Normally, on this blog, I write my way towards what some idea of what it means to participate in digital media culture; what it means in terms of identity and relationship to the world to live on social media.
But this coming month, I’m trying on a new hat. Or an old hat. One I’ve left unworn for awhile.
I’m developing and teaching a short, intensive Masters in Education course for UPEI called “Building a Culture for Reading in a Digital Age”.
Which is exciting (hi students! Meet my Internet!). And also a little daunting: this course is about reading, as an educational and cultural activity. And reading hasn’t been my primary focus in over a decade.
I was once, actually, a high school English teacher. And a literacies specialist. I have a Certificate in Special Education focused around working with children facing challenges in learning to read.
It’s funny. I think and write a lot about identity, but not necessarily about the aspects of my own professional identity that pre-date my digital life. My career and life trajectories haven’t been especially linear, and so whole parts of who I once was never fully made it over the threshold of my transition to the life I live now, both online and off.
But preparing for this course has sent me back to a very particular space, an in-between space where I had one foot still balanced in my English degree/reading teacher world and one foot testing new waters of academia and digital selves: the year I spent exploring ideas of reading and culture and what it might mean to know in a digital age. It was late 1999 and early 2000 and I lived in Halifax in a two-story upstairs apartment in a falling-down house, and I wrote a hundred page M.A.Ed thesis in a tiny attic room on a Hewlett-Packard desktop that had less computing power than any telephone you can buy, these days.
That thesis later got published by European Graduate School‘s New York Studies in Media Philosophy and I am eminently grateful to them as, six computers and three countries and full circle back around the world later, I’d otherwise have long since lost any digital trace of it. Sure, its earnestness makes me cringe and the neologism of “techknowledge” was, um, kinda undertheorized…but what I learned in the long, meandering process of writing my solitary way to those ideas on knowledge and digital culture laid the groundwork for my forays into social media and digital identities and everything that’s come since.
And, with this course, some of that groundwork may actually come in handy.
If we’re talking about building a culture for reading in a digital age, we need first to explore what a culture for reading means to people; what kinds of images and practices it calls up. Before we leap into exploring the digital, I want to throw a bit of what Foucault might call a genealogical light on reading, to think about the ways in which traditional reading culture reflected certain kinds of power structures within society.
What was the pre-digital culture of reading into which most of us were inducted in late 20th century schools and homes?
Well, conveniently, I wrote about a lot of that and where it came from in my thesis. Basically, the pre-digital culture into which most of us were born was a culture descended from the concept of The Book as sacred artifact, a culture based in the veneration of writing, and a culture in which reading was deeply tied up with knowing. For a few thousand years, at least in the European historical tradition, status as a knowledgeable person has been tied to capacity to read.
Funnily, though, it didn’t start that way. Back in the time of Socrates, writing – and by extension reading – weren’t very popular.
And because I wouldn’t be very popular either if I made my students read my entire M.A.Ed thesis, I have kindly condensed the forty or so pages of that tome exploring the history of reading, culture, and knowledge into what follows below. You’re welcome. ;)
(Relevant excerpts from the 2000 thesis are in quotations. Helpful commentary from the 2012 version of me is interspersed.)
The Greeks and Writing and Truth
“Socrates was an avowed dialectician who considered the written word mute,
inflexible, and unable to distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers
(O’Donnell, 1998, p. 21). In ancient Greece — or the ancient Greece knowable
today — Socrates, and, after him, Plato, were vehement and passionate
defenders of the dialectic method of speech and argumentation, which was
based in dialogue, logic, and rationalism, and believed to be the path to truth
(Pirsig, 1974, p. 331). This systematic process of cross-examination in pursuit of
truth represented both a technology, in the sense of a tool aimed at a specific end,
and a culturally specific intersection through which meaning and status — in this
case not only of truth but perhaps of Socrates himself — were created and
supported. He railed passionately against “[M]aking truth the helpless object of
men’s ill-will by committing it to writing” (O’Donnell, 1998, p. 21); against
abandoning the dialectic process of face-to-face communication and the
resulting illumination of that rubbing together of minds. Socrates appears
to have been a scathing critic of all other technologies of communication in
his era: his primary focus of attack was actually not writing, but rather rhetoric,
which he positioned in a dualistic relationship with dialectic and rent apart from
there. Some of his most powerful critiques of rhetoric, though — that it
constituted manipulation and a pandering appeal to emotion rather than truth —
he likewise applied to writing, positioning both systems of communication as
inferior to dialectic because of the “muteness” of their audiences (O’Donnell,
1998, p. 20).”
You will notice I am quoting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a source for my appreciation of Greek culture. Take everything I say, therefore, with a grain of salt. Or two.
So Socrates was against writing because it wasn’t dialectic. Here’s the interesting part about that. Dialectic was, for Socrates and much of the ensuing…oh…two thousand+ years of European scholarship, tied to a belief in the possibility of objective, external truth. And while Socrates lost the battle against writing – which is, of course, ironically the only reason we have record of his railing against it, since Plato conveniently wrote it all down in the Socratic dialogues – his concept of truth stuck around as an ideal.
Dialectic as Truth
“For Socrates, dialectic was truth, and truth as absolute, independent of
interpretation. “Early Greek philosophy represented the first conscious search
for what was imperishable in the affairs of men (sic). Up to then that was within
the domain of the Gods, the myths” (Pirsig, 1974, p. 336). This notion of
truth as the immortal principle, made tangible through dialectic, was still a
fragile entity in Socrates’ day, part of a tense political struggle for ideological
dominance. Dialectic truth was set, in proper dialectic dualism, against
rhetoric and the Sophists’ prevailing concept of arete, or good: a more relativist
position whose maxim ran along the lines of “humanity is the measure of all
things.” Although the politics of the struggle took Socrates’ life, within
generations his concept of objective truth as the ultimate goal had prevailed,
subsuming “the good” as a mere fixed idea, and granting Socrates and his
dialectic a semblance of immortality.”
Since Plato had written Socrates into hero status, basically, and Western culture’s earliest philosophical texts and heroes have long been those of Greece, the truth that Socrates argued for got cemented into our mindset, conflated – ironically – with the writing he railed against. Add to that the co-mingling of the Abrahamic religions of The Book and Greco-Roman classical culture in the structures of the early European Church – for a thousand years the guardian of what counted as “knowledge” in the West – and you have a whole lot of power that gets invested in reading and writing.
How Dialectic as Truth Became Writing as Truth, and Truth as Dogma
“When later societies looked back to this perceived Socratic
Golden Age for wisdom, the wisdom they were able to access was bound
up in the intersection of authorial writing and absolute truth: in the
conventional wisdom, literally, of a community whose ideology was based in the
“common knowledge” of truth as external and discoverable. Thus the literate
practices that developed around writing led to it being taken up, powerfully, as
a tool of truth, to texts being read as paths to truth, with meaning contained
inherently in them, rather than in transaction between reader, author, and
culture. This was reinforced in the Roman and early Christian cultures by the
relative scarcity of texts, and by the religious nature or the high cultural status
of many that did exist. As Purves points out, “[T]he position relating the text to
the world was most vociferously held in those periods when there were
relatively few texts as compared to the present time when the number of texts
in the world probably matches the number of molecules of water in a good-sized
lake” (Purves, 1990, p. 46). The sanctioned writings of the “peoples of the book”
— Jews, and then Christians and Muslims — were taken up within those
communities as the Word of God, and the surviving writings of the Greek
ancients were seized upon by the Grecophilic Romans as equally singular
truths, if not of Gods, then of honoured chosen ancestors, knowers of truth.
By the eighth century C.E., the concept of external truth had become ensconced
in the form of deity. As an increasingly powerful Catholic church gained control
over large segments of the feudal economy and its governance structures,
writing — which had likewise become a medium of the church — came to
represent knowledge itself, in the form of Roman Catholic doctrine and ritual.
A monoculture of power based on the Word of God held sway across Western
In Nattering on the Net: Women, Power, and Cyberspace (1995), Dale Spender
details a Europe of 1450 wherein the church essentially controlled knowledge: theirs
was the key to what was known, both literally, because most documents were housed
in the scriptoria of monasteries, and figuratively, because the church represented
God. This independent, absolute God actually fit easily with the classical conception
of truth as Immortal Principle. What was written, and in a monastic world,
sanctioned by church process and protocol, was taken up as truth, independent
of human bias or interference.”
Then, of course, everything changed, power-wise. Except for the truth part. We held onto that sacred cow for another five hundred years or so. You could argue we are still grappling, culturally, with whether to let it go, or not. In a sense, that’s what this course is about: this watershed period of the digital doesn’t just usher in new ways of reading but far broader ways of knowing.
But long before our contemporary digital communications revolution came the print communications revolution.
The Gutenberg Revolution
“In approximately 1453 C.E., a German named Johannes Gutenberg
transformed a wine press into a functional printing press equipped with
movable type, and the print era was effectively brought into being. The concept
of print had not been inconceivable before Gutenberg, and his use of movable
type was an adaptation on a much older Chinese system, but his press is
thought to have been the first in Europe to function effectively and make
printing a reasonable enterprise. It was certainly a successful enterprise, and
within a very short period of time, printers and presses were springing up all
over Europe (Spender, 1995, p. 4). These printers were, for the most part,
entrepreneurial folk who would have had more in common with mechanics and
businesspeople than with clerics, and though the content of almost all known
early print texts was religious, it was not all as pious in its nature as the
church might have hoped.
While Gutenberg’s press was used to publish his famous edition of the Bible,
it was also used from its earliest days to print indulgences, or tickets that
absolved the purchaser from punishment for sins. The existence of
printing presses and printing businesses whose goal was economic rather than
spiritual soon had an impact on the types of texts in circulation: for the first
time in centuries, secular tracts, pamphlets, and books came into being and
into the hands of citizens. The church’s monopoly on information
dissemination — on knowledge — was broken: other ways of “[E]xplaining the
world, apart from the religious version which represented the church as
all-knowing and all-powerful” (Spender, 1995, p. 3) had begun to take hold.
How the Printing Press Ended God’s Monopoly on Truth
The church’s monopoly on education was undermined by the secular
information and institutions made possible by the printing press, and as a
result, its power over the literate practices used to create knowledge also began
to slip. Texts began to be published in the “vulgar” spoken languages of Europe
rather than in Latin, thereby undermining the doctrine-based education system
of the church and enabling people who wanted to challenge the status quo to
spread their ideas. A German monk named Martin Luther harnessed the
capacity of the printing press to spread information quickly and in common
language so effectively that his “Ninety-five Theses” fractured the church itself,
commencing the Reformation movement and even drawing the church into use
of the printing press to defend itself. As Spender succinctly explains: “The
Church was caught in a bind. It could ignore at its peril the leaflets and
posters which were circulating so widely and which were so critical of its8
practices. Or it could descend to the same vulgar level…so began the first
poster war in history. The Church’s critics leafleted the masses; and the
Church tried to defend itself in a medium that it despised and condemned. The
winner was the printing press” (Spender, 1995, p. 4).
The printing press also changed what it meant to create text, taking it out of
the monastic confines of individual scholarship and placing it within a new
structure of power grounded in economic principles. This redesignation of text
impacted the societal image of knowledge, since the two had been so thoroughly
intertwined, and made it something it had never overtly been before: a
commodity, a product with exchange value. Removed from the hallowed
domain of God, words and ideas and various wisdoms became articles of trade.
As Paul Levinson puts it: “Knowledge has always been power, as witness the
role that monopolies of knowledge among priests and others have played
throughout the millennia. But knowledge first became a commodity in mass
culture, to be bought, sold, traded, and otherwise exchanged, in the aftermath
of the printing press. Today, computers have quickened, expanded, and
otherwise amplified this process into the ‘information society’ that we now
inhabit” (Levinson, 1997, p. 34). Such commodification laid the foundation for
many of the principles that inform societal operations today, with our memoirs
and our educational packages and our digital information systems all for sale.
This departure from the medieval conception of the knower as the instrument of
God opened the door for the eventual development of familiar concepts such as
intellectual property, patents, and copyright.
How The Church Responded
The book, then, symbolized an end to church hegemony over knowledge,
but it was not the political danger to the dominance of the
church that was addressed in its resistance to this change. Rather
the church emphasized the purported dangers of embracing the new and
unholy technology, positioning its opposition in moral terms.
Like the modern critics, the Church did not state its grievances in
terms of self-interest. Religious dignitaries did not go about
complaining that the book was challenging their power, reducing
their influence, and marginalising their professional skills. Rather
the objections were all about the damage that was being done to the
individual and the community…discipline would disappear, brains
would go soft, honour and uprightness would be sapped by all this
salacious, violent, permissive literature. (Spender, 1995, p. 48)”
Recognize any parallels yet between these claims and contemporary
pearl-clutching concerns over digital media? Not that many of the concerns aren’t legitimate, on the terms by which we were raised to understand life and knowledge and education and ourselves. But there are power interests involved and invested in these understandings.
One of the key threads of my M.A.Ed thesis traced these previous cultural shifts in power and knowledge that occurred when past communications revolutions took place. Socrates lamented the loss of memory to writing. The monastic culture – and the all-encompassing authority – of the Catholic Church suffered irrevocably when the printing press made not just hand-copying but the whole idea of knowledge AS copying obsolete.
And all the hand-wringing about the terrible things happening to our children because of digital practices? They read a lot like Don Quixote, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, wherein the protagonist buries himself in his books so deeply – individual, independent reading was a new practice in European culture at this point – that, from so little sleep and so much reading, loses his wits and his capacity to distinguish real from imaginary. He then, of course, became an icon for all the generations after who saw in his story the possibilities of literary imagination and format.
That doesn’t mean the losses for those invested in monastic culture in 1500 or so weren’t real. It doesn’t mean Socrates wasn’t right about memory. It just means that when we talk about reading in a digital age, we need to think carefully about what is being protected in the lamentations and critiques.
Truth: from God to Gatekeepers
The gatekeeping of knowledge practiced by the church became gatekeeping
practiced by publishers and scholarly institutions, based in the class values
and practices of those who owned the technology and those who controlled
what knowledge meant. The democratization of knowledge was minimized
by these gatekeeping entities, and by access to reading itself. Schooling in
alphabetic literacy remained the province of relatively privileged social
elites — or more particularly, of the males of those elites — in most European
countries until the nineteenth century (Spender, 1995, p. 52). Thus the
majority of people who lived in the Europe so dramatically affected by the
printing press likely never had the opportunity to read a book, let alone write
Eventually, alphabetic literacy spread, and reading and literate
practice became societal goals by the nineteenth century (Spender,
1995, p. 46). Still, this did not represent democratic access to the status of
knowledge-creation, as the gatekeeping surrounding publishing and
the culture’s texts of truth, canonized by academia, remained intense.
The concept of absolute truth did shift in its embodiment from God to
science, eventually, in relation to the changes initiated by the printing press,
but there was no transformation of the absolutism itself, only its qualities.
Likewise, outside science, the authority that had been invested in God became
invested, instead, in writing itself — and the writing of Western culture came to
be understood as representative of that culture and its truths.
Thus the technology which so impacted the conventions of writing, the
conditions of its production, and the issue of access to it, still had little effect
on the cultural attachment to an overriding concept of external, Socratian truth.
Literate practices of the manuscript era and the print era shared the common
bond of faith in a universal principle, however differently conceived, and the
familiar concept of authorship is still grounded in, and etymologically linked to,
a notion of truth beyond human interpretation.
Where Truth in the Print Era Might Have Turned Out Differently
There were moments — in hindsight these are always readily available — when
things might have gone another way. As Janet Murray explains in Hamlet on
the Holodeck, early novels, including the sequel to Don Quixote, played with the
conventions of linear narrative and monologic voice, emphasizing borders and
constructions rather than the seamless representations, apparently whole and
received, which came to dominate the forms and conventions of print. Murray
points out that “[I]n the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne wrote a self-
deconstructing memoir called Tristram Shandy in which the narrator inserts
black pages, numbers chapters as if they had been rearranged, claims to have
torn out certain pages, and sends us back to reread certain chapters. In short,
he does everything he can to remind us of the physical form of the book we are
reading” (Murray, 1997, p. 104). There were opportunities, then, for multiple
perspectives to emerge, but things did not take shape in that way. Print, in the
maturity of its high modernist form, was predominantly a technology of linear
narrative and hidden construction: a technology whose usage tended to
reinforce the culture’s dearly held beliefs in order, classification, and the
immortal principle of truth.
James O’Donnell suggests that the forms of authorship and narrative that constituted
the hegemony of the printing press era are now being subsumed in a new age:
The author is already an endangered species, and rightly so.
The notion that authoritative discourse comes with a single
monologic voice thrives on the written artifact. Both oral
discourse (before and beyond the written word) and the
networked conversations that already surround us suggest
that in the dialogue of conflicting voices, a fuller representation
of the world may be found. The notion that reality itself can
be reduced to a single model universally shared is at best a
useful fiction, at worst a hallucination that will turn out to
have been dependent on the written word for its ubiquity and
power. (O’Donnell, 1998, p. 41)”
So. There you go. The reading most of us grew up with was deeply tied to cultural concepts of knowledge, status, linearity, and a single version of truth. Thus endeth today’s reading from Stewart, B. (2000). Literate Practice and Digital Worlds.
See, students? Don’t let anybody ever tell you you’ll never use your Master’s thesis again! Ahem.
In the interim, tell me. How do you think digital technologies and digital practices change our relationship to the concept of truth?
Levinson, Paul. (1997). The soft edge: a natural history and future of the information revolution. New York/London: Routledge.
Murray, Janet H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: the future of narrative in
cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
O’Donnell, James J. (1998). Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Pirsig, Robert M. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. New York:
Spender, Dale. (1995). Nattering on the net: Women, power, and cyberspace.
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.