this progress 03.13.2010, 3:13 PM
posted by dan visel
Buried in the middle of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, a book digressive in exactly the right way, is an astonishing argument about writing. Lévi-Strauss considers what the invention of writing might mean in the history of civilizations worldwide, arriving at a conclusion that still surprises:
The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes. Such, as any rate, is the typical pattern of development to be observed from Egypt to China, at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a much more likely explanation of the birth of architecture than the direct link referred to above. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other. (p. 299)
An idea this inflammatory is perhaps one that can only appear deep in a book like this, where the reader will find it only by mistake. But this is an argument that I haven't seen resurrected in all the present talk about what's happening to reading and writing in their present explosions. One sees on an almost-daily basis recourse to the position of Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus – technology, no matter how simple, inevitably leads to a lessening of human facilities of memory – but this is something different, and one that I think merits consideration. Periodically, I wish that someone would present a cogent argument against reading, rather than the oft-regurgitated pablum that "at least the kids are reading."
Lévi-Strauss is presenting a hypothesis rather than a complete argument, a suggestion quickly offered before he travels elsewhere: and I need to add the caveat that I'm not sufficiently versed in anthropology to know whether this was generally thought to be historically accurate in 1955, when the book was written, or whether this can be historically supported today. One needs, as well, some context: Tristes Tropiques is a rambling book in which Lévi-Strauss considers his travels in search of anthropology: in this book, he questions whether meaning is to be found in academic work or in personal experience, dipping freely into both. It's a book informed as much by anthropology as it is by Surrealist prose and the recent experience of World War II. Lévi-Strauss is making his hypothesis on the origin of "writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure" in the midst of a book that functions in precisely that way. He argues from the literary position. But following his ideas, Gutenberg's invention of movable type leads directly to the excesses of European colonialism. Elsewhere in his book, Lévi-Strauss visits the last remnants of indigenous tribes in the interior of Brazil, peoples who are being wiped out by the encroachment of civilization; the sadness of his title is due in part to his realization of his culpability in this loss.
Lévi-Strauss's argument bears thinking about now, at the dawn of a new era of writing. What happens now? Already our ideas about privacy are radically different than they were a decade ago. We are increasingly dependent upon the web: living without Google's various incarnations for even a week would be extremely difficult for most people I know. This isn't, to be sure, slavery – we don't yet live at the pleasure of Google or Apple – but these are new mechanisms of control which we can't really claim to entirely understand at present. Lévi-Strauss was writing in the aftermath of WWII – his detainment escaping Vichy France is a major thread in his narrative – which might account for his heightened tone.
Lévi-Strauss invites us to consider literary freedom (or, more generally, "book culture") as a spandrel in the sense that Stephen Jay Gould employed the term: something that evolves not towards its own end, but because it doesn't impede (and may in fact support) other forces. I think Lévi-Strauss's hypothesis is interesting to consider because it posits our present book culture as an exception, rather than something that naturally happens because of the flow of economic or historical forces. Amazon, Apple, or Google aren't going to preserve book culture for us because it's in their economic interests; rather, it doesn't impede their economic expansion. This makes our position clearer. In Gould's view of life, humanity's existence is a happy accident: evolution isn't teleological and doesn't automatically lead to us. We are an accident – a happy one, to be sure, but an accident nonetheless. There's a grandness to this idea: with all the forces of chance stacked against us, we still exist. I think a similar argument could be made for book culture: it doesn't have to exist, and, indeed, its existence may be entirely accidental.
Lévi-Strauss, like Gould, is looking backward, surveying history (or prehistory). But a better understanding of the past may make us better prepared to understand the present or the future. We can't change the past, only our understanding of it; but we can act on the present. The future of the book is not something that can be counted on: left to itself, the market may solve the problem of distribution, but it's not going to solve the problem of culture. We can do that.
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I found myself reading Lévi-Strauss because of an exhibition by Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim here in New York. For a piece entitled "This Progress," Sehgal emptied the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim of its art: the visitor ascending the ramp was met by a small child, who asks you to explain what you think progress is. You do this as best you can; there's a back and forth, and this conversation carries on up the spiral. At a certain point, you're met by a high school student, who continues the conversation; then a young adult; and finally an older adult, who walks with you to the top-most point in the Guggenheim. There's a great deal of careful choreography going on, so the conversation breaks and remakes itself across your offerent interlocutors – but what's centrally interesting about the piece is that the visitor is engaged in a sustained conversation with strangers about the idea of progress. There's something deeply strange about this: post-college, we so rarely engage in conversations about abstract ideas. It's equally odd to be engaging with people who aren't your age: the way on talks to a six-year-old is necessarily different from the way one talks to a sixty-year-old. This can be deeply engrossing: on a visit a few Mondays ago, my friend Nik and I went up (with others) and down (together) five times in four hours.
(It's worth noting that I'm not entirely a disinterested participant: among the adults working in the show were Bob Stein, McKenzie Wark – author of Gamer Theory – and Ashton Applewhite, who's been hovering unobtrusively in the margins of the Institute since its beginnings. The piece is set up, however, in such a way that the visitor always ascends the spiral with strangers. The show is now over, so it can now be pointed out that the Bob in the New York Time review is our Bob.)
One quickly discovers that what happens when one ascends the spiral is different every time, though the structure is constant. Some conversations are interesting; some are less so. Some are over quickly; some carry on so long that you worry that you've fallen out of the piece entirely. While some of the rules can be easily understood – the small child always attempts to explain what you've said to the second person, and the introduction of the third person always seems like an interruption – some aren't so obvious. After the child asks what progress is, none of your other conversation partners use the word "progress". A sense of recurrence comes up: observing carefully, one can get the idea of what your conversation partners are doing behind the scenes to create this sense. Going up the spiral with a friend doesn't work as well as you might expect: the dynamics of a conversation with a stranger are very different from a converstion with a stranger and a friend.
It's difficult to know what to say when asked by a small child to explain what progress means. One quickly discovers the limitations of language: progress, we think, is the idea that things move forward, but that doesn't explain why something in front of something is naturally better: it's simply a structure of our thought that we construe things in front of us (or above us) as things we aspire to in some way. It's hard not to think in this way when ascending a ramp, though weirdly the ramp as metaphor doesn't seem to arise. Progress, I argued on a second time through, is a construct, a narrative that we impose upon the world though it doesn't appear in nature. Or progress might be the idea that things can get better than where they are now: but to live in hope of the future is to deprecate the present. The form of the Guggenheim is circular as well: from life we understand that there are sometimes cycles in the way we move through the world. Things sometimes get better, but they sometime get worse: but a world is which things constantly improve isn't realistic. The Guggenheim's spiral, astonishing work of architecture that it is, doesn't go on forever. At a certain point you have to stop and turn around. Is it better to look down from the top of the Guggenheim's spiral or up from the bottom? Convincing arguments can be made for both.
Have things gotten better over time? A few turns into my time at the Guggenheim I started asking the older adults this question. One often hears from older people how great things were in the past; but it's more rare to hear a qualitative judgment about whether things have improved or not. Responses varied, of course: some thought there were upswings and downswings, some thought that there had been tremendous improvement over their sixty years though they thought that was a historical anomaly they were lucky to have lived through. On his last time through, my friend Nik found himself with a professor Greek: how, Nik wanted to know, were we essentially different from the Greeks? Could we be said to be happier than the Greeks – or they happier than us? Hard to say, said the Greek professor; Nik, who is a reporter turned politician and familiar, from both sides, with such attempts at elusion, kept hounding him for an answer. The difference, the man finally confided, was that the Greeks didn't have our idea of progress. He thought they were probably happier because of that.
It's an apt time for a discussion about progress: everyone seem to agree that we're in a worse place than we were a decade ago, despite now having Facebook, YouTube, and all the pirated music and movies anyone could ever one. Technology has moved along. But the world doesn't seem to have followed suit. We're not a more just society because self-publishing online enables everyone to have a voice, despite the pontificating of people like Wired and TED. In America, fewer people control more of the wealth than they did a decade ago. While it would be foolish to suggest that everything has gotten worse over the past ten years – the argument can certainly be made, for example, that we're a more tolerant society than we were – there's a palpable disappointment in the air.
After I left the Guggenheim, exhausted from so much talking, I realized that I hadn't managed to ask a very obvious question: why was there the this in the piece's title "This Progress"? Perhaps it's because progress only exists as an idea when we lend credence to it: our own personal idea of progress rather than something that exists naturally. Awareness of this is important. We need to interrogate the idea of progress, both in terms of what we believe and what society around us believes. Too often we're simply swept along by the flow of time. The power of the idea – the power of the thought experiment, whether Lévi-Strauss's questioning of the goal of writing or Sehgal's questioning of progress – is that it allows reclamation of agency.
Posted by dan visel on March 13, 2010 3:13 PM
Tim Carmody on March 19, 2010 6:32 PM:
Just a few years before Tristes Tropiques, Harold Innis published Empire and Communications, which makes a similar argument, spanning from the invention of writing to the present, and examines further how different media shape different kinds of power structures.
It's possible that Lévi-Strauss may have been familiar with Innis's argument -- his English was excellent and they were both working at the boundaries of history and sociology. But even if he wasn't, Innis is a terrific extended counterpart to this short observation by CLS.
dan visel on March 20, 2010 2:09 PM:
Ah, thanks for that - I've been meaning to look at Innis for a long time.
Edward Visel on March 21, 2010 2:52 PM:
This seems relevant:
It's important to note that teleologies can only be backward-looking. A teleology partially finished would seem hermeneutic, or perpetually evolutionary, to avoid the overly-complicated history of the word "hermeneutic". Really, the idea of a teleology is as strange as Hegel's (or at least his readers') idea that German civilization had reached its culmination. Things or ideas can be viewed as ends, but few to none are ends in themselves.
I think that's really the problem: we think of the practice of literature as an end. Maybe according to the occasional Kantian it is, but in an era where art is unavoidably politicized, this idea is very shortsighted.
The question, then, is whether technology causes literature to develop in a desirable manner. Subsequently, desired by whom? Perhaps the ivory tower crowd is just afraid of the democratization of art. Maybe rightfully so, in some sense – a medium is waning, with no clear successor. Or will our progeny rely on YouTube and the blogosphere as the new book? Or maybe the artistic crisis is still in the making...
Sorry, that all sounds like a lot of amusing but largely pointless Heideggerian bullshit. Still, maybe there's something in it, like Heidegger.
And not to be a quibbler, but if you're ever going to cannibalize this, you've got some typos.
Michael Meyer on March 21, 2010 9:02 PM:
C. L-S's judgment vis-a-vis a relationship (causal or coincident) between writing and authoritarian political institutions seems to me to fall into the old question regarding the "value-neutral" status of all technology. The "thing" is just a "thing." The USE to what the thing is put is what imparts the value. Writing, a technology (or "thing") is, I would submit, not in and of itself responsibile for the development and maintenance of authoritarian institutions (social, political, or religious). However, the use to which writing has been put by humans with respect to these three cultural determinants, would certainly tend to offer anecdotal evidence for C. L-S's conclusion.
Duncan Basson on March 22, 2010 12:31 PM:
This is a stupid hypothesis. In the first place, correlation isn't causation: the coincidence that writing was developed at the same time as slavery is not evidence that writing was developed to facilitate slavery. In the second place, suppose the hypothesis has merit; what then? Should we ban reading and writing to free the masses? What does the advocate of this hypothesis favor (besides a propensity to needless contrarianism)?
Tim Bulkeley on March 22, 2010 3:21 PM:
This book http://www.worldcat.org/title/invention-of-hebrew/oclc/317922784&referer=brief_results may well be interesting, Sanders argues for an interesting complexity in the interrelationship of writing technology (sylabaries vs. alphabet) and power in the Ancient Near East.
j.s. kitololo on March 26, 2010 6:49 PM:
Interestingly the Lanier idea of "nostalgia malaise" in the mash-up culture inspired by the internet (Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget:A Manifesto), and his concern with how Web 2.0 change the way humanity thinks, percieves and interacts with society can be seen as contradictory viewed from a McLuhanist perspective. Marshall McLuhan suggests that technology "works us over thoroughly", Jacques Ellul developing this in depth with his social analysis of the inevitable effects of 'technique' or technology-culture. what would, from this perspective, technology, of which Ellul insists literature is a part, be doing to us today? for one thing creating an 'ad hoc culture' where a piece here and a piece here enhance the sum of its parts and thus is viewed as better/cooler (a la progress). McLuhan's suggestion was that electronic culture being immersive, revive and return us to tribal culture, from literature 'hypnosis' (his word). Here collaboration overpowers individualistic creation, an observation quite prescient.
Who reads a blog without reading the comments afterword, as part of the same document or creation? Then again, who reads all comments when they're many? Rather we make our own 'mash-ups' by reading selectively in the spirit of 'ad hoc culture' cutting and pasting mentally to create our own final experience. This was done less in the age of the book, and McLuhan would argue this is due to print literature's linear tyranny, now dissolved by electronic media.
I had no plan this morning to post this comment here - the very media of blog prompts me to add my voice to this post. Mash-up creation. 'Ad hoc culture'.
What slavery does this enhance if any? Ellul would suggest it is slavery to the technology-culture that compels me to post this comment. I surf much more than I perhaps ought to, and make compulsive contributions to the tribe, immersed in cybermedia (McLuhan anyone?)
This adhoc-culture isn't a "mediocrity culture" as some authors suggest, but rather a refocus on individual expression within the tribe, a departure from that of specialist contributon to the market, glorified by a capital accumulating behemoth, the 'economy'. Still, through the technological word, ad hoc culture dictates our pursuits, demands our energies and motivations, and tyrannizes our experience (questionable) for the benefit of the technical entrepreneur class. Slavery?
Lynne Potts on March 26, 2010 8:36 PM:
just one more way we could take "This Progress" (perhaps with a sardonic smile -- or just a wry one) is to find the whole idea of progress so ultimately baffling, so beyond personal or collective definition, that the the artist simply threw up his hands and said: Well, folks, there really isn't any sense in the Notion of Progress -- only THIS one. You made it to the top of the Guggenheim, talking all the way and barely stopping to take a breath. That's a "real" progress, for sure.
sol gaitan on March 28, 2010 1:41 AM:
Lévy-Strauss is coming from his Marxist beliefs into anthropology as a lived experience, an empirical rather than theoretical field. But, the Phaedrus is about the articulation of truth. Knowledge as a continuum of parts (the partial truth) and wholes (partial truth and its opposite,) it is the ability to collect the parts into a system. That is memory, collections of parts.
During my several visits to Sehgal's piece, knowing what the cue was didn't help me to come up with a definition of "progress" without feeling a traitor to any one of my many arguments against it. Let's give him credit for that. However, the conversations up the spiral never allowed me to fully develop an argument or idea, in a Socratic sense, for they took place with four diverse individuals who were following a choreography, and at certain times were pressed for time. Leaving "This Progress" aside, when I am faced with Dan's kind of coherent argument about where we are now, I tend to leave my favorite vantage point, New York, and follow my wandering steps around the world. Then, I come out with non-Western arguments based upon empirical observation. We are not a more tolerant society, and writing still favors exploitation if only because it eludes many. However, a Colombian peasant, in front of whom I feel humbled and infinitely ignorant, a person who has problems writing, and who reads very slowly, recently handed us a thumbdrive and asked us if we could download for him photographs of the house we just finished building together. This should have not surprised me since I, the "architect", communicated with him via cell phone and directed the building from New York. This is not literature, but it shows us that now, you don't necessary have to be literary, nor even literate, to have access to a vaster world. He is not thinking of the power of the idea, but I know this for him means progress. People like him don't have time to send each other Internet-generated gossip or trivia about their daily lives, not yet, and probably not ever. They are very careful about their use of valuable minutes for communication that they pay at high price for technology and their income have not reached the same levels. Reality for them continues to be very real, and they use technology with the same pragmatism they use a hammer. They are very far away from today's network "tribes" and could be amused by the idea that people do that, but I am sure they wouldn't believe this is progress.
Stefan on March 28, 2010 10:24 PM:
Levi-Strauss is the author of great first chapters. Both Tristes Tropiques and TheSavage Mind have first chapters fully charged with the excitement of a writer soaring with ideas. It's hard to see how first chapters transfer to the web, though.
In the first instance, C. L-S is probably right, knowledge asymmetries led to power asymmetries, and the written word led to the cornerstones of cities and civilizations built on the backs of slaves (to coin a phrase).
But later, the printed word led to a reduction in knowledge asymmetry that facilitated a sort of emancipation that we are still the beneficiaries of, or hopefully continuing to try to bring to fruition.
Progress? Who's to say. The ambivalence of j.s. kitololo's comment above is apt. Is computing the fruit of Enlightenment? Is the computer the next stage of life on earth? What then of humankind?
Humankind's position has always been to span between the macrocosm and microcosm, in the middle of the large and the small. The horizons recede ever deeper. Maybe humankind is a spandrel, infill between tangential realms that cannot otherwise touch or intersect. Isn't this the very nature of consciousness itself? Of the present in the midst of time? Of the here in the midst of now?...but I digress...
fourcultures on June 1, 2010 8:43 AM:
Your wish that someone would present a cogent argument against reading rang a bell and I remembered Douglas Rushkoff's argument that 'text leads to a society of hearers read to by priests'; that by the time the masses have acquired the ability to read, the priests have already become writers, controlling what the masses read. The latest iteration is that anyone can publish (online), an ability until very recently reserved for elites. But now the publishing masses meekly accept the tools they are given to publish with. Every time a literacy skill becomes ubiquitous, the elite moves one step ahead once more. If the latest elite is the coders, it's incumbent upon all of us, says Rushkoff, to learn a little coding - to program or be programmed. Note at the header to the little box I'm currently typing in: 'you may use HTML tags for style'. This is often seen in comments pages on blogs. It raises the question of the way permission is embedded into the process, almost inconspicuously, mechanically. Who gives or witholds this kind of permission? It also raises a question about how many people can actually use HTML tags, or do any other kind of simple coding. Let's call it the a href= test.
Mike Booth on July 6, 2010 3:06 AM:
Sorry to arrive late. Just want to add a very brief reply to Duncan Basson's comment. Maybe not such a "stupid hypothesis," Duncan. I was immediately reminded of "There's a man going round takin' names..." That man is still around in a big way he's takin' names in ways previously undreamed of.