July 2020: The Technologizing of the Word

Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, and some thoughts on my notebook blog month experiment

Hello again! And hi for the first time to new people. I don't know what you think you're getting, but I hope it isn't 'a polished piece of writing about a single coherent topic', because this isn't supposed to be that. I've been using an email newsletter for a couple of years now to get a first version of things out, which I can then rework for blog posts and so on later. This works really well for me, and as soon as I stopped for a break my blog posting also fell off a cliff, because nothing was getting down the pipeline.

Anyway, it's mostly designed around what's useful for me than what's necessarily interesting to others. But some people like it anyway.

So... last one of these was start of January. Apparently some things have happened since then? On a personal level:

  • I finally adjusted to my new job, took some migraine medication for a bit, and generally stopped migraining all the time, which made things a lot better.

  • I had one of my periodic internet breaks (not full no internet, but no blogs, no twitter, and limited news) in February. These are normally good, but this was an unusually productive one. Had an interesting idea for a toy model and started playing with it.

  • Rejoined the internet on 1 March for OMG CORONAVIRUS panic. Toy model immediately dropped. Didn't do anything in March except join in the panic. UK government's 'let's just get herd immunity!!' early response really helped with my mental state.

  • Brain slowly came back online over April and May, but in a weird unbalanced sort of way and with a slightly different set of interests. Curiosity came back quickly, so I was interested in a bunch of things, but ability to concentrate was garbage and still hasn't fully recovered (finishing books is still difficult). Still no interest in toy model, but picked up an old thread to do with the Bell inequalities and tried to relate it to some papers I'd been reading more recently.

  • In June I tried writing a lot of short blog posts as an experiment. It sort of worked... some thoughts below. Overall it involved more pushing myself to write than I'd normally do, so afterwards there was a slump and July was kind of slow.

That takes me up to now. I was going to start this up in September, but last week I decided to get something out quickly for the start of August to get some momentum again. So I haven't had long for this one. I've managed to get out a review of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, and some thoughts on the notebook blog project I did in June.

Orality and Literacy

I only came across this book by accident, as a footnote in Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, which I read during a brief period of curiosity about mnemonics. Foer talks about the history of mnemonics, and about how oral poets used repetition and set formulaic phrases to aid memory, and uses Ong as one of his main sources. When I looked it up, it turned out to be Relevant To My Interests in a whole bunch of ways I wasn't expecting.

The subtitle of the book is 'The Technologizing of the Word', and that's exactly what it's about... innovations in making language more fixed and stable and objectlike, through the history of writing and then print.

This is pretty close to the topics I was exploring in my Derrida braindump... but written by someone a whole lot more easy to understand than Derrida! In Of Grammatology, Derrida picks apart some of Rousseau's arguments about speech. As Christopher Norris describes it:

Rousseau associates speech with the natural, the primordial, the spontaneous, the sincere, the passionate or heartfelt. His basic idea is that in speaking to each other, preferably in a small, close knit, mutually dependent organic community, we don’t (or wouldn’t, or shouldn’t) need writing because we don’t need laws, we don’t need class differences, differences of rank or hierarchical distinctions of any kind. We should just have straightforward, face-to-face oral communication, and it’s only with the development of society, as social structures become more complex and hierarchical, that we need a more complex language, a highly articulate language that can communicate complex ideas. And of course it is at this stage that we also develop a need for writing as the means whereby to record laws, deliver judgments, draw up constitutional arrangements, assign various sorts of delegated authority, etc.

(I feel like I should actually read Rousseau some time... he always seems to turn up as this sort of punching bag for clueless arguments, but I have no idea how distorted they are from the original. Maybe he actually has something more subtle to say than 'everything was wonderful before the Bad Stuff came', I dunno.)

Derrida points out that structure and formalism isn't some nasty supplement that takes us away from the uncorrupted perfection of primordial nature where we all sang like birds (or whatever shit Rousseau actually believed)... it's in there from the start. Norris again:

... even if you think of an unaccompanied folk song, or if you just hum a tune or pick it out in single notes on the piano, it will carry harmonic overtones or suggestions. What makes it a tune, what gives it a sense of character, shape, cadence, etc., is precisely this implicit harmonic dimension.

Anyway, Ong picks things up at this point and looks at how this structuring actually works, and how it develops as first writing and then print provide better resources for it. He addresses Derrida's work directly right at the end of the book, where he's an entertaining mix of polite and cutting. He's genuinely appreciative of Derrida's insights, but there's a not-very-subtle undercurrent of 'have you considered looking at the actual history at any point??':

The textualists, so far as I know, have not provided any description of the detailed historical origins of what they style logocentrism. In his Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (1981, p. 35) Geoffrey H. Hartman has called attention to the absence of any account in Derrida of the passage from the (orally grounded) world of ‘imitation’ to the later (print grounded) world of ‘dissemination’. In the absence of such an account, it would appear that the textualist critique of textuality, brilliant and to a degree serviceable as it is, is still itself curiously textbound.

The history turns out to be fascinating. I don't quite know how much I can trust it... of course Ong is looking at everything through this particular frame of the transition to text, and trying to assimilate it to that, and I don't know how much that distorts his observations. But it looks fairly convincing to me.

One of his main points is that we're so enmeshed in text now that it's hard to think clearly about a world without it. Even the concept of a 'word' as a discrete unit doesn't naturally cross over to oral-only language:

‘Line’ is obviously a text-based concept, and even the concept of a ‘word’ as a discrete entity apart from a flow of speech seems somewhat text-based. Goody (1977, p. 115) has pointed out that an entirely oral language which has a term for speech in general, or for a rhythmic unit of a song, or for an utterance, or for a theme, may have no ready term for a ‘word’ as an isolated item, a ‘bit’ of speech, as in, ‘The last sentence here consists of twenty-six words’. Or does it? Maybe there are twenty-eight. If you cannot write, is ‘textbased’ one word or two?

This can lead to confusion. If we think about 'memorising a story', for example, we think about there being a canonical written text that we can learn exactly. But preliterate oral poets would of course not have had that, and had almost no practical way of telling whether their retellings were exact matches:

In the past, literates have commonly assumed that oral memorization in an oral culture, normally achieved the same goal of absolutely verbatim repetition. How such repetition could be verified before sound recordings were known was unclear, since in the absence of writing the only way to test for verbatim repetition of lengthy passages would be the simultaneous recitation of the passages by two or more persons together. Successive recitations could not be checked against each other. But instances of simultaneous recitation in oral cultures were hardly sought for. Literates were happy simply to assume that the prodigious oral memory functioned somehow according to their own verbatim textual model.

Instead, oral poets aim to preserve the main points of the story, and rely on structuring language itself for easy memorisation:

How could you ever call back to mind what you had so laboriously worked out? The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings (the assembly, the meal, the duel, the hero’s ‘helper’, and so on), in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems.

This is the kind of already-existing structure in spoken language that Derrida is pointing at. Speech already contains resources for making language more formal and repeatable. But Ong can give far more insight into how it actually works. This is one of the best bits of the book - I'd like to give lots of examples, but I'd better stick to a few if I ever want to finish this. Oral thought is 'aggregative rather than analytic', relying on memorable set formulas:

The elements of orally based thought and expression tend to be not so much simple integers as clusters of integers, such as parallel terms or phrases or clauses, antithetical terms or phrases or clauses, epithets. Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak.

... Traditional expressions in oral cultures must not be dismantled: it has been hard work getting them together over the generations, and there is nowhere outside the mind to store them. So soldiers are brave and princesses beautiful and oaks sturdy forever.

It also tends to be 'situational rather than abstract', 'closer to the human lifeworld'. Ong quotes Luria's findings in Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations extensively at this point (this is the thing where he goes and bothers a lot of preliterate peasants with abstract questions; I guess I should really read this too some time). One interesting bit:

Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. A circle would be called a plate, sieve, bucket, watch, or moon; a square would be called a mirror, door, house, apricot drying-board. Luria’s subjects identified the designs as representations of real things they knew. They never dealt with abstract circles or squares but rather with concrete objects. Teachers’ school students on the other hand, moderately literate, identified geometrical figures by categorical geometric names: circles, squares, triangles, and so on (1976, pp. 32–9). They had been trained to give school-room answers, not real-life responses.

This closeness to experience is a strength of spoken language as well as a weakness – it allows speakers to get away with less structural complexity. In speech, if the thing you’re talking about is in front of you, you can just point at it. In writing, all you have to convey your idea is the words on the page.

Writing takes the structural innovations of memorable speech and piles on more, to make language much more durable and objectlike. (In the process it could actually drop some of the old structure: the princess no longer has to be beautiful every time, because you can retrieve any old adjective later without having to rely on your memory.) Ong talks about pictographic writing and syllabaries a bit, but his main focus is on alphabetic writing. The development of this was a slow process, and everything we now think of as obvious, like 'vowels' or 'leaving a space between words', had to be laboriously invented. The invention of vowels was a bigger deal than you might initially expect, removing the need for contextual knowledge of how to fill in the gaps:

.. it does appear that the Greeks did something of major psychological importance when they developed the first alphabet complete with vowels. Havelock (1976) believes that this crucial, more nearly total transformation of the word from sound to sight gave ancient Greek culture its intellectual ascendancy over other ancient cultures. The reader of Semitic writing had to draw on non-textual as well as textual data: he had to know the language he was reading in order to know what vowels to supply between the consonants. Semitic writing was still very much immersed in the non-textual human lifeworld. The vocalic Greek alphabet was more remote from that world (as Plato’s ideas were to be). It analyzed sound more abstractly into purely spatial components. It could be used to write or read words even from languages one did not know (allowing for some inaccuracies due to phonemic differences between languages).

The later parts of the book are about the move from writing to print. This isn’t quite as enormous of a transition as the one from speech to writing, but still introduced huge changes of its own. For a start, print books were so much easier to produce in quantity that there was now a lot more text around, and its influence increased. Visual considerations started to increase in importance. Ong talks about this transitional example, The Boke Named the Gouernour by Sir Thomas Elyot:.

The boke named the Gouernour - Clark Library

Auditory dominance can be seen strikingly in such things as early printed title pages, which often seem to us crazily erratic in the their inattention to visual word units. Sixteenth-century title pages very commonly divide even major words, including the author’s name, with hyphens, presenting the first part of a word in one line in large type and the latter part in smaller type… Inconsequential words may be set in huge type faces: on the title page shown here the initial ‘THE’ is by far the most prominent word of all... Yet this practice, not our practice, is the original practice from which our present practice has deviated. Our attitudes are the ones that have changed, and thus that need to be explained. Why does the original, presumably more ‘natural’ procedure seem wrong to us? Because we feel the printed words before us as visual units (even though we sound them at least in the imagination when we read). Evidently, in processing text for meaning, the sixteenth century was concentrating less on the sight of the word and more on its sound than we do. All text involves sight and sound. But whereas we feel reading as a visual activity cueing in sounds for us, the early age of print still felt it as primarily a listening process, simply set in motion by sight. If you felt yourself as reader to be listening to words, what difference did it make if the visible text went its own visually aesthetic way? It will be recalled that pre-print manuscripts commonly ran words together or kept spaces between them minimal.

Print makes books more thinglike than manuscripts (which are already considerably more thinglike than individual instances of a speech:

In this new world, the book was less like an utterance, and more like a thing. Manuscript culture had preserved a feeling for a book as a kind of utterance, an occurrence in the course of conversation, rather than as an object. Lacking title pages and often titles, a book from pre-print, manuscript culture is normally catalogued by its ‘incipit’ (a Latin verb meaning ‘it begins’), or the first words of its text (referring to the Lord’s Prayer as the ‘Our Father’ is referring to it by its incipit and evinces a certain residual orality). With print, as has been seen, come title pages. Title pages are labels. They attest a feeling for the book as a kind of thing or object. Often in medieval western manuscripts, instead of a title page the text proper might be introduced by an observation to the reader, just as a conversation might start with a remark of one person to another: ‘Hic habes, carissime lector, librum quem scripset quidam de….’ (Here you have, dear reader, a book which so-and-so wrote about….) The oral heritage is at work here, for, although oral cultures of course have ways of referring to stories or other traditional recitations (the stories of the Wars of Troy, the Mwindo stories, and so on), label-like titles as such are not very operational in oral cultures: Homer would hardly have begun a recitation of episodes from the Iliad by announcing ‘The Iliad’.

I won’t go any further in this review, but I’ve got a short Twitter thread where I pick up from this point and speculate a bit about internet writing, which reverses a few of these trends and makes text less thinglike again. Tweets have no titles, for example, and a lot of my blog posts start with introductions that are closer in spirit to ‘Here you have, dear reader, a book which so-and-so wrote about…’ than the formal introduction of a print book. I’m sure plenty has been written about this already, but it’s fun to think through some of the implications for myself.

Notebook Blog Month thoughts

In June I had a go at writing a lot of posts, roughly in the style of David MacIver's notebook blog. I was hoping that it would be a format I liked, or that it would at least flywheel up some energy for longer blog posts. Neither of those really worked, unfortunately.

Doing a weird variant on the notebook blog probably didn't help. It was a lot of fun coming up with a list of 50 potential posts, and sometimes fun writing the posts themselves, but overall too constraining for a new project. A lot of the topics on the list were big, and I already had a lot of ideas, and trying to fit them into a throwaway notebook post was too hard. Spent a lot of time thinking 'oh shit I need to get these ideas out quickly' instead of actually enjoying the process. About halfway through I started going off-list and that helped a bit.

I think it still wouldn't quite have worked for me even if I'd done a more forgiving notebook blog where I just pick topics on the day. I like to spend more time on a post, and edit it a bit afterwards, and rushing it out in one sitting isn't very enjoyable for me. I didn't have enough time to actually think about anything, and that got frustrating.

I do think the project was worth trying, though. I'm still new enough to writing that it's worth playing with new formats every so often to see if I find one that's a good fit. And I did get some useful things out of it:

  • The 'speedrun' format I tried (set a timer for an hour, see what I can find out about some topic) was pretty successful and I'd like to do more of them. While I was writing this I was thinking ‘ooh I should do this for Rousseau… and for Luria and Vygotsky…’ so I think it would fit pretty naturally with my other writing.

  • It was interesting seeing emergent themes in the list of posts. I noticed that I had four ideas that were vaguely on the theme of work (five jobs meme, the Marx on alienation speedrun, neoliberalism and bullshit jobs), so I decided to do all of them. It's not a topic I thought I had a lot to say about... but apparently I do.

  • I was pleased with my post on the Bristol Bridge Problem. This was just a rework of a twitter thread in blog post format, but it worked well as a post and I thought about it more carefully in the process. It was still annoying that I couldn't spend as long editing as I'd have liked, but think it works ok anyway.

  • The off-list topics where I just sat down and bashed out words about whatever was in my head that day were quite fun. Maybe I should experiment with doing more of those, though I probably don't want to publish them by default.

Next month

I have SO MUCH HALF-BAKED PHYSICS STUFF. And quarter-baked physics stuff. I've been atrocious at finishing anything, and I currently have:

  • An idiosyncratic post on the Bell inequalities

  • A very idiosyncratic/downright stupid post trying to explain some of Abramsky + collaborator's sheaf-theoretic formulation of Bell inequalities and similar no-go theorems (see e.g. this paper) in the context of a long dialogue about chips, peas and beans. This one stalled because I don't actually understand their program very well. Apparently I need to learn some cohomology to finish my shitpost??

  • 'Worse than QM'. This is supposed to investigate whether there's any interesting link between the way that the PR box is worse than QM, and the way that the toy model in this blog post by Dan Piponi is worse than QM. If you want some background on what this means I've written about the PR box a tiny bit in this newsletter (very half-baked), and Piponi's box more extensively in my negative probability posts.

  • The toy model that I dropped in February. At the moment this one is very on the level of 'a vaguely interesting idea that would make a nice blog post', but I want to really go into the implications and see what I can do with it.

And probably more I forgot. I want to get some written version of at least one of these out next month, as a blog post if possible and as semi-coherent newsletter ramblings if not.

Also I guess I'll read something else. Maybe Isaiah Berlin's The Roots of Romanticism?

OK that's it for now. I'm always happy to get comments though... I don't really understand how Substack works yet, but presumably you can email me if you want? Or comment below? There's also some contact details on my blog. Anyway please get in touch somehow if there's anything here that interested you, or you have any questions.