Scriptum est

Time and the written word have a curious relationship. In order to read something, we must have the written word at hand in the present, but the words must have been written in the past.

This might occur to you when you’re reading a historical document, say, or when you happen across one of your old notebooks. But it characterizes every interaction with the written word that we ever come across. Even online—though the temporal gap is certainly closing in some online forums; though they might purport to be “live,” there is still some delay. And generally, we don’t notice it. This was the theme of an article I wrote in 2016, “Documents and Time,” but there’s much more richness to plumb.

Lately I’ve been reading Vesa Suominen‘s book About and On Behalf of Scriptum Est, which is a philosophical book about librarianship. Suominen criticizes the majority viewpoint that libraries trade in “information,” arguing instead that libraries deal in documents. Of course, Suominen is not alone; there is a growing constituency of scholars championing the document perspective. But Suominen takes this further, proposing a new concept: scriptum est.

Scriptum est is Latin for “it is written.” As Suominen explains, the adoption of this term is metaphorical, coming from the Bible, where the phrase “it is written” refers to something divinely ordained. That is, it couldn’t have not been written. We aren’t meant to interpret the concept scriptum est as a divine one, however; Suominen simply wishes to emphasize that everything that has been written has been written. The concept seems to constellate several things: the past in which the writing was written, the act of writing, the state of this action being completed and the writing’s existence in the presence. As Suominen says:

The very notion of scriptum est particularly serves my concept of the library as a place where there are books that always represent the past.

Regardless of whether the concept of scriptum est is found to be useful in other ways, this aspect of the concept is quite interesting. It’s not that something was written; rather, it is written. Writing is, befuddlingly, an anachronism!

Being, within and without literacy

"Monk by the Sea," by Caspar David Friedrich
“Monk by the Sea,” by Caspar David Friedrich

If you’re reading this, presumably you’re literate. We it for granted: being literate, seeing things and knowing what they say, reading for pleasure as much as for taking part in society. According to Walter Ong, being literate also influences the way we organize our thoughts and communicate, even orally. And we rarely question those conditions that most closely define us.

Kafka on the Shore, like most of Haruki Murakami‘s work, is a slipstream novel that melds fantasy and reality, wakefulness and dreaming. Being literate is one of the recurring themes of the book, but not one that has been much discussed. After all, there’s so much to this book: the Oedipus complex, selfhood, coming of age…

In the story, the main character, Kafka Tamura, loves books. On his fifteenth birthday, he runs away from home, and he ends up taking shelter at a library, where he spends his days reading. In stark contrast to Kafka is another character, Nakata, who suffered a mysterious accident as a child and now “is not very bright,” as he says, to the extent that he can no longer read. (But he can talk with cats.)

Nakata’s experience throughout the novel shows how hard it can be to get by in the world when you can’t read. As Nakata tells one of his cat companions, “In the human world if you can’t read or write you’re considered dumb.” Being illiterate in a literate person’s world extends far beyond simply not being able to read—which would be bad enough. (Take a look around you right now and see how many examples of written language you can see without moving.) But what’s more, literacy changes our speech, too. As Nakata says, “If you can’t read TV doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes I listen to the radio, but the words there are also too fast, and it tires me out.

Later in the book, Kafka has his own brush with illiteracy. In a dreamlike state, Kafka finds himself in a mysterious room:

As I gaze at the vacant, birdless scene outside, I suddenly want to read a book—any book. As long as it’s shaped like a book and has printing, it’s fine by me. I just want to hold a book in my hands, turn the pages, scan the words with my eyes. Only one problem—there isn’t a book in sight. In fact, it’s like printing hasn’t been invented here. I quickly look around the room, and sure enough, there’s nothing at all with any writing on it.

Given how much writing permeates our culture, how much it’s become part of us, it must be very jarring indeed to suddenly find oneself in a place where there is no writing. In this alternate world, Kafka soon discovers that libraries are very different:

“The library?” She shakes her head.

“No… There’s a library far away, but not here.”

“There’s a library?”

“Yes, but there aren’t any books in it.”

“If there aren’t any books, then what is there?”

She tilts her head but doesn’t respond. Again my question’s taken a wrong turn and vanished.

“Have you ever been there?”

“A long time ago,” she says.

“But it’s not for reading books?” She nods. “There aren’t any books there.”

Soon enough, Kafka winds up in that library. And indeed, there is “not a book in sight.”

What we come to understand is that this is a world of direct experience, instead of one of conceptualizing things through the written word. Rather, as Kafka’s interlocutor explains:

The most important thing about life here is that people let themselves be absorbed into things. As long as you do that, there won’t be any problems. … It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

Here the line between text and being is blurred. And though we generally equate “fiction” with “fake,” the real world is quite like this, too.

It reminds me of the wonderful book by Yun Lee Too, The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World. This book challenges our assumption that books make a library; rather, the library primarily constitutes people working together in a certain way. For instance, Too describes how certain educated people in Antiquity were considered to be “breathing libraries.” That is, texts can be not only in the form of writing, but also in the form of people who embody them. In other words, these people have “let themselves be absorbed” into the books.

Questioning the written word

Question marks on the pageSometimes the most baffling truths are hidden within seemingly pointless observations.

In the throes of putting together my doctoral dissertation proposal, I’ve been mentally twirling one such observation: Writing always says something. That is, a given piece of writing always says the same something. And, seeing as writing is free from many of the limitations of speech and has considerable fixity (or “persistence”), a given piece of writing will be saying that same something for quite some time. What are the implications of this?

Many people are familiar with Socrates’ critique of writing, levied around the birth of the written word in Ancient Greek, that it may lead to impoverished memory. But Socrates had much more to say about writing than that. One of his key concerns was precisely what I wrote above. As he says in Phaedrus, transcribed by Plato:

You would imagine that they [written records] had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

I’ve written before on how, because of this constancy, we put our trust in the written word. We privilege written forms of knowledge; if something is written down, we’re more inclined to believe it; and if we see something over and over, we’re more likely to take it as true.

But beyond this, there’s another vulnerability that the written word opens us up to: It gives us the answers. When we get easy answers, we don’t seem to work as hard to integrate new information with what we already know. That’s because doing this—building understanding—requires that we pose questions, that we have a back-and-forth, a conversation. If you’re diligent, you can have a conversation with the written word; Ron Day writes in Indexing It All that before the 19th century people regularly thought of reading a book as having a conversation with a  friend. But nowadays, we seem less inclined to question the things we’re reading. Concomitantly, many of us now read more than we interact with live people: We’re getting swarmed with answers, and we’re forgetting how to ask questions. As far as I can see, this is the real dark side of information abundance.

We need to keep asking questions. It’s what makes us human. This is what futurist Kevin Kelly argues in his new book The Inevitable, which explores several trends that will shape the technology of the future; Kelly argues that, for all the smarts and efficacy of future technologies, coming up with good questions will continue to be the sole purview of humanity. And in a world where more and more jobs previously done by humans are getting couped by computers, this is no time to forget how to ask questions.

So what can we do? Some advice in this regard comes from public speaker Michael Gelb’s books How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and Creativity on Demand, which offer a framework to increase the quality of your creative output—this involves, inherently, getting good at asking questions.

But we also need to stock our toolbox for getting better at asking questions of the written word. To me, this comes down to improved literacy practice. In the information sciences, there’s a lot of talk of different kinds of literacy—information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy…—but it all comes down to building questioning skills. As researcher Jamie McKenzie writes in her book Beyond Technology:

Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

The urgency of building such skills for questioning and understanding has, for me, come to the fore in the recent election season. Much of the political information we deal with these days comes through the written word. In such a climate, poor questioning skills can have grave consequences for our country and planet.

There’s no better time to start than right now—you’ve been reading the written word for the past few minutes. In the spirit of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Spend some time today questioning what you’ve been reading.