To word a world

The poet Muriel Rukeyser told us, “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.” Of course there is some kind of world made of atoms out there, but it’s not my world. I don’t see through atomic microscope eyes. I don’t see with utterly detached scientific objectivity. No, I’m a person, just like you, awash in the world—a world made of stories.

blue-marbles

Too often, we seem to forget this. We seem to wish we were more mechanical. We talk about our minds as if they were computers—some even dream of a technological singularity that will obsolesce our very bodies. But this theoscientific point of view misses a whole swath of the universe: the lifeworld. Philosopher Roger Scruton presents beautifully the duality of the scientific perspective of the universe and that of the lifeworld: Whereas the scientific perspective hears sounds, the lifeworld hears music.

I’ve been thinking about worlds a lot recently. I wrote a piece on Medium about how we create lifeworlds to inhabit simply by being human—I describe in particular the ultrarunning world. And recently I saw the film adaptation of the eponymous literary masterwork The Little Prince, in which we travel from world to world. We don’t literally travel from world to world, but rather we come to inhabit others’ lifeworlds—represented in the book and the film as tiny planets.

One of the pleasures of the lifeworld is that we share it, with innumerable beings—common things like scissors and tomatoes (as oded by Pablo Neruda), and of course other people. Besides this automatic, passive sharing, we can welcome others to participate in our lifeworld by opening them up to it. We do this through communication.

One way to communicate is through the written word, a very powerful way to share lifeworlds. We tend to assume that writing merely represents—for instance, the word “tree” represents the thing in real life that we call a tree. Certainly writing does this, and some writing—above all technical writing—relies on it.

If writing could only represent, it would go nowhere in trying to create a bridge between lifeworlds. But we know writing can do more—we’ve all gotten lost in a novel, for instance, taken over by the characters’ lifeworlds. Writing evokes the lifeworld in this way not by representing, but by presenting. It’s not the words themselves, which only represent; rather, it’s somewhere between and among them where the presentation unfolds. This is what your English teacher meant when they told you, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s why a summary of a novel does no justice to the experience of reading the novel. It’s why thoughtlessly adapting a novel to a different medium can be disruptive. That’s what it means to word a world.

Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.

Support an exhibition of endangered alphabets

Glagolitic wordTim Brookes creates beautiful wood carvings in endangered scripts (see my previous post on Brookes’ work). This work is part of the Endangered Alphabets project, which creates educational materials for readers of minority languages and cultivates awareness around linguistic endangerment.

Endangered Alphabets has launched a Kickstarter campaign to support a new major exhibition of Brookes’ work as part of Mother Language Day 2017. The campaign just went live today and will run through July 21, 2016. Back the project now—rewards include postcards, books, clocks, dictionaries, unique carvings and more!