The Civilization of Illiteracy Part 6

The Civilization of Illiteracy -

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No longer dealing directly with the object, or intended action, but with its representation, makes it more difficult to share with others experiences pertinent to the object. 2.

The interpretation being no longer one of the direct object, or the intended action, but of its representation, it leads to new experiences, and thus a.s.sociations-some confusing, and others quite stimulating. The image was still close to the object; the confusion regarded actions. Writing is remote from objects, though actions can be better described since differentiation of time is much easier. We know by now that moving images, or sequences of photographs of the action, are even better for this purpose.

With the written word, even in the most primitive use of it, events become the object of record. Relations, as well as reciprocal commitments among community members, can also be put in the records. Norms can be established and imposed. A fundamental change, resulting from the increased productivity of the newly settled communities, is accounted for in writing.

People no longer deal with work in order to live (in order to survive, actually), but with life dedicated to work. Writing, more than previously used signs (sounds, images, movements, colors), estranges human beings from the environment and from themselves. Some feelings (joy, sadness), some att.i.tudes (anger, mistrust) become signs and, once expressed, can be written down (e.g., in letters, wills). In order to be shared, thoughts go through the same process, and so does everything else pertaining to life, activity, change, illness, love, and death.

It was stated many times that writing and the settlement of human beings are related. So are writing and the exchange of goods, as well as what will become known as labor division. While the use of verbal language makes possible the differentiation of human praxis, the use of written language requires the division between physical and non-physical work. Writing requires skills, such as those needed for using a stylus to engrave in wax or clay, quill on parchment, later the art of calligraphy. It implies knowledge of language and of its rules of grammar and spelling. There is a great difference between writing skills and the skills needed for processing animal skins, meat, various agricultural products, and raw materials. The social status of scribes proves only that this difference was duly acknowledged.

It should be added here that the few who mastered writing were also the few who mastered reading. Nevertheless, some historic reference points to the contrary: in the 13th century, non-reading subjects were used as scribes because the accuracy of their undisturbed copying was better than that of those who read. This reference is echoed today in the use of non-English speaking operators to key-in texts, i.e., to transfer acc.u.mulated records into digital databases. And while the number of readers increased continuously, the number of writers, lending their hands as scribes to real writers, remained small for many centuries.

Literacy started as an elitist overhead expenditure in primitive economies, became an elitist occupation surrounded by prejudices and superst.i.tion, expanded after technological progress (however rudimentary) facilitated its dissemination, and was finally validated in the marketplace as a prerequisite for the higher efficiency of the industrial age. Primitive barter did not rely on and did not require the written word, although barter continued even after the place of written language became secure. In barter, people interact by exchanging whatever they produce in order to fulfill their immediate needs within a diversified production.

The alienation peculiar to barter and the alienation characteristic of a market relying on the mediating function of written language are far from being one and the same. In short, exchanging is fundamentally different from selling and buying.

Products to be exchanged still bear the mark of those who sweat to produce them. Products to be sold become impersonal; their only ident.i.ty is the need they might satisfy or sometimes generate. Myth, as a set of practical programs for a limited number of local human experiences, no longer satisfied exigencies of a community diversifying its experience and interacting with communities living in different environments.

This contrast of market forms characteristic of orality and of incipient writing is related to the contrast between myth transmitted orally and mythology, a.s.sociated with the experience of writing. Language in its written form appeared as a sui generis social memory, as potential history.

The obsession with genealogies (in China, India, Egypt, among the Hebrews, and in oral culture in general) was an obsession with human sequences stored in a memory with social dimensions. It was also an obsession with time, since each genealogical line is simultaneously a historic record-who did what, when and where; who followed; and how things changed. Most of these aspects are only implicit in genealogy. In oral culture, genealogies were turned into mnemonic devices, easily adjustable to new conditions of life, but still circular, and just as easily transformable from a record of the past into a command for the future. In its incipient phases as notation and record, genealogy still relied on images to a great extent (the family tree), but also on the spoken, maintaining a variability similar to that of the oral. Nevertheless, the possibility for more stabilized expression, for storing, for uniformity, and consistency was given in the very structure of writing. These were progressively reached in the first attempts to articulate ideas, concepts, and what would become the corpus of theoria- contemplation of things translated into language-on which the sciences and humanities of yesterday, and even some of today, are based. Theories are in some ways genealogies, with a root and branches representing hypotheses and various inferences.

Written language extended the permanence of records (genealogies, owners.h.i.+p, theories, etc.) and facilitated access through relatively uniform codes.

In the city-states of ancient Greece, writing alerted people working within the pragmatic constraints of orality to the dangers involved in a new mechanism of expression and communication. Writing seemed to introduce its own inaccuracies, either because of a deliberate att.i.tude towards certain experiences, or as a result of systematic avoidance of inconsistency, which ended up affecting the records of facts. As we know, facts are not intrinsically consistent in their succession. Therefore, we still use all kinds of strategies to align them, even if they are obliquely random. In the oral mode, as opposed to procedures later introduced through writing, consistency was maintained by a succession of adaptations in the sequence of conversations through which records were transmitted. Within oral communication, there is a direct form of criticism, i.e., the self-adjusting function of dialogue.

Completeness and consistency are different in conversation (open-ended) than in written text, and even more different in formal languages.

Memory itself was also at issue. Reliance on the written might affect memory- which was the repository of a people's tradition and ident.i.ty in the age of orality- because it provided an alternative medium for storage. The written has a different degree of expression and leaves a different impression than the oral. Writing, confined to those who read, could also affect const.i.tution and sharing of knowledge. Writing was characterized as superficial, not reaching the soul (again, lacking expressiveness), interfering between the source of knowledge and the receiver of any lesson about knowledge. Spoken words are the words of the person speaking them. A written text seems to take on a life of its own and appears as external, alien. The written is given and does not account for differences among human beings; the spoken can be adapted or changed, its coherence dependent upon the circ.u.mstances of the dialogue. There are societies today (the Netsidik, the Nuer, the Ba.s.sari, to name a few) that still prefer the oral to the written. Within their pragmatic framework, the live expression of the human uttering the words in the presence of others conveys more information than the same words can in writing.

The memory of a literate society becomes more and more a repository of the various mediations in social life and loses its relation to direct experience. Things said (what the Greeks called legomena) are different from things done (dromena). The written word connects to other words, not to things done. And so does the sentence, when it acquires its status as a relatively complete unit of language. But the real change is brought about by the written, whether on papyrus, clay, scroll or tablet, or in stone or lead. Such a page connects to other written pages and to writing in general. Thus, things done disappear in the body of history, which becomes the collection of writings, eventually stored on bookshelves. The meaning of history is expressed in the variability of the connections ascertained from one text to another. When the here and now of dromena are expurgated, we remain only with the consciousness of sequences.

This is a gain, but also a loss: the holistic meaning of experience vanishes.

How much of this kind of criticism, opposing the oral to the written, is relevant to the phenomena of our time cannot be evaluated in a simple statement. Language has changed so much that in order to understand texts originating at the time of this criticism, we have to translate and annotate them. Some are already reconst.i.tuted from writings of a later time (i.e., of a different pragmatic framework), or even from translations. There is no direct correspondence between the literacy of emergent writing and that of automated writing and reading. In some cases we have to define a contextual reference in the absence of which large parts of these recuperated texts make little sense, if any, to people const.i.tuted in literacy and in a pragmatic reality so different from that of thousands of years ago. Even written words are dependent on the context in which they are used. In other words, although it seems that written language is less alive than conversation, and less bound to change, it actually changes. We write today, using technologies for word processing, in ways different from any other practical experience of writing.

The criticism voiced in Plato's time cannot be entirely dismissed. Writing became the medium through which some human experiences were reified. It allowed for extreme subjectivity: In the absence of dialogue and of the influence of criticism through dialogue, the past was continuously reinvented according to goals and values of the writer's present. In orality-dominated social life, opinion (which Greeks called doxa) was the product of language activity, and it had to be immediate. In writing, truth is sought and preserved. What made Socrates sound so fierce (at least in Plato's dialogues) in his attacks against writing was his intuition of progressive removal from the source of thinking, hence the danger of unfaithful interpretation. Socrates, as well as Plato, feared indirectness and wrote conclusively about memory and wisdom.

Situated between Socrates and Aristotle, Plato could observe and express the consequences of writing: "I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the att.i.tude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence." As one of the first philosophers of writing, Plato could not yet observe that writing is not simply the transcription of thoughts (of the words through which and in which humans think), that ideas are formed differently in writing than in speech, that writing represents a qualitatively new sign system in which meanings are formed and communicated through a mechanism once more mediated in respect to practical reality. The subject of confidence in language became the central theme of the Sophists'

exercise, of Medieval philosophy, of Romanticism, and of the literature of the absurd (symptomatically popular in the years following World War 2).

Moving from the past to the present, we notice that memory is an issue of extreme importance today, too. Literacy challenges the reliability of memory across the board, even when memory is the repository of facts through which people establish themselves in the world of work. Professionals ranging from doctors, lawyers, and military commanders to teachers, nurses, and office personnel rely more on memory than do factory workers on an a.s.sembly line. The paradox is that the more educated a professional is, the less he or she needs to rely on literacy in the exercise of his or her profession, except in the initial learning process, which is made through books. With the advent of video and ca.s.sette tapes or disks, with digital storage and networks, literacy loses its supremacy as transmitter of knowledge.

What makes language necessary is also what explains its history and its characteristics. Language came to life in a process through which humans projected themselves into the reality of their existence, identified themselves in respect to natural and social environments, and followed a path of linear growth.

Orality testifies to limited, circular experiences but corresponds to an unsettled human being in search of well being and security. It relied on memory for the most part and was a.s.similated in ritual. The written appeared in the context of several fundamental changes: diversified human praxis, settlement, and a market that outgrew barter, each related and influencing the other. Its main result was the division between mental and physical labor. It made speaking, writing, and reading-characteristics of literacy, as we know it from the perspective of literate societies-logically possible. In fact, it represented only the possibility of literacy, not its beginning.

Once we understand how language works and what were some of the functions of language that corresponded to the new stage made possible by writing, we shall also understand how writing contributed to the future ideal of literacy.

Orality and Writing Today: What Do People Understand When They Understand Language?

Sitting before your computer, you connect to the World Wide Web.

What is of interest today? How about something in neurosurgery?

Somewhere on this planet, a neurosurgeon is operating. You can see individual neurons triggering right on your monitor. Or you can view how the surgeon tests the patient's pattern recognition abilities, allowing the surgeon to draw a map of the brain's cognitive functioning, a map essential for the outcome of the operation. Every now and then the dialogue between surgeon and a.s.sistants is complemented by the display of data coming from different monitoring devices. Can you understand the language they are using? Could a written report of the operation subst.i.tute for the real-time event? For a student in neurosurgery, or for a researcher, the issue of understanding is very different from what it would be for a lay-person.

Tired of science? A concert is taking place at another Internet address. Musical groups from all over the world are sending their live music to this address. As a multi- threaded performance, this concert enables its listeners to select from among the many simultaneously performing groups. They sing about love, hope, understanding...all the themes that each listener is familiar with. Still, understanding every word the musicians use, do you understand what is taking place?

Moving away from the Internet, one could visit a factory, a stock exchange, a store. One could find oneself in subway in any city, witness a first-grade cla.s.s in session, or pursue business in a government office. All these scenarios embody the various forms of self-const.i.tution through practical activity. It seems that everyone involved is talking the same language, but who understands what? In seemingly simpler contexts, what do individuals understand today when they understand a written instruction or conversations, casual or official? The context is our day, which is different from that of any previous time, and, in particular, different from that of a literacy- dominated pragmatics. The answers to the questions posed above do not come easily. A foundation has to be provided for addressing such questions from a perspective broader than that afforded by the examples given.

A feedback called confirmation

Understanding language is a process that extends far beyond knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. Where there is no sharing of experience beyond what a particular language sequence expresses, there is no understanding. This sounds like a difficult expectation. To be met, the non-expressed must be present in the listener, reader, or writer. Language must recreate the non-expressed, through the sequence heard, read, or written, and related to it, beyond the words recognized and the grammar used. Behind each word that people comprehend, there is either a common practical experience, or a shared pragmatic framework, or minimally some form of shared understanding, which const.i.tute what is known as background knowledge. "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world," Wittgenstein promulgated. I would rephrase, in an attempt to connect knowledge and experience, "The limits of my experience are the limits of my world." Self-const.i.tution in language is such an experience.

The first level of the indirect relation established between someone expressing something in language and someone else trying to understand it is concentrated in a semantic a.s.sumption: "I know that you know." But is it a sufficient condition to continue a conversation, let's say about a hunted animal, fire, or a tool, as long as the listener knows what the hunted animal or fire is?

Many who study semantics think that it is, and accordingly devise strategies for establis.h.i.+ng a shared semantic background.

These strategies range from making sure that students in a cla.s.s understand the same things when they use the same words, to publis.h.i.+ng comprehensive dictionaries of what they perceive as the necessary shared knowledge in order to maintain cultural coherence at the appropriate scale of the group or community in question. In the final a.n.a.lysis, these strategies correspond to a semantically based model of cultural education driven by the Chomskyan distinction between competence and performance. They identify the problem in the incongruence of our individual dictionaries (vocabulary), not in the diversity of human practical experiences. The a.s.sumption is that once people understand what is in language, they apply it (pragmatics as "uses and effects of signs within the behavior in which they occur," according to J. Lyons). We know by now that after a certain stage of unifying influences corresponding to industrial society, this congruence becomes impossible when the scale of human experience changes. The examples given at the beginning of this chapter are evidence of this fact.

What I maintain throughout this book is that language is const.i.tuted in human experiences, not merely applied to them.

Performance predates competence. Recognition, of an utterance, a written word, a sentence, is itself an experience through which individuals define each one of themselves. Within a limited scale of existence and experience, the h.o.m.ogeneity of the circ.u.mstance guaranteed the coherence of language use. As the number of people increases, and as they are involved in increasingly varied experiences, they no longer share a h.o.m.ogeneous pragmatic framework. Consequently, they can no longer a.s.sume the coherence of language. Progressively, ever diversifying practical experiences cause words, phrases, and sentences to mean more and different things at the same time. Instantiation of meaning is always in the experience through which individuals const.i.tute their ident.i.ty.

Examination of the various elements affecting the status of literacy in the contemporary world of fragmented practical experiences opens a new perspective on language. Within this perspective, we acknowledge how and when similar experiences make the unifying framework of literacy possible and necessary.

We also acknowledge from which point literacy is complemented by literacies and what, if anything, bridges among such literacies.

Direct experience and mediated experience are the two stages to be considered. In particular, we are interested in language at the level where direct experience is affected by the insertion of gestures, sounds, and initial words.

Indirectness implies awareness of a shared reference-the gesture, the sound, the word-that is simultaneously shared experience. At this level, there is no generality. Patterns of activity are patterns of self-const.i.tution: in the act of hunting, the hunter projects physical abilities (running, seeing, ability to use the terrain, to grab stones, to target).

In relation to other hunters, he projects abilities pertinent to coordination, planning, and reciprocal understanding. Within this pragmatic framework, a level of indirectness is const.i.tuted: confirmation, or what cybernetics identifies as feedback, in all biological processes. Along this line, the initial (unuttered and obviously unwritten) "I know that you know" becomes subsequently "I know that you know that I know."

Coordination and hierarchy within the given task come into the picture. Indeed, if we consider the experience as the origin of meaning in language, the sequence of a.s.sumptions is even larger: "I know that you know that I know that you know." It corresponds to a cognitive level totally different from that of direct practical experiences.

In a way, this threefold sequence shows how syntax is enveloped in semantics, and both in the pragmatics that determines them.

Applied to the hunting scene, it says, "I know that you know that I am over here, opposite you, we are both closing in on a hunted animal, and I know that you are aware that you might throw your spear in my direction; but the fact that we share in the knowledge of who is placed where will help us get the animal and not kill each other by accident." At a very small scale of human experiences, the sequence was realized without language. Patterns of activity captured its essence. At a larger scale, words replaced signs used for coordination. Writing established frames of reference and a medium for planning more complex activities.

The language of drawings, for what eventually became artifacts, confirmed the sequence in the built-in knowledge. The Internet browser, a graphic interface to an infinity of simultaneous experiences of sharing information, frees partic.i.p.ants from saying to each other, "h.e.l.lo. I am here." It facilitates a virtual community of individuals who const.i.tute the experience of real-time neurosurgery, or the virtual concert mentioned at the beginning of this section. In similar ways, new patterns of work in the civilization of illiteracy const.i.tute our work-place, school, or government, based on the same pragmatic a.s.sumptions.

Between the primitive hunters and those who in our days identify their presence by all kinds of devices-a badge, a pager, a mobile phone, an access card, a pa.s.sword-there is a difference in the means and forms used to acknowledge the shared awareness that affects the outcome of the experience. Even the simple act of greeting someone we think we know implies the whole sequence of feedback (double confirmation, each partic.i.p.ant's awareness, and shared awareness). This says, probably in too many words: 1.

To understand language means to understand all the others with whom we share practical experiences of self-const.i.tution. 2.

All the others must realize this implicit expectation of communication. 3.

Each new pragmatic context brings about new experiences and new forms of awareness. This understanding can go something along the line of, "I know that you know that I know that you know"

what the hunted animal is, what fire is, which tool can be used and how; or in today's context, what surgery is, what a brain is, what a virtual concert is, what a certain activity in a production cycle affects, what the function of a particular government office is. Otherwise, the conversation would stop, or another means of expression (such as recreating fire, or demonstrating a tool) would have to be used, as happened in the past and as frequently happens today: "I know that you know how to drive a car (or use a computer), but let me show you how."

Confirmation in language, gestures, and facial expression signals the understanding. Whenever this understanding fails, it fails on account of the missing confirmation. When this confirmation is no longer uniquely provided by means characteristic of literacy-let us recall modern warfare, technology controlling nuclear reactors, electronic transactions-the need for literacy is subject to doubt. Since the majority of instruction conveyed today is through images (drawings), or image and sound (videotapes), or some combination of media, it is not surprising that literacy is met with skepticism, if not by those who teach, at least by those who are taught. In the pragmatics of their existence they already live beyond the literate understanding.

This applies not only to the Internet, but just as well to places of work, schools, government, and other instances of pragmatic activity.

Primitive orality and incipient writing

In addition to the general background of understanding, there are many levels, represented by the clues present in speech or writing, or in other forms of expression and communication. For example, a question is identified by some vocal expression accepted as interrogation. In writing, the question is denoted by a particular sign, depending on the particular language. But other clues, no less important, are more deeply seated. They refer to such things as intention, who is talking-man, woman, child, policeman, priest-the context of the talk, hierarchies-social, s.e.xual, moral-and many other clues. Much extra-language background knowledge goes into human language and directs understanding from experience to language use. Dialogue is more than two persons throwing sentences at each other. It is a pragmatic situation requiring as much language as understanding of the context of the conversation because each partner in the dialogue const.i.tutes himself or herself for the other. Dialogue is the elementary cell of communication experience. Within dialogue, language is transcended by the many other sign systems through which human self-const.i.tution takes place. Dialogues make it clear that understanding language becomes a supra- (or para-) linguistic endeavor. It requires the discovery of the clues, in and outside language, and of their relations.h.i.+p. But more importantly, it requires the reconstruction of experience as it is embodied in background knowledge.

By contrasting primitive orality to incipient writing, we can understand that the process of establis.h.i.+ng conventions is motivated by the need to overrule concreteness and to access a new cognitive realm that a different pragmatic context necessitates. By understanding how experience affects their relation, we can consider orality and writing in successive moments of human pragmatics, i.e., within a concrete scale of humankind. Indeed, when writing emerged, elements of orality corresponding to a reduced scale of experience were reproduced in its structure because they were continued at the cognitive level. In our days, there is a far less pressing need to mimic orality in written signs. Some will argue that 4 Sale, 4-Runner, While-U-Wait, and Toys 'R' Us, among other such expressions, are examples to the contrary. These attempts to compress language represent ways of establis.h.i.+ng visual icons, of achieving a synthetic level better adapted to fast exchange of information.

We see many more examples in interactive multimedia, or in the heavy traffic of Internet-based communication. There is no literacy involved here, and no literacy is expected in decoding the message. There is a strong new orality, with characteristics reminiscent of previous orality. But the dominant element is the visual as it becomes a new icon. The international depiction of a valentine-shaped heart to represent the word love is one example in this sense; the icons used in Europe on clothing care labels are others.

Time reference in texts today is made difficult by the nature of processes characteristic of our age: numerous simultaneous transactions, distributed activity, interconnection, rapid change of rules. These cannot be appropriately expressed in a written text. In the global world, Now means quite a different thing for individuals connected over many time zones. Sunrise experienced on the Web page of the city of Santa Monica can be immediately a.s.sociated to poetic text through a link. But the implicit experience of time (and s.p.a.ce) carried by language and made instrumental in literacy does not automatically refresh itself.

It took thousands of years before humans became acquainted with the conventions of writing. It is possible that some of these conventions were a.s.similated in the hardware (brain) supporting cognitive activity and progressively projected in new forms of self-const.i.tution. The practice of writing and the awareness of the avenues it opened led to new conventions. Practical endeavors, originating in the conventions of s.p.a.ce and time, implicit in the written (and the subsequent reading), resulted in changed conventions. For instance, the discovery that time and s.p.a.ce could be fragmented, a major realization probably not possible in the culture of orality, resulted in new practical experiences and new theories of s.p.a.ce and time.

Once writing became a practical experience and const.i.tuted a legitimate reality, at a level of generality characteristic of its difference from gestures, sounds, uttered words or sentences, a.s.sociations became possible at several levels of the text. Some were so unexpected or unusual that understanding such a.s.sociations turned into a real challenge for the reader. This challenge regarding understanding is obviously characteristic of new levels, such as the self-referential, omnipresent in the wired world of home pages. In some ways, language is becoming a medium for witnessing the relation between the conscious, unconscious, or subconscious, and language itself. The brain surgery mentioned some pages ago suppressed the patient's conscious recognition of objects or actions by inhibiting certain neurons.

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