Is there such a thing as a “pre-script”? After all, there is such a thing as a post-script! I’ve not fired up MarsEdit, my blogging software, for almost a month, as you can see by the dates in the following post. I obviously meant to post it, but I didn’t. So here it is, Thanksgiving Day (I’ve a lot to be thankful for!) and I’m posting it.
I’m glad that I write a blog – it reminds me of what I’ve accomplished (or not). My last blog post was on September 9 and it is now October 23. During that time, I’ve read Eric Havelock’s When the Muse Learns to Write, Walter J. Ong’s classic, Orality and Literacy, David Abram’s new book, Becoming Human: An Earthly Cosmology, and two books by Richard Nelson, The Island Within, and Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. I’ve also done a huge amount of reading on the Internet on related themes and have purchased Robert N. Bellah’s magesterial work, Religion in Human Evolution, Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind and am reading Denise Arnold’s The Metamorphosis of Heads: Textual Struggles, Education, and Land in the Andes. The last book is particularly fascinating, as it presents the story of the struggle between the non-alphabetic written culture, based on weavings, of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia and the alphabetically written culture of the Spaniards. Her book echoes Havelock’s discussion of the dialog between Plato and Socrates in the Phaedrus.
As a record of where I’ve been, more than anything else, I’m posting a very important interview of David Abram, conducted by David Boulton, who is with the website Children of the Code, which promotes literacy. Read on, if you are intrigued …
David Boulton: One aspect of our work has to do with understanding the roots of the confusion involved in learning to read. That of course leads to exploring the
relationship between the code and the brain and the uniquely artificial challenge to the brain that processing the code involves – a challenge that depending on how well children come through it, can be all but fating to their lives.
So, we’ve got to understand the code. The influence of the code has been staggering, on both the infrastructure of civilization and the infrastructure in our brains that generates our awareness, as well as on a great many of the different dimensions that grow out of both. And yet, the code is something that most of us take for granted. As you know we interviewed Dr. Robert Logan in Canada. His book, The Alphabet Effect basically extends the paper he and Marshal McLuhan co-wrote called Alphabet Mother of Invention, and in some ways dovetails with your work. We would like to hear from you about your understanding of the code and its affects on humanity. With that as a backdrop, we then want to look at what’s happened to this code because the earliest code is radically different than the English code we read today – different in terms of the levels of ambiguity that have to be processed, faster than the speed of thought, in order to construct the virtual reality stream we call reading.
Dr. David Abram: Right. Now, you know, from glancing at my work, that I interpret a number of these points, the ambiguity for instance, in different ways. And, I speak of this in very different ways. So, for instance, it’s not so simple for me to think of the alphabet as a code, because my angle, which traces its influence upon culture, beginning with, and looking at, oral cultures and the first experience of writing, as very much as a form of magic. And, it seems to me that that’s been a very compelling angle from which to understand different forms of writing, and, in particular, the alphabet. So, calling it a code frames it also.
From where I’m coming from the alphabet does have a lot of irrationality in it, and that’s what I want to emphasize. To me, it’s the non-rational aspects of reading that make it marvelous. And, I suspect, this is one of my personal suspicions, is that it’s not possible to get it down all in a nice rational code, because there’s something in the whole practice that is inherently, for lack of a better word, it’s a kind of magic. That is, it involves imagination. It involves ambiguity from the get-go. It is so inherent to this very bizarre, I believe, animistic act of reading—to focus one’s eyes on these little bits of ink on a page, and see visions, and hear conversations that are unfolding on the other side of the planet, to see scenarios that happened, not just elsewhere, but two thousand years ago and to experience all this through my participation with these little, ostensibly inert bits of ink on a page is, it seems to me, a kind of magic.
So I see reading as a kind of animistic participation not that different from an indigenous Hopi woman stepping out of the pueblo and walking along the path and having her eyes grabbed by a small bush wherein a spider is weaving its web. And, as she focuses her eyes on that spider, she suddenly feels herself addressed,
or spoken to by the spider. Or, a Lakota man strolling down a path and seeing a boulder and his eyes are captured and he focuses on a patch of lichen on that boulder and suddenly finds that the boulder is speaking to him. And, he enters into a conversation with the boulder. We do just the same thing, with our own scratches and scripts. We come down in the morning, open the newspaper, focus our eyes on these little bits of ink, and they start speaking to us. And, we enter into this rich, magical field of conversations happening at other times and other places. This is an intensely concentrated form of animism, but it is
animism none-the-less. As outrageous as a talking stone, or a talking spider. We do it with our own scratches and scripts. Our ancestors did it with leaves, spider
webs, tracks of animals, clouds, twigs, boulders. It’s as though we have focused down this animistic proclivity of our senses in order to practice it so intensely with
our own scratches and scripts, that this new magic we’re engaged in has effectively eclipsed all the other forms of participation in which the human organism once engaged. So, the sun and the moon no longer speak to us. Trees no longer seem to speak directly to us. Boulders, certainly not. Gusts of wind. Uh, uh. But, the page does. Or the neon sign, with its lettering, does. Wherever we see letters of the alphabet, we feel ourselves being spoken to, addressed.
And, I would say that that is homologous, it’s directly related, to the way a non-writing culture, a culture without any formal writing system experiences the whole of the sensuous surroundings as expressive, as speaking, as animate, as alive—not primarily speaking in words, but, nonetheless; the more we pay attention to the world around us and the things around us, the more our experience is filled with expressive, meaningful gestures and stories to be learned from.
David Boulton: I’m very interested in what you’re saying; let’s travel through some of the work that you’ve done and show the unfolding effect of writing on our minds and culture and, at that point, go back into a deeper exploration of just what you said, which I think is beautiful.
Yes, we probably have different meanings about ‘ambiguity’. It’s not that important that we go into that now.
We’re very interested in the effects of learning to read on us, in every possible way. There’s over a hundred million people whose lives are being negatively impacted by reading-related issues in this country alone. So, that’s the space we’re getting to. But, in order to get there, we need to de-mystify, and, in some ways, bring about a richer myth about this whole process of becoming literate, which is brand new in the evolutionary unfoldment, and has had a profound and radical effect on us. We can’t look around us, unless we’re pretty deep in nature, and not see something that’s an expression of the affect of thinking through this system.
Dr. David Abram: Through this system, and certainly everything we, these days, call Western culture, or Western civilization, seems more precisely named an “alphabetized civilization”, or “alphabetic civilization”.
David Boulton: Yes, there are scientists that work on cognitive processes that can see that whether one grew up taking off and reading easily or didn’t affects their ability to think abstractly. This is analogous to the difference between oral cultures that have never been exposed to writing and highly literate cultures. So, exploring how literacy affects how we think is critical.
Dr. David Abram: Yeah, absolutely. I guess in a sense, my focus has been that I’ve read so many wonderful studies on its influence upon how we think. And, I’m curious; I’ve been particularly interested in how does it affect how we perceive the world when we’re not reading? And, how does it affect our experience of language, and linguistic meaning once we have become literate, alphabetically literate?
So, I’m coming as a cultural ecologist and philosopher, and noticing these things that would be wonderful to unpack at more depth, because it’s very obvious to me, for instance, (and it’s amazing that this has not been brought out, or I haven’t seen it in other people working on the alphabet), that only when the alphabet comes into a culture, when a phonetic alphabet arrives, only then does that culture get this odd notion that language is an exclusively human property, or possession. And, the rest of the land falls mute. You don’t experience this in that way among Eastern cultures working with more ideographic, or somewhat iconic scripts. Certainly not among the Mayan, and obviously not among the Egyptians. But, our writing system very, very powerfully not only impacts our experience of our own subjectivity, it also profoundly impacts our experience of the sensuous surroundings. So much so, that I would have to say that the alphabet has played a very crucial role in the deepening environmental crisis—ecological crisis that now besets us on every hand.
David Boulton: In the sense that that ecological crisis is a reflection of what literacy has done to our minds?
Dr. David Abram: Well, David, I wouldn’t say as a reflection of an internal crisis happening here, but that the crisis, for me, has been from the get-go, a crisis out here. It’s not in the world, nor is it in us; it’s in the relation between the two. And, the alphabet, like any writing system, is a relationship between the human organism and something external to it, in the surrounding, sensory world. In this case, it’s the written marks on the page and the way in which those marks, the way in which the letters, the written characters, interrupt the spontaneous sensory reciprocity between the human organism and the organic world—the
spontaneous solidarity and participation between the human senses and the rest of the sensuous, the whole of the sensuous surroundings.
In a sense, the letters usurp that participation and they break that circuit. They short-circuit this old reciprocity that any oral culture and the participants in any oral culture are experiencing, in relation to the animate earth that surrounds them. And once that’s broken, then the rest of nature is not being felt nearly as richly, nearly as poignantly. It begins to seem like just a kind of inert or passive backdrop against which human unfoldings happen. But, it’s not a player in those unfoldings. Whereas, for every oral culture, it’s a major player, and the various other animals, the plants, the winds, are major players in human unfoldings.
I think we could still make the case that they really are, that the surrounding, natural landscape, whichever bio-region we happen to inhabit, is deeply affecting the human goings-on there. But, we take it entirely for granted. We can’t see it. We don’t notice it. It’s just passive stuff, a bunch of objects or, worse, just a set of resources for us to manipulate and use for our own purposes. Hence, the environmental crisis is a crisis of perception, an inability to see anything outside the frame of an exclusively human discourse, an exclusively human conversation. Because meaning, once the alphabet arrives, gets encapsulated within an exclusively human sphere. It’s something that we carry, and we speak of it being inside ourselves, and we trade it around among one another, you know, between ourselves. That is the foundation of a tremendous crisis, when the surrounding landscape, when the earth underfoot, and the air that envelopes us, and the water we drink, is not seen as having its own meaning. We’re the ones who give meaning to the world. The rest of the world is just, basically, inanimate or, at best, determinate—a set of entirely mechanical processes. So, that was just responding to why I don’t see it entirely as a reflection of something going on in here. It’s a whole breakdown of relationships that have happened between us and the world because we’ve entered into this new relationship with “the page”.
David Boulton: So how is it that becoming alphabet-literate—what is that changing about human beings that is resulting in what you’re describing?
Dr. David Abram: What I would say is that the alphabet and alphabetic literacy does not cause our human estrangement from the more-than-human natural surroundings. But, it makes it possible in a way that simply is not possible for traditionally oral, indigenous peoples, who are so deeply embedded in the particular landscapes that they inhabit. And, they are practicing relationship all the time with the various other organisms, the other animals, the plants, but also with the winds and the weather powers. They have to, just for strictly practical purposes, in order to make their living. They have to apprentice themselves to the other animals, in order to get close enough to another animal in order to bag it for dinner. So, they’re in a very deep, reciprocal relationship with the land and the land itself is experienced as something expressive, as something that is active, is animate, is alive. And, writing, and particularly alphabetic writing, makes possible a forgetting of that larger field of active agencies. It makes it possible that a literate person gets caught up in a conversation, strictly with other people and with books and with his own things that he or she has written last week, and reading those things over and gradually situating herself entirely in a space of meanings that are exclusively human; then nature can fall away. But, that last little piece that I said actually doesn’t make a lot of sense without first speaking in a little more depth about oral cultures and the way language and linguistic meaning is carried within oral cultures.
David Boulton: OK, So perhaps an interesting point that we should touch on here is how writing affected the oral language of non-literate people. That’s one area of particular interest to us. But, go back as far as will give you a good takeoff into the differences. What is oral language like for a culture that never had writing? Then how was that affected by writing?
Dr. David Abram: Right. Well, I think it’s very hard for us literates to imagine our way into the experience of a culture without writing, by which I mean, without a formal system of writing that is tied to the spoken language, as ours is. Because, of course, there are writings, one could say, all around us. Wolves are writing with their urine. They’re leaving scents in various places to be read by other wolves about their territory and terrain. There are this sort of curious calligraphy made by rivers, as they wind their way through the land, and they inscribe the arroyos and canyons into the earth. So, writing, in a certain sense, is a part of what the world does. It leaves traces and tracks of itself—the tracks of bear, the tracks of deer. The world also speaks, and is an expressive world, richly expressive. And, it speaks in a thousand tongues.
Very few people have wondered how the ancestrally-accumulated knowledge of a community is preserved in a culture without the written word, in a culture without
writing. Because, let’s remember that, for the vast bulk of our existence as a species, we lived without any formal system of writing. How, then, was all of the necessary knowledge about how to survive in any particular land preserved and handed down? How to survive without depleting the plants and the other animals of this terrain, without screwing up the land, without inhibiting the ability of the land to replenish itself? Or, the knowledge of how to get on among ourselves, without too much strife, and where to find particular plants that are good for food and then which plants are good for food, which parts of those plants are toxic, and how to detoxify them? Which plants are good for healing cramps, or for healing headaches, and how to prepare various animal skins in the appropriate season for clothing, or for shelter? All of this ancestrally-accumulated knowledge that would have been necessary for our indigenous ancestors to survive. How was this knowledge carried and preserved?
For us, it’s easy. We go to the library. We find a particular book that has the information we’re looking for. We look up in the index, find the right page. And, it’s right there. But, in a culture without books, how’s the language held? How is all of this knowledge held? And, for those who have pondered this a bit, and maybe you have, some, you would immediately realize that, hmm, in stories, in vital, dynamic stories. Oral cultures are story-telling cultures. They’re cultures of story, of face-to-face story-telling. And, the stories, of an oral, non-writing culture, are like the living encyclopedias for that culture. The stories carry all of this information in the tales, tucked in various points within these tales, or in the cycles of stories that are told in certain seasons. And, sometimes, the storyteller will break into a chant or a song, a rhymed set of couplets that carry particularly careful, carefully encoded information about how to make a particular food or how to construct a particular artifact that one might need. So, these are held in songs, and sung stories, and stories that are told often. But, the question then remains, how is it that the stories are remembered, in a culture without writing. Again, we would just go find the right story book, to find the story.
But, in a culture without books, how are the stories remembered and preserved? And, the answer to this has not, as yet, been well enough understood by scholars
and anthropologists. At least, a very crucial factor in the way that oral stories are preserved for oral peoples is that the stories, well, for one thing, they will have often, as central characters, other animals that one would meet regularly as one goes about the course of one’s day. So that, the key characters in these stories are often not people, but coyote, or raven, or spider, or wolf, or deer. Other animals that are endemic to the landscape within which an oral culture is situated. So that, whenever any person within that community is going about his or her daily business, and, encounters one of those animals, it sort of triggers the memory of the various events in which that character figures, in which coyote has played a role. And, this sort of enables the land, in a certain sense, to be a kind of memory trigger for the oral stories.
But, much more important, and much more significant is that the stories of an oral culture are very often associated with particular places in the land where those stories happened, or where the events in those stories are believed to have happened. And, so, when you come upon that particular site, that cluster of boulders, that bunch of old trees and tree skeletons at this spot, or this river edge, it triggers the memory of the events that happened there, in those stories. So, the land, in this sense, is the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for remembering the oral tales, which carry all the information for an oral culture.
So, as a simple example, my colleague, the American poet, Gary Snyder, was visiting Australia and staying with some Aborigine people and an aborigine elder was driving Gary through the outback in a pick-up truck. His name, I believe, was Jimmy Tjungurrayi. And, Mr Tjungurrayi is driving Gary through the outback and as they’re driving, he’s telling him various stories from the dream time. He’s telling him a story about the wallaby women over there, where they bumped into some of the green ant people and they got into a big fight and so the green ants went running up on top of that hill over there, where they encountered some of the crocodile men. Whoa! And, then some fornication happened, very difficult, and so the crocodiles came running down. And, he’s telling the story so quickly that Gary, listening, wants him to slow down, you know, slow down, so I can follow the story, until suddenly, Gary Snyder realizes, with a start, that these stories were originally meant to be told while walking. But, they’re traveling through the outback in a pickup truck. And, so they’re passing each of the sites where these stories happened very rapidly. The intimacy between language and the land, in a traditionally oral culture, is so intense, that you have to pace the speed of your speaking to the speed at which you’re moving through the terrain. Many other examples of this could be given, many. But, the important thing to recognize there is that living in an oral culture is experienced as living in a speaking, expressive land. Because the land is alive with stories, sprouting from every creek, and every dry riverbed, and every cave and every cliff. The land is the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger for remembering the stories, for remembering all the linguistic information.
Well, when writing first comes into such a culture, and the stories begin to be written down, the stories, that is, are being stripped off of the particular sites where they are believed to have occurred, and are being planted on the page of the book. And, the ink’s traces made by the pen as it moves across the page begin to replace the tracks made by the animals and by one’s animal ancestors as they moved across the land so that the page now becomes the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger for remembering the linguistic information. And, the land begins to seem superfluous. It’s no longer necessary to the act of thinking. You no longer need to see those cliffs, and these mountainsides, and these kinds of trees, to remember clearly the stories that form the whole matrix of your thinking awareness. The stories now, in books, can be carried elsewhere. They can be read in distant cities, on distant continents, and they’re read by people who read about these curious stories, these folk tales and fairy tales. We read about the little people who live off in the fields, the tiny little beings who dwell under mushrooms and we think, ‘ah, what a wonderful imagination those unlettered peasants had!’ But, if we were still living in that kind of culture, and our grandmother was tugging us out and saying, you know, ‘come, look at this wee one there.’ ‘Aw, look at that little one there, just there under that mushroom, yeah, do you see him?’ ‘Ah, there he comes, coming out now!’ And, you look closer to see what she’s looking at, and you slowly see slug man, slowly emerging from that mushroom, comes the slug with his antenna extending and slipping back, and you begin to realize that these stories carried real information, about real things going on in the real earthly world. So, it’s quite a dramatic change in our felt experience of the more than human natural landscape once we step into a regime of writing.
And, perhaps you can understand now, perhaps we can understand better the desolation and the difficulty experienced by so many traditionally oral indigenous
peoples when they are suddenly forced out of their ancestral homelands, because we want to clear cut their forests on some island in Indonesia. And, so, we’ll
push the people, we’ll relocate them onto another island. Or, perhaps we want to flood the homeland of some indigenous oral people because we want a new
hydroelectric dam, and so we have to relocate these oral people into another land. But, you see, to push a traditionally oral people out of their ancestral
homeland is tantamount to pushing them out of their mind. Because the land is the very matrix of linguistic meaning for an oral or non-writing culture. They need the land to think by. So, perhaps we can understand the destitution of so many traditionally oral peoples that have been displaced from their lands.
Of course, for us literate moderns today, we no longer think that we need the land to think by. We no longer believe that we need the land in order to think correctly. But, perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps the increasing ecological disarray that we see around us and the ever-increasing rapidity with which species are slipping into extinction, and, with which, the air that we breathe and the water we drink is losing its integrity and its healthfulness, suggests that there is something amiss in our thinking, that we have been forgetting something.
David Boulton: That was nice. A couple of things came to mind listening to you. One is the analog to the early churches. I mean, churches were memory theaters; their art and, later, architecture, evoked memories and thoughts – the way the art was distributed ‘told’ stories somewhat analogous to your description of how the landscape cued thoughts and memories. The big difference being the churches were purposefully designed to evoke stories in people, and that’s a big step away from the way oral cultures experienced nature’s memory theater.
Dr. David Abram: Yes, very much so. But, it’s interesting, because there’s a rich transition there from the land itself as, sort of the matrix of meaning and the memory theater. But, it’s not a theater then, it’s before there is any theater. But, then, in the Dark Ages, in the Middle Ages, gradually, there emerges this sense of the great memory work, and the masters, the ars memoria, which involved, for orators, constructing in one’s mind a sort of memory palace through which you would walk, and each site, every window, every niche would remind you of a topic. And, that’s why they’re called topics, because they were originally topoi, that is “places”, topos were places within the palace that would trigger the memories. But, it all derives from, I think, this very old ancestral experience for a million years, of having our organism in this deep, participatory relation with the living landscape and having memory held there. Not humans projecting it upon the land, but, quite organically, emerging between the people and the land.
David Boulton: Hmmn. Yes, I understand the distinction you’re making. It parallels a distinction that we make between artificially structured virtual reality and natural reality, and the role of writing systems in the emergence of the artificial. It seems like the oral language…( btw, you just said a million years, as you know, there’s quite a lot of debate out there about how long we’ve been speaking) but regardless of ‘when’, the most interesting question to me is how did we become so verbally self-reflexive – how did we become so verbally self-reflexive – how did self-awareness via words become our primary modality of awareness? When does that creep in? How much of a role does writing play in the development of verbal-self-reflexivity?
Dr. David Abram: Right. It’s interesting for me how often scholars and thinkers associate language with self-reflexivity, from the get-go. That is, they associate verbal language with this kind of self-reflexivity. Whereas, it seems to me that that common mistake is the mistake of taking for granted writing, and the assumption that writing is just a sort of neutral record of spoken speech, when, in fact, writing brings such a remarkable transformation within our experience of language and linguistic meaning. Once we start writing, we are able to then reflect back upon what we have written, and we enter into this kind of recursive relation to our own written signs. So, only then, a certain degree or experience of self-reflection that we now sort of take for granted comes into being.
Prior to that, it is not that oral peoples and traditionally oral, indigenous peoples are not self-reflective and are not, in fact, brilliant in their cognitive gifts and styles. But, the reflexivity experienced by traditionally oral peoples is much more related to the more-than-human natural landscape. That is to say, they feel themselves still reflected in the land, and by the land, and they enter into relation with themselves by being in close relation with other creatures, with other shapes of sensitivity and sentience, with trees or with whole forests—so that many traditionally oral peoples have practiced what anthropologists, for lack of a better term, began to call “totemism,” which is simply the sense that human society and human culture in its multiplicity and diversity is mirroring various relationships that one sees in the surrounding natural landscape. So that, if I am of turtle clan, and you are of raven clan, our relationships as people carry something of, and need to draw certain guidance from, the relationships that we see between turtles and raven in the surrounding land. I could speak on this for quite awhile and I don’t want to get side-tracked there; it’s actually fairly delicate, and the specifics of totemism is probably not something worth drawing upon for your program. But, totemism is the experience of a kind of mirroring between human culture and the natural landscape. When we speak of reflection and self-reflection, it’s important to realize that for a traditionally oral, non-writing culture, thought is not self-reflexive. It’s not caught in this loop where I can enter strictly into a relation with myself, through my own language. That is something that emerges with the written word, that kind of self-reflexive loop, that, I would say, short-circuits the spontaneous reciprocity between the human organism and the sensuous, natural landscape, where we are in a kind of reciprocal field of relationships that we are carrying on with ravens, with wolves, with the sun, calling the sun up out of the ground in the morning, with the moon as it moves through its phases, with the forest, with the winds and the weather patterns of this place. So, we’ll do our dances to help invoke the rain when it is the right season. We’re in this active field of reciprocities with the surrounding land, taking much of our sustenance from the land, but also giving back to the land through our dances, through our songs of praise, through our honoring of the land in ever so many ways.
So, there’s this kind of a loop, or reciprocity, that is basic to the human organism that gets interrupted, it would seem, when writing comes into a culture and people begin to enter into this reflexive loop with their own written signs. The land is left out of account and begins to seem superfluous, or perhaps as now, just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds. Or, perhaps a passive set of resources for us to mine, mine up and use for our own purposes. It no longer has its own rich, inherent value and life on its own part.
David Boulton: That speaks elegantly to the fall out of resonance, lack of communion, or participation, that you are describing. The other side of this fall though, is significantly increased verbal self-reflexivity and an increased ability to be volitionally abstract, to think about what we’re thinking, to become more and more meta-aware, and analytical. Yes, we can compartmentalize and say, ‘well, there’s a lot of bad stuff that comes from that, there’s a lot of trouble that comes from that,’ but, there’s also a lot of the marvels of our world, the nature and structure of a lot of what we take for granted that’s good, that has also been constructed out of this process.
Dr. David Abram: Very much so.
David Boulton: And, so, as we speak to what becoming literate did to our relationship with nature, and the more-than-human world, there’s also this powerful enablement that’s come from it that I want you to speak to as much as you’re comfortable with. And, I appreciate what you’re saying, that because we’ve become so occupied and engaged with this non-human thing – this code, this writing – we’re spending less time with nature. We have a different reality, a different experience, a different way of experiencing reality. That seems to be part of the story.
But, there’s also something else that’s happening to us—how we process reality, how we slice and dice and cut it and assemble it. That’s different and that is brought about by writing.
So, those are two points that connect to where we were, to what you’re saying, that interest me.
Dr. David Abram: Yeah, nice. Right, right. And, which I’d love to speak to some. There is one thing that I don’t want to forget, so let me just set it here as just one small factor. I’m curious if you folks have bumped into any questions regarding this sort of abstraction and reflection that has been made possible by the alphabet. It’s interesting that the interior thinking, the inner monologue that we tend to experience when we are cogitating, that it is a sense of words playing within my head.
David Boulton: The self-talk story; what we say to ourselves becomes a primary learning environment. We’re developing it.
Dr. David Abram: Right. But, I’m wondering if just the very visceral, the very felt inner-sensory experience, audibly (with one’s mind’s ears) hearing this play of words inside our heads—what the Buddhists call roof-brain chatter. It’s not clear to me that that has been in existence very long. We do know that the experience of reading silently is much, much more recent than the experience of reading with the alphabet, which was for many, many centuries an experience of reading aloud. Or at least mumbling, often because there was no punctuation, and there were not even spaces between the words, so that you needed to sort of sound it out in order to discover what the words were that you were reading.
But, in the Middle Ages, once spaces are introduced into the text between words, and various new forms of punctuation, it’s much more possible to see and get the
meaning without sounding it out. And so, a kind of inner, just reading-to-one’s-self, becomes possible.
It’s evident to me that the experience of inner speech, of inner thinking, as we think inwardly all the time now and we experience it as being interior, does derive from that interiorization, or that moment when we begin to be able to read silently, because the experience of inner discourse, inner thought, is very kindred to the experience of reading silently.
David Boulton: When we talked to Russ Whitehurst, the Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of research, he said something that fits in right here, something to the effect that: ‘reading and thought become the same thing’ There’s a point at which what we call thought today and what’s going on with reading are just indistinguishable, that their structures are so similar. The same is true across the cognitive science conversations.
Then, as you alluded to, there’s the Greeks where all the letters run together without any spaces between words. They, at least, recognized that the Phoenician’s sound system was different from theirs and they had to do things in order to match it up with their sound system. Something the English didn’t do.
Dr. David Abram: Right, interesting. And, one place we should get back to later, is vowels. It’s a very big one for me.
Maybe just the first thing I’ll say in relation to the questions you are raising is that I’m not in any way interested in demonizing writing or the alphabet or in saying that it’s bad in any way. I am a writer, and I love the written word; I love it. And, I love what it enables for me. What I am saying is that writing is magic and that it is a very potent form of magic. And that, unless we recognize how potent, how powerful this technology is, and how profoundly and how even in many non-rational ways, it influences our experience, unless we recognize the magic of the written word, then we are simply under its spell. And, it’s not by chance that the word spell has this double meaning – to cast a spell, or to arrange the letters in the correct order to spell out a word. Because these two meanings were at one time very, very close. Because to learn to read with this new magical technology, to be able to arrange the letters in the right order, to actually conjure, as it were, that thing that you just spelled—it was experienced by oral peoples, who had not met the written word before, as magic, as a very powerful form of magic.
“Talking leaves,” is how words on pages were described by many of the native peoples on this continent when they first encountered missionaries who would read from books that they would open up, or when they would make their own writing in those books. And, then they just look in them and seem to experience words, coming off of the page. Or, they would open a letter sent from afar, and they would understand what someone had written to them. To many of the indigenous peoples of this continent and other continents, it seemed like here this flat piece of paper, this leaf, was speaking—talking leaves. I think there’s something true and right to the notion that writing is a kind of magic, because its effect upon us is not entirely rational. It has very deep, emotional, cognitive, and perceptual effects upon our experience, upon our experience of the sacred, and our experience of meaning and the surrounding world.
David Boulton: I agree with you that we must recognize the incredible and even magical power of writing. And, we don’t really recognize the power of language either. I mean you could say that most people realize there was a ‘before’ and ‘after’ walking upright. People somewhat recognize there was a before and after coming into spoken language. But, our society generally doesn’t appreciate that as much as walking upright. And, it seems to me that when we talk about what’s most defining of modern humans, you’ve almost got to start there. And then, there’s coming into literacy as a species, what it’s done to us.
So, let’s talk about that progression; what oral language was like before there was any writing, from your experience with oral cultures. And then, moving from that, let’s go into a brief history of writing, from your view, with emphasis on the alphabet—the emergence of the alphabet and its effect on the first major cultures. Rather than try to be as comprehensive, let’s talk about the things that strike you the most, and that live with you the most. Perhaps we can begin with whatever you can say that’s juicy for you about what happened to the Hebrews, a kind of before and after, culturally, as a people, as a community, before and after writing. And, then do the same thing for the Greeks.
Dr. David Abram: OK, to speak of the Hebrews before and after, that’s very interesting, but, it’s quite a conundrum. The Jews become a people, during the Exodus, when Moses goes up a mountain, with two blank stones, and he comes down with writing on them. The guy’s a scribe, obviously. It’s a tradition. It’s a scribal cult. A scribe initiates the whole tradition, through the power of these letters, and what they make possible. Of course, the tradition says God wrote on the tablets, or he dictated to Moses. But, obviously, the guy was a scribe. He went up with blank stones and he came down with writing on them, with the ten Mosaic commandments.
So, writing has a profound effect on every aspect of our experience, including our relation to the sacred, and to the divine. It is there, the alphabet, is there at the beginning of the monotheistic tradition, the beginning of this sense that behind all of the many manifestations of the divine in the world, there is a unity. And, what’s more, it seems to speak with a human voice. But, it has a kind of eternity to it that does not fade with time. This experience of human speech, or language, that is eternal, is made possible by the written letters, and the writing down of previously oral speech, and the giving of a permanent form on the page, or on the scroll. It now is there, and, it lives there. The scribe who wrote it may die; still, those words are there, and you can look back and still hear that voice—It speaks to you from a timeless dimension. So, the history of the Jewish people, and hence, of Christianity as well, is integrally intertwined with the story of the alphabet — with this phonetic writing system that unlike any others that came before it, or any others that developed elsewhere, that privileged the human voice.
You’re asking about oral culture, prior to writing, and I’ve said a bit about that in relation to story and memory, and the land —for oral cultures, indigenous cultures. It’s very dangerous and wrong, really, to generalize at all about cultures that, even those in existence still today, are so different from one another, I mean, outrageously different in their beliefs, customs, ways of life, and styles of intelligence and grace.
And yet, there are a few commonalities to every wholly oral, non-writing culture we know of. All of these were indigenous cultures and they all display a certain
perceptual style, a mode of perceptual experience that was termed “animism” by ethnologists and anthropologists (at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century), by which the anthropologists meant to describe a style of awareness that does not distinguish between that which is animate and that which is inanimate. Rather, for these peoples, it seems that everything is animate. Everything moves. It’s just some things move a lot slower than other things, like the ground, or a mountain, or this chair. But, nonetheless, they all move. Each thing has its interior pulse, its own, active agency. Each thing is an active power, influencing the things around it, the space—Influencing us when we turn our attention toward it. Such seems to be the spontaneous experience of the human organism and nervous system. In the absence of any intervening technologies, we seem to spontaneously experience the world as alive, through and through.
One other commonality that one finds in virtually every oral, deeply oral, culture is that not just that everything is alive, but that everything speaks. That everything has, at least potentially, the power of meaningful expression. Things speak by the way they move, by the sounds they make, like a birdsong, to be sure. The
rhythm of crickets is a kind of voice, and the hooting of owls, but, also, the wind in the willows, too, is a voice. That is to say, it’s experienced by most non-writing peoples as something that is meaningful. And, they will listen closely to hear what is being said, what is the meaning. ‘Ah, the wind in the willows, the speech of the leaves is saying that a storm is brewing’, or other such meanings that one finds in the speech of the waves as they crash upon the rocks, or the babbling speech of a brook as it moves over the stones. So, these are elements, I would say, that are basic to oral or non-writing cultures, and hence, basic to our own oral ancestry, until we begin to step into formal writing.
One very important element of human language, our kind of language, which we call “verbal” now, takes that particular form when it’s not written down on a page or on a sheet of papyrus, or on a scroll; without which human language doesn’t have a visible representation. Human language, when it’s not written down, is primarily speech. It does not have this external, objectifiable, form on a page so that you can think about it, and name it as language, and think of it as something that one can set aside, or pick up or do things with. Rather, language is something we inhabit. It’s a medium we are immersed in, as it were. And, that medium shows itself as speech, as this very bodily, expressive, rhythmic sounding thing we do with our voice.
But what’s very interesting is that, oral peoples the world over seem to recognize that speech is nothing other than sound-breath. It is shaped breath. We speak by inhaling this mysterious, invisible substance that we are immersed within. We inhale it, and then, as we breathe out, we shape our ‘out-breath’ with our teeth, our lips, and our palette, and we let it vibrate some chords in our throat, and send it out into the world. And, it is my breath that carries my sounds, my speech, into the world. And, it is this invisible air that carries my words to your ears, or your words to my ears. So, the air, the breath, the wind, these are, in many ways, the mystery of mysteries, for many, many oral peoples—the mysterious nature of the enveloping atmosphere, the wind, the air. Why mysterious? Well, because we can’t see it. We can see that it’s moving the branches of trees. We can see it’s lofting the clouds overhead. We recognize that we cannot think a single thought without continually imbibing this invisible substance. So, how do we know that it is not the wind that is also thinking our own thoughts? That the air is thinking within us?
And, in fact, this is a conception that is found among various, indigenous, oral peoples, like the Navaho people near here, the Dinè people, as they call themselves. Their most holy, in a sense, cosmological power, is something they call “nilch’i” which means “The Holy Wind”. The Holy Wind is the whole body of the air, the sky above, the air we breathe, the air that moves and circulates within our bodies—all of this is nilch’i, the Holy Wind. And, Holy Wind is what gives all things life and breath and awareness. The Navajo elders and chanters will say, well, you cannot see the Holy Wind directly, but you can see it by the traces that it leaves. It leaves these little spiraling patterns wherever it moves. So, these spiraling patterns in our fingertips, they say, are where ten little winds entered into our fingertips when we were born, and the spirals in our toe tips are where ten little winds entered into our toes when we were born. The little winds in our toes hold us to the ground. And, the little winds in our fingertips hold us to the sky, that’s why we don’t fall down when we’re walking. But, they say there are also these spiraling folds in our ears, and that’s where two little winds dwell within our ears, “wind’s children”, they sometimes call them. We know they’re there because there are these spiraling folds in our ears. And, when you’re thinking thoughts, when you hear that play of words inside your head, the Navajo elders, the Dinè elders say, well, that’s just wind’s children talking to you, from inside your ears. But, of course, these little winds in our ears are messengers of the winds of the Four Directions, who themselves are subsidiaries of the vast body of nilch’i, the Holy Wind. So, this is a notion of awareness, or mind, not as something that is inside us, but, mind or awareness as that which we are inside of, along with all the other animals, and the plants, and the trees and the clouds. We live within nilch’i, the very body of awareness, which is the invisible air. So, air, wind, breath, is a great magic to a culture without writing, to a culture for whom language is nothing other than shaped breath.
And, the experience for so many oral cultures is that one is immersed in this thick, meaning-filled plenum. It’s invisible, but, the air, nonetheless, is filled with voices, and communications, criss-crossing between various animals, and humans, and plants sharing their pollen with bees. And, so many messages, so much meaning, lives in this invisible substance in which we’re embedded, in which we’re immersed.
So, it’s very interesting that the first alphabet that we know of, the earliest phonetic Aleph Bet, originates among Semitic people, perhaps 1500 years B.C., perhaps earlier. It’s a very interesting thing that this earliest Aleph Bet does not have vowels in the writing system. Only the consonants are written down. The consonants, which are the shapes that we give to the breath, the ‘b’, the ‘buh’, the ‘kuh,’ ‘duh,’ ‘wuh.’ So, the consonantal shapes are written down, but the vowels are not. In fact, the reader, when reading a traditional Hebrew text, even today, the Hebrew Torah, the Scroll, in the synagogue—the reader has to add his or her breath to those bones on the page, to make them come alive and to speak, because it’s not clear what vowels to add. Why weren’t the vowels written down on the page? Because the vowels are the breath sounds. The vowels are the sounds that the breath, unimpeded, makes as it moves through the mouth, ‘ahh,’ ‘ee,’ ‘ay,’ ‘oh,’ ‘oo.’ And, as breath, they are sacred. They are invisible and, for the Hebrews, as for so many other tribal peoples, one cannot make a visible representation of the invisible spirit. In Hebrew, the word is “ruah”, which means “wind and spirit” inseparably. It’s the wind which is the spirit, the spirit which is the wind.
David Boulton: Good. Let’s rewind a little bit. I want to ask about the way that the people that hadn’t been exposed to writing but who lived in a culture that was writing began to think through the lens, through the machinations of writing. In other words, how writing among the elites of a culture changed the oral language of the broader culture and brought about a kind of literal thinking even in the non literate. One of the things that seems important to me is the growth of thought about the not-now, and the not-present. Oral language cultures seem more grounded in the immediate present-now. Their communication has less reference to time and the not-present, not-now. In other words, as you said earlier, the writing system allows us to kind of freeze the language stream and look at it, and push on it, and reflect on it, and do things to it. Without that tool, without ever having experienced that tool, the stream of language is more like the stream of nature. And, one of the differences is this abstract movement away from being in the stream, this now versus, the abstract not-now. So, that is affecting something very fundamental in the way that we think. I want to get at that as best we can.
Dr. David Abram: All right, let’s return to the Navajo, and the nilch’i, the Holy Wind. This notion of mind as wind, it can seem very alien to us today, until we look at the evidences in our own language. In English, our word “spirit” is embedded in our word “respiration”, in the Latin word “spiritus”, which means “a breath”, or “a gust of wind.” So, spirit and wind were once the same thing. Our word “psyche” from which we get “psychology” and “psychiatry”, this word for the mind, originates in the old Greek word, “psychein,” which means “to breathe,” or “to blow”, like the wind. And, for the ancient Greeks, psyche, a psyche, was a breath, or a gust of wind. The word “animal” comes from this old word for “soul,” “anima”. Animal is a being of soul, being is a unanimous sharing one mind, together, and one soul, together. Anima—this word also originally means “a breath” or “a gust of wind.” Even such a scientifically respectable word as “atmosphere” shows its link to the Hindu word “atman,” meaning “soul,” the original word being “atmos” which is the air, which is the soul, or, the soul which is the air.
The Hebrew people, ancient tribal people, also had a word which means spirit and wind, inseparably, just like nilch’i, of the Navajo. The Hebrew word is “ruah” which is perhaps best translated as “rushing spirit”. It is the wind which is the spirit, or the spirit which is the wind, and it’s very sacred within the Hebrew tradition. It’s there in the first sentence of Genesis: ‘The world was without form and void and a ruah of God moved over the waters’. A wind of God moved over the waters. Wind is the very presence of the Divine in the material, sensuous world, that is ruah. But, it’s not the most sacred word within the Hebrew tradition. The most sacred combination of letters would be the four-letter name of God. The Tetragrammaton, YHWH, or as it’s called ‘Yahweh’. Very sacred, very secret. We’re not even sure how YHWH is to be pronounced. Why? Because there are no vowels in the name? it’s just the letters: Y, H, W, H. Why didn’t we write down the vowels? Well, because the vowels are the breath sounds, and the breath is the ruah. It is the invisible spirit. And, you cannot make a visible representation of the invisible spirit. It would be sacrilege. And, so, in the ancient Hebrew writing system, there are no vowels written down. Only the consonants are written. And, the reader has to add the appropriate vowels, just to intuit what vowels to sound out as he or she is feeling her way through the consonants on the page. It’s as if you have to add your breath to those bones on the page to make them come alive and to speak. So, the Hebrews, who are the first keepers of the alphabet, of the Aleph Bet, of this magical, phonetic writing system, they did something very interesting. They became literate, in relation to the visible world, and the visible shapes of the world. And, they would say, God is not that tree. And, God is not that golden calf, is not in any visible image. That is not divine. God is elsewhere. So, they developed this new literate distance from the visible world.
But, they stayed oral with relation to the invisible breath, to the wind, to the invisible ruah that moves between all things. It’s very interesting. It’s a case of a culture that became literate without giving up fully its orality. So, ancient Hebraic religiosity is just as much oral as it is literate. And, I think there’s much to be learned from that, for us today, perhaps. How to be literate and oral at the same time. For me that’s a key and important aspect of the transition from oral to literate is this sense of being immersed in an invisible, meaning-filled plenum, that we now call the atmosphere, or the wind, or the breath, or the air. Whereas in the world we now experience we don’t speak of the air between me and a tree, or between you and I. We just speak of the empty space between us. We don’t notice that there’s anything really here. We can’t see anything there, therefore, it’s just empty space. Literate thought has lost all of that richness, and that magic that it has for oral peoples. How did this happen? Because the Hebrews did not write it; they did not make an image for the breath sounds, the vowels. They carefully refrained from de-sacralizing this magic of the wind, the air, and the breath.