For Your Consideration

In the recent past, I might have been tempted to write a blog post about these. As things stand, I’ll merely point you to them.

“Valley of God” in the Financial Times — Faith in Silicon Valley. In to be taken in both senses. File under religion of technology.

“He stopped going to church. Instead, he went to the computer – “there was this thing called Google” – and started researching theories of evolution to recast his understanding of the world. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, he discovered the potential to organise political activists on the internet. And when he got sick again, he credited the internet with saving his life. He replaced his faith in the Christian God of his childhood with faith in technology.”

“Making the Land Our Own” in American Scientist — A review of American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land. Opening:

“Forty-eight years ago in his groundbreaking book, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, historian Leo Marx cited Thomas Jefferson to illuminate the tension between farming and industry that has characterized land use in the United States for more than two centuries.”

“Computer Literacy and the Cybernetic Dream” — Short lecture by Ivan Illich delivered in 1987. Interesting throughout.

“With great pains she has trained her inner Descartes and her inner Pascal to watch each other: to balance mind and body, spirit and flesh, logic and feeling.”

“When I think of the glazing which the screen brings out in the eyes of its user, my entrails rebel when somebody says that screen and eye are ‘facing’ each other.”

Marcel Jousse: Forgotten Pioneer of Media Studies

Marcell Jousse was a pioneering scholar of gesture and orality. He was a younger contemporary and student of Marcel Mauss. During the inter-war years, he published a series of seminal studies on orality and gesture that garnered wide spread recognition. The publication of his first book in 1925, The Rhythmic and Mnemotechnical Oral Style of the Verbo-motors, caused an immediate sensation and earned him a series of prestigious posts in Paris, including a stint at the Sorbonne. However, shortly after his death in 1961, Jousse’s work fell into relative obscurity. Because his work is only recently finding its way into English translation, thanks largely to the efforts of Edgard Richard Sienaert, he is little known in the English-speaking world. (To get a feel for how little known, take a look at his Wikipedia page). But his work did not escape notice altogether. It features prominently in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Ong advanced a simple, yet profound thesis: “writing restructures consciousness.” As Ong traced the antecedents of his thesis, which was largely the synthesis of a substantial body of existing work, he acknowledged a debt to Jousse’s distinction, based on his rural upbringing and extensive field work in the Middle East, between “oral composition” and “written composition.” Further on, Ong succinctly summarized Jousse’s larger theoretical framework:

“Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall, even physiologically. Jousse has shown the intimate linkage between rhythmic oral patterns, the breathing process, gesture, and the bilateral symmetry of the human body in ancient Aramaic and Hellenic targums …”

Ong also deployed Jousse’s formulation, verbomotor, to designate cultures that “retain enough oral residue to remain significantly word-attentive in a person-interactive context (the oral type of context) rather than object-attentive.” It may not be entirey unreasonable to suggest that Ong’s work is in large part an elaboration of Jousse’s research. And, while I haven’t done the research to confirm this, I’m willing to bet that somewhere along the line he played part in the thought of Marshall McLuhan.

Not unlike McLuhan, Jousse’s method and writing was controversial, and in some respects ahead of his time. Here is Sienaert’s description of his fist book which was at the time was termed “The Jousse Bomb” (I’m not making that up):

“The Oral Style is a most unusual book. Jousse had read some five thousand books from a bewildering variety of disciplines. From these, he selected five hundred pertinent to his topic, and from them he chose extracts which reflected in some way his observations, which he linked by his own bracketed words, sentences and paragraphs. He thus recycled old materials, building a new house from old bricks, following his own research injunction: The aim of research is to quest for and discover fresh insights and under­standing. But how can we discover something fresh and new when it appears as if all has already been discovered? By the incessant, meticulous and de­tailed scrutiny of the Old.”

Ivan Illich also drew on Jousse in his study of medieval cultures of reading, In the Vineyard of the Text. Illich was particularly impressed by Jousse’s work on psychomotor reading techniques employed in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic settings. Memorization in these contexts was construed as a fully embodied rather than strictly mental activity. Illich noted that the content of sacred texts was memorized “through careful attention paid to the psychomotor nerve impulses which accompany the sentences being learned.” In Koranic and Jewish schools, students read aloud as they swayed and rocked back and forth and in this way were able to later “re-evoke” the text through the activation of those same body movements. In this analysis, Illich is explicitly drawing on research conducted by Jousse:

“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.”

Ong’s and Illich’s concerns overlap with, but do not encompass the scope of Jousse’s ambitious anthropological project. Jousse developed a cosmological, mimetic theory of human communication. The universe, according to Jousse, impresses itself upon human beings. In fact, it impresses itself on all objects and organisms. The whole of reality is acting and acted upon. Human beings, however, not only receive this impression; they also act out the impression they have received, and this acting out is originally gestural. Sienaert summarizes:

“Man thus first relates to the world which imposes upon him the play of actual experiences. But this is not a passive process: on reception of reality, man is also animated by an energy that is released and that makes him react in the form of gestures.”

Moreover, human beings are uniquely capable of not only responding in their gestures to the impressions of reality, they are capable of re-playing or re-presenting those impressions. In other words, they can remember, they have memories. And before the advent of language, these memories were carried in the body. The transition from gestural to spoken language marks, in Jousse’s view, the transition from anthropology to ethnology. Generic humanity is particularized through the conventional language into which they are socialized.

Yet, even after this transition, the gestural foundations of communication and response to the universe remain embedded in the human being. These underlying structuring principles reveal themselves in what Jousse termed “the oral style.” The oral style is encapsulated in three laws summarized as follows by Sienaert:

1. Le rythmo-mimisme: the law of rhythmo-mimicry. Man is a mimic, he receives, registers, plays, and replays his actual experiences; as movement is possible in sequence only, mimicry is necessarily linked with rhythm.

2. Le bilatéralisme: the law of bilateralism. Man can only express himself in accordance with his physical structure which is bilateral—left and right, up and down, back and forth—and like his global and manual expression, his verbal expression will tend to be bilateral, to balance symmetrically, following a physical and physiological need for equilibrium …

3. Le formulisme: the law of formulism. The biological tendency towards the stereotyping of gestures creates habit, which ensures immediate, easy and sure replay; it is a facilitating psycho-physiological device as it organizes the intussusceptions and the mnesic replay in automatisms—acquired devices necessary to a firm basis for action …

In formulating these laws, based on his study of oral cultures, Jousse came strikingly close to the most prominent contours of the phenomenological account of the body’s role in human perception developed independently by the tradition of thought spanning Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These laws, in other words, may be understood to govern not only verbal expression, but also embodied experience as a whole.

Oral Social Literacy, Past and Present

Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text is an exploration of the evolution of reading and the book in Western Europe during the 13th century. It is focused on Hugh of St. Victor and a well-known work of his titled the Didascalicon, essentially the first guide to the art of reading.

Illich notes, “Before Hugh’s generation, the book is a record of the author’s speech or dictation. After Hugh, increasingly it becomes a repertory of the author’s thought, a screen onto which one projects still unvoiced intentions.”

Illich early on acknowledges his debt to Walter Ong who synthesized a great deal of research on the cultural consequences of the shift from orality to literacy (and later to what Ong called the secondary orality of electronic media).

What is sometimes lost in this schema is the persistence of orality after the emergence of literacy. And not only in the sense that oral cultures existed alongside literate ones, but also in the persistence of orality within literate societies.

A full 1500 years after literacy was effectively internalized into Western society (which is not the same thing as saying that all of those living in Western society were literate), reading remained a fundamentally oral activity. The quotation from Illich above is drawn from a chapter titled, “Recorded Speech to Record of Thought.” That title nicely captures the degree to which writing was understood as a record of oral communication rather than its own distinct medium prior to the period Illich examined.

Here is Illich again on the orality (and corporeality) of literacy through the late medieval period:

“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.”

And here again on the oral and social nature of reading:

“The monastic reader — chanter or mumbler — picks the words from the lines and creates a public social auditory ambience. All those who, with the reader, are immersed in this hearing milieu are equals before the sound … Fifty years after Hugh, typically, this was no longer true. The technical activity of deciphering no longer creates an auditory and, therefore, a social space. The reader then flips through pages. His eyes mirror the two-dimensional page. Soon he will conceive of his own mind in analogy with a manuscript. Reading will become an individualistic activity, intercourse between a self and a page.”

As I read these passages again today, I was reminded of an essay that appeared not too long ago in the Wall Street Journal. In “Is This the Future of Punctuation?”, Henry Hitchings, the author of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, makes the following observation about new proposed punctuations marks such as the  interrobang:

“Such marks are symptoms of an increasing tendency to punctuate for rhetorical rather than grammatical effect. Instead of presenting syntactical and logical relationships, punctuation reproduces the patterns of speech.”

The emergence of telephony, radio, and television marked the re-emergence of orality following the era of print literacy’s dominance. Ong called this secondary orality. Having appeared after literacy, it was not identical to primary orality, but it nonetheless represented a reemergence of orality and its habits which would now compete with literacy on the cultural stage.

Within the last twenty years, however, a funny thing has happened on the way to the world of secondary orality. Writing or text has reasserted itself. Text messaging, emails, online reading, e-reading, etc. — all of these together mean that most of us are deciphering of a lot of text each day. Even our television screens, depending on what we are watching, may be chock full of text, scrolling or otherwise.

But this reemergence of text is marked by orality, as the observation by Hitchings suggests. Can we call this secondary literacy? Is it still useful to speak in terms of literacy and orality?

It has always seemed to me that the orality/literacy distinction got at important historical developments in communication and consciousness. The bare dichotomy glossed over a good deal and it was always in need of qualification, but it was serviceable nonetheless. Secondary orality also pointed to important developments. But now what we appear to have, text having reasserted itself, is a thoroughly blended media environment.

It’s chief characteristic is neither its orality nor its literacy. Rather, it is the preponderance of both together — overlapping, interpenetrating, jostling, complementing, conflating.

Interestingly, there has also been, of course, a reemergence of social literacy, but it is not tied to the oral as it was in the circumstances described by Illich above. Rather than an orally constituted literate social anchored to physical presence, we have a diffused literacy based, image-inflected social often untethered from physical presence.

A social space was, then, constituted by an oral performance of the written text and gathered presences. We have, today, spaces constituted as social by silent reading and the presence of absences.

File all of this under “thinking aloud.” (Except, of course, that it wasn’t!)

Conviviality and Friendship: Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry on the Virtues of Limits

At the start of this year, I was reading through Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text and posting a few excerpts. That book, which paid an acknowledged debt to Walter Ong, focused on developments in the evolution of the book around 1200 and subsequent consequences for literacy and society. (You can visit those posts beginning here.) Illich’s focus on literacy, however, came rather late in his career. He had earlier become well known for his writings, largely critical, on industrialized schooling. His work on schooling established a pattern of critique that he then applied to other institutions of industrial society and its tools. Illich was, by most measures, compassionately radical in his critique.

Among his works in this vein was Tools for Conviviality. Below, I’ve excerpted four paragraphs from the opening chapters of the book which give a sense of the main themes: balance, scale, and limits. Central to Illich’s critique is the notion that there are certain thresholds that, when crossed by production and institutions, result in counter-productivity. Benefits accrue on one side of the threshold, but on the other gains are outpaced by losses. Mostly these losses manifest themselves in the realms of individual self-determination and independence as well as in the social fabric of communities. In the very last line quoted, Illich gives a concise definition of what he means by conviviality.

“I here submit the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools. In each of several dimensions of this balance it is possible to identify a natural scale. When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself. These scales must be identified and the parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored.

Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society’s members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. Corporate endeavors which thus threaten society cannot be tolerated. At this point it becomes irrelevant whether an enterprise is nominally owned by individuals, corporations, or the slate, because no form of management can make such fundamental destruction serve a social purpose.”

And …

“It is now difficult to imagine a modern society in which industrial growth is balanced and kept in check by several complementary, distinct, and equally scientific modes of production. Our vision of the possible and the feasible is so restricted by industrial expectations that any alternative to more mass production sounds like a return to past oppression or like a Utopian design for noble savages. In fact, however, the vision of new possibilities requires only the recognition that scientific discoveries can be useful in at least two opposite ways. The first leads to specialization of functions, institutionalization of values and centralization of power and turns people into the accessories of bureaucracies or machines. The second enlarges the range of each person’s competence, control, and initiative, limited only by other individuals’ claims to an equal range of power and freedom.

To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call ‘convivial.’”

Illich’s focus on scale, limits, and what he calls conviviality is a more theoretical articulation of major themes in the writing of Wendell Berry. Writing in Harper’s in 2008, just as the financial crisis was unfolding, Berry makes the following observations:

“Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. Thus an X marked on a paper ballot no longer fulfills our idea of voting. One problem with this state of affairs is that the work now most needing to be done—that of neighborliness and caretaking—cannot be done by remote control with the greatest power on the largest scale. A second problem is that the economic fantasy of limitlessness in a limited world calls fearfully into question the value of our monetary wealth, which does not reliably stand for the real wealth of land, resources, and workmanship but instead wastes and depletes it.

That human limitlessness is a fantasy means, obviously, that its life expectancy is limited. There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status. We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.

This constraint, however, is not the condemnation it may seem. On the contrary, it returns us to our real condition and to our human heritage, from which our self-definition as limitless animals has for too long cut us off. Every cultural and religious tradition that I know about, while fully acknowledging our animal nature, defines us specifically as humans—that is, as animals (if the word still applies) capable of living not only within natural limits but also within cultural limits, self-imposed. As earthly creatures, we live, because we must, within natural limits, which we may describe by such names as “earth” or “ecosystem” or “watershed” or “place.” But as humans, we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.”

Clearly, Illich and Berry are working against the social and cultural grain. Although, recently, in certain moments, it has seemed to me that we are as a society more open to talk of limits and scale than we have ever been. This may, of course, be merely a passing phase. But perhaps not. Maybe we have passed another sort of threshold, one beyond which we begin to see the roots of our discontent. After all, if for all of our prosperity and technology, a fundamental lack still persists, then perhaps we may reconsider the foundations upon which we have staked our hopes.

In the same essay Berry writes,

In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define “freedom,” for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, “free” is etymologically related to “friend.” These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of “dear” or “beloved.” We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our “identity” is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

If, finally, a life of limits yields, among other benefits, meaningful friendships and their attendant satisfactions, then perhaps the sell may not be quite so hard as it appears.

Technique, Perception, and Friendship

Ivan Illich

Illich on Ellul

In 1993, at a gathering in honor of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich spoke of Ellul’s influence on his own thinking, particularly through Ellul’s theorizing of technique.  Along the way, Illich gives us this intriguing genealogy of his first encounter with Ellul’s work:

La technique entered my existence in 1965 in Santa Barbara, the day when, at Robert Hutchins’s Center, John Wilkinson gave me a copy of The Technological Society that he had just translated, following up on the strong recommendation of Aldous Huxley.

The author of Brave New World clearly found much to admire in Ellul.  Illich goes on to explain the advantage conferred by appropriating Ellul’s analytical concept:

I have adopted this Ellulian concept because it permits me to identify – in education, transport, modern medical and scientific activities – the threshold at which these projects absorb, conceptually and physically, the client into the tool; the threshold where the products of consumption change into things which themselves consume; the threshold where the milieu of technique transforms into numbers those who are entrapped in it; the threshold where technology is decisively transformed into Moloch, the system.

That, of course, is a rather grim analysis of the imperialism of technique, which for Ellul is not simply equated with technology. In The Technological Society, Ellul defines technique as “the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”  He goes on explain how “technique enslaves people, while proffering them the mere illusion of freedom, all the while tyrannically conforming them to the demands of the technological society with its complex of artificial operational objectives.”  So the target of Ellul’s criticism was not technology per se, but a society that had reduced human existence to the tyranny of machinic standards of efficiency and production.  In other words, his target was not so much the machines, as the society that reduces persons to machines.

Echoing McLuhan on media as extensions of man, Illich continues in dire vein:

Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication, one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.  We submit ourselves to fantastic degradations of image and sound consumption in order to anesthetize the pain resulting from having lost reality.

Precisely (and perversely) where we have adopted a tool to connect us with reality, we have lost touch with reality.

It is interesting in the end to note the point to which Illich brings his appreciation of Ellul and his own indictment of technological society:

Therefore, it appears to me that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship.

One is reminded of the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which we are left waiting “not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”  MacIntyre hinged his moral philosophy on the recovery of “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” — or, with Illich, friendship.

Jacques Ellul