From Orality To Literacy To Visuality While Curling Up With P.D. JamesSunday, November 23, 2008
Today I read every article in my Sunday NY Times Magazine twice. In particular I was struck by Becoming Screen Literate by Wired writer Kevin Kelly. The second and third paragraphs of his essay hit home and you wonder what Marshall McLuhan would write about a world he might have had a inkling of but could never have predicted the present we live in now.
When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.
Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.
In my own way I have written here how our computer monitor and flat screen TV viewing has changed our perception of three dimensionality as we go towards a future when exploring a museum will be all with our Dell 2408 monitor as we pay Getty Images for a two minute viewing of La Gioconda.
I am so used to injecting hyperlinks in this blog that I feel frustrated when I read a novel or non fiction book and I notice a word I don't know or the mention of a historical character I want to know more about that instant. The Kindle will take off only when it comes with a built in hyperlink.
The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night.
The above is the third paragraph from William Gibson's 1993 novel Virtual Light . It is the scene looking out from a Mexico City hotel room and the paragraph describes to perfection what that Mexico City sky looks like and where I have seen puffy white clouds float by with dense pollution above them. Gibson confessed to me that when he wrote that paragraph he did it without ever having traveled to Mexico City. On a Kindle of a most immediate future readers would be able to find the definition of hepatic, corona and even fecal should they be curious.
The liniarity that Gutenberg brought with his press is just about dead. Consider the first paragraph of NY Times film critic A.O. Scott's essay The Screening in America in today's NY Times Magazine:
A short time ago, in honor of the impending holiday season and the looming depression, I settled in for a viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I watched it on the same laptop on which I’m writing these words, with headphones plugged in to filter out distraction, though from time to time I did shrink the image so I could check my e-mail or my favorite blog.
The above sentences may be linear but A.O. Scott's actions are not. I have been often reminded by a friend that a computer's ability to multi-task is not a prerogative of the computer but an ability that is most human that has been programmed into the computer by humans. My friend reminds me that we don't scan rooms like computers but that computers scan like humans. While I may be shocked (and so would my friend John Lekich) on the travesty of admiring Donna Reed's eyes on a laptop or heaven forbid in cell phone's tiny screen, I just might accept that our ability to do this is probably hard-wired and that Gutenberg's influence on our liniarity may have been a passing phase.
Consider the ad for P.D. James's latest The Private Patient in today's NY Times Book Review. It says, "Curl up with her new and immensely satisfying 14th Adam Dalgliesh mystery."
Who coined this term that is so often repeated that is as much of a cliché as the use of flawed by film critics? Can one curl up with a laptop? The term for me is alien as I prop myself up with three or four pillows and read in bed. Are the folks advertising the James book convinced that all who read her are of a certain age. And that would eschew the laptop, the Kindle and would curl up in the family sofa in the living room? How many would be able to read in a living room having as potential competition that huge flat screen TV over the gas fireplace?
In Umberto Eco's 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana ( a remarkable $10 bargain at Chapters for which I received a further 10% off with my irewards card) a man wakes up in a hospital:
"And what's your name?"
"Wait, it's on the tip of my tongue."
That's how it all began.
The man, Yambo, a Milanese rare-book dealer does not remember his name, recognize his wife but can remember the plot of every book he has ever read and quote most accurately, He speaks in incredible almost disjointed streams of consciousness that seem to me to be stuff of the present. His utterings might disjoint Gutenberg's successors and crusty book reviewers. I was simply dazzled. Could Yambo's speech patterns be what ours will be as soon as hyperlinks operate in our brain?
I stroked the children and could smell their odor, without being able to define it except to say it was tender. All that came to mind was there are perfumes as fresh as a child's flesh . And indeed my head was not empty, it was a maelstrom of memories that were not mine: the marchioness went out at five o'clock in the middle of the journey of our life, Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat the man of La Mancha, and that was when I saw the pendulum betwixt a smile and tear, on the branch of Lake Como where late the sweet birds sang, the snows of yesteryear softly falling onth the dark mutinous Shannon waves, messieurs les Anglais je me suis couché de bonne heure though words cannot heal the women come and go, here we shall make Italy, or a kiss is a just a kiss, tu quoque alea, a man without qualities fights and runs away, brothers to Italy ask not what you can do for your country, the plow that makes the furrow will live to fight another day, I mean a Nose by any other name, Italy is made now the rest is commentary, mi espíritu se purifica en Paris con aguacero don't ask us for the word crazed with light, we'll have our battle in the shade and suddenly it's evening, around my heart three ladies' arms I sing, oh Valentino Valentino where art though , happy families are all alike said the bridegroom to the bride, Guido I wish that mother died today, I recognized the trembling of man's first disobedience, de la musique où marchent de colombes, go little book to where the lemons blossom, once upon a time there lived Achilles son of Peleus, and the earth was without form and too much with us, Licht mehr licht über alles , Contessa what or what is life? and Jill came tumbling after, Names, names, name": Angelo Dallóca Bianca, Lord Brummell, Pindar, Flaubert, Disraeli, Remigio Zena, Jurassic, Fattori, Straparola and the pleasant nights, de Pompadour, Smitth and Wesson, Rosa Luxemburg, Zeno Cosini, Palma the Elder, Archaeopteryx, Ciceruacchio , Matthew Mark Luke John, Pinocchio, Justine, Mari Goretti, Thaïs the whore with the shitty fingernails, Osteoporosis, Saint Honoré, Bactria Ecbatana Persopolis Susa Arbela, Alexander and the Gordian knot.
The encyclopedia was tumbling down on me, its pages loose, and I felt like waving my hands the way one does amid a swarm of bees. Meanwhile the children were calling me Grandpa, I knew I was supposed to love them more than myself, and yet I could not tell which was Giangio, which was Alessandro, which was Luca. I knew all about Alexander the Great, but nothing about Alessandro the tiny, the mine.