Book Review: Literate Technologies: Language, Cognition, Technicity, by Louis Armand

On: September 20, 2008
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About Maria Perevalova
I graduated from Moscow State Linguistic University, interpreter department with specialization in Theory and History of Culture. I have working experience in informational and advertising agencies. Present time I am a student at University of Amsterdam, New Media MA programme


In this work the thread of eternal philosophical thoughts embracing the Greek schools of thinkers and sciences of the 20th century, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, semiotics, etcetera, leads to a new theoretical approach in  questioning the dichotomy of existence and consciousness , the science of man and what literacy and language is in a new spatio-temporal environment of the information age.

The book “Literate Technologies: Language, Cognition, Technicity”  was written by a Prague-based and originated from Australia writer and visual artist Louis Armand, a director of the Intercultural Studies Programme in the Philosophy Faculty of Prague’s Charles University.

He develops the  theory of ‘literate technologies’ that deals with reading and writing processes that devolve upon a materialist conception of agency.
He comes to the conclusion that the word is technical per se as well as sign operations and not founded in either a transcendental ego or genetic faculty – such as, for example, Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’. This approach is only peripherally concerned with so-called reading machines or artificial intelligence, except to the extent that such machines pose the question of the definability of such terms as ‘intelligence’. The technical status of literacy, moreover, is viewed as being contiguous with the advent of language as such, and not as a ‘technologisation’ of language.

This volume is definitely not intended for an unprepared average reader who is not acquainted with basic anthropological, psychological, philosophical, semiotic, cybernetic, linguistic and many other theories. It calls for an appropriate academic level. It is written with a classical discursive philosophically- scientific language and reeks with references and quotations  of acknowledged giants of thought, such as  Aristotle and his notion of techne, Descartes, with his Cartesian Metaphysics, Newton and his mechanistics, Claude Shannon, Ferdinand de Saussure with general linguistics and semiology, Jacques Derrida, Claude Levi-Strauss with poststructuralist theories, A.J. Toynbee, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, and his theories of unconscious, Nietzsche,  Norbert Wiener and his cybernetics, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing and so on and so forth. So the work possesses a very strong framework and basis of theories and knowledge on which the discourse is held.

All the philosophical speculations start with questions. Louis Armond articulates new questions in his work:

1. How stochastic qualities of abstract writing systems (theoretical mathematics and other symbolic systems, including binary computer code) may shed light upon the prior condition and possibility of literacy per se (and hence communication, discourse, language, thought, etcetera)?

2. Louis Armand paraphrases one of the earliest questions “why is there something and not nothing?” to “why is there consciousness and not nothing?”
3.  Are  we yet prepared to accept that thought – even as something strictly delimited in terms of operating with signs – is conditioned by a purely mechanical agency?

4. What does it mean when we speak of the materiality of language?

5. What would it mean if machines could think?

He contests  the definition of the term literacy as a condition of being-with-language in a particular way respectively the information age.

In search of the locality of thought the author particularizing the notion of consciousness, a screen between man and nothingness as Sigmund Freud defines it.
Following his ideas there should be some man’s agent to attribute a thought. Basing on the theory of Ludwig Wittgenstein described in his “Blue book”, dilemmas regarding thought, language, in the form of questions about the means of explanation of meaning and the locality of thinking  – define consciousness.  Thinking – activity operating with signs the activity performed by the hand when we write; by the mouth and larynx when we think by speaking  –  we are using a metaphor  thought, or sign-operation is locatable in some profound sense outside the materiality of these operations. The ideas echo the idea of Cartesian homunculus, who thinks our thoughts in advance of us, and thereby intends them.

Psychoanalysts, Freud, Lacan, put  the question of an agency beyond the mind-body dichotomy. A new level of viewing the problem brought the theory of homeostasis.
Mechanical grammar by Lacan displaces Cartesian subjectivity. Brain is considered to be a  homeostat organ, that implies a cybernetic approach, treating it as integrated, recursive, differential system. Thus the phrase “machine thinks” sounds as nonsensical as “brain thinks”.

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