Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Technology of Reading

It turns out the internet is changing the way we think about things, how we interact with each other, and what we expect of ourselves. Indeed: how could it not? Only a Cartesian was ever able to convince themselves that the materiality of bodily existence had little or nothing to do with how we think. The ancient Greeks and Romans were well aware that a world full of objects, not excluding capricious deities, continually poked and prodded the psyche. Medieval Christians were also aware of the lusts of the flesh, and only too aware of how they could upset the mental balance of the most devout believer.

Whereas modern thinkers have had a certain amount of difficulty shaking their Cartesian hangover. It still shows in how questions about the effect the internet is having on the way we think are asked. Nicholas Carr pointedly asked, 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' invoking the literary authority of Stanley Kubrick's cinematic rendition of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey to make his point.  The lesson of the death (better: dismantling) of HAL 9000 gets at the rapidly disappearing distance between human and machine: 'as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.' Our reading has become nothing more than superficial glossing, and then our attention wanders...which gives us licence to that something unprecedented in the history of literary consumption is occurring?

I suspect our Cartesian hangover encourages this sort of wild speculation. Once we cherished dearly the thought that the mind was entirely separate from the materiality of bodily existence; now we worry about the erosion of the walls of our mental isolation from materiality, which (probably) never existed in the first place. Though there is a significant difference from earlier accounts of the intimate relation between mind and body: the new materiality that threatens to envelop us is not just any natural material. It's our own technological creativity that threatens. Inverting an the old image of a person lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps, we are now swallowing ourselves whole.

Everyone needs to calm down and take a page out of the history of reading the biblical texts--or any canonical or venerated scriptures, for that matter. The organization of these sacred collections follows the technological means available in a given time and place.The Bible as we know it today was only formally collected in its present form in the 13th century, and and only made widely available in the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press.

With the introduction of the printing press, how people read changed fundamentally, albeit over the course of a few centuries. (Technological change moved more slowly in the past.) A Late Antique or medieval Christian reader of the Bible would have spent hour contemplating the words of the text, like Saint Augustine describes himself doing, pouring over them in search of God's truth. The reader approached other texts with the same sort of reverence. Antiquity bestowed authority upon the written word. Readers could only assimilate the messages texts contained.

Fast-forward to the 15th and 16th centuries: European scholars are buried neck-deep in cheaply produced publications. This changed technological context is an obstacle to the sort of immersive reading practices of early generations. Which is not to say that scholars failed to immerse themselves in texts; only that they did so while reading a great number of other texts besides. The natural impulse was now to examine, compare, criticize, and raise questions as to the veracity of this or that passage in Herodotus, for example, or Pliny, or one of the five Books of Moses.

And most importantly, the location of truth changes. Truth is no longer necessarily found in any one text, even though a text like the Bible will still be called 'the Word of God'. The truth is now located, as it were, between texts; or more precisely, in the critical faculties of discerning readers.

The image of Francesco Petrarch`s  indecisive wavering at the crossroads where the active and the contemplative life parted ways in The Ascent of Mount Ventoux is an important antecedent. Lorenzo Valla's criticism of papal claims to authority on the basis of The [Spurious] Donation of Constantine provides a more poignant example of a changed attitude towards texts. The efforts of Renaissance Humanists and Protestant Reformers to publish critical editions of the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and the Fathers of the Church all belong to the beginning of a long process of steady erosion, at the end of which the authority of the text as text will vanish.

The transition between these two eras was no doubt unsettling for many. About any private doubts that a text's apparent loss of sanctity may have raised, I have nothing more to say. My point is only that things have changed in the past, and will no doubt do so again in the future. No need to lose one's head over them.

No comments: