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Eca de Queiros and a Metaphysical Googlelarity

McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of EffectsWe know technology changes us, rearranges the sensorium; the printing press, for example, gave the eye dominance over the ear, as McCluhan explained. But is technological change bad for us? What do we value? What do we want? We survive by our abilities to adapt; change is irrelevant. The question shouldn’t be “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” but, is Google making us happy?

In Eca de Queiros’s The City and the Mountains (1895, new Margaret Jull Costa translation from New Directions, 2008) civilization is defined and confined by its “machines and instruments” (p. 50): “Defeated, my Prince slouched into his study and did the rounds of all those machines intended to complete or facilitate Life – the Telegraph, the Telephone, the Phonograph, the Radiometer, the Graphophone, the Microphone, the Writing Machine, the Adding Machine, the Electric Press, the Magnetic Press, all his tools and tubes and wires…” (p. 120).

There’s even a link, 1895 version: “Then, desperately, he linked No. 202 up with the telegraphic wires of The Times, so that his study, like a heart, would pulsate with the whole Social Life of Europe” (p. 114-115).

But the ruling class isn’t happy, and getting on their machines does nothing to improve their foolishness: “Like some icy, melancholy sun, the Electricity blazed down on the silence and on the pensive immobility of all those backs and all those décolletages. From each attentive ear, cupped by a hand, hung a black wire, like a piece of intestine…superior, civilized beings devoutly and silently drinking in the obscenities Gilberte was bleating down the line at them from beneath the soil of Paris, through wires buried in the gutters, close by the sewers…” (p. 62-63). They are all logged on, severally, to the “Theaterphone.”

The problem is the city, civilization, machines that lack the ability to bestow grace: “But the City has its most deleterious effects on Man’s Intelligence, which it either imprisons in banality or drives into wild extravagance” (p. 93). The city lights do not illuminate most of its inhabitants: “If the illusion of the City could at the very least make all the people who maintained it happy, but it patently fails!” (p. 94). And so they leave for the mountains of the title, taking only a small part of the “super-civilized Prince’s sumptuous collection” with them.

Were it 2009, would they be taking their laptops, which, like Stevens’s jar in “Anecdote of the Jar,” would likely jar the nature of the mountains and their own alike, like nothing else in Portugal? We find out in the second half of The City and the Mountains.

Strangers to the future

When Nicholas Carr tries to walk a straight line in the web, he’s a different kind of stranger in a strange land. Google’s goal is not to make us smart, but rich, a goal it has surpassed. What passes for smart in the land of Carr is linear and vertical, long and deep, but what is it? Here’s a clue: deep dives like War and Peace can’t be comfortably experienced on the web, where readers value clarity, conciseness, and the ability to jump around with the speed of a photon.

Carr complains about blogging and bloggers, but his real lament may be for the adulteration of the professional writer’s medium, for the paid writer is accustomed to being compensated a spot in the box, but now has to sit in the general admission seats behind the center field fence with the blue-collar fans.

 

McLuhan said each new medium fills with the content of the old (e.g. vaudeville > radio > TV), before it develops its own content, and that every technology is an extension of the senses. He thought electronic media an extension of our central nervous system; no wonder we feel wired and jittery sitting at the computer surfing the web. And we prefer our posts short, with a picture or two; for what’s a book without pictures and conversations? Go ask Alice.

 

Blogs are not usually filled with essays. When they are they surely get skimmed by surfer-readers, one of Carr’s complaints; but isn’t that the way we read newspapers (mosaics) and most periodicals (mosaic-hybrid-newspapers)?

 

Carr claims that internet reading distracts us from linear and deep thinking, thus making us dumb. Linearity and “deep-reading,” the ability to read in a straight line for a long time, holding one’s intellectual breath long enough to absorb the view deep down, are capabilities Carr values, but he can’t prove that without them we grow stupid. Moreover, he’s filling the new medium with old content, which can only last temporarily, according to McLuhan. 

 

McLuhan, paraphrasing David Hume, said in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “…there is no principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts for nothing. Nothing follows from following, except change. So the greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant” (p. 27). In choosing War and Peace to reason his claim, Carr signifies his value, for why didn’t he choose Finnegans Wake? “In other words, cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message. Is it not evident that the moment that sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration? Is that not what has happened in physics as in painting, poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say, ‘The medium is the message’ quite naturally” (p. 28).

 

It’s not clear that Carr wants people to think as much as he wants them to think like him, not what he thinks, necessarily, but the way he thinks. The issue in controversy asks if the internet is changing the way we think (of course it is), and then asks a question related to the quality of thinking, but a different way of thinking is not automatically a worse way of thinking. The brain adapting yet again is not proven a bad change. Carr’s argument, that internet reading is making us stupid, suggests we were smart, but there’s unfortunately inadequate evidence to support that claim also. In any event, by the time we can determine if the change was for the better or worse, it’s likely that the written word as we now enjoy it will be a relic or fossil of some earlier culture. We are all strangers to the future.

What will happen to books?

If everyone stops reading, what will happen to all of the books? Two suggestions come to mind, one from “The Time Machine,” by H. G. Wells (1895), the other from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1953).  

In the Palace of Green Porcelain, the Time Traveller wanders “… out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough” (chap. 8, p. 103).   

The first “Time Machine” movie (1960) contains two scenes worth mentioning that are not in the book. The talking rings scene was suggested by record albums, but, in a current reading, the rings are predictive of CD’s; the other scene is the crumbling book in the Time Traveller’s hands, and his sweeping of the books on a shelf into dust as his Eloi companion, Weena, looks on, with no comprehension. The Time Traveller returns home, tells his story, then returns to the future – in the movie, with three books (which books, we don’t know), but in the book, he’s seen preparing to leave, “a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other” (chap. 12, p. 137), but what’s in the knapsack, we don’t know.   

Ray Bradbury, in “Fahrenheit 451,” imagined a different, but similarly bleak, future for books, one in which books are illegal, and if found, are burned by special firemen – for everything else in this future society is fireproof. But at the end of the book, the fireman Montag, now a fugitive on the run, having betrayed with books and deserted the force, discovers a band of outlaws living outside the city: “We’re book burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Microfilming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it.”  

McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage:” “’Authorship’ – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology… the invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public… the idea of copywrite…was born…As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression” (pp. 122-123).      

The way in is the far out

John Cage opened the windows of the music room. He incorporated unintended as well as intended but unconventional sounds into music composition, thus acknowledging a modern electrocution of music that alters the sensorium. Music became an extension of our wired ears. The way in was the far out.

Cage created performance lectures, utilizing a multi-media approach that combined sound, text, and oral lecture with non-linear arrangement and movement of ideas, words, sentences as musical phrases, and anecdotal asides (his short-short stories approximating the Zen koan). Bulleted lines, multiple columns, and a variety of font characteristics permeate the text versions. The lectures are collected in the books “Silence” (1961) and “A Year From Monday” (1967). Cage’s initial attempts were an effort to incorporate his musical ideas into different modes of argument, so that the listener could “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it” (“Silence,” Foreword). The lectures are measured compositions. The composer provides time values, tempo markings, directions for rhythm and pitch, and textual arrangements serving as bars and measures. Chance and indeterminacy informed Cage’s composition process:

“At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture…The audience was seated in the center of all this activity” (“Silence,” Foreword).

Not everyone in the audience may have enjoyed the attempt to rearrange their sensorium. Cage relates, of his “Lecture on Nothing,” “One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

We may feel a similar response to some of today’s pervasive PowerPoint presentations. They are not written, or composed, but put together, as in “I put together a PowerPoint for today’s meeting.” The use of PowerPoint is itself a value assumption (warrant). Yet for organization and presentation of an argument for today’s reader (who has not the time, inclination, or patience for linear modes – a reader now beyond the Guttenberg Galaxy, outside the margins of McLuhan’s marginal man, a mosaic man), the persuasive possibilities of the PowerPoint slide show are hard to beat.

For a consideration of the potential ill effects of PowerPoint, see Ian Parker, “Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?” The New Yorker, May 28, 2001.

Overhearing one’s own writing

In “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), Marshall McLuhan was the first modern blogger. Though published in traditional book form, the structure resembles many of today’s blogs. Norman O. Brown followed suit with “Love’s Body,” in 1966. McLuhan and Brown built their books on a framework of short paragraphs full of quotes, or links, to a cornucopia of sources – both books cite hundreds of references. The writing is often aphoristic, cryptic, anecdotal. The quotes become like comments that propel the blog onward. 

McLuhan suggests that in the medieval world reading was oral. Monks read aloud, even when reading alone, because they had to hear the word in order to process its meaning (p. 115). Reading silently is a developmental skill, and some readers never master the skill of reading directly from eye to memory, but must mouth the words, moving their tongues silently. They read by hearing their own voice.

Brown said, “Our identity is always a case of mistaken identity” (p. 144). What is the identity within our writing? Are there times when the identity within our writing is a case of mistaken identity? 

Harold Bloom, in his portentous but readable book, “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human,” suggests that Montaigne influenced Shakespeare, but says Montaigne’s essay, “Of Experience,” seems Shakespearean. Bloom’s subject in his final chapter is “foregrounding,” and he draws attention to this characteristic of Montaigne: “Montaigne, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, changes because he overhears what he himself has said. It is in reading his own text that Montaigne becomes Hamlet’s precursor at representing reality in and by himself” (1998, p. 739). Montaigne wrote what he spoke, like he spoke. In other words, he practiced E. B. White’s “reminder” to “Write in a way that comes naturally” (p. 70). Yet Montaigne said that he spoke differently depending on his environment; he talked differently when conversing in Paris than when in Montaigne. Montaigne’s “principal aim and virtue,” in his writing, was “to be nothing but myself” (p. 113). He said “I speak on paper as I do to the first person I meet” (p. 115). Montaigne avoided affectation by accepting language as alive and therefore always changing: “I reject nothing which is current on the streets of France, for the man who would correct usage by grammar is a simpleton” (p. 113). 

We don’t encourage a writing anarchy; listen, and learn to compare your voice to the voice of others. Overhear your own writing. We don’t want to all sound the same; neither do we want to write the same. We want to write with originality and individuality. We want our voice to be our own, but we want others to be able to listen to our voice easily, without straining to hear. Read your writing aloud. What’s the identity of the speaker? Have someone else read your paper aloud to you. Is your writing true to your natural voice? Does your writing sound natural to you, or does it sound stilted, awkward, falsely academic? Try to overhear.

Sister Maryquill’s Style Guide: An APA/MLA etc. Primer

When McCluhan wrote, in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” “…the scholar in print culture can have acceptance for his accuracy even though he has nothing to say,” he may have been thinking of Sister Maryquill’s class, in Los Angeles, circa 1957.  

Sister Maryquill’s requirements led the young scholar down a straight path toward accuracy, clarity, and conciseness before he even contemplated the writing of words or numbers. These requirements included clean, white, three hole punched, wide margin, ruled folder paper. For a page ripped from a spiral notebook, one subtracted points, minus 10%. If from the ripped page dangled hanging chads, or if chad confetti littered the floor around one’s desk, one subtracted more points, minus an additional 10%. One used red and black pencils, #2, both, for Arithmetic, blue ink pen for English. There were no other subjects. A single, 12 inch ruler, 3 hole punched, completed every student’s toolbox – no borrowing allowed.

Samples from Sister’s Guide: “In Arithmetic, divide the width of the paper from the left margin line to the right edge in half, measuring 3 inches from the top of the paper and 3 inches from the bottom, making a tiny dot with red pencil to mark your measurements. Hold your ruler vertically aligned against the dots to get plumb. Using your red pencil, draw a straight line from the top ruled line to the bottom of the page. Hold your ruler horizontally across the first ruled line. Draw over the line with your red pencil.” 

“At the top of every page write in capital letters without punctuation JMJ. On the first page, in the top, right hand corner, write your name. Under your name, write the date. Under the date, write the subject. Under the subject, write the assignment. On subsequent pages, in the same top right hand corner space, write only your name, but under your name, write the page number, only the number.”

The classroom stapler was reserved for special occasions. For regular, daily work: “When submitting work of multiple pages, fold the top left hand corner down, creating an equilateral triangle, rip the paper inward from the center of the outside edge, and double back the top side.”  

In Sister Maryquill’s English class, thesis stated, theme explored, but within the confines described above: blue ink on proper, white folder paper; writing aligned neatly against the left, red margin; double-spaced, cursive – all under the watchful eyes of JMJ. But there was more preparation required of the English paper, for every sentence required diagramming, properly, to avoid its being stricken. One used red pencil and ruler for the lines of the diagram, and blue ink pen for the words. Of course, there were many violations other than improper diagrams that warranted striking sentences, and many paragraphs starting with a dozen sentences or more ended with none.

Time for recess.