Birdbrain, Bird-witted, and more on Thought

Reflecting yesterday afternoon on my morning post, “On the Coast Starlight,” in which I suggested thought, if we are to try to compare it to anything, seems more bird-like than the train of thought first found in Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 “Leviathan,” I thought, to force thought onto a track where ideas are coupled one after another in forward motion toward some predetermined destination results from printing press technology, as McLuhan has shown. Thinking like a train does produce advantages, but the linear notion of thought may put us in a cage. Then it came to me that a reader might have commented that I seem birdbrained.

Since I’ve had comments and likes off for recent posts, no such reader was able to suggest it, so I’ve come forward to suggest it myself. (Readers intent on comment, like, or dislike, btw, will find an email address at the bottom of the Toad’s About page.)

But why we have come to disvalue flightiness to the extent we have, I’m not sure. Birdbrain, according to Google Ngram, is a word product of the second half of the 20th Century, while bird-witted has a more storied past, with interesting spikes of usage in both the 1720s and the 1820s.

I readily agree that my brain seems to be more bird-like than train-like. But upon discussion with Susan, she informs me that only the hummingbird is able to fly backward. Trains, of course, can travel forward or backward, but not at the same time. Yes, but trains can’t leave the track (except to switch to another track), and two trains running in opposite directions on the same track – well, in a quantum train world, perhaps a train may indeed run forward and backward at the same time. In any case, the intelligence of birds is not in question. The question is whether to think like a bird offers the human any advantage over thinking like a train. But we are only speaking to the metaphors, of course, because of course trains don’t actually think at all, and people don’t and can’t and will never think like birds any more than they’ll be able to fly like a bird.

It’s probable that in the era of trains, people did think more like trains than bird-like, while before artificial locomotion was mass produced, people thought more like other animals think. Now, people no doubt think more like automobiles. And we might update Hobbes to suggest an automobile of imagination.

The poet Marianne Moore, in her poem “Bird-witted,” leaves no doubt that to think like a bird is to think like a human:

parent darting down, nerved by what chills 
  the blood, and by hope rewarded -  
of toil - since nothing fills 
  squeaking unfed 
mouths, wages deadly combat, 
and half kills 
    with bayonet beak and 
    cruel wings, the 
intellectual cautious- 
ly creeping cat.
The last stanza of “Bird-witted,” from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, Penguin, 1982, p. 105-106.
Photo: Susan and Chicken, Culver City, circa 1952.

Where The Gutenberg Galaxy Wanes While the Zuckerberg Zone Waxes: How the Founder of Facebook is Destroying the Printing Press

At 18, a grunt at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, sitting knee to knee and cheek to cheek with my peers in a latrine of 12 stools, I learned that going to the bathroom is a business, and privacy does not work for us, we work for her. We had, in 1969, at Fort Bliss, neither laptops nor cell phones, though we were allowed books, periodicals, and letters, and if someone wanted to know the status of a constipated grunt in Fort Bliss, they would be updated in a few days via an APO address, not instantly in a Facebook post.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), a mosaic of blog-like posts illustrating the effects of print technology on the human environment, Marshall McLuhan explains that the printing press is responsible for the creation of the public. The printing press, McLuhan argues, created nationalism and the divorce of science from art, made the “marginal man,” the alienated individual, one who lives outside the margins (text boundaries) of society, and print is responsible for linear thinking. McCluhan’s 310 chapters each comprise a complex claim full of what today we would call “links” to other sources. Here’s one of my favorite chapters: “254 The typographic logic created ‘the outsider,’ the alienated man, as the type of integral, that is, intuitive and irrational, man.” And another: “258 Typographic man can express but is helpless to read the configurations of print technology.”

Can we read the configurations of  Internet technology? If McLuhan was right, and print technology traded an ear for an eye in its focus on the page, rearranging our sensorium, the eye now the dominant sense, and if the book, printed in one’s vernacular, killed Latin and created privacy, then will the global village created by the Internet reverse these sensory changes and take us back to primitivism? “187 Every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization.” And when and how will we know?

A flurry of comments on these new directions, new configurations, filled the air this week. This week’s New Yorker (September 20) contains “The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg [founder of Facebook] opens up,” while CQ Researcher has just published a major report, “Social Networking: Are online social networks eroding privacy?” (Sept. 17): Marcia Clemmitt summarizes in her introduction, “For some the new world of ‘radical transparency’ will increase human understanding and encourage honesty and accountability. But some lawmakers and scholars [are] concerned about losing older notions of privacy.” Zuckerberg is also the subject of a new movie, The Social Network, which contains a largely unflattering view of him, but of the rest of us as well, according to a Newsweek on-line review (Sept. 20), “With Friends Like These.”

These new direction discussions follow [in my reading on the subject] a November, 2009 scholarly article in The Australian Humanities Review, notable for its overall positive viewpoint [as well as for the review taking the social networking phenomenon seriously) of the Facebook experience. In “Grizzling About Facebook,” Meaghan Morris, (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney) makes her position and thesis clear in her introductory remarks: “…anyone who thinks that social networking is a ‘superficial’ matter of clicking should explain to me (to begin with) in just what world the effort of making a photo album for friends and family does not involve emotional commitment; and in what kind of real world it counts as an evasion of contact to have an on-line party, or to send gifts, humour and words of comfort or affection to people across space and time. It would have to be a world without regard for writing and reading, obviously: no love of letters, no emotional responses to rock art and cathedrals; no crying over novels and poems, either. Come to think of it, it might be a world without great newspapers (a prospect which some pundits no doubt have uncomfortably in mind).” This was in response to a negative editorial in the South China Morning Post arguing that the virtual contact of Facebook is no substitute for “real” human contact.

But the mounting concern is not over how we spend our time, but whether or not we can spend it in private. To this question, Morris offers a number of questions, each of which might serve as the thesis for another paper: “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these.” Indeed, that’s enough to keep the Facebook scholars busy for a spell. In the CQ Researcher report, there’s a thread pulled out but not nearly unravelled to conclusion regarding the similarities and differences between Facebook and MySpace, a thread which suggests a social stratification, perhaps a tribal (in the McLuhan sense) response, ultimately, perhaps, a Marxist view of social networking.

But it’s those concerns about “older notions of privacy” that I find interesting. What is privacy? Where do these ideas of privacy come from? Is liberty synonymous with privacy? Are both the consequence of print technology, as McLuhan suggested, and as technology changes and changes us, will our notions of privacy also change? No doubt the development of self-consciousness in human evolution created some sense of privacy (when did we begin to sense a need to be alone with our thoughts?), but now, by privacy, do we mean secret, or do we mean control, or do we mean, as T. S. Eliot said in “Prufrock,” “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet….” Or do we mean privilege, as in the private privy, the privy chamber, not a public place, hardly a Facebook page. Not for nothing is the stool called the throne. The king enjoys the privilege of privacy, and has the power to grant a private audience. Now with 500 million advertised members, control of the masses would seem but clicks away, but who shall be king? But if the king remains in his privy, who cares?