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How the word became text

For some reason, today it became important to know when silent reading developed. In the middle ages, and in antiquity, the custom was to always read aloud. Monastic libraries would be full of mutterings and it must have been impossible to read private letters in public.

Then i found this essay and everything started to go ‘zing!’ inside my head. Seems the diffusion of the custom of word spacing (strange to think that something as unconscious as putting spaces between words needed invention. Strangetothinkthatsomethingasunconsciousasputtingspacesbetweenwordsneededinvention) was instrumental in allowing the development of silent copying and silent reading.

And- fantastic!- you can trace the historical development of this by looking at changes in the rules of monastic orders:

Reading likewise became a silent activity, as evidenced by changing interpretation of the rule of silence. Before about the 10th century, “oral group reading and composition [were] in practice no more considered a breach of silence than were confession or the recitation of prayers. Cluniac monks were judged to have violated their vows of silence only when a word they spoke was not written in the text.” (383) But later, “silence” comes to mean real silence.

So The Word is on a historical trajectory from phonetic to visual unit (Remember Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning was the command line. Notice Jocelyn Penny Small’s essay on Psycoloquy)

And, again from Relevant History, silent reading lets us interact with the written word in new ways

Books that were meant to be read silently differed from those meant to be read aloud: they were more visually complex, and their design could incorporate metadata and visual cross-references that wouldn’t make sense in books that were read aloud. What other scholars have referred to as paratexts– .e.g, “tables of contents, alphabetical glosses, subject indexes, running headings” (408)– only really work in books that you interact with visually rather than orally.

All these changes, marking “the transformation from an oral monastic culture to a visual scholastic one between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 14th centuries” (405) are first confined to the ecclesiastical worlds, but from the 14th century they spread in lay literate culture.

And then silent reading changes the nature of self-consciousness, another part in the development of the primacy of individual perspective. Is it coincidence that the widespread adoption of silent reading is coincident with the beginning of what we know of as the Modern period?

…private reading becomes a space for “individual critical thinking” that encourages “the development of skepticism and intellectual heresy.” (399) Likewise, spiritual literature in the 14th century was meant to be read alone, turning reading itself into a kind of meditation (that incidentally involved the highest of the senses, sight).
The privacy afforded by silent reading had the same effects in lay society that it did in scholastic circles. It made easier the cultivation of individual opinions and subversive thoughts…It also made religious feeling into a more private matter.

Dying of Consumption

A New Economics Foundation / ICA event panel debate, tagged as

How do we persuade people to be more ethical in their consumer choices? Is ethical consuming the preserve of the rich anyway?

…But unfortunately not much meat to this debate. The consensus seemed to be that we couldn’t rely on personal consumer choice to solve problems of poverty and environmental damage. But little agreement on how we resuscitate collective choice from the stranglehold that free market orthodoxy has imposed.

Richard Reeves made the point that for the first time in history there is a breakdown in the relationship between material wealth and happiness. Previously-and still outside the west- increased wealth correlated with increased well-being. Now we face a trade-off – our increased material wealth is cutting into those factors which we now rely on for marginal changes in our happiness (which are? security, community, free time?). It’s all, as Andrew Simms noted in one of the few occasions when he was being chirpy and constructive rather than chirpy and unconstructive, a good advert for the New Economics Foundation and the need for a New Economics.

The best point of the evening came from the floor. What do we need to do?

We need to redefine freedom as the autonomy to self-manage our lives, rather than the freedom of consumers to choose between products

Put me in mind of the Lakoff article (via Matt) about the need for progressives to stop letting conservatives define the semantic frames within which political debate occurs)

quote #6, Master K’ung

A plough man said to Tzu-lu, a follower of Confucius, ‘Under Heaven there is none that is not swept along by the same flood. Such is the world and who can change it? As for you, instead of following one who flees from this man and that, you would do better to follow one who shuns this whole generation of men.’ And with he went on covering the seed.
Tzu-lu went and told his master, who said ruefully, ‘One cannot herd with birds and beasts. If I am not to be a man among other men, then what am I to be?’

– the Analects of Confucius, Book 18

the invention of perspective

How did people see the world before they invented perspective, sometime in the 15th century? It would be comforting to assume that the world was the same, even though people could only imagine representations of the world which to us look awkward, childlke. If they saw the world like we do now, why was perspective not obvious sooner? Why couldn’t they see?

How did people experience the world before individual inner life was legistamised as a social object. Before we have a concept for self-consciousness, can it exist in the same way? Language might not condition our fundamental perception of the world (all the evidence I’ve seen persuades me to reject the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), but it might condition the reflexive use of cognition. In other words, until the concept exists out there, it can’t be operated upon by our words or thoughts. What affect would this have on our feelings and thoughts about our feelings and thoughts?

So many questions…

Remember guardian article from november 2002 by David Lodge. He talks about the development of the novel, about how the ‘interiority of experience’ came to be a focus of literature after Descartes’ cogito put consciousness as the foundation of philosophy:

Ian Watt, in…The Rise of the Novel , suggests that "both the philosophical and the literary innovations must be seen as parallel manifestations of larger change – that vast transformation of Western civilization since the Renaissance which has replaced the unified world picture of the Middle Ages with another very different one – one which presents us, essentially, with a developing but unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences at particular times and in particular places.

Watt observed that whereas earlier narrative literature usually recycled familiar stories, novelists were the first storytellers to pretend that their stories had never been told before, that they were entirely new and unique, as is each of our own lives according to the empirical, historical, and individualistic concept of human life. They did this partly by imitating empirical forms of narrative like auto biography, confessions, letters, and early journalism. Defoe and Richardson are obvious examples.

Remember Baumeister‘s How the self became a problem. He observes than in Western culture people could expect to spend 25 hours of every day in other people’s company: to eat, sleep, shit, make love, play, work with others present. Privacy was a concept that just wouldn’t make sense.

Remember Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Claiming that pre-homeric humans were not conscious. Experienced a will as external direction coming from gods or leaders, sort of hive-living robots. Fascinating stuff as he looks at the literature and archaeology to try an trace the development of modern consciousness. Madness. Genius.

Writing for radio

I normally think of myself- in a rather surly way- as a non-fiction man, but something obviously snapped recently and i’ve decided to write a 15 minute radio play. I think the turning point was listening to something on Radio 4 and thinking “I could do better than this”. Time to prove it! But first, some preparation.

The BBC – of course – has some good resources for writers in their Writersroom. Including this fantastic tutorial by Jon Ronson on finding and following a story (he mentions that being scruffy can be useful. Score!)

The BBC gets 10,000 scripts a year, so better get the formatting right and submit it correctly

There’s so much advice on how to write that i decided to read it after i’d actually got the thing written (although finding out that 15 minutes is very approximately 2000 words was good to know). I might still try and get David Mamet’s Writing for Radio (in A Whore’s Profession, 1994) because a friend recommended it and Mamet’s a god.

The cacophony of instruction on the Craft reminded me of this article in the Independent from a few weeks ago which busted a few myths about the hoops you need to jump through in preparing your script for Hollywood

This is the secret of how to be a screenwriter. You have to set two tabs. You set one tab setting an inch or 2.5cm from the left margin. You set the other tab a couple of inches or 5cm in. The first tab marks where the dialogue starts. And the second tab is for the name of the character speaking (always in capitals).

That’s it. Apparently.

Reminiscent in spirit to my favourite quote about writing, by Kingsley Amis

The Art of Writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair

quotes #3-5

It’s been a good day for quotes. These on, loosely, the scientific process:

People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support
rather than for illumination.

– Mark Twain

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.

– Richard Feynman

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

– US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Nurture Assumption

I’ve just finished The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris (1998, Bloomsbury). Fantastic book – and I think it says something about psychology that something so seminal can be published by a writer of textbooks rather than professional academic. Or perhaps, like Nicol suggested, it would take a writer of textbooks to be able to synthesise across fields without the blinkers of disciplinary indoctrination which are normally acquired by specialist professionals. I’d love to know more about the profressional response to the book. She must have really annoyed some people.

I put my notes online. The take-home message is this: It is a cultural myth that parenting style influences how children turn out. The nature-nurture dichotomy is a false one, because it suggests that aside from nature/genetics it is only parents who have an influence on how children develop (thank Freud for that one). Genetics makes children similar to parents. Being socialised by a peer group with the same values as the parents makes children similar to parents. Parents don’t make children similar to parents.

Think language: the children of immigrants take on the language of their host country as their native tongue, not the language of their parents.

Think twin-studies: we all know the stories about twins reared-apart who in adulthood are amazinginly similar. You don’t hear the flip side mentioned so often. Twins reared together are no more similar. Having the same parental up-bringing doesn’t add anything to the existing effect of genetics.

There is no scientific evidence that parents have any affect beyond providing genes and a socio-economic peer group which is most likely congruent with their own socialisation.

That’s the important thing, I think. No scientific evidence. We have to remember that what is real isn’t the same as what is scientifically demonstrable. But if psychology wants to be a science it needs to rely on the scientifically demonstrable and I think Judith Rich Harris shows that the discipline has spent too long chasing confirmation of a folk myth, rather than doing properly controlled stuides. ‘Group Socialisation Theory’, as JRH calls the alternative hypothesis that peers are more influential than parents, is another good example of the use of using evolutionary theory as an integrative framework within psychology. Not that you should naively apply evolutionary theory to all aspects of psychology, but that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. And psychology is ultimately biological, and you need to use the same principles – ie trying to work out function – to understand either.

quote #2

[Whilst watching 2001: A Space Odyssy, somewhere near the end]

Jon: I’m bored. I want to watch something else.

Tom: I’m bored too, but I want to know what happens.

Jon: That’s why you have a PhD and I don’t.

how i did this

In a cold technical sense, this weblog was brought to you by…

Moveabletype, for the blogging software and Low Cost Names for the hosting and for selling me the domain name.

Notetab Light is the king of text editors, and for FTP i used Leech (although normally i use Terrapin, but i couldn’t find a obvious way to set file security attributes).

I’m using Webmonkey and The Web Design Group for on-going guidance on web-authoring. This and this (via) inspired me to learn about CSS. Wondering what CSS is? Look here for something brief and useful from the WDG.

I didn’t use OpenOffice much to design the site – apart from some spell checking – but i still think it’s fantastic that you can get for free a word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, etc office software suite – which is fully compatible with Microsoft products but approximately ?200 cheaper than MS Office – so i’m going to link to them as much as possible.