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Here is an entertaining curiosity: an academic-styled Menippean satire reminiscent of two of the well-known titles of the genre, Houseboat on the Styx (1899) by John Kendricks Bangs and At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien (1939). In Houseboat, all the damned from every conceivable era chafe against one another on a small houseboat with quite comic and ironic juxtapositions. In At Swim, the author proves so incompetent with his text that his characters take over the book. This playing with historical time, genre, and authorial voice occurs in Textermination.
The setting is the Annual Convention of Prayer where the characters of narrative fiction gather to pray to the "Implied Reader" on whom their existence depends. Imagine Emma Woodhouse and Emma Bovary at an MLA conference listening to academic papers about themselves, along with other such notables as Odysseus, Tristam Shandy and Huck Finn. As is appropriate in the post-literate era, characters from other media shadow the event. The most notable of these is Lieutenant Columbo, nearly reprising Peter Falk's discarnate appearance in Wim Wenders's film "Wings of Desire." One of the rebellious groups formed at the conference consists of "a whole crowd of flat, filmy people," characters from novels appearing as the Hollywood stars who portrayed them: Heathcliffe as Laurence Olivier, Captain Ahab as Gregory Peck, Dr Fu Manchu as Peter Sellers, etc. Both Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade attend as Humphrey Bogart. Hawthorne's Hester Prynne comes suddenly upon Hester Prynne as Lilian Gish, "absurdly lipsticked to look dark in the movies":Hester Prynne starts back with a cry. This creature wears a dainty white cap over soft blond hair, a shoulder-wide breast deep Puritan collar of luxurious lace, and an elegant lace apron over her well-cut dress. Who is it? It can't be! But yes: just under her breast is a small cursive capital A, crimson and almost plain. Nothing like her own in such rich scarlet embroidery over her plain grey gown. Is this another adulteress? But the other smiles, holds out her hand and says, "Your colours wouldn't have come out in black and white, my dear.This juxtaposition, one of the strongest in the book, also reveals the book's major weakness. Despite its many playful premises, the book remains flat and essentially didactic. Its audience seems limited to academic types widely read in narrative fiction and its common schools of criticism; Wayne Booth and Jacques Lacan come immediately to mind. The character allusions are many, rarely subtle, and give the book a game-text quality: how many can you recognize? The range of allusion comes up to the present, including Foucault's Pendulum. Its jokes and characterization depend on conceptual insights such as knowing that Lilian Gish starred in black-and-white films. But these never cohere, or seize the reader's imagination and hold it hostage, eventually wearing him down until he participates in the mayhem joyfully. Flann O'Brien, Laurence Sterne, and James Joyce did achieve this. I should have been happier had the same premise been given George McDonald Fraser or Douglas Adams; the comedy would have been more consistently low and less like a clever graduate exercise.
In spite of these criticisms, the book is a notable effort in a neglected tradition. If it succeeds in bursting any balloons of critical dialectic, or saves a lonely grad student from becoming Lacanian, it will have done better service to the world of letters than all the MLA conferences combined. I hope for better from Ms Brooke-Rose.
Professor Harris has written a tedious book filled with facts and anecdotes about Greek and Roman literacy. He does little more than list the known uses of the written word and estimate percentages of literate people by regions and periods. His approach severely limits his usefulness for media scholars. The number of people who read and wrote in ancient Greece and Rome tells no more about the effects of literacy on oral sensibility and tradition than the number of television and computer owners tells about the effect of electronics on the once-literate North American culture. The facts have value for the historian who feels safer with statistics than understanding; the media scholar interested in the transition from oral to written sensibility must read between the lines to make the facts useful. He must also avoid the sneering obstacles Professor Harris places in his way.
That Professor Harris does not risk conjecture about the effect of literacy on an oral psyche or culture would be acceptable if he maintained a neutral tone throughout his book. But, not content with caution, he attacks those who think farther than he in a manner which betrays his intellectual petulance. His principle targets are E.A. Havelock and J. Goody, two historians who maintain literacy changed Greek culture in significant, and discussable, ways. Dismissing their efforts to describe the effect of literacy on individuals and cultures as "woolly and grandiose," he smugly concludes:One writer has pleasingly observed that the acquisition of literacy is like drinking a bottle of wine: the effects may be dramatic or insignificant, according to the circumstances and the physiology of the individual. Anyway bottles of wine sometimes do have effects.The drinker who can tell novices no more about the effects of wine should not drink, let alone guide others in the practice; the same may be said of a historian who throws up his arms so helplessly before the prospect of interpreting history. Worse, Harris assumes the reader laughs complacently with him at Havelock, a collusion of ignorance protecting both author and audience from a discomforting manner of thought.
Professor Harris and his ilk in comparative history not only dismiss Havelock, they appear entirely ignorant of the major works of Harold Innis, Walter Ong, and the McLuhans. For the reader interested in understanding the present age of ascendant orality and declining literacy in terms of its classical mirror image, an oral culture developing literacy, these thinkers must be the starting points. These writers approach the history of language and sensibility from several perspectives. Innis, an economist, applies the metaphor of economy to the sense ratio of eye and ear created by media-dominated culture. Ong, a Jesuit, examines the effect of printing on Renaissance pedagogy, specifically the way an amplified visual bias subordinated Grammar and Rhetoric to Logic and undermined dialogue as a means of discovery in the classroom.
The works of McLuhan will be well known to the readers of this journal. But two important works for both classical and media scholars by the McLuhans remain generally unavailable. Marshall McLuhan's Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time describes the development of the Latin Trivium and the history of how it came to England via the Humanist revival as a background for his discussion of Nashe. He shows how the traditional multileveled sense of the Word was attacked by the Puritans and Scholastics, reduced to the literal, and left in the service of Logic and Method. McLuhan's history of the Trivium languishes unpublished in the Cambridge archives. And Eric McLuhan sketched a history of the Greek Logos while completing his Ph.D. at the University of Dallas, describing how the Trivium emerged from an integral Greek Logos broken by literacy, and specifically how the five parts of Rhetoric codified by the Roman orators restore the Word's original oral integrity.
These descriptions of how to teach and use the Word, loosely gathered under the names of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic, actually represent a series of portraits of language operating in different cultural and media landscapes. These may be described broadly as oral, an uneasy balance between oral and literate, literate, and in our own time, post-literate orality. The history of the Trivium, the changing sense of language and invention responding to the pressure of new media, allows the scholar to compare and contrast one historical epoch with another in ways which reveal the effects of the time's predominating media. What is needed, and so severely lacking in books like Ancient Literacy, is the willingness and ability to play one cultural situation against others. Historical insights must be metaphoric as well as factual if the past is to teach us anything about the present.
Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology may start some harmless talk at academic parties among those who remember his collaboration, Teaching As A Subversive Activity. There is no subversion here, only politic handwringing. The absence of Toffleresque hysteria is commendable. But his fairness strips his writing of anything which might wake his readers up. The book's useful ideas might be condensed into a volume a third of its already small size. But the book's worst flaw from the perspective of this journal is the apparent ignorance of McLuhan. Postman justly mentions Harold Innis as "the father of communication studies." But of McLuhan, who extended Innis's metaphor of sense economy to all forms of utterance in language and technology, he mentions nothing later than Understanding Media, and the reference does not indicate more than a cursory familiarity with that work. Even on his terms Postman's argument does not bear much examination. Postman talks about machines and electronics without discussing the different sensibilities of print, radio, TV, and computer. His sense of media is content-centred: "If the telescope was the eye that gave access to a world of new facts and new methods of obtaining them, then the printing press was the larynx."
The choice of larynx as a metaphor for describing the spread of information through print does not distinguish between the book and newspaper as different media, and, most unfortunately, does not acknowledge print as the technology most responsible for the spread of private, silent reading and the subjugation of oral sensibility. The discussion which follows this clumsy metaphor outlines the historical development of print without describing the subjective process of becoming a reader, or how the culture is changed by the new way of experiencing the world as literacy approaches consensus. He describes nineteenth-century America as suspended between "two opposing world views—technology and the traditional." But he does not recognize that the traditional America of that time was more literate than oral, nor that his "technology" does not distinguish between mechanical sequence and electric simultaneity, a contrast already apparent in the telegraph lines running alongside the railway.
Postman is also unable to diagnose America's present cultural problem. He attributes our current cultural disorientation to Scientism's conquest of traditional symbols. He's not wrong, merely superficial. He tells the reader nothing about why Americans no longer find meaning in their symbols. We are disoriented because the rapidly increasing orality enforced by electric media has junked a two-hundred-year-tradition of science-dominated literacy. Unlike nations such as Britain, whose history threads through oral and literate eras, our oral tradition is not deep enough to provide the signposts, or metaphors, for our new orality. Postman nods toward this when he tries to describe how "technology" changes language, but his examples only underscore the weakness of his thought: "The old words still look the same, are still used in the same kinds of sentences. But they do not have the same meanings; in some cases they have the opposite meanings."
Postman's examples are hollow. Three words come to this McLuhan- trained mind immediately. Literate, which from meaning lettered, able to read and write, has degenerated into a vague species of competence, particularly computer-literate, without acknowledging the immense change in user sensibility from print to program. Private, which once meant "out of the public eye," has come to denote a personal decision enacted publicly as an expression of lifestyle. All these "private" choices enacted publicly create a new sense of consensus which calls into question another sacred word, democracy. All the world applauds the Soviet Union's and the Third World's moves toward democratic forms of government without recognizing the danger that consensus presents predominantly oral societies. Democracy can become totalitarian, enforced from below in what Karl Popper, following Plato, called a closed society. In the present, the phrase "politically correct" describes the dialogue-denying consensus which surrounds such topics as homosexuality, contraception, abortion, religion and feminism. Either Postman does not see these shifts in meaning or he thinks avoiding them to be good politics.
Postman's solutions are also too tactful. His "loving resistance fighter" seems to make the right noises: A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology—from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer—is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. It is a noble-sounding call to arms, but tells the reader nothing about how to achieve its distance. He cannot even tell his readers the most obvious steps: read more, particularly literature and poetry, write more, and junk the TV. All he offers is a curriculum of pluralistic "histories" as a substitute for the integral tradition lost with declining literacy. This is just content, facts; and it is not enough. His ignorance of McLuhan leaves him blind.
Postman cannot offer his reader a technique for every medium which discovers changes in sensibility like McLuhan's tetrad of enhancement, retrieval, reversal, and obsolescence. He cannot see that every technology changes the sensibility of its users in specific ways, and they in turn change their language to reflect the new way of experiencing the world. He cannot see technologies as forms of metaphoric utterance, as words themselves, acts that change the cultures in which they are used. He cannot see that language, as traditionally examined in Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectic, is the most useful tool for dissecting changes in sensibility brought by technological innovation, and the best weapon against technopoly. The fight in our time to save culture from technopoly was engaged forty years ago by Marshall McLuhan. Postman's Technopoly is a safe, ivory tower strategy far from the front lines, where two generations of media scholars conduct the real war.