Tuesday, 18 August 2015

A brief history of writing

Last week I touched quickly, insufficiently, on the issue of algorithmic reality. And that brought to my mind Vilém Flusser’s concern with technical images. And so I thought I must say a few things about that now. But before algorithms can come to the foreground I need to say a few things about writing à la Flusser. In what follows I’ll be citing especially “Letters of the Alphabet,” an essay in the collection Does Writing Have a Future?

Source: Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel
Vilém Flusser’s theories of writing have a strong historical grounding. He proposed that writing makes history. That, on the one hand, it is a practice with a background, with a beginning (Sumerian tablets, Egyptian papyri, Roman wax tablets and stone inscriptions, and so on and so forth). On the other hand, thought, writing makes History. It was only after the invention of writing that historical consciousness was made possible.

The lines that put an end to a babble

The possibility to arrange events in a linear manner, to speak of them as ordered, is the by-product of writing itself. None of this was possible before writing, when, says Flusser, the world existed in a state of mythical consciousness; when language itself was not yet settled, not yet set in stone (or in whatever).
“It is possible to claim that people of that time babbled.”
Because of the absence of writing, pre-literate cultures could not have spoken the way we do, because they had not yet gone down writing’s path.
With writing things became different in the world and in language. With writing we start to see events through the lens of their inclination towards linear ordering. One after another, events partake in a curious pageant that leaves traces on surfaces, i.e. creates a history of the event’s presence and its advancement towards the next event. With writing, we can imagine what has caused an event and what is likely to be inferred from it. That’s because we can see the before and the after of the event in a linear arrangement. And once we can see that we can’t see otherwise: events must have causes and must produce effects. Writing has made it possible to speak of origins and of projections into the future.
Logic itself is the result of writing, says Flusser. Logic, as a form of syllogistic bargaining with data based on causes and effects, on premises and conclusions, on inferences and injunctions, with the intention of arriving at a truth with a chronology of its own, is a derivative, again, of writing, and of its ability to put things into straight lines.

A simple formula

The success of writing appears to have been due to the simplicity of its formula. Once the world is presented in straight lines, it becomes easier to re-present. The simplification that came with the creation of specialized signs (letters able to synthetize the world through simple combinations) turned the human mind away from pictographic representations, which, realistic as they may have been, were time-consuming and sedentary. The Lascaux paintings are still in Lascaux because the caves could not be transported anywhere else; and so, in order to have access to the signs represented there, one had to be there, in Lascaux.

Source: Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire
I can imagine elitism catching roots right there, in the darkness of those caves. Those who could not afford the privilege of seeing the murals were left outside of knowledge, outside of humanhood, forced to gang up with other prehistoric ignoramuses. Deep inside the caves, those paintings were guarded from the outside world by their very remoteness and, by being guarded, they were also preserved.
Writing did not eliminate preservation from the scheme. Hence its success. Since the ability to eternalize an event through pictographic signs was a privilege of representation per se, writing could not ignore it. So it too advanced the promise of eternity. But on top of that, communication by means of these specialized signs presented this huge advantage of being movable. The human animal turns now its attention to lighter surfaces, easier to transport: tree bark, shells, animal hides. Things found in nature (simple, sympathetic to inscription, at hand) are now turned into support for writing.

The personalization of representation

The story goes on, but there’s no time here to go into details. The point, as Flusser formulated it, is this: before writing, the connection with the world was not completely severed. Of course, the animal painted on a cave wall is not the animal itself but a representation of it: a reminder that such things exist out there, beyond the threshold of the cave. The representation, though, has full referential power: it does refer to an actual animal out there, it is an image of that animal.
Writing ruins this certainty. Writing intervenes between image and human being to unsettle their marriage. Letters are representations not of the world but of images of the world, images akin to the Lascaux paintings. This is apparent in the formal resemblance between Western letters and their referents:
“In the fifteen hundred years since their invention, their original form has changed repeatedly, and yet it remains recognizable: the two horns of the Semitic steer (Hebrew: aleph) in the A, the two domes of the Semitic house (Hebrew: beth) in the B, the hump of the Semitic camel (Hebrew: gimul) in the C. Letters are pictures of a cultural scene as it was perceived by those who invented the alphabet in the second millennium B.C. on the eastern Mediterranean.”
This original resemblance has been forgotten, but it must be taken into consideration when we think of how the letters of the alphabet (or of other writing systems) have been allowed to act as representations of representations; of how they were welcomed at the representational games.

Source: Women of Faith
And so, with the emergence of writing, the world took a step back in its relationship to the human element. Now, in order to make the cave painting accessible to others, a writer refers to that representation in an abstract way. He/she does not explain the world to their readers. What they explain is the representation they have of that world. So writing becomes not only a way of objectifying the world but also of personalizing representation, making it the product of the whim of a writer or other. Precisely because a written text can circulate, it can be present where the reality it refers to is not. A writer can describe in writing a bull or a wild horse, and the reader has to take his words for granted. In essence, there’s no way of ascertaining the truth of an utterance when the referent is absent. That’s how rhetoric became necessary: a way of persuading an audience devoid of direct access to the object. That’s how logic turned up: as a way of proving the truth of the world by means of permutations of thoughts and by establishing a diagrammatic proof-building methodology. Both rhetoric and logic deal with abstractions, with their problems as well as their solutions.

No turning back for language

And hence the essential perversion of the relationship between language and writing:
“Something in the spoken language itself calls out to be fixed in place – and in fact, not so much in the memories of speakers and hearers, or in records or tapes, but rather in the writing itself. Spoken language seems to rush toward writing almost on its own, to become a written language and so to achieve its full maturity. After the invention of writing, spoken language appears to be a preparation for a written language, to teach people how to speak properly in the first place.”
This progression mentioned by Flusser is due, of course, to the several stages of evolution that language has undertaken ever since the invention of writing. As writing turned to be language’s technical way of materialization (its own technology), the invention of inscription, once acknowledged, could never be dis-acknowledged. And so language started takin shapes dictated not by its internal forces but by the forces of its technological apparatus (writing).
“Today we have hardly any access to preliterate speech. Even in nurseries and among illiterates, writing has permeated the language.”
So the schism is total. The specialized signs of writing have taken over the realm of representation. But this victory lasted only this many centuries. Flusser finds photography to be the great rupture in the history of writing, the way towards a different form of formulating the world. With cameras and their encoded capabilities, the door was opened to what Flusser called technical images.
Of them (algorithms et al), next week, if the gods of writing are so inclined as to give us a chance.