… are now available here and here and embedded after the jump.
In Becoming Beside Ourselves, Brian Rotman meditates on the idea that communication is medium-specific. Put simply, this theory posits that communication cannot go from one medium to another without being altered in some way. For example, Rotman focuses on the difference between speech and writing. One’s spoken message will be different from one’s written message, even though the lines are the “same.” Rotman points out that all the gestures that come with speaking will be absent in the written message. And this ultimately changes the way the message is perceived. Some believe that information can fly freely from medium to medium without changing (e.g., “it’s not the container but the content that matters”), but that is another subject for another response paper. Here I would like to focus on how Rotman links the written text to the rise of monotheism.
For Rotman, the shift from speech to writing is monumental. In a written text, the “speaker” does not even need to be present. That, for Rotman, is the basis for an invisible God. In a speech, the speaker (“me”) has to be present, but in a text the “I” can be fictional. From here, the possibilities are endless. Rotman does not accept Richard Gabriel’s hypothesis that the Israelites learned about monotheism from the Egyptians. He believes something else is going on, and that something involves the alphabet and writing. Is Rotman right? Could the monotheistic Being of the three so-called great faiths be medium-specific, an offshoot of the shift from speech to writing? and, as Rotman postulates, on the decline in the advancing age of the network? Is this simply a theorist getting a little ahead of himself? After all, did not many faiths, including the three great faiths, begin in the oral tradition? And also, why didn’t the Greeks, the Phoenicians, or the Romans (who made extensive use of the alphabet) come up with monotheism? This may be an unfair question, because Rotman doesn’t seem to be looking at the situation in an evolutionary sense (e.g., first comes the alphabet then comes monotheism in every case).
All this aside, Rotman’s alphabet = god hypothesis is both provocative and powerful. He suggests that fundamentalists may be lashing out because the alphabet is now being threatened by the age of the network. He is careful to say that the fundamentalists are not consciously fighting for the alphabet (that would be wonderfully ridiculous [even quixotic], and yet would definitely make more sense), but rather that they have somewhat of a gut feeling that their god is under attack. The Florida minister’s threat to burn the Koran seems to go right along with Rotman’s understanding of the situation. It shows how deeply entrenched we still are in the age of the alphabet, in the age of the printed book. The minister did not threaten to destroy a downloaded version of the Koran. What, by the way, is the equivalent of book burning in the digital world? The minister did not say he was going to burn up his Kindle (who knows? he may not even have an email address). No, he was going to burn books. This instance was medium-specific. With a huge “BURN A KORAN DAY” sign written in blood red behind him, he spoke of his dastardly plans to the cameras, which then broadcasted his words on television and the Internet, which in turn led to protests and the burning of American flags. How many deaths would it have led to if he had burned those written words that millions of people see as divine? Rotman, while “gesturing” towards a future where today’s religions no longer play a major role, ends “here in the alphabetic, all-too-archaic present … [where] … a God-saturated America in thrall to the Bible remains convinced of its exceptional and special relation to the monobeing; and Muslims fight holy wars against infidels who dare insult God’s one true prophet” (137). Can it all be as simple as the alphabet? And where does the network lead us from here?
My response to Rotman is decidedly poetic. I’ve been thinking about how we represent ourselves—alphabetically, alphanumerically, with images, with coding, with speech, with gestures. Much of what Rotman discusses centers around how we conceptualize many things, yes, but most importantly, ourselves and our “selfs.” We use language and languages to hold places for our thought-out personhoods.
Rotman describes how our perception of the real influences the conception of our “selfs.” For example, he discusses photography’s shift from chemical representation of light to a digital representation, and how the latter is more disembodied, somehow more artificial. I am not convinced the process of manufacturing is as important to us as the possibility that a digital image may have somehow been altered. This possibility calls into question what is or is not real, more so today despite the potential of early photographers to alter images through non-digital, but no less technological, means. Is the aura of a digital photograph any different than the aura of a chemically-developed one? I don’t think so, any more than a photograph of shoes has an aura different than a painting of shoes. The intentional move toward artistic statement “grows” the aura, not the medium or manufacture process.
Rotman describes the many ways in which writing is subordinate to other forms of representation. Mathematics, gesture, diagrams, photographs, motion capture: all of these take a front seat, as it were, to writing. I think Rotman fails to consider a concept that crosses each of these—juxtaposition.
None of these forms of transcription mimic or record or annotate the cognitive process behind juxtaposition. For example, placing two photographs side by side creates a cognitive connection, deliberate by the photo-arranger or not, that the two photographs can in no way accurately explain. Images of collage individually lack the power or message they embody when placed into the gestalt of the montage. Rotman’s gesture maybe comes close to approaching the required meaning within meaning of juxtaposition, but even textuality cannot make the moves to explain what happens cognitively. Juxtaposition works inter-textually. Observe this poem, a favorite of mine, by E. E. Cummings:
No amount of explanation—and I’ve tried numerous explanations to countless students—can even hope to match the subtle artistry and, to be a bit hyperbolic, simple beauty of this piece. The poem’s Being, as it were, exists as both literal and metaphorical entanglement, the very stuff of juxtaposition.
Our “selfs” are also a series of juxtaposed odds and ends, some of it made from language or language constructions, some made from technological imprinting, and the list could go on. We are who we are when in opposition or in sync with innumerable other “selfs.” Returning to language, alphabetic symbols are, in part, defined by what they are not. As Rotman writes, a major element of alphabetical symbolism is the letters’ sequence, their juxtapositions. Rotman explores similar thinking towards the end of the book as he unpacks the biblical “I.” In part, the “I” is defined by what it is not, the juxtapositions unfolded when creator and created are placed in conversation. Complicating this subject position, though, is an awful lot of history and personal interpretation, and even the text’s manufacture serves to problematize the “I.” Who is speaking, when the speaker cannot be known? Who is speaking when words are delivered supernaturally? “I am that I am.” Of course, the Book didn’t fall out of the sky; even believers understand that their holy books are the result of human interdiction and transcription. “I am that I am” recalls that most ubiquitous of poetic units, the iamb, with its unstressed and stressed syllables, which is, of course, the beating of our own hearts.
Brian Rotman’s argument is generally a reworking and continuation of Walter Ong’s work on ‘the shifting sensorium’ enacted by increasingly efficient literacy technologies. Indeed, as I was reading Becoming beside Ourselves, I was reminded of another book that drew heavily from Ong’s work- The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birketts. Both writers imagine a future in which print literacy, the alphabet that supports it, and the consciousness that grows out of it, will be supplanted. Whereas Rotman accepts and even relishes this possibility, Birketts mourns it. Ong, on the other hand, avoided both utopian and dystopian conclusions, and because he always wrote about actual cultures (both past and contemporary) he avoided overheated science fiction.
In Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin also present two ideas that are significant to analyzing Rotman’s: 1) New technologies are successful if they can claim to do what an older technology did, only better, and 2) while technologies no doubt introduce changes in individuals and cultures, individuals and cultures choose which technologies suit them, as well as how to use them. Based on these ideas, I believe that alphabetic literacy will remain a fixture for as long as we have a use for it. This hardly closes the question- considering all of those indicators that chill the hearts of English teachers everywhere- there are a lot of reasons to think that alphabetic literacy is on its way out. Because I think that alphabetic literacy is valuable, I worry that I’ll become a modern day Plato, railing against the inevitable. I am comforted by the assumption that whatever the future brings, it will contain the traces of the past within it. Just as I can read Homer today, I feel confident that future audiences will have some way of not only experiencing The Trial, but of understanding the difference between the literacy practices employed by Franz Kafka and whatever it is that they are doing then.
The evidence Rotman presents that the gesture isn’t an ancillary to language, but instead a kind of partner is interesting- and especially relevant in the context of new technologies that allow us to see others when we communicate with them remotely. Meanwhile, his exploration of motion capture technology was an effective way to make his point about embodiment. However, if we were to use motion capture technologies as a means to consciously represent the human gesture, wouldn’t this inevitably lead to the codification of a gestural vocabulary, and wouldn’t this only mean a continuation of the colonization of gesture on the part of language (as initiated by its codification of articulation)? As we see with sign language, the medium doesn’t matter; language is language. While I found his notion of disembodied writing compelling, he ignores all of the research that indicates that the mind/body split had its origins in pre-history. Think about the distance between your head and the rest of your body, and then take a moment to watch a cat clean its toes- think of the way that a human baby exchanges the flexibility of the cat for the ability to walk upright. Writing doesn’t introduce the idea that our minds are separate from our bodies, it is possible because of that idea.
I am intrigued by ideas about a distributed human being, of the non-pathological multiple personality as experienced through avatars, etc. But I am left wondering- what is the difference between the multiple self, experienced through day-dreaming and fiction writing and the multiple self, experienced in virtual environments. While Rotman focuses on the social mediation of the later, I am reminded of Ong’s point that the audience is always imaginary. I am left asking- are virtual environments really social?
Rotman Response: “Mindfulness,” “Felt Sense,” and “Gestures of the Voice”
While reading Rotman’s text, I found striking connections between his ideas about “gestures of voice” and work I began doing last year on incorporating particular listening exercises and writing strategies into the writing process as a means of helping students with revision and mental blocks.
Without rehashing all of the research I have begun, I will concentrate here, briefly, on two ideas. The first is the concept of mindfulness as presented by Schwartz and Begley in their book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. The term refers to the focus afforded one activity, such as meditation in Buddhism, and taken away from other distractions. In Chapter Six, “Survival of the Busiest,” Schwartz and Begley explore the ways concentrated sensory stimulation can change the brain, in other words, the way attentive experience can shape the brain, specifically the motor cortex. They describe several scenarios in which the brains of subjects (humans or monkeys) are significantly changed due to repeated practice. They discuss their finding that “the rezoning was purely a response to purposeful behavior” (210). On Pascual-Leone’s work with braille readers, Schwartz and Begley write, “It was a clear case of sensory input increase, with the person paying close attention, leading to an expansion of the brain region devoted to processing that input” (213). Pascual-Leone’s research, they note, resulted in the finding that “mere mental rehearsal” also leads to changes in the brain. Schwartz and Begley point out that without attention, however, experience does not change the brain in the same productive way.
The second idea that seems relevant to Rotman’s text is Sondra Perl’s commentary on how
“felt sense,” a term introduced by Eugene Gendlin, influences the writing process (Perl 148). This felt sense refers to, in Gendlin’s terms, “the soft underbelly of a thought . . . a kind of bodily awareness that . . . can be used as a tool . . . a bodily awareness that . . . encompasses everything that you feel and know about a given subject at a given time . . . It is felt in the body, yet it has meanings. It is body and mind before they are split apart” (Perl 148). So, when students read their work aloud to themselves, something happens when they listen, something which they feel perhaps unconsciously, which we might then work to develop and articulate consciously. Perl writes, “There seems to be a basic step in the process of composing that skilled writers rely on even when they are unaware of it and that less skilled writers can be taught. This process seems to rely on very careful attention to one’s inner reflections and is often accompanied with bodily sensations” (Perl 150). For Perl, this step is part of a recursive process of writing, in which, as Perl says, writers “move back” to previous parts of the process (previous routines, moments, etc.), “to keep the process moving forward” (Perl 147).
So, to aim to connect these ideas to Rotman, I return to definitions he provides in Chapter One. In discussing Deacon’s assessment of auditory processing, Rotman writes, “We listen, it seems, not to speech sounds as such, not, that is, to isolatable sonic entities, but to the movements of the body causing them; we focus on what happens between the sounds, to the dynamics of their preparatory phases, pauses, holds, accelerations, fallings away, and completions–the very features of gestures we attend when perceiving them” (23). Rotman defines prosody (“the phrasing, the intonation, the musicality, the rhythm, the volume and emphasis, the rise and fall of pitch, the fallings away and accelerations, the pauses, gaps, hesitations, the anticipations, elisions, silences, elongations, repetitions, and contractions that the word-strings of an utterance are subject to” (24)), and I believe this definition gives voice (so to speak) to part of what happens with Perl’s felt sense. If writing “cuts speech loose from the voice,” as Rotman says, then reading aloud may be a way of getting us closer to capturing meaning in writing, when the printed words alone “fall short of representation.” I would suggest that prosody provides immediacy, presentness of a text, and it is part of what makes a text written long ago have life when it is read aloud, or what suddenly gives feeling or clarity to a student’s essay. What this says to me is that for a student text to have this life, the best way to capture this vitality, because we cannot rely students’ oral stream-of-consciousness as a record of their ideas (for a few reasons, feasibility and anxiety being two that immediately come to mind), is to couple students’ written and revised text with an oral reading that fills in the spaces in between the words, though I wonder still how feasible or practical this is, and how it might play out. I also wonder where else in Rotman’s text we see elements of mindfulness and felt sense coming in to play, and what people think about the use of these two terms in discussion of Rotman’s ideas.
Rotman’s Becoming Beside Ourselves
This response is shaped by my efforts to find, in Rotman’s work on the mathematics of simulation, something that I can use to begin thinking through a talk I gave this past summer at RSA. In short, this talk was an effort to think through two metaphors we commonly use to conceptualize mediated interaction—Virtual Reality and the Feedback Loop. Each metaphor has a particular history, which I attempted to elaborate at the time, and privileges a particular conception of how technologies perform for, with or beside, and as their human counterparts. That is, though each of these metaphors became popular at roughly the same time, they create different though interesting prospects and dilemmas for our theories of technology. In a conscious effort not to get too far off subject, I’ll simply point out that whereas the metaphor of Virtual Reality privileges a neo-Darwinian or transcendent notion of interaction—the body is effectively abandoned—the mostly forgotten concept of the Feedback loop provides us a way of thinking, arguably in more complex ways, about how bodies and technology comingle; how, in Rotman’s terms, “contrary to withering the body or leaving it behind [technology] will be by uniting with it–merging, augmenting, capturing, and re-engineering it–that technology might render our present alphabetic dispensation archaic” (Rotman 41).
What surprises me to some extent, considering that I initially read Rotman’s work a few years ago, is that I missed much of the critical import of both Rotman’s interest in mathematics and his efforts to account for the distributed or networked selves that inform our slippery and multiply informed identities. In part, I think I overlooked Rotman’s text because I had difficulty understanding how his interest in explaining the differences between classical mathematics and simulations/infinity had any significant bearing on how we understand the technologies that surround us or how we interact with them. In an effort to turn the aforementioned talk into an article, I find the passage on mathematics a necessary, though admittedly confusing, locus for thinking through the issue of boundaries, both biological and temporal. That is, I envision my work this semester dealing with two distinct though related issues: First, I’m interested in thinking through the material categories or boundaries that we use to stabilize meaning and biology. To this end, in keeping with work I’ve done in the past, I attempt to account for a long history of philosophical discourse that situates animals and technology as other-than-human; a discourse, that preserves the ego and the self at the expense or in spite of more nuanced notions of how we are connected. Second, I’m interested in finding a vocabulary for expressing the difference between transcendent metaphors that imagine time as absolute evolutionary stages, endpoints or limits, and the metaphor of infinity, which, at the very least, forces us to begin thinking about algorithms, feedback loops, recursion, multiplicity, distributed selves and the limits of “feasible computing.” Then again, I should probably just jump to the point.
Perhaps the key to figuring out the distinction that Rotman makes rests in understanding what he means by “practical” or “feasible computing” and “bounds.” The problem that Rotman seems to have with the type of computing that we perform (with simulations) is that we are already inhibited by our desire to maintain “achievable computer times.” Rotman’s point is that although we readily accept that the computer offers what the human body does not—namely, the timely capacity for successive repeating or application of a “rule”—we caption or frame the computer, circumscribing the very real possibilities that infinity offers. For Rotman, pursuing this real possibility, the possibility afforded by simulated environments, allows us to locate a “powerful new Agent” (76). Unfortunately, mathematics continues to situate the theoretical world of the model outside of the physical world: “…efforts to eliminate all traces of the physical world from mathematics’ definitions and methods in the name of an abstract program of mathematical ‘rigor.” Here, I’m beginning to locate a vocabulary for articulating my fundamental contentions with the metaphor of Virtual Reality. Though I think the models he describes are interesting, my thinking is shaped by other kinds of simulations.
In thinking through the issue of material boundaries, there might be some import, at least in terms of my project, in considering the simulations that we use to teach students about nature and biology: evolutionary charts and simulated dissections/animal tests. In my thinking, both model the before or non-human as distinct temporal evolutions and material (non)realities. The evolutionary chart, for instance, situates each biological morphism as a distinctive endpoint. That is, we conceptualize the transition from Australopithecus afarensis to Australopithecus africanus as an abrupt occurrence (occurring 3 million years ago). Effectively, we draw a line in the sand, demarcating or pinpointing the acquisition of particular biological capacities or social developments. And, extending this same chart forward, the metaphor of Virtual Reality would likely find us situating the computer, the (be)coming-machine, as the evolutionary afterwards. To this end, I think we can begin to see that Rotman’s critique has profound implications for any number of technological practices. I guess, for now, I’m interested in what others think about these connections.
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