I’ve been experimenting lately with aphorisms. Pithy one-liners of the sort favored by writers like La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680). My goal was to turn a relatively big idea, the sort I would normally turn into a 4000-word post, into a one-liner. After many failed attempts over the last few months, a few weeks ago, I finally managed to craft one I was happy with:
Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.
Many hours of thought went into this 11-word candidate for eternal quotability. When I was done, I was tempted to immediately unpack it in a longer essay, but then I realized that that would defeat the purpose. Maxims and aphorisms are about more than terseness in the face of expensive writing technology. They are about basic training in literacy. The aphorism above is possibly the most literate thing I have ever written. By stronger criteria I’ll get to, it might even be the only literate thing I’ve ever written, which means I’ve been illiterate until now.
This post isn’t about the aphorism itself (I’ll leave you to play with it), but about literacy.
I used to think that the terseness of written language through most of history was mostly a result of the high cost and low reliability of writing technologies in pre-modern times. I now think these were secondary issues. I have come to believe that the very word literacy meant something entirely different before around 1890, when print technology became cheap enough to sustain a written form of mass media.
Literacy as Sophistication
Literacy used to be a very subtle concept that meant linguistic sophistication. It used to denote a skill that could be developed to arbitrary levels of refinement through practice. Literacy meant using mastery over language — both form and content — to sustain a relentless and increasingly sophisticated pursuit of greater meaning. It was about an appreciative, rather than instrumental use of language. Language as a means of seeing rather than as a means of doing.
Reading and writing — the ability to translate language back and forth between oral and written forms — was a secondary matter. It was a vocational pursuit of limited depth.
The written form itself was merely a convenience for transmitting language across space and time, and a mechanism by which to extend the limits of working memory. It had little to do with language skills per se.
Confusing the two is like confusing the ability to read and write musical notation with musical ability. You can have exceptional musical ability without knowing how to read music. And conversely, you might have no musical ability whatsoever, but still be able to read and write musical notation and translate back and forth between the keyboard and paper. Being able to read and write musical notation really has almost nothing to do with musical ability.
When writing was expensive, conflating the two skills (two-way translation and sophisticated use) was safe and useful. If somebody knew how to read and write, you could safely assume that he or she was also a sophisticated user of language.
It was never considered a necessary condition though, merely a sufficient one. A revealing sign is that many religious messiahs have been illiterate in the reading/writing sense, and have had scribes hanging on their every word, eagerly transcribing away for posterity.
Exposition and Condensation
Before Gutenberg, you demonstrated true literacy not by reading a text out aloud and taking down dictation accurately, but through exposition and condensation.
You were considered literate if you could take a classic verse and expound upon it at length (exposition) and take an ambiguous idea and distill its essence into a terse verbal composition (condensation).
Exposition was more than meaning-extraction. It was a demonstration of contextualized understanding of the text, skill with both form and content, and an ability to separate both from meaning in the sense of reference to non-linguistic realities.
Condensation was the art of packing meaning into the fewest possible words. It was a higher order skill than exposition. All literate people could do some exposition, but only masters could condense well enough to produce new texts considered worthy of being added to the literary tradition.
Exposition and condensation are in fact the fundamental learned behaviors that constitute literacy, not reading and writing. One behavior dissolves densely packed words using the solvent that is the extant oral culture, enriching it, while the other distills the essence into a form that can be transmitted across cultures.
Two literate people in very different different cultures, if they are skilled at exposition, might be able to expand the same maxim (the Golden Rule for instance) into different parables. Conversely, the literary masters of an era can condense stories and philosophies discovered in their own time into culturally portable nuggets.
So the terseness of an enduring maxim is as much about cross-cultural generality as it is about compactness.
The right kind of terseness allows you to accomplish a difficult transmission challenge: transmission across cultures and mental models. Reading and writing by contrast, merely accomplish transmission across time and space. They are much simpler inventions than exposition and condensation. Cultural distance is a far tougher dimension to navigate than spatial and temporal dimensions. By inventing a method to transmit across vast cultural distances, our earliest neolithic ancestors accidentally turned language into a tool for abstract thinking (it must have existed before then as a more rudimentary tool for communication, as in other species that possess more basic forms of language).
So how did we come to focus on reading and writing? Why is it reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic and not exposition, condensation and arithmetic?
Reading and Writing
Today the ability to read and write is ubiquitous in the developed world, and what was once a safe conflation of literacy and transcription ability has become more than meaningless. It has become actively dangerous.
To see why, it is useful to consider the relative status of the spoken word with respect to the written word in pre-modern times.
Before Gutenberg, reading and writing were considered not just secondary skills, but lowly ones, much as typing in the days before personal computing. It is revealing that the first designs for a personal computer at Xerox included one that had no keyboard next to the monitor, but was equipped instead with a dictaphone connection to a secretary who did any typing necessary. It was assumed that executives would not want to do their own typing, but would watch the action scroll by on a monitor.
Reading and writing were for students and scribes. Career scribes were not scholars. Reading and writing skills by themselves represented a vocation, not learning.
Where both the written and spoken word could be used, the latter was in fact preferred. Scholars demonstrated linguistic virtuosity through the spoken rather than the written word. When they gained enough prominence, they acquired students and scribes who would do the lowly work of translation between oral and written forms in exchange for the privilege of learning from a master.
But we haven’t explained why the spoken word was preferred. What has confused us is the red herring of preservation through memorization. If preservation through memorization were the only purpose of oral cultures, they should have all vanished long ago. As McLuhan famously argued, it wasn’t until the Gutenberg revolution that the spoken word was finally dethroned by the written word.
The traditional explanation for the mysterious persistence of oral cultures has been that pre-Gutenberg written-word technologies were either too expensive to be generally accessible, or simply not reliable enough. The characteristic practices of oral cultures, by this theory, evolved to aid accurate preservation through memorization.
This is a bit like saying that people continued to eat fresh foods after refrigeration was invented because early refrigerators were not reliable enough or inexpensive enough to allow everybody to eat frozen foods.
The memorization-for-preservation explanation falls apart when you poke a little. You find that typical oral cultures contain practices that we moderns loosely label “memorization” because we don’t understand what they actually accomplish.
I am going to use Indian oral culture as an example because it is the one I know best, and because it possesses some illuminating extreme features. But I suspect you will find similar unexplained complexity in every oral culture, particularly ones associated with major religions, such as Latin.
Oral Cultural is Not About Memorization
This was a radical realization for me: oral culture is not about preservation-by-memorization. One strong piece of evidence can be found in this Wikipedia description of “memorization” practices in ancient India. Ignore the commentary and pay attention to the actual descriptions of the recitation techniques:
Prodigious energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity. For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently “proof-read” by comparing the different recited versions. Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally “mesh recitation”) in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order. The recitation thus proceeded as:
In another form of recitation, dhvaja-pāṭha (literally “flag recitation”) a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:
The most complex form of recitation, ghana-pāṭha (literally “dense recitation”), took the form:
Original: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.
Mesh recitation: civilization is, is civilization, civilization is, the process, process the, the process, of turning, turning of, of turning…
Flag recitation: civilization is, the arbitrary, is the, into the, the process, incomprehensible into, process of, the incomprehensible…
Dense recitation: civilization is, is civilization, civilization is the, the is civilization, civilization is the, is the, the is, is the process, process the is, is the process…
If you are practicing eleven different forms of combinatorial recitation, there is clearly something going on beyond preservation-by-memorization. One piece of evidence is that though the Vedas were accurately preserved, the oral culture also sustained torrents of secondary expository literature that was not accurately preserved. The Mahabharata is an example. Not only was no canonical version preserved, there was no canonical version. The thing grew like a Wikipedia of mythological fan-fiction.
From my own experiences with memorization, the recitation routines seem like extreme overkill. Straightforward repetition, aided by meter and rhyme, is sufficient if preservation-by-memorization (as an alternative to unreliable writing), is the only goal. I memorized two Shakespeare plays that way (though admittedly I have now forgotten most of them).
So what is going on here?
Recitation as Creative Destruction
Once you try this out loud, you realize what is happening. This is microcosmic creative destruction. Try to do this sort of recitation really mindlessly. You will find it extraordinarily difficult. The recitation patterns will force you to pay attention to meaning as well.
Far from being about mindless rote memorization, recitation is about mindful attention to a text.
You’re taking a permutations-and-combinations blender to the words, juxtaposing them in new ways, and actively performing combinatorial processing. You are rigorously testing the strength of every single word choice and ordering decision. You are isolating and foregrounding different elements of the logical content, such as implication, subject-verb and verb-object agreement, and so forth. There is an functional-aesthetic element too. Terseness does not preclude poetry (and therefore, redundancy). In fact it requires it. Despite the compactness of a text, room must be made for various useful symmetries.
If the original has any structural or semantic weaknesses at all, this torture will reveal it. If the original lacks the robustness that poetry brings, it will be added.
Not only does all this not help plain memorization, I claim that it makes it harder. You destabilize the original line in your head and turn it into a word soup. If the original is any way confused or poorly ordered, you will soon end up in a state of doubt about which sequence of words is the correct one.
For many students, practicing recitation must have been mindless tedium, but for a few, it would have catalyzed active consideration and reworking of the underlying ideas, in search of new wisdom. These students must have evolved into new masters, the source of beneficial mutations and crossovers in the cultural memeplexes they were charged with preserving.
Being forced to juggle words like this must have helped cultivate a clear awareness of the distinction between form and content. It must have helped cultivate an appreciation of language as a medium for performance rather than a medium for transmission or preservation. It must have forced students to pay careful attention to precision of word choice in their own compositions. It must have sustained a very mindful linguistic culture.
The analogy to music is again a useful one. The description of the varied forms of recitation sounds less like tedious memorization and more like music students practicing their scales. The only reason that you remember the basic scale (do re mi fa so la te do in Western solfege notation) is that the sequence has the simplest and most complete progression among all the permutations and combinations of the notes. But if you could only sing the one pattern, you wouldn’t be a musician (actually, there is more than an analogy here; music and language are clearly deeply related, but I haven’t thought that idea through).
Being only able to faithfully transcribe between oral and written forms is rather like being only able to sing the default do-re-me sequence. The former can no more be a true measure of literacy than the latter can be a measure of musical ability.
The only way the original can survive such mangling is if it is actually a beautifully dense condensation that has a certain robust memetic stability. At the risk of losing most of you, I think of a carefully composed set of related aphorisms as eigenvectors spanning a space of meaning. It is the space itself, and the competence to explore it, that define a literate comprehension of the text. Not the ability to reproduce or translate between written and oral forms.
We can make a fairly strong claim:
Oral cultures are not just, or even primarily, about quality assurance in transmission. They are primarily about quality assurance in composition, and training in the basic moves of exposition and condensation.
When you think about it this way, there is no mystery. Oral culture persisted long after the development of writing because it was not about accurate preservation. It was about performance and cultural enactment through exposition and condensation.
The Costs of Gutenberg
And then Gutenberg happened.
The results were not immediately apparent. The old culture of literacy persisted for several centuries. The tipping point came in the 1890s, when printing technology became sufficiently cheap to support mass media (there is a world of difference between ubiquity of bibles and a culture of daily newspapers).
So sometime in the twentieth century, we lost all the subtlety of oral culture, turned our attention to the secondary vocational skills of reading and writing, and turned literacy into a set of mechanical tests.
Today, to be literate simply means that you can read and write mechanically, construct simple grammatical sentences, and use a minimal, basic (and largely instrumental) vocabulary. We have redefined literacy as a 0-1 condition rather than a skill that can be indefinitely developed.
Gutenberg certainly created a huge positive change. It made the raw materials of literary culture widely accessible. It did not, however, make the basic skills of literacy, exposition and condensation, more ubiquitous.
Instead, a secondary vocational craft from the world of oral cultures (one among many) was turned into the foundation of all education, both high-culture liberal education and the vocational education that anchors popular culture.
The Fall of High Culture
I won’t spend much time on high culture, since the story should be familiar to everybody, even if this framing is unfamiliar.
The following things happened.
- Instead of condensing new knowledge into wisdom, we began encrypting it into jargon.
- Exposition as creative performance gave way to critical study as meaning-extraction.
- The art of condensation turned into the art of light, witty party banter.
- Conversation turned into correspondence and eventually into citation.
- Natural philosophy turned into science, and lost its literary character.
- Interpretation and re-enactment became restricted to narrowly political ends.
- Poetry was transformed from an intermediate-level literacy skill to a medium for self-indulgence.
The result of these changes on high culture was drastic. Discovery began to outpace interpretation and comprehension. We began to discover more and more, but know less and less. Science seceded from the rest of culture and retreated behind walls of jargon. The impoverished remains outside those walls were re-imagined as a shrill and frozen notion of humanism.
Mathematics and programming, two specialized derivatives of language that I consider part of high culture, retained the characteristics of oral cultures of old, with an emphasis on recombinant manipulation, terseness, generality and portability.
Both are now being threatened (by increasingly capable forms of computing). I will leave that story for another day.
The Fall of Popular Culture
But it is perhaps the transformation of popular culture that has been most dramatic. If you have ever talked to an intelligent and articulate, but illiterate (in the modernist reading-writing sense) member of a popular folk culture that has been relatively well-shielded from modern mass culture, you will understand just how dumb the latter is.
Pre-modern folk cultures are as capable as their high-culture cousins of sustaining linguistic traditions based on exposition and condensation. They are the linguistic minor leagues in relation to the major leagues of high culture, not spectator-cultures.
A pre-modern village does not rely, for intellectual sustenance, on stories brought from imperial capital cities by royal bards. At best, a few imported elements from distant imperial cultures become political integration points within larger grand narratives. I encountered a curious example of this sort of thing in Bali: a minor character in the Mahabharata, Sahadeva, apparently serves as the integration point between the localized version of Hinduism and purely local elements like the Barong and Rangda, which do not appear anywhere in the Mahabharata to my knowledge.
By contrast, modern mass culture is a spectator culture, linguistically speaking. You read stories but you do not necessarily attempt to rewrite them. You watch movies, but you do not attempt to re-enact them as plays that incorporate elements of local culture. The analogy to music is again useful. Before the gramaphone and radio, most families around the world made their own music.
The effects of print, radio and television based mass media were to basically destroy popular literary (but not necessarily written) cultures everywhere. Was it an accident or an act of deliberate cultural violence?
I believe it was an accident that proved so helpful for the industrial world that repairs were never made, like smallpox decimating the ranks of Native Americans.
For the industrial world, exposition and condensation were useless skills in the labor force. The world needed workers who could follow instructions: texts with one instrumental meaning instead of many appreciative meanings:
- Turn on Switch A.
- Watch for the green light to come on.
- Then push the lever.
As the finely differentiated universe of local folk cultures was gradually replaced by a handful of mass, popular cultures, ordinary citizens lost their locally enacted linguistic cultures, and began to feed passively on mass-produced words. In the process, they also lost the basic skills of literacy: exposition and condensation, and partially regressed to pre-Neolithic levels of linguistic sophistication, where language sustains social interaction and communication, but not critical, abstract thought.
What does this world look like?
Can the Gollum Speak?
I previously proposed the Gollum as an archetype of an ordinary person turned into a ghost by consumer culture. What I am talking about here is the linguistic aspect of that transformation.
If you consider the decline of popular literary culture and its replacement by mass culture a sort of “consumerization of language,” you have to ask, can highly gollumized people use language in a literate way at all?
The Gollum can read, write and repeat, but I’ve slowly concluded that it cannot actually think with language. And not because it isn’t smart, but because it has been “educated.”
Everywhere around me I find examples of written and spoken language that I find bizarrely Frankenstein-monster like. Clumsy constructions based on borrowed parts, and rudely assembled (PR pitches and resume cover letters are great examples of modern Frankenstein writing).
The language of the true Gollum is a language of phrases borrowed and repeated but never quite understood.
Words and phrases turn into mechanical incantations that evoke predictable responses from similarly educated minds. Yes there is meaning here, but it is not precise meaning in the sense of a true literary culture. Instead it is a vague fog of sentiment and intention that shrouds every spoken word. It is more expressive than the vocalizations of some of our animal cousins, but not by much.
Curiously, I find the language of illiterate (reading-writing sense) to usually be much clearer. When I listen to some educated people talk, I get the curious feeling that the words don’t actually matter. That it is all a behaviorist game of aversion and attraction and basic affect overlaid on the workings of a mechanical process. That mechanical process is enacted by instrumental meaning-machines manufactured in schools to generate, and respond appropriately to, a narrow class of linguistic stimuli without actually understanding anything.
When I am in a public space dominated by mass culture and its native inhabitants, such as a mall, I feel like I am surrounded by philosophical zombies. Yes, they talk and listen, but it is not clear to me that what they are using is language.
And it isn’t just the I’m like, duh, and she’s like uh-oh crowd that I am talking about. I am including here the swarms of barely-literate (in the thinking sense) liberal arts graduates who can read and write phrases like always-already and dead-white-male (why not already-always or deceased-European man? I suspect Derrida and Foucault could tell you, but none of the millions who parrot them could).
This might sound like engineering elitism, but I find that the only large classes of people who appear to actually think in clearly literate ways today are mathematicians and programmers. But they typically only do so in very narrow domains.
To learn to think with language, to become literate in the sense of linguistically sophisticated, you must work hard to unlearn everything built on the foundation of literacy-as-reading-and-writing.
Because modern education is not designed to produce literate people. It is designed to produce programmable people. And this programmability requires less real literacy with every passing year. Today, genuinely literate reading and writing are specialized arts. Increasingly, even narrowly instrumental read-write literacy is becoming unnecessary (computers can do both very well).
These are not stupid people. You only have to listen to a child delightedly reciting supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or indulging in other childish forms of word-play to realize that raw skill with language is a native capability in the human brain. It must be repressed by industrial education since it seeks natural expression.
So these are not stupid people. These are merely ordinary people who have been lobotomized via the consumerization of language, delivered via modern education.
We dimly realize that we have lost something. But appreciation for the sophistication of oral cultures mostly manifests itself as mindless reverence for traditional wisdom. We look back at the works of ancients and deep down, wonder if humans have gotten fundamentally stupider over the centuries.
We haven’t. We’ve just had some crucial meme-processing software removed from our brains.
Towards a Literacy Renaissance
This is one of the few subjects about which I am not a pessimist. I believe that something strange is happening. Genuine literacy is seeing a precarious rebirth.
The best of today’s tweets seem to rise above the level of mere bon mots (“gamification is the high-fructose corn syrup of user engagement”) and achieve some of the cryptic depth of esoteric verse forms of earlier ages.
The recombinant madness that is the fate of a new piece of Internet content, as it travels, has some of the characteristics of the deliberate forms of recombinant recitation practiced by oral culture.
The comments section of any half-decent blog is a meaning factory.
Sites like tvtropes.org are sustaining basic literacy skills.
The best of today’s stand-up comics are preserving ancient wordplay skills.
But something is still missing: the idea that literacy is a cultivable skill. That dense, terse thoughts are not just serendipitous finds on the discursive journeys of our brains, but the product of learnable exposition and condensation skills.
I suppose paying attention to these things, and actually attempting to work with archaic forms like maxims and aphorisms in 2012 is something of a quixotic undertaking. When you can store a terbayte of information (about 130,000 books, or about 50% larger than a typical local public library) on a single hard-disk words can seem cheap.
But try reading some La Rochefoucauld, or even late hold outs like Oliver Wendell Holmes and J. B. S. Haldane, and you begin to understand what literacy is really about. The cost of words is not the cost of storing them or distributing, but the cost of producing them. Words are cheap today because we put little effort into their production, not because we can store and transmit as much as we like.
It is as yet too early to declare a literacy renaissance, but one can hope.