently depict the literate with wax tablet and stylus. By the seventeenth century, however, they were out of use, largely thanks to cheap paper. And as they were radically ephemeral, they disappeared almost entirely; very few examples of tabellae bearing writing exist today.
Although the scribe who first wrote the words of Job knew no Latin, Jerome’s meaning would have been perfectly comprehensibleto him—for like the much-later Doctor of the Church, he would have been ploughing words into wax. Throughout the Bible and much ancient literature, writers deploy a rich vocabulary of metaphorical evocations of wax-tablet writing, bedeviling later translators to whom such flourishes were often incomprehensible.
Consider how the meanings of writing as task and labor are expanded or transformed when wax tablets are in use. Your hands and palms are oily, your words smudgy and angular. The beeswax is fragrant and smooth when freshly poured; once inscribed and reinscribed, rubbed out and darkened by candle soot, your text becomes a ploughed-over field.