“Sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences”

I’ve recently been emailed two interesting posts that intersect nicely with my reading of Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text.  Illich is looking back at a transition in reading technologies and practices in the 12th century in order to gain perspective on the transformation taking  place when he is writing in the early 1990’s.  Illich’s analysis may be even more timely now, 15+ years after he wrote, as e-readers seem to have finally caught on and secured widespread acceptance and use.

The first post, “Bye, Bye, Borders?” by Megan McArdle at The Atlantic, considers recent rumors about the imminent demise of Borders (rumors which most likely are not, as in the case of Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated).  Here is her main point:

Personally I hope they’re wrong, too; like most writers, I like bookshops.  I suspect most of us had our destiny shaped while we were sandwiched behind the bookshelves at our local dealer.

On the other hand, like most of the writers I know, I rarely go into bookshops anymore.  Instead, the UPS truck stops at our house at least once a week, thanks to Prime, and more and more, I order Kindle books straight from my iPad.  I know that I am missing something–the serendipity of browsing through the bookshelves–which I have never replaced at Amazon; much as I love the convenience of online shopping, I never find anything that I am not looking for.

This is when the communitarians start looking for a government rule that will make it harder for people to buy books online; the environmentalists complain about all the energy wasted on shipping; and the moderate nostalgists start urging people to support their local bookstore.  But I’ll go by a combination of revealed preference and introspection:  the world may be better off without Borders, even though I (and everyone else who has stopped shopping there) likes the idea of its existence.

There is a certain irony here since it was not that long ago that Borders and Barnes & Noble were the villains, not the victims, in the story we told about the demise of small, independent books shops.  You remember You’ve Got Mail, no?

The second post, “Open Books:  The E-Reader Reads You” by Rob Horning at The New Inquiry, considers the wealth of data about the user that becomes available to publishers and distributors through E-Readers like Amazon’s Kindle.  Horning makes a number of observations that pair up suggestively with themes in Illich.  Consider this paragraph, for example, in which Horning cites literary critic Franco Moretti:

That is, the truth about them for publishers will be no different from what it is for distant-reading critics like Moretti — a matter of tabulated, graphable data. “Distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text,” Moretti argues. “And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more.”

Moretti’s advocacy of distance appears a ways down a road tread by Hugh of Saint Victor’s when he advocated a pilgrim ethic for scholars summarized as follows by Illich:

With the spirit of self-definition, estrangement acquires a new positive meaning.  Hugh’s call away from the ‘sweetness of one’s native soil’ and to a journey of self-discovery is but one instance of the new ethos . . Hugh’s insistence on the need that the scholar be an exile-in-spirit echoes this mood.

Like McArdle, Horning explores the loss of the physical bookstore (or library) as a place of serendipitous discovery in light of increasingly sophisticated recommendation algorithms used by online booksellers.

Thanks to these innovations, publishers will know what books you’ve read; when you read them; what you chose to read next, or simultaneously; how long it took you; and what other books people read when they read what you have. The potential data mine this all represents may eventually divest readers of their need to discover anything. Instead, recommendation engines can take over, manufacturing serendipity for users as is already the case on Amazon’s website, only now with the not necessarily solicited advice being ported directly into the scene of reading. And if you shop through Google’s new bookstore, all that information and be joined with all the data derived from your search and browsing histories to further refine recommendations and circumscribe the scope of what is readily offered to you.

Horning, however, is slightly less sanguine than McArdle:

But perhaps more important, publishers will be able to draw from trends in this rich data for its editorial decision making, exploiting connections this information reveals among various demographics in the reading public, calibrating their lists to actual reader behavior with more precision that dumb sales data once allowed. Such rapid responsiveness can trigger a feedback loop that precludes the possibility of spontaneous, unexpected desires, fashioning a smoothly functioning market sealed off from vital disruptions. Readers will be sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences. To capture the feeling of discovery and possibility again, they will have to look somewhere other than books.

The most startling contrast is clearly between McArdle’s somewhat begrudging embrace of “revealed preference” and Horning’s characterization of the same as “tombs” into which readers will be sealed.  Horning’s concerns also echo those of Jaron Lanier which we noted here a couple of months ago:

Students spend a lot of time acting as trivialized relays in giant schemes designed for the purposes of advertising and other revenue-minded manipulations. They are prompted to create databases about themselves and then trust algorithms to assemble streams of songs and movies and stories for their consumption . . . . The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure.

The title of Horning’s post is interesting in this regard:  “Open Books:  The E-Reader Reads You.”  There was also a sense in which the book read the reader in twelfth century.   The book presented the reader with an external standard to which the reader, depending on the text,  may need to conform.  This is why Hugh believed reading and learning required humility.  Without humility the reader would fail to subject his own views and practices to the order of things that a text may reveal.  In other words, the book read the reader by illuminating where the reader must change; the reader read to discover an order to which they must align their inner world.  The technology bundled with the E-reader, and the economic models it participates in, reads the user and precisely the opposite sense.  It reads the reader in order to bring external realities into conformity with the existing internal dispositions of the user.

What reading is and is for, what counts for knowledge and wisdom, the rise and fall of social hierarchies — these have been transformed over the course of time as new technologies for representing and communicating human thought have emerged .  With Illich, I’m hopeful that understanding past developments in these areas will give us some guideposts to steer by as we experience these types of transformations in the present.


Thanks to Mr. Ridenhour and Mr. Greenwald for the links.

“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)

“Reading toward Wisdom”

More from Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text.  Excerpts from the first chapter, “Reading toward Wisdom” (page numbers in parenthesis).  Previous post in the series:  “In the Vineyard of the Text”.

There is a line, whose source I’ve forgotten, that goes something like, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Reading about the past is then a little like visiting a foreign country.  Such visits can teach us a good deal about ourselves by throwing our own habits and patterns of thought into relief against the backdrop of the past.  To recognize our difference from the other is to see ourselves a little more clearly.

And so Illich is our guide on this particular foray into the past and below are some observations that touch on the end or goal of reading, the relationship between reading/learning and character, and the correlation between new forms of reading and new understandings of the self:

  • Omnium expetendorum prima est sapentia.  ‘Of all things to be sought, the first is wisdom.’  This is how Jerome Taylor translates the lead sentence of the Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor, written around 1128.” (7)
  • “Hugh’s writings are drenched in Augustine.  He lived in a community that followed Augustine’s rule.  He read, reread, and copied the texts of his master.  Reading and writing were for him two almost indistinguishable sides of the same studium.” (9)
  • “As with Augustine, wisdom was for Hugh not something but someone.  Wisdom in the Augustinian tradition is the second person of the Trinity, Christ . . . . The wisdom Hugh seeks is Christ himself.  Learning and, specifically, reading, are both simply forms of a search for Christ the Remedy, Christ the Example and Form which fallen humanity, which has lost it, hopes to recover.  The need of fallen humanity for reunion with wisdom is central to Hugh’s thought.  This makes the concept of remedium, remedy or medicine, crucial for an understanding of Hugh.”  (10)
  • “Hugh, by developing the concept of remedium, provides for the twentieth-century thinker a unique way to address the issue of technique or technology.  Reading, as Hugh perceives and interprets it, is an ontologically remedial technique.  I intend to explore it as such.  I analyze what Hugh has to say about the techniques used in reading in order to explore the role that alphabetic technology played around 1130 in the shaping of these techniques.”  (11)
  • “I am here concerned primarily with ‘alphabetic technology’ which interacts in a unique, epoch-specific way around 1130 with the northwest European symbolic universe, and how changes in world perception in turn facilitated and oriented the choice of technologies.  In taking this approach to the alphabet as a technology I am indebted to Walter Ong, S. J., Orality and Literacy . . .”  (11, footnote 11)
  • “Authorities, in this now obsolete sense, are sentences which created precedents and defined reality . . . The sentence states an obvious truth precisely because it has been disembedded from the discourse of this or that particular author; it had become a free-floating statement.  As such a verbal institution, the auctorias [sentence worthy of repetition] quoted by Hugh became an exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition.”  (13)
  • “. . . the thought of an ultimate goal of all readings is not meaningful to us.  Even less is there any idea that such a goal could motivate or ’cause’ our action whenever we open a book.  We are steeped in the spirit of engineering and think of the trigger as the cause of a process.  We do not think of the heart as the cause of the bullet’s trajectory . . . . Even more thoroughly, the idea of one first or primary Final Cause, one ultimate motivating reason of all desires that are hidden in the nature of the stone or of the plant or of the reader, has become foreign to our century.  ‘End stage’ in the twentieth-century mental universe connotes death.  Entropy is our ultimate destiny. We experience reality as monocausal.  We know only efficient causes. ”  (13-14)
  • “Studies pursued in a twelfth-century cloister challenged the student’s heart and sense even more than his stamina and brains.  Study did not refer to a liminal epoch of life, as it usually does in modern times, when we say that someone ‘is still a student.’  They encompassed the person’s daily and lifelong routine, his social status, and his symbolic function.” (14-15)
  • “The studium legendi forms the whole monk and reading will become perfect as the monk himself strives for, and finally reaches, perfection.

The beginning of discipline is humility . . . and for the reader there are three lessons taught by humility that are particularly important:  First, that he hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt.  Second, that he not blush to learn from any man.  Third, that when he as attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else.”  (15-16)

  • “The reader is one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.” (17)
  • “That which we mean today when, in ordinary conversation, we speak of the ‘self’ or the ‘individual,’ is one of the great discoveries of the twelfth century . . . .  A social reality in which our kind of self is taken for granted constitutes an eccentricity among cultures . . . .  [Hugh] wants the reader to face the page so that  by the light of wisdom he shall discover his self in the mirror of the parchment.  In the page the reader will acknowledge himself not in the way others see him or by the titles or nicknames by which they call him, but by knowing himself by sight.”  (22-23)
  • “With the spirit of self-definition, estrangement acquires a new positive meaning.  Hugh’s call away from the ‘sweetness of one’s native soil’ and to a journey of self-discovery is but one instance of the new ethos . . . . [that] addresses people at all levels of the feudal hierarchy to leave the common mind-set of the neighborhood, within which identity comes from the way others have named me and treat me, and to discover their selves in the loneliness of the long road . . . . Hugh’s insistence on the need that the scholar be an exile-in-spirit echoes this mood.”  (23)
  • “I am not suggesting that the ‘modern self’ is born in the twelfth century, nor that the self which here emerges does not have a long ancestry.  We today think of each other as people with frontiers.  Our personalities are as detached from each other as are our bodies.  Existence in an inner distance from the community, which the pilgrim who set out to Santiago or the pupil who studied the Didascalicon had to discover on their own, is for us a social reality, something so obvious that we would not think of wishing it away.  We were born into a world of exiles . . . . This existential frontier is of the essence for a person who wants to fit into our kind of world.  Once it has shaped a child’s mental topology, that being will forever be a foreigner in all ‘worlds’ except those integrated by exiles like himself.”
  • “What I want to stress here is a special correspondence between the emergence of selfhood understood as a person and the emergence of ‘the’ text from the page.  Hugh directs his reader to a foreign land.  But he does not ask him to leave his family and accustomed landscape to move on the road from place toward Jerusalem or Santiago.  Rather he demands that he exile himself to start on a pilgrimage that leads through the pages of a book.  He speaks of the Ultimate which should attract the pilgrim, not as the celestial city for pilgrims of the staff, but as the form of Supreme Goodness which motivates the pilgrims of the pen.  He points out that on this road the reader is on his way into the light which will reveal his own self to him.”

“In the Vineyard of the Text”


That is the title of a slender volume authored by historian and social critic Ivan Illich in 1993 and subtitled, A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon.  The Hugh in question is Hugh of St. Victor, a medieval theologian, philosopher, and mystic who wrote the Didascalicon around 1128.  According to Illich, Hugh’s Didascalicon was the “first book written on the art of reading” and  Illich believes that revisiting this 12th century work will help us better understand our ongoing transition from “bookish” reading to whatever multiple forms of reading have been emerging in the wake of the electronic or digital revolution.

In the spirit of the commonplace book, I’m going to transcribe some excerpts from In the Vineyard of the Text below and in subsequent posts over the next several days.  Realizing that there are countless books I would like to read and for a variety of reasons will simply not ever get to, I appreciate it when I can nonetheless get some gleanings from one of those books through a review or post that excerpts some of the key ideas worth considering.  Hardly the best form of reading, but nonetheless a useful one I think.  So in the hope that this will prove useful and because I do think Illich wrote a remarkably insightful little book, here are some selections from the Introduction:

  • “I concentrate my attention on a fleeting but very important moment in the history of the alphabet when, after centuries of Christian reading, the page was suddenly transformed from a score for pious mumblers into an optically organized text for logical thinkers.  After this date a new kind of classical reading became the dominant metaphor for the highest form of social activity.”
  • “Quite recently reading-as-a-metaphor has been broken again.  The picture and its caption, the comic book, the table, box, and graph, photographs, outlines, and integration with other media demand from the user textbook habits which are contrary to those cultivated in scholastic readerships.”
  • Quoting George Steiner:  “The development of the modern book and of book-culture as we know it seems to have depended on a comparable fragility of crucial and interlocking factors.”
  • “Classical print culture was an ephemeral phenomenon.  According to Steiner, to belong to ‘the age of the book’ meant to own the means of reading.  The book was a domestic object; it was accessible at will for re-reading.  The age presupposed private space and the recognition of the right to periods of silence, as well as the existence of echo-chambers such as journals, academies, or coffee circles.  Book culture required a more or less agreed-upon canon of textual values and modes . . . . [T]he formalities involved in this one kind of reading defined, and did not just reflect, the dimensions of social topology.”
  • “The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place.  The alphabetic text has become but one of many modes of encoding something, now called ‘the message.'”
  • “Bookish reading can now clearly be recognized as an epochal phenomenon and not as a logically necessary step in the progress toward the rational use of the alphabet; as one mode of interaction with the written page among several; as a particular vocation among many, to be cultivated by some, leaving other modes to others.”
  • “. . . in the first six chapters I describe and interpret a technical breakthrough which took place  around 1150, three hundred years before movable type came into use.  This breakthrough consisted in the combination of more than a dozen technical inventions and arrangements through which the page was transformed from score to text.  Not printing, as is frequently assumed, but this bundle of innovations, twelve generations earlier, is the necessary foundation for all stages through which bookish culture has gone since.  This collection of techniques and habits made it possible to imagine the ‘text’ as something detached from the physical reality of  a page.  It both reflected and in turn conditioned a revolution in what learned people did when they read — and what they experienced reading to mean.”
  • “By centering our analysis on the object that is shaped by letters, and on the habits and fantasies connected with its use, we turn this object into a mirror reflecting significant transformations in the mental shape of western societies, something not easily brought out by other approaches.”
  • “What had started as a study in the history of technology, ended up as a new insight into the history of the heart.  We came to understand Hugh’s ars legendi [art of reading] as an ascetic discipline focused by a technical object.  Our meditation on the survival of this mode of reading under the aegis of the bookish text led us to enter upon a historical study of an asceticism that faces the threat of computer ‘literacy.'”

The Introduction as a whole challenges us to think again about the activity of reading.  We assume reading to be a singular activity, we assume it is always done in the same way and for the same reasons, we do not think of the alphabet as a technology that can be deployed in multiple modes, we do not think of a whole cultural milieu depending on something so mundane as reading, we do not think that changes in reading habits and assumptions about reading could reorder society.  By taking us back some 900 years Illich aims to show us that these are mistaken assumptions.

More to come.