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The medium we use for communication influences the nature of what we communicate.  Because we communicate through these mediums, we are often unaware of how they shape what it is we communicate.

David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous argued that literacy not only revolutionized our capacity to communicate, it also changed what we communicated and how we interpreted it.  As Greeks gained new tools and abilities through their literacy they could describe the world in texts free from a larger context of time and place. The abstractions of words were made more universal and anonymous than words chosen to fit the moment. Further, over time these abstractions appeared to gain a reality of their own, free from context.  Red for example became something existing independently of red things.  Abram emphasizes with this gain in abilities through literacy the Greeks also began to lose older abilities rooted in more direct and concrete kinds of awareness.[1] As Greeks gained new tools and abilities through their literacy and the ability to describe the world in texts free from a larger context the independent existence of these abstractions gained in their apparent reality. Abram emphasizes that with this gain made possible through literacy they also began to lose older abilities.

Consider my quotation in chapter 10 of Geerat Vermeij’s description of a forest as directly encountered. “One experiences everything at once. . . . Shapes, sounds, smells, and weather come together to offer the prepared mind an emergent conception of the whole. . . . I am listening to an unrehearsed orchestra of many different instruments playing symphonies and concerti that are at once musically complex and pleasingly transparent.”[2] By contrast the printed word creates a linear description, usually in order of importance. But Vermeij is blind, hearing is not linear, and must usually be encountered in the moment. He experienced a forest differently from those of us who experience it by looking first at this, then at that.

The written word shapes our perceptions differently than the spoken word and different kinds of writing may influence our perceptions in different ways. The early Hebrews did not write down vowels, and hence their texts were obviously open to interpretation.  Meanings were not regarded as completely certain. The text’s uncertainties forced interpreters to rely on their own cultural context and judgment in deciding its meaning.  In our terms these were more ‘feminine’ than texts that came later, including modern Hebrew.

Compared to ancient Hebrew, Classical Greek and Roman alphabets were more complete.  Vowels facilitated giving a sense of greater specificity to the text and its interpretation.  Later, words were increasingly separated from one another into little neatly bounded packages of meaning.[3]  Upper and lower cases additionally delineated the separateness of individual words.[4] Words printed this way emphasized something’s separateness from time and context far more than drawing attention to its relatedness.

This style of description implies our world is made up of distinct objects defined by clear boundaries.  The structure of a written statement suggests something is doing something separate from what it itself is.   Little packets describing reality are self-contained and stand in linear logical relations with one another.   This perspective encourages us to ignore the surrounding context, leading to a style of thinking often divorced from what we actually perceive.[5] It is also more harmonious with a logocentric experience of time than with a mythic one, although poetry can link them.

Literacy can also shape our experience of who we are. When we describe ourselves as “I,” our emphasis is on what is constant in ourselves, even though if we look at our own life stories, change is as important as continuity.  There is something constant about me from the me of today back to me when I was 10, or even an infant.  But what has been constant does not come anywhere close to describing me adequately.  This insight is why Buckminister Fuller once observed of himself: “I seem to be a verb.”[6] Given that I exist in time and am continually changing, “I” am a moving and changing gestalt of all my past relationships as they manifest at this moment.  For example, what is the most accurate description of myself at this moment: I, who am writing?  Or I-writing?  One implies something static that is doing something fundamentally distinct from it, the other as being constituted by what is currently happening as well as its past.  Our language has evolved so that the first seems natural and the second is invisible. Yet in the experience of many people, myself included, it is not so simple.  “I-writing” is in important ways different from “I-doing other things.”

When we look at communication in oral cultures we observe a different sensibility.  It is often more concrete and it is often more “alive.”  In Inuktitut, Hugh Brody writes,  “There are terms to mean ‘arctic char,’ ‘arctic char that are running upstream,’ ‘arctic char that are moving down to the sea,’” and on and on.  But there “is no word that means ‘fish.’”[7]  Things are described in terms of their principle relationships rather than as separate entities.

We moderns perceive our world through abstractions rooted in our literacy that supersede context, of ‘fish’ being more real than ‘char swimming upstream.’  That is simply something that a ‘fish’ does that is separate from it.  The word ‘fish’ is lifted out of its environment, becoming as context free as possible.

We cannot get by without abstractions. Abstractions focus on what otherwise different things have in common with one another.  The word for ‘char swimming upstream’ is itself an abstraction, identifying what a great many char in many streams are doing.   Logos and mythos both make use of abstraction.  Full attention to the event in context roots us in the concrete instance.  “Fish” and “this char I see in front of me, swimming upstream in this place” lie at opposite ends of a continuum.  By decreasing abstraction we come to the moment in all its concreteness, moving from observing an It to encountering a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense. This most concrete encounter is beyond words.

In addition, many primal languages make more use of verbs and less of nouns than do modern European languages.  In a fascinating essay on the differences between European and Native American languages, biologist and Potawatomi Indian, Robin Wall Kimmerer, writes:

“A bay is a noun only if the water is dead. When ‘bay’ is a noun it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores, and contained by the word. But wiikegama,  to be a bay, the verb releases the water from bondage, and lets it live.  “To be a bay” holds the wonder that for this moment the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise – become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall – and there are verbs for that, too.”[8]

Moderns more easily perceive the world as made up of things rather than relationships, as parts rather than as processes.   We look for that precise thing to which the word refers. There is important truth to this insight, but it is not the whole truth, and today what this kind of perception devalues has become increasingly important as our culture swings ever more out of balance. If logos finds external meaning in things, and mythos finds internal meaning, encounter finds the intrinsic meaning of the concrete: this child, this sunset, this woman.

Printing took the biases of literacy a step further.  It strengthening literacy’s tendency to remove meaning from any obvious dependence on context.  Because the printed word is stable and unchanging, not subject to errors or ‘clarifying’ interpretations by scribes, and is able to be disseminated uniformly and widely, anyone can read ‘the same’ scripture at any time.

Sacred Texts

These issues come to a head when confronting sacred texts. The context in which they were written can appear irrelevant because the words encountered will always be the same.  Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims argue it is advantageous that God’s word is written down, because it is supposedly unchanging.  But imagine a person who, when you ask them to clarify something they said, simply repeats the same words, over and over.  We would quickly realize they did not really understand what they said. Neither does a ‘literal’ reading of scripture.

If I ask you what a text means, you will answer in your own words, from your own understanding.  Bart Ehrman explains[9]

“Once readers of a text have put a text in other words, however, they have changed the words.  This is not optional when reading; it is not something you can choose not to do when perusing a text.  The only way to make sense of a text is to read it, and the only way to read it is by putting it in other words. . .  And so to read a text is, necessarily, to change a text.”

The text confronts us impersonally, unlike when we engage in a conversation.  We can take it or we can leave it, but we cannot dialogue with it.  If we immerse ourselves within it, we may change, but it remains aloof.  To be sure, its levels of meaning were in some sense there all along, but it could not communicate them to us as could a teacher.  We had to discover them. The meaning we discovered arose from a combination of who we are and how we read the text.   Different people bring different contexts of understanding to their encounter with the printed words, and it is hardly surprising that despite their supposed ‘objectivity,’ such texts always result in multiple incompatible interpretations.  Worse, if the translation is poor, the message cannot help but be even more uncertain, reflecting the translator’s understanding before it has a chance to interact with our own – with no conversation possible to clarify the issue.

This problem is made worse by the apparent existence of a meaning separate from and independent from ourselves, even though it is we who do the interpreting.  We think of our interpretation as existing outside ourselves, and objectively in sacred texts, imbued with divinity.  In a very real sense we end up worshiping our own minds as divine by encountering our thoughts as separate from ourselves, even though they are not.  Thus we build barriers against our learning anything different or even noticing the significance of disconfirming evidence. We have already chosen to regard it as secondary.  Regarding such texts, we always see through a glass darkly.

My point is not to disparage texts. I have written these words after all. But they never speak for themselves and can convince  the unwary or naïve they have encountered a meaning completely separate from themselves, meaning so clear that any other reading is wrong.  But no text teaches by itself.  Anything we learn from it is also a product of what we bring to it.  In truly great texts, the more we bring the more we learn. This is why genuine classics grow in insight and wisdom as we return to them over the years. It is also why any text-based approach that denies experience as equally important guarantees spiritual immaturity and, in adults, imbecility.

C


[1] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, (NY: Vintage, 1997).

[2] Geerat Vermeij, The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything From Seashells to Civilization (New York: St. Martins Press, 2010), 167, 168.

[3] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, (NY: Pantheon, 2010) 178n-180n.

[4] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (San Francisco: Harper, 2005) 48.

[5] The best discussion of this issue of which I know is David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Op. cit.

[6] R. Buckminister Fuller and Quentin Fiore, I Seem to Be a Verb, NY: Bantam, 1970.

[7] Hugh Brody The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World, (NY: Northpoint Books, 2000), 189-90.  I will return to this example in our next chapter.

[8] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Learning the Grammar of Animacy, The Leopold Outlook, Baraboo, WI: The Land Ethic Press, 2012, 12:2. 7.

[9] Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, op. cit., 217.