Cataclysms of Consciousness

Daniel del Solar has forwarded a letter from self-described "Podunk university English teacher" Luciana Bohne, who complains that a junior said to her, without embarrassment, "I don't read." Prof. Bohne warns that "Without minds or hearts, [such students] are instrumentalized to buy whatever deadens their clamoring and frightened senses--official lies, immoral wars, Barbies, and bankrupt educations."

Prof. Bohne, what you are experiencing is a mere ripple of the Third Cataclysm of Consciousness -- the third major degradation of thinking and imagination since humans first started flaking stones for tools. We are entering what will be remembered (if anybody still remembers how to remember) as the Post-literate Age.

The First Cataclysm began around 1000 B.C. with the invention of writing -- at first, thought to be no more than a handy way for the king's minions to keep track of who owed taxes and where the grain was stored. The terrible effects of this invention have been exhaustively explored by Julian Jaynes (1977), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company. They included the loss of memory (people relied on marks on clay tablets instead of their own memories of the songs of their people) and, far more disturbing, the loss of the voice of God.

The practice of reading, Jaynes argued, creates neural connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, so that auditory right-brain impressions are no longer independent of left-brain analysis. In Homer, whose songs were elaborated in an oral culture long before literacy was introduced, the heroes literally [sic] hear the voices of their gods; later Greeks, infected by literacy, no longer could. I'm not doing Jaynes' brilliant book justice, but that's the main idea. For more, see his many fans' website.

Beyond Jaynes, we can see that the First Cataclysm is still continuing. Whenever literacy is introduced into a previously oral culture, the young lose their awe of the ancient traditions and their respect for their elders, and they also lose -- even when they try very hard -- the ability to improvise long heroic songs fluently. Well, Walter Ong can tell you a lot more about that problem. Cf. Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York, Routledge.

The Second Cataclysm is also still going on. This was the popularization of printing, which had its most immediate deleterious effects in Europe. Benedict Anderson makes a convincing case that the proliferation of cheaply printed books, pamphlets, sermons and so on in the vernacular languages spelled the end of Latin as a universal language among the tiny, international learned elite, and gave a huge boost to nationalist sentiment. From there it's been downhill all the way to Slobodan Milosevic and the unfortunate Zoran Djindjic, not to mention Israelis and Palestinians, or Timorese and Indonesians, or any of countless other bloody conflicts. Cf. Anderson, Benedict (1991). Imagined Communities. London, Verso.

Of course, in the wake of each cataclysm, new generations were born not knowing the value of a single universal language, or the even greater glories of oral culture. And there grew a class of people who actually enjoyed reading and thought they were superior because they knew how to do it. Even today, there are little groups of people trying to return to oral cultures, and larger societies struggling to preserve the ancient languages -- Sanskrit, old Greek, classical Latin, Icelandic.

And no doubt there will be many like us, the old timers, who cling to our print-literacy culture even after it has fallen completely into disuse. The new generations will have no trouble communicating with one another without reading print, but still, we Old Timers fear that they will be missing something. And we will be right.

Just as you and I have lost forever the voices of our gods and the enchantment of bowing a one-stringed fiddle and improvising heroic verses for days on end. So, the loss is inevitable. All we can do, like the bards of oral societies and the chanting monks of early literacy, is to cling to our traditions as long as we can.

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