Alex Golub is onto something

Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems with it. Sometimes it seems like my education has made everything more complicated and problematic than it was before. On the surface, his summary of thirty years of critical theory (nicely done!) ends in a gross oversimplification:

The most basic form of communication that human beings use is face to face linguistically mediated interaction. It’s what we do most of the time. Its what we learn to do first. Its what we do. It should serve as the paradigm for all meaningful activity

Conversations are not moving books, books are frozen conversations. In order to understand blogs, or the internet, or any other cultural phenomenon we need to take as our starting point the way it does or does not resemble face to face conversation. This provides a new viewpoint, one that I think does real work. How exactly? Well, I’ll let you know when I figure it out…

I’ve got to reflect on this, based on what I’ve been exploring in the work of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others.

This summary sounds good, except…

Analyzing conversations does not explain the process of making meaning, it complicates it. HP Grice’s theories regarding implicature demonstrate that humans literally imply meanings out of thin air— what is being expressed in a conversation is often far outside the words that are spoken, the expressions used, etc. On a very deep level, it’s magic that we can communicate at all this way. But the real danger of his statement is in the second paragraph: “Conversations are not moving books, books are frozen conversations.”

Not even close to the truth. Havelock’s work has demonstrated almost conclusively that societies which use the written word think entirely differently than oral cultures. There is an incredible shift brought about through the development of literate culture. A gross example is this: oral cultures do not use subordination. Every thing related in oral narratives is paratactic in nature, chained together by conjunctions and causal relations. It is a world filled with agents and actions, long on example and short on abstraction. The introduction of written language causes a shift into the hypotactic, subordinate constructions which often convey things which have no clear agents, and less direct action. This influences the structure of conversation, not just the written words themselves. Memory becomes less important, and the ability to deal with complex abstractions more important.

Written works become increasingly distant to conversation, because they can. Philosophy enters the picture, because determining the veracity of written and spoken language becomes important in the realm of abstraction. Words refer not just to agents and actions, but other words. They become a thing in and of themselves, away from the day to day life of face to face interaction. The implicatures become deep and more complex.

Alex is right to suggest that conversation is the right place to start; however, the road from there becomes more complex than he implies. Technology shifts consciousness. The introduction of the printing press caused a crisis of faith unlike anything we have known since. The period I’m looking at now, the 17th century, introduced the battle between the written word and science. This shifted thinking again. I suspect the new technologies such as the Internet represent a shift which is of the same order of magnitude. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Conversation starts it, but conversation also changes itself based on the technology which proliferates it. It’s not just a phenomenon of culture, but also a phenomenon of consciousness. Books are not frozen conversations: they represent an entirely new mode of thinking. It remains to be seen whether the same can be said of the Internet. I’m still quite conservative about that. But there is no arguing that this change is a big one.

1 thought on “Conversation”

  1. Thanks for the notice. We are just coming from way different directions on this thing. Hopefully this will get cleared up….and BTW, wouldn’t you rather read Goody on “The Domestication of the Savage Mind” than Ong? Its much better, I promise. Also, as someone who lived with non-literate people for two years, I promise you they use subordinate clauses ;)-A
    Actually, my favorite on the topic is Havelock. He proposes two theories of orality, a general one and then a special one for the Greeks. The hypotaxis/parataxis thing is specific to Greek culture in 400bc. The reason for the two theories is that interface between oral and literate cultures in this century is a collision between fully-formed technologies and orality, rather than the evolution of literacy within a culture which has no models to compare it to. Yes, I know we’re coming at it from two different directions, but I just couldn’t leave the comment about books being written conversations alone. It’s as overly simplistic as saying that if you can talk, you can write. This isn’t the case at all.
    Yes. I agree with you entirely. Literacy is so interesting because it is so _different_ from conversation (unlike video, telehpone, which are similar in one way or another). I think I kinda said that – the thing about books is that they have aspects to them that are different from other forms of semiosis. Aspects that make them amenable to analysis. I’m getting to it, I promise…. :)Given the choice between Havelock and Vernant (for our purposes, ‘Origins of Greek Thought’) I’d go with Vernant. I’ve checked out some Havelock however and will look it over when I’ve got time.BTW your photos rock.-A

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