Chasing Away Ghosts: a Review of Brian Rotman’s Becoming Beside Ourselves
Q: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. New Land is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there?”
A: “I don’t know; I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others…I’ve never seen one and hence I can’t say”
This exchange occurred between Russian psychologist A. R. Luria and an illiterate Uzbekistan peasant in 1932. Stalinist Russia was in the midst of campaign to organize peasants onto collective farms, and Luria, positioned on the fragile brink of a society marching into modernity, set out to document the links between literacy and cognition. In this instance, the illiterate farmer seems to ignore Luria’s obvious syllogism and answers instead from practical experience (he’s never seen a white bear, so how can he say anything about them?). Luria inferred from studies like these that the pre-literate mind shapes a more embodied, less abstract picture of the world.
Is there then a neurobiological difference between the non-literate and the literate mind? More broadly, do communication technologies themselves, like the book, alter the structure of the brain and consequently how we perceive the world? Brian Rotman’s Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (2008), is a treatise that takes on Luria’s media-and-cognition question and updates it for the digital age.
Rotman throws a dizzying range of disciplines – philosophy, critical theory, mathematics, neurobiology – into the mix. Starting with recent studies put forward by Terrence Deacon, a professor of Neuroscience at Berkeley, he explains that it’s our ability to use symbols, to speak about something virtual – for instance Luria’s bear (even if the peasant can’t make a syllogism, he can still discuss a thing that wasn’t there) – that makes us a human species. But because we are actively situated in the world, the story gets complicated; we build machines and our machines in turn act upon our consciousness. Our mind, subjectivity, and how we use abstract symbols to communicate emerge out of that interaction. Deacon posits that speaking actually altered our brains on a neurological level, allowing the neocortex to override the midbrain, inhibiting certain productions of speech (like our ancestors’ screeches) and privileging a slower, rational analysis of stimuli. Rotman thinks writing had a similar affect.
Rotman imagines us all as “bio-techno-cultural hybrids” shaped by our various technologies: “A succession of media – speech, alphabetic writing, digital writing – each transforming their environment through a wave of virtuality specific to them.” (7) You can see McLuhan’s shadow on all this: it’s the medium and not the message that matters in this discussion. “The operation of machines…is transformative and works to constitute the very subject engaging with them.” (5)
As Rotman tells it, oral culture is deeply embodied through the use of gesture – haptic touch, facial expressions, arm gestures, and prosody (or how our voice effects our words using emphasis, tone, volume, hesitations). Alongside spoken words, gestures have meaning within the context of their immediate use, the here and now – they in no way to deny the social construction of communication.
Cultures of literacy, on the other hand, dispensed with gesture, starting when the Greeks introduced vowels to the Phoenician alphabet in 8th century BCE. Then the party stops: writing came along and imposed linear thinking and rigid logic, using notations that looked nothing like what they referenced, singular marks on a page divorced from any specific, here-and-now context.
The St. John Fragment dates around 117 BCE.
Rotman’s problem with writing is that it displaces concepts from their original contexts into “conceptual environments outside their horizon,” and this gives rise to unfriendly ghosts (likewise disembodied things). When our brain has neurally adjusted to literacy, we are blinded by the message and stop seeing writing as a medium, and “the stage is set for the coming into being of an entity – necessary incorporeal – who is imagined to write “i.” Rotman calls these formless gods – from the Talmudic Yahweh to the Greek idea of the mind, to the concept of infinity – “medialogically engendered ghosts.” (112) Rotman also traces the rise of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, the belief in a “monadic Grand Theory of Everything” (137) to these alphabet-enabled, speaker-independent beings.
But times change, and a new technology – digital writing – has burst on the scene after our long rendez-vous with the alphabet and its linear narratives and disembodied graphemes. We’re making another Hegelian twist, a return to gesture and way of thinking he calls ‘parallel’ as opposed to the linear, only now in radically different forms. Sound familiar? We’re moving from McLuhan’s typographic man to the realm of the Deleuzian rhizome.
Here we find a new version of hieroglyphs and cave drawings…capture media that represent the world out there through verisimilitude: photography, film, and motion capture technologies. Our metaphor for subjectivity is no longer a string of words on a page floating ‘out there’ but a machine that processes many things at once, that distributes collective thought over a network where our public and private selves bleed together, where maps allow multiple points of view, where we become what Rotman’s dubs the para-self, the self beside itself. In the new order, there’s an anarchic, communal spirit where the rigid ghosts of the past have no place.
Having fun motion-capturing furniture
Leaving aside the highly contestable point that the idea of ‘mind’ and of a unitary god arose with the Western alphabet and not prior to it, (a philosophical debate too large to dig into here, though you can find opposing arguments), I’m wary of such optimism. I want to believe that new communication tools will alter humans into fleshier, more fun-loving and harmonious animals, but I’m skeptical that technology heralds the answer to today’s violence and can potentially usher in a “more open-ended, diverse, ecophilic, and planet-mindful’ era (137). I want prescription, not description, and while Rotman provides some interesting metaphors for digital communication, I’m more interested in a concrete blueprint showing us how to use these tools, to aid governments, corporations, and citizenry to give new media policies beneficent shape.
Rotman admits his project is incomplete, there may be ghosts in this next realm as well, we just don’t know what they are yet – we’re still in flux. If we accept Rotman’s project, we have to agree to wait for the answers. Meanwhile, Google expands its digital libraries, credit fraud continues apace, and jihadists distribute their videos and audio tapes of death and doom on youtube, all projects we can thank in part to our new digital era. Luria’s Uzbekistan seems very far behind us indeed.