Risk

Readin, Writin and Rtraumatic

    ... insidious is the cry for 'revolution,' at a time when not even the germs of new institutions exist, let alone the moral and political consciousness that could lead to a basic modification of social life.... One who pays some attention to history will not be surprised if those who cry most loudly that we must smash and destroy are later found among the administrators of some new system of repression.
    -- Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, pp. 17-18

     It was hard enough to withstand the worldwide feud between two superpowers but to live under the total hegemony of only one is still worse.
    -- Fidel Castro, 12th Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, 29 Aug 1998

    What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.
     -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
What many may not realize is that there is no disjunction between Chomsky the linguist and Chomsky the political gadfly. He simply cried in the wilderness long enough about innate language patterns to realize that he would have to go where people were listening before they would hear him. It is with some trepidity that I describe my position as trying to re-trace his steps -- back, that is, into the wilderness, in hopes that enough folks have read -- yea, even unto understanding -- the Professor to make a conversation possible about germs, right in there between the teeth of the Leviathan, and what to do 'about' them.

Before one has political consciousness, one must be aware of one's own realities -- that seems to be easy enough to swallow. But before one has self-consciousness, one must be aware of the language with which one thinks? That's too much to even think about. Much better to go on a hope and a prayer that the 'new' system will be a benevolent and enlightened one than to entertain an hypothesis which gets one in a muddle so easily: What, talking about talking? How to do something about how one does things? Studying examples of inexplicable things? It's more than a little scary.

Einstein described 'a kind of optical delusion of consciousness'; indeed, it is very like looking at blind spots. Of course, I don't know that you have one; I can only guess that your optics are enough like mine to recognize what I mean. It's not there until you quit trying to look through it; until by some chance you see something you should have seen if it wasn't there. (See Shintai)

The point is, all sorts of things are 'there' but remain unseen and unsought until a context develops. To determine what is not there, it is sufficient to identify what is there, and to see, finally, the perturbation, the inexplicandum, the 'hole' in which that which is not seen there must be. (Then you can start to look for it, but that's a separate matter.)

One way to locate the topic about which we are talking is to look for that which is not talked about. As I mentioned earlier, at any given level of knowledge, there is no need to talk about what everybody knows. To transgress this axiom is to put yourself outside the pale, as a child or a fool.

There are a couple interesting aspects to look at here. In ancient times, the cardinal rule was somewhat different: That Which Does Not Exist Is Not To Be Spoken Of. (The verb 'to be' had two forms, by the way; one referring to 'essences' and the other to 'accidental' properties:

Serchan is a man
was different from
Serchan is near-sighted.
I speak here of the first.) Past and future, not being here now, did not exist; there was no syntax for 'should have done' or 'going to do.' Telling an untruth was unthinkable (what, no spin doctors?), and reporting something which you could not have known at the time that later turned out to be true was grounds for strong suspicion of chicanery if not magic -- as if speaking might have caused the thing to be. One spoke or wrote God's word (gospel = good spell), and one living the good life did not expect anything to be different from what was. Then, to be a student meant to take the (master's) word for the real thing; not, as in our age, to 'intend' to move from one 'state of mind (or knowledge)' to another -- which is to say, to expect to be tolerated as a fool.

And then there is Art, or artifice. To the ancients, it consisted of 'accidents' assembled so to seem essential; nowadays (being surrounded by so much of it), we say an artist 'creates.' (Shall we call her a liar, then?) But she doesnt create the oils, or the granite, or the air vibrations; she creates meaning -- the context in (the middle of) which those materials work -- or so it seems. (Tis a gift) Nowadays, we accept that a tree falling in the forest might make sound even if no one is around to hear it -- but should we say that such sound is music, even if the felling were a 'performance'? At some point, the 'quantum' universe of spontaneity and inspiration and creativity transforms into the 'classical' universe of appreciation and criticism, and that point is conveniently associated with audience. Whether that crashing sound is music depends as much on the state of mind of those who hear it as on that of the executrix of the 'happening.'

In short, to speak usefully of context -- to speak, that is, of what everyone knows -- we must acknowledge consciousness, our particular human accident. Art is not merely the manipulation of inanimate materials, but involves what we can call an esthetic collaboration between two roles -- that known as creator, be it artist, writer or web-spacer, and that of observer. Thus, even if it is the 'composition' that we (as observers) call 'art,' its meaning is situated between the two. We do not call an artist a liar, because we are willing accomplices in the creation of something from seemingly nothing. Nor do we call a liar an artist, because we do not acknowledge our own role in making the lie possible, or practical. We hold to another ('higher') standard of definition of 'what is going on' -- such as a job description. (Take a break .)

Readerly Acts; Writerly Ideas

Now we are getting somewhere. Taking the instance of art that is ready to hand, what is the 'state of mind' of a reader? Is it different from the state of mind of a writer? The point now is not to claim title to the Grandest Generalization, but to feel how the roles are constructed and what they have to do with 'the facts of the matter.' My argument (a kind of converse of Gregory Bateson's insight that information is 'a difference that makes a difference') is simple enough: the difference between the roles is not intrinsic but nominal (they are distinguished solely in order to talk about them, not to enact or experience them); and, further, that their reification (see Dialogic), as if one is a reader, is a readerly, even disempowered act. To emphasise the paradigm shift, I suspend, for the moment, the use of modifiers - 'real reader,' 'honest writer,' 'expert understanding,' etc. Taking better notes will not solve the problem -- it wont even reveal the problem, if we don't know what notes are for.

The mechanics of traditional publishing (as in almost every other sphere of endeavour; see "Cyberarcheology") enforced a temporal as well as spacial divide between production and reception of 'finished' writing, to the point that the work had to stand by itself. But writing and reading, now possible almost as concurrent acts, no longer need to be identified exclusively with producing and consuming. (Nor do you, dear colleague, need any longer to identify yourself as a reader!) What remains is hope or expectation; we might say that reading is an expectation of some insight or (vicarious) experience, and writing is the expectation to provide (pre-view) it for someone. That is, reading requires a belief in text; writing, a belief in something beyond text: an animate, conscious context. (When AI achieves the 'intelligent machine,' will anyone write for it?)

Not to put too fine a point to it, reading requires an essentially passive (often called 'objective') attitude; as if reader and text are a linear system, with 'information,' poured in by one means or another, solidifying in 'understanding' as its own self-justifying end. What one does then is not performed as a reader per se, but in some other role; reading itself is 'disengaged'; at the end of its rope. Writing, on the other hand, is an open, on-going project (one projects oneself into a putative reader to observe how well the work 'reads') which can go on perpetually across generations.

Now, if you are about to protest that of course you are engaged (enraged?), I submit that you are taking on a writerly role; that it is only your conditioning in obedience and obsequiousness, your imposed role as a product of the Academy of Manners) which deters you from taking up your keyboard to tell me 'what I should have said' and 'where I have gone wrong.' But the collaborative perspective that I am outlining here stands in opposition to that academic, authoritarian stance and, granting Rheingold his right to the contrary, I consider the potential of CMC to facilitate this change scientifically to be its greatest merit. These pages are not here to be the 'last word' on anything, but as a first, tentative and (I hope!) engaging step towards a conversation - literally, the mutual changing of minds, without prejudice as to where they shall be after the changing. (Revolution, as Chomsky tries to point out, does not have to go full circle.)

Risk

Where is the radix, now, in all this? If expectation (or intention) is essential to the process of change, is there more to be understood beyond the term? I suggest that reading (observing) requires less risk, to the extent that facts (for example) are embedded in a matrix of already-reported events, or 'artwork' is embedded in already-familiar techniques: 'one doesn't see what one is not looking for.' Writing carries a higher risk, in the sense that one's audience may not emerge at all; that is, one may 'push the envelope' of technique too far. (Cf Feenberg) But, after all, not all writing is 'artistic' any more than all reading is merely swotting up ostensible facts; art is the joint creation ('construction,' if one (re)enlarges the mechanistic sense) of a dialogical space between reader and writer. As it happens, there is already, in this 'dialectical' middle world, those who both gather disparate facts or stories together, and redeem the risks by providing the continuity of themselves; in a word, editors, and (being one myself) I offer this term as the first step away from reductionism and alienation. As 'Khyberspace' erases the boundaries between teacher and student, reader and writer, our 'editorial personae' come to the fore. We work together as epistolary artists, drawing on our separate experiences, negotiating and realizing this shared space, and handing material out or hanging up our results for someone else, some forever-anonymous third party (whom we may now legitimately call, in this particular case, the 'reader' or the 'student,' or in general, the 'beneficiary' or the 'consumer') to gaze at in everlasting wonder.

Working with throughput, rather than isolated production/input, consumption/output concepts, is, in my opinion, the essence of Chomsky's 'moral and political consciousness.' It is the key to holding the 'new economy' to its mandate of public empowerment, for it exposes the unutterable travesty of 'equality' that has been perpetrated by the 'efficient' separation of thought and action (management and labour). It is the antidote to the nominal 'freedom' of 'speech': when only that which has no consequence is tolerated ('protected'), even cries to smash and destroy become cynical omens of repression. Thus does the body politic lead itself into submission, and thinks nothing of it.

As co-editors, we move beyond that imposed segregation; we realize that we have in language a most elegant medium for the art of throughputting, and -- not altogether by accident -- in the Internet at least a passable, if not yet elegant, workbench on which we can all hone our editing skills on a collective work. With such skills, we are able to bring creative, workable, coherence out of chat-room chaos, on- and off-line. Without them, we are doomed to bigotry and attention deficiency in personal relations, desperation and apathy in society, censorship in education, totalitarianism in governance -- and a beggared imagination.


Notes

(1) The lecturer says, "I want you to believe the things I tell you, but not because you believe me; I want you, rather, to believe them because you yourself see that they must be true." (Doesn't it appear that he is telling you to obey ('believe') his want, even as he says not to? There is a confusion of 'logical levels' here, and believing that their resolution lies between the medium and his message only reinforces the implicit power relation. The lecturer, knowing you cannot discriminate (or you wouldnt be there!) does it for you -- and thus reinforces your 'one-down' powerlessness. Further, in his one-up authority, he can safely tell you he has none, and, like the Cheshire cat, disappears from your cognitive equation, leaving you alone with deaf, dumb and blind (in short, old) 'truth,' but no means to share your poor, miserable, desolated experience of it! The effect of continual repetition of this 'double-bind' message (over 16 or 12 or even 8 years) is to lose all language except his -- but, after all, you have only the things he has told you to believe, so that must be okay. No?
   Well, then, try the exercises below.
(2) Classical Greek philosophy developed in two schools -- Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus argued that all nature was alive and self-creative ever making order from disorder; Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato, that the world could be known through pure reason. This latter objective, mechanical worldview superseded the older one of living nature to become the foundation of Western thought for two millenia. 'Ecological consciousness,' however, is hard to eradicate; the autopoiesis (Gk. 'self-creation') of Varela and Maturana and the holomovement of Bohm are two thriving specimens.
(3) Even one who 'just writes for oneself' projects a self who re-cognizes <'looks back at'> the work. (If there be one who immediately destroys hyr writing -- I visualize two machines, back to back, one inscribing and the other erasing or shredding the output -- please write to me, immediately!) In general, the meaning of an act is surely that time passes: person¹ who has written is different from person² who has not yet.
(4)
    [The] perception of e-mail as epistolary art particularly challenges the reigning model of communication in information and computer science that derives from the mathematical, engineering work of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver in the later 1940s. [...T]his technocratic model of communication contaminates much public discussion that affects us professionally. For example, the US government's recent Draft Report on the "Arts, Humanities, and Culture on the National Information Infrastructure" (Information Superhighway) is full of references to "tools" "delivering" "data sets" of "content" to "information consumers and information providers." In this rhetoric, "interactive" merely means "two-way traffic." I believe that there is room and need for alternative appreciations from the humanities of this electronic exchange.
    [...] Everyone agrees that we need alternative scenarios of what life could be like to counter despair and paralysis. [...I]n its modest, quotidian way, e-mail endows us all with just such a powerful resource for imaginative, inventive, artistic creation.
   -- Ellen Strenski, [Electronic Epistolarity: E-Mail as Gift Exchange]
(5) A critique of totalizing theory in Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, by [Alan Taylor].
    The gulf between speaking ('doing art' in general) and speaking about ('calling it art') epitomizes the blind spot the E-Lekh is dedicated to illuminate. See FYI.

Exercises

  • The fool sees not the same tree that the wise man does.
        -- William Blake

  • Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the race...does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.
         -- Richard Feynman

  • Education: that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
         -- Ambrose Bierce

  • To know what everybody knows is to know nothing."
         -- Remy de Gourmont

  • Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
         -- Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle

  • Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may not remember. Involve me and I'll understand.
        -- ancient saying

  • Know thyself
        -- Temple of Apollo, Delphi.

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