“We like lists because we don’t want to die”

It may not look like much, but that grocery list sitting on the kitchen counter is a faint visual echo of the beginnings of civilization.  At least from a certain angle of vision explicated and illustrated in Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay (2009).  In a Der Spiegel interview from November 2009, Eco explains,

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

There is a point at which scholars, philosophers, intellectuals (public or otherwise), critics, etc. — one is temped to list on — reach either a certain age or a certain stature, which it is sometimes hard to tell, when they are able to make simple, direct, and yet curiously ambiguous claims and assertions which, had they been made by a lesser figure, would certainly be dismissed out of hand, but coming from the sage achieve a certain matter-of-fact status and attain the aura of profundity.  So, a list of such from Eco:

  1. “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
  2. “The essential definition is primitive compared with the list.”
  3. “Lists can be anarchistic.”

In fact, read in context, these make a good deal of sense, or at least one sees how they may make sense.  Then one also attains a certain permission to be blunt:

If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing.  And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

In passing Eco also manages to make some interesting claims about the Internet:

With context:

SPIEGEL: But you also said that lists can establish order. So, do both order and anarchy apply? That would make the Internet, and the lists that the search engine Google creates, prefect for you.

Eco: Yes, in the case of Google, both things do converge. Google makes a list, but the minute I look at my Google-generated list, it has already changed. These lists can be dangerous — not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.

I appreciated Eco’s distinction between modes of knowledge acquisition, which can make all the difference.  Sometimes those who were trained on the older model and subsequently enter the digital world fail to appreciate how their cognitive position and sensibility are different from those who are, as they say, born digital.

One last observation from Eco,

My interests change constantly, and so does my library. By the way, if you constantly change your interests, your library will constantly be saying something different about you.

This along with Eco’s ruminations about lists as a means of holding off the specter of death and creating order from chaos echoed (pun hesitantly intended, although technically, foreshadowed) Nathan Schneider’s excellent “In Defense of The Memory Theater” from some months ago.  I’ve recommended before, and I’ll do so again as my own thinking and interests, along with the books around me, take a turn toward memory.  From Schneider:

Ever since the habit of writing first took hold of me as a teenager, I knew precisely why I did it, and why I did it so compulsively: to hedge against the terror of having a terrible memory. Though still young enough to expect no sympathy, I constantly feel the burden of this handicap. Confirmation of it, and that writing is its cure, I discover every time I pick up something I wrote years, or even months ago. Reading those things puts me in an uncanny state, like a past-life regression. Meanwhile, unrecorded impressions, sayings, old friends, and good books vanish without warning or trace. Some read and write to win eternal life; I would be happy enough just to keep a hold of this one.

Writing birthed lists and lists yielded annals and annals, history — personal and cultural.

Ong’s Orality and Literacy Visualized

I’ve mentioned Walter Ong more than a few times in previous posts.  He’s best known for a little book titled Orality and Literacy in which he argues that transitions from oral to literate to secondary oral cultures (marked respectively by the development of alphabetic technology and electronic communication) have effected transformations in human consciousness. It is something of a testament to Ong’s enduring influence, he passed away in 2003, that I’ve been assigned his work in three separate graduate courses.

In the event that it may be of interest to someone out there, here is a visualization I put together using Prezi of Ong’s argument (supplemented by some additional information).  Once you’ve clicked over to the site, click the forward arrow to move through the presentation.

The Kings’ Speeches

Driving home yesterday I caught Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” being replayed on NPR.  It is, as everyone who has listened to the speech knows, a moving experience.  It is also an experience that is mostly lost to our time.  It is relic of a different age, a different world.  One can hardly imagine a contemporary public speaker, particularly in a political context, striking the same cadence and intonation as Dr. King.

Two reasons initially came to mind.  On the one hand, we make a virtue out of ironic detachment and we have internalized the hermeneutic of suspicion.  We cannot take seriously anyone who takes themselves seriously enough to speak with moral authority.  On the other hand, and this is just the other side of the same coin, there appear to be no public figures who in fact have the requisite moral authority.  Chicken and the egg, Catch-22 …

I was also reminded that upon the passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd not long ago it was noted that a rhetorical style died with him.  Different in so many ways, Dr. King and Senator Byrd came from a shared rhetorical world, one that united them and separates both of them from us.

Serendipitously, I also watched The King’s Speech later that evening — a felicitous coincidence given the thoughts I was already entertaining about speeches and notably another King’s speech.   The film features Colin Firth brilliantly playing King George VI of England who must struggle to overcome a stammer in his speech on the eve of the Second World War with the help of a speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush.  It was impossible to miss the significance given to oratory, and the film makes a point of connecting this significance with the advent of radio.  The film reminds us of this visually by prominently and frequently drawing our eyes to the microphones, receivers, and other accouterments of radio from the era.  But the connection is made explicit by the King George V, the imposing father figure, who notes that in times past the nobility and royalty could get by by merely looking the part.  Thanks to the wireless, they must now speak the part too.

Thinking about both K/kings and their speeches also coincided with rereading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy in which Ong lays out the momentous cultural consequences of literacy.  Ong argues that the introduction of alphabet technology radically restructured consciousness and society.  He goes on to identify three related transitions: from oral to literate culture with the invention of the alphabet, the amplification of that transition with the coming of the printing press, and the onset of what Ong calls secondary orality resulting from the appearance of electronic media that immerses us again in an economy of sound. Ong died before he could extend his analysis into the digital age, but his work certainly helps us think more clearly about our present media developments.

Noting the transitions from orality to literacy and then on to secondary orality also helps us make sense of the rhetorical worlds inhabited by MLK, George VI, and Robert C. Byrd.  Each was shaped by rhetorical traditions that were in turn formed by cultural, religious, political, and technological factors that placed great store by the spoken word and the word spoken in a particular style.  There are differences among them, no doubt, but those differences pale in comparison to the difference between all of them and those for whom they are all just pictures in a history book or images/sounds on Youtube.

Finally, and at the expense of oversimplifying matters, it is always interesting to ask what different media require from public figures.  The age of the photograph required one to look a certain way, the age of radio required one to sound a certain way, the age of television required one to both look and sound a certain way (but both were different from what was expected in the age of photographs and radios).

The photograph and radio still traded in the dominant visual and oral norms of the culture into which they were introduced.  Television appears to begin shaping these norms to its own constraints and demands; demands that arise not only from the medium, but also from its dominant revenue model.  Most notably the distance between the public and the public figure is shrinking all the while.  And with this shrinking distance comes the great difficulty we have in investing our public figures with either heroic stature or moral authority.  The digital age seems to proceed along this same trajectory, so that accessibility, informality, immediacy, and ordinariness become for the public figures of our age what high flung oratory and dignified, aloof composure were for an earlier time.

“Monastic Reading” — Reading with the Body

“Monastic Reading,” the third chapter in Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, gives us a window into a form of reading that involved the body along with the mind.  Illich is attentive to the physicality of reading and modes of remembering that (figuratively) engrave the text onto the body so that the body and mind work in tandem to remember and recall what has been read and learned.  Very interesting material given my recent fascination with embodied knowledge.

The easiest way to recognize instances of embodied knowledge is to take note of athletes and dancers who “know” how to do a great deal of things that they may have a very hard time putting into words.  Or, if you can type, ask yourself, where is the letter “L” on the keyboard?  How did you think of the answer?  If you are like most people in that situation you moved your fingers around to remember.

I’m most interested in how embodied knowledge — which is also picked up through the habits and rituals, religious and otherwise, that make up our cultural milieu — plays a significant role in shaping our dispositions, attention, inclinations.

Illich, who is drawing on the work of anthropologist Marcel Jousse, gives us some more instances of embodied knowledge, this time in the service of recalling articulated speech.

Previous posts:  Introduction, chapter one, chapter two.

  • Quoting Hugh of Saint Victor:  “Meditation is sustained thought along planned lines . . . . Meditation takes its start from reading, but is bound by none of the rules or precepts of reading.  Meditation delights to range along open ground, where it fixes its free gaze upon the contemplation of truth, drawing together now these, now those causes of things, or now penetrating into profundities, leaving nothing doubtful, nothing obscure.  The beginning of learning thus lies in reading but its consummation lies in meditation.” (52)
  • “Meditative reading can sometimes be difficult, a chore which must be faced with courage, fortitudo.  But the reader, sustained by the ‘zeal to inquire,’ will derive joy from his application.  Eagerness comes with practice.  To foster his zeal, the student needs encouraging example rather than instruction.”  (53)
  • “Hugh’s meditation is an intensive reading activity and not some passive quietist plunge into feelings.  This activity is described by analogy to body movements:  striding from line to line, or flapping one’s wings while surveying the already well-known page.  Reading is experienced by Hugh as a bodily motor activity.
  • In a tradition of one and a half millennia, the sounding pages are echoed by the resonance  of the moving lips and tongue.  The reader’s ears pay attention, and strain to catch what the reader’s mouth gives forth.  In this manner the sequence of letters translates directly into body movements and patterns nerve impulses.  the lines are a sound track picked up by the mouth and voiced by the reader for his own ear.  By reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.
  • The modern reader conceives of the page as a plate that inks the mind, and of the mind as a screen onto which the page is projected and from which, at a flip, it can fade.  For the monastic reader, whom Hugh addresses, reading is a much less phantasmagoric and much more carnal activity:  the reader understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing.  No wonder that pre-university monasteries are described to us in various sources as the dwelling places of mumblers and munchers.” (54)
  • “For Hugh, who uses Latin, the act of reading with the eyes implies an activity not unlike a search for firewood:  his eyes must pick up the letters of the alphabet and bundle these into syllables.  The eyes are at the service of the lungs, the throat, the tongue, and the lips that do not usually utter single letters but words.”  (58)
  • “. . . for the monk, reading is not one activity but a way of life . . . . Reading impregnates his days and nights.”  (58-59)
  • “The process by which the written text of Scripture becomes part of each monk’s biography is typically Jewish rather than Greek.  Antiquity had no one book that could be swallowed.  Neither Greeks nor Romans were people of a book.  No one book was — or could be — at the center of the classical way of life, as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  For the first Christian millennium, memorization of this one book was performed by a process which stands in stark contrast to the building of memory palaces.  The book was swallowed and digested through the careful attention paid to the psychomotor nerve impulses which accompany the sentences being learned. Even today, pupils in Koranic and Jewish schools sit on the floor with the book open on their knees.  Each one chants his lines in a singsong, often a dozen pupils simultaneously, each a different line.  While they read, their bodies sway from the hips up or their trunks gently rock back and forth.  The swinging and the recitation continue as if the student is in a trance, even when he closes his eyes or looks down the aisle of the mosque.  The body movements re-evoke those of the speech organs that have been associated with them.  In a ritual manner these students use their whole bodies to embody the lines.
  • Marcel Jousse has studied these psychomotor techniques of fixing a spoken sequence in the flesh.  He has shown that for many people, remembrance means the triggering of a well-established sequence of muscular patterns to which the utterances are tied.  When the child is rocked during a cradle song, when the reapers bow to the rhythm of a harvest song, when the rabbi shakes his head while he prays or searches for the right answer, or when the proverb comes to mind only upon tapping for a while — according to Jousse, these are just a few examples of a widespread linkage of utterance and gesture.  Each culture has given its own form to this bilateral, dissymmetric complementarity by which sayings are graven right and left, forward and backward into trunk and limbs, rather than just into the ear and the eye.  Monastic existence can be viewed as a carefully patterned framework for the practice of such techniques.”  (pages 60-61)
  • “It is, however, not a social technique incorporated in the rule which makes the monk, but rather the attitude with which he approaches the book as the center of his life.  In the short chapter on meditation, Hugh refers to the spirit in which this life of reading ought to be lived.  He uses the word vacare, which says all but just cannot be translated into English . . . . Vacare means ‘to have been set or become free.’  When Christian authors use the term the stress is not on the release a person gets, but on the freedom he takes of his own volition.  The term stresses ‘the desire to be engaged ‘ in a new way of life rather than a release or flight from one’s old habits of bondage and lifestyle.  The verb is also used in classical Latin . . . . With generosity, [Seneca] urges, one should choose what to be free for.  True leisure can be found only by those who give themselves to wisdom (sapientiae vacant).”  (61-62)
  • Lectio is forever a beginning, meditatio a consummatio, and both integral to studium . . . For Hugh, there is only one kind of reading that is worthwhile, lectio divina.  This place him at the end of one thousand years during which lectio and otio vacare had defined each other.”  (63-64)
  • “The new way of reading the newly laid-out page calls for a new setting within the city:  colleges that engender the university, with its academic rather than monastic rituals.  The studium legendi ceases to be a way of life for the great majority of disciplined readers, and is viewed as one particular ascetical practice now called ‘spiritual reading.’  On the other hand, ‘study’ increasingly refers to the acquisition of knowledge.  Lectio divides into prayer and study.”  (64-65)

“Order, Memory, and History”

Excerpts from the second chapter of Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, “Order, Memory, and History.”  Previous posts:  Introduction and first chapter.

From the first few excerpts, one gets a feel for a mental world which had not yet divorced the sign from the signifier and still regarded the cosmos as inherently meaningful, like a book to be read.  Most of what follows centers on the fascinating history of memory techniques and Hugh’s attempt to revive these techniques as the foundation of the search for wisdom.  What we end up with then is an effort to microcosmically represent the macrocosmic order of things in the mind.  The mind symbolically captures the order of the cosmos.  I hope the excerpts below convey the gist of this ambitious project.

(Read here for an excellent recent essay delving into the history of memory techniques and books.)

  • “The passage from childlike searching to adult reading is governed by something that Hugh calls ordo.  In many instances Hugh stresses the importance that the reader advance with order, ordinate procedere debet, or that one ought to stride forward with a harmonious gait.  Hugh does not create, he follows, observes, searches the order of things.  “To order” is the interiorization of that cosmic and symbolic harmony which God has established in the act of creation.  “To order” means neither to organize and systematize knowledge according to preconceived subjects, nor to manage it.  The reader’s order is not imposed on the story, but the story puts the reader into its order.  The search for wisdom is a search for the symbols of order that we encounter on the page.”  (31)
  • Quoting Gerhart Ladner:  “It was one of the fundamental character traits of the early Christian and medieval mentalities that the signifying, symbolizing and allegorizing function was anything but arbitrary or subjective; symbols were believed to represent objectively and to express faithfully various aspects of a universe that was perceived as widely and deeply meaningful.”  (31)
  • In the “somethings never change” category:  “Hugh expresses dissatisfaction with the students of his day who, ‘whether from ignorance or from unwillingness, fail to hold to a fit method of study, and therefore we find many who study but few who are wise” . . . . Hugh looks for students who read so well that without leafing they instantly have details ready in their heart.  Memory training, for Hugh, is a precondition for reading, and something which he treats in a manual that readers of the Didascalicon are supposed to know.” (35)
  • “The child’s mind was trained to build the memory mazes, and to establish the habit to dart and retrieve in them.  Remembrance was not conceived as an act of mapping but of psychomotor, morally charged activity.  As a modern youth, from childhood on I was trained to the Baedeker [popular German travel guide].  As a mountain guide I learned to decipher maps and photographs before venturing into the rock.  Decades later, when I first arrived in Japan I purchased a map of Tokyo.  But I was not allowed to use it.  My host’s wife simply refused to let me map my way through the city’s mazes by looking at them, mentally, from above.  Day after day she led me around this, and then that corner, until I could navigate the labyrinth and reach my destinations without ever knowing abstractly where I was.  Reference work before the table of contents and the index must have been much more like this kind of mapless orientation for which our modern schools disqualify us.” (37)
  • “For more advanced readers, Hugh proposed a much more complex, three-dimensional ark — a space-time matrix built within the mind of the student and modeled on Noah’s ark . . . [a] three-dimensional multicolored monster memory scheme.  The man who has best studied Hugh’s writings on the moral and mystical ark has come to the following conclusion:  220 square feet of paper would be needed for a still readable blueprint of Hugh’s ark-model of historical interrelationships.  Twentieth-century medievalists, who in the great majority have never had any training in mnemotechnics, can perhaps imagine a blueprint of Hugh’s ark, but they cannot recapture the experience of having such an ark in their own mind, or ‘be thoroughly at home with this thought and way of imagining.'”  (37-38)

Read here about a recent digital reconstruction of Hugh’s ark by Conrad Rudolph of the University of California and commissioned by the US National Gallery of Art.  Click on the image above for a more detailed representation.

  • “Some rudiments from the history of memory must be recalled to grasp Hugh’s unique place.  What anthropologists distinguish as ‘cultures’ the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different ‘memories.’  The way to recall, to remember, has a history which is, to some degree, distinct from the history of the substance that is remembered.”  (39)
  • “We sometimes forget that words are creatures of the alphabet.” (39)
  • “In fact, the alphabet is an elegant technology for the visualization of sounds.  Its two dozen shapes trigger the memory of utterances that have been articulated by the mouth, the tongue, or the lips, and filter out what is said by gesture, mime, or the guts.  Unlike other writing systems, it records sounds, not ideas.”  (39)
  • “The one most common method used by the Greeks to achieve this purpose was the mental construction of a memory palace . . . . To become the student of a reputable teacher, the pupil had to prove that he was at home and at ease in some vast architecture that existed only in his mind, and within which he could move at an instant to the spot of his choice.”  (41)
  • “Early on it was found that the most effective way for locating and retrieving memories was that of randomly affixing to each one a mental label from a large set familiar to the student.  For example, to a goat or the sun, a branch or a knife, a sentence was attached for rote memorization.  The author who had thus equipped his palace for a speech or a dispute just moved to the appropriate imaginary room, took in at a glance the object placed on the labels, and had at his fingertips the memorized formulations that — for this particular occasion — he had associated with these emblems.”  (41-42)
  • “The art of memory as a symbolic labeling of memorized speech-acts was created in fourth-century Greece, taught by Sophists and used in politics.  In Rome, at least since Quintilian (35-100), its purpose and technique changed.  It was mainly used by lawyers.  Here memory training stresses the art of internalized reading.  The public speaker learned in late Roman antiquity how to ‘take notes’ in his mind and ‘read them off’ on the right occasion.”  (42)
  • “The rhetorical virtuoso was henceforth the one who could mentally register and label each sentence he intended to use, and promptly recover it from the appropriate architectonic feature in his own inner topology.  Today, in an age dazed by the feats of computers, this skill sounds like an impossible undertaking or freakish acrobatics for some academic circus.  But such memory training was part of the equipment expected by Hugh from the beginner.”  (42)
  • Reminding us that coping with information is not an entirely new challenge:  “By reviving ancient architectural memory training, Hugh hopes to prepare boys born around 1120 to read their way toward wisdom in an age in which the new collections could only too easily have scattered their brains and overwhelmed them.  He offers them a radically intimate technique of ordering this huge heritage in a personally created, inner spime [i.e., space time, taken from Einstein].” (45)
  • “Everything can make sense when it is related to this ordo of time; and noting is meaningful that is not placed by the reader into this ordo.  Hugh’s moral and spiritual Ark of Noah is more than a mnemotechnic palace with biblical features.  The Ark stands for a social entity, a process that begins with creation and continues to the end of time, what Hugh calls ‘the Church.’  The activity which Hugh calls ‘reading’ mediates between this macrocosmic Church and the microcosmos of the reader’s personal intimacy.  Each person, each place, each thing within this spatiotemporal cosmos must first be literally understood.  It then reveals itself as also something else:  as sign for something to come in the future, and as accomplishment of some other thing that, by analogy, has pointed toward its coming.”  (46-47)