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READING AND THE FUTURE OF PRIVATE IDENTITY
In my introduction I will explain what is meant when I have said, "the book is obsolete." Obsolescent does not mean extinction. Quite the contrary. For example, handwriting has been "obsolete" since Gutenberg, and certainly since Remington, but there is more handwriting today than there ever has been. The world "obsolete" therefore is a figure-ground term and the situation of obsolescence is the result of some spectacular shift in the nature of ground which alters the status of figure. Thus, Gutenberg scrapped manuscript culture and elevated it, as it were, to a kind of art form. In the same way, the motor car has been obsolesced by jet plane and is increasingly getting acceptance as an art form. The planet and Nature were obsolesced but Sputnik in October, 1957, and have become art form also. Sputnik saw the birth of ecology, and Art replacing Nature. In the same way, the book, more prolific now than ever, has been pushed up into art form by the electronic surround of information. The book has been ground, but has now been flipped into figure against the new electronic ground. In the same way, the entire hardware of Western industrialism has been obsolesced and, as Toynbee says, "etherealized" by the new surround of electronic information services.
The traditional role of our own alphabet is now getting new status as art form in a variety of ways. For example, the I.T.A. (Initial Teaching Aids. Pitman) has revealed that old manuscript forms of the written character serve children better than the printed alphabet . Ernest Fenelossa has shown us the importance of the Chinese written character as the means of a new figure-ground relation for the West. Ezra Pound and the imagists were keenly aware that Western writing had entered a new phase with the electronic age, while, on the other hand, the Japanese are currently mounting a six billion dollar program for introducing our phonetic alphabet into their own world. Should the Japanese and the Chinese Westernize their written character they would acquire our intense visual bias of specialism and aggressive goal-seeking, and they would at the same time obliterate most of their audile-tactile culture with its iconic bias of tribal role playing rather than private goal-seeking.
My book Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovith, 1972) is an account of the cultural and managerial changes taking place in the Western world with the obsolescing of our industrial hardware and the new dominance of simultaneous and instantaneous information environments. Visual culture, based on the alphabet, not only produced individual civilized Graeco-Roman man but it also led, via Gutenberg, to the development of world-wide commodity markets and pricing systems which were based on the printed word and the assembly-line techniques of using movable types.
For a good while to come, the printed word will play a big role both in the Eastern and Western hemispheres of the planet. Paradoxically, however, the role of software in the East will be antithetical and complementary to its role in the West. For many centuries the East has been dominated by oral culture, a fact which gives the East a special advantage in relating to the electronic age. On the other hand, the West, for many centuries based on the visual culture of the phonetic alphabet and later the printed word, has steadily reverted to oral culture during the past century of increasing electric technology. As we seem to be acquiring the Eastern "software," the Orient would seem to be taking over our Western hardware along with our Western alphabet. What has been formed is a completely new "ball park" of global dimensions with completely unfamiliar ground rules. In any event, the printed and written word will have a salient function.
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At a recent Ph.D. oral the candidate was defending a thesis written on "The Quest for the Iconic Mode in the Work of W.B. Yates." In the course of explaining the development of his study of Yeats, he explained Yates' lifelong concern with the oral tradition of Irish culture and the world of legend and tales and song and dance which had preoccupied not only Yates but many of his contemporaries. Most people are familiar with the extraordinary power of the Irish colloquial idiom which has been manifest in Irish poetry and drama in Synge and O'Casey and Joyce from the beginning of the twentieth century. "Sailing to Byzantium" for Yeats had involved the dream of a corporate culture that merged secular and religious forms in a single ritual:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
to keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
In these verses Yeats is quite explicit about the sculptural forms of the goldsmiths as being a means of bringing the spiritual and the material into immediate rapport and also of involving the audience in deep participation through the art of the audio-tactile sculpture. When asked to explain why sculpture was not a visual form, the candidate explained the special character of the bounding lines and surfaces of sculpture as involving all of the senses in interplay. He cited the work of Linus Pauling on The Nature of the Chemical Bond in which the studies of Heisenberg and others have stressed the character of the "resonant interval." In a new plant opened in January, 1972, seven assembly groups have replaced the continuous production lines;... In effect, the seven groups follow along a spectrum of decreasing specialization. At one end is a group of workers with little or no experience in group assembly, at the other end is a group of workers with total experience. It is hoped that ultimately both groups will have the opportunity to assemble the entire engine. For a more complete description of this plant, see Jan-Peter Norsdet's Work Organization and Job Design at Saab-Scandia in Sodertalje (Stockholm Technical Department, Swedish Employee's Confederation, December 1970).
There was something close to consternation among the faculty examiners when it was proposed that they should consider sculpture not as a primarily visual form but as an audili-tactile experience of resonance and involvement. The candidate cited the work of Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, in which the effects of blindness include the enormous enhancement of the audio-tactile awareness of people and things. The candidate cited the statement of Yates himself that he had spent his major life striving to eliminate every vestige of the visual from his poetry. For Yates the visual sense appeared as one of extreme specialism and deprivation for the artist and poetry alike. Perhaps it would be simpler to draw attention to the work of Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato where he explains the relation of Homer to the "tribal encyclopedia." In presenting the bard as the traditional educator of Greeks, Havelock indicates that poetic performance was a kind of group ritual that involved the public as any jazz or rock festival. As Perry and Lord have indicated in The Singer of Tales, in an oral culture performance is also composition. Havelock devotes much of his book to explaining the effect of the phonetic alphabet on the Greek sensibilities and culture, pointing to the rise of self awareness and identity as an immediate result of this unique form of codifying experience. What especially needs to be noted about the phonetic alphabet in our time is its power to impose its assumptions on wide fields of operation and experience. I have tried to explain this matter somewhat in The Gutenberg Galaxy but I now know a few basic things that I did not know at the time I wrote that book.
The phonetic alphabet is the only one in which the letters are semantically neutral, lacking verbal structure or force. Since the visual image presented in this letters is acoustically and semantically neutral, they have had the extraordinary effect upon their users of supporting the visual faculty in large degrees, from the other senses of touch and hearing, and so on. The power to isolate the visual faculty with resulting high intensity fostered the rise of Euclidean geometry as well as images of separate individual and private identity. So isolated the spaces and forms congenial to vision acquired an almost separate character which has been much identified with both rationality and civilization. Visual space as manifested in Euclidean forms is the basic character of uniformity, continuity and stasis. Visual space, unlike the spaces which relate to or emanate from touch and taste and hearing has a stable and enduring character. Visual space is not characteristic of the child's world nor of the pre-literate or post-literate worlds. The little boy on the first plane ride who asked: "Daddy, when do we start to get smaller?" was actually highlighting this problem When a plane lives the ground it quickly diminishes in size and the little boy was justified in asking his question. If the plane gets smaller from the outside, why shouldn't it get smaller from the inside? Perhaps the answer is in the fact that the enclosed space of the cabin is visual and static. In fact, visual space is a figure without a ground, having abstracted itself from the ground of the other senses. Acoustic space, for example has quite different properties from visual space. Acoustic sphere is discontinuous and non uniform and dynamic. Tactile space is the world of the interval or gap of experience, and may be brought to mind by the relation to wheel and axle, where the character of "play" is the all-important structural factor without which there would be neither whell nor axle. It will repay prolonged meditation to consider that "play" is not characteristic of visual space. In the classic study of play in Homo Ludens, J. Huizinga reveals the indispensable quality of a mobile relation between figure and ground which creates patterns of deep involvement and participation for the user.
The little boy's question about when would the space change would not have occurred to him had he been in the open cockpit of a small plane, and perhaps would not occur to an astronaut. On a visit to Nassau, I asked Al Sheppard whether there was any upside-down in outer space. He replied, after some moments of reflection: "Where your feet are, that's down." This seems to have some bearing on other matters, since for most small children there is no upside-down in a picture book. This relationship is discovered later by our children, but seems not to be part of the Eskimo experience. For the adult Eskimo there is no upside-down for pictures such as he puts on the walls of his igloo from magazines, and nothing entertains him more than to watch the anthropologist visitor straining his neck to get pictures in focus, right-side-up. In the same way, the cave painters did much of their work completely out of sight, under rock ledges. In any event, there seems to be some relation between right-side-up and literacy.
Although it has not been specially studied, there is still the mystery of the Stratton glasses which draw attention to the human habit of turning the world right-side-up, although, in fact, we receive it on the retina upside-down. When first put on, the Stratton glasses turn the world upside down for the wearer. However, after a few hours the wearer finds that the world flips right-side-up again. Then, when he removes the glasses, the world goes upside down again and remains so for a few hours. It was this factor that prompted my question to Al Sheppard, but it appears that sensory psychologists have not studied the Stratton glasses effect in outer space where a state of weightlessness makes right-side-up meaningless.
I want to draw attention at one to a similarly drastic reversal of figure-ground conditions for all of us at the present time. Electronically, we live in a world of simultaneous information in which we share images that arrive instantly from all quarters at once. If acoustic space is a sphere whose centra is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere, this character of acoustic space now extends to all information structures experienced in environments constituted by electric technology. That is, Western and civilized man long accustomed to private and individual outlook and similar legal and political structures, now finds himself acoustically environed. It is as if the little boy in the aeroplane cabin were suddenly to experience himself situated in a boundless and silent surround, "wishing upon a star," as it were. The orientation of the visual man, with his private outlook and individual point of view and personal goals, would all seem to be somewhat irrelevant in the electronic environment. There is another feature of this simultaneous environment with its instant access to all pasts and all futures alike, communication takes place not by mere transportation of data from point to point. It is, in effect, the sender who is sent, and it is the sender who becomes the message, as it were.
The electric and simultaneous world began to manifest its patterns and influences on our awareness by the middle of the 19th century. There is a strange property about innovation and change that can be stated by saying that effects tend to precede the causes. Another way of putting it is to say that the ground tends to come before the figure. In a recent issue of Scientific American (March 1973) the piece on "Bicycle Technology" explains how "the bicycle quite literally paved the way for the automobile."