The written word does not replace speech, any more than speech replaces gesture. But it adds an important dimension to much social action. This is especially true of the politico-legal domain, for the growth of bureaucracy clearly depends to a considerable degree upon the ability to control [non-kin] relationships by means of written communication. (Jack Goody)
One thing that Russia lacks not is bureaucracy; lots and lots of bureaucracy, documented with documentation, itself filled with tables, calculations, stamps, and signatures, made official with notary seals and stitched bindings. This is the world of the document, and the land of the written word. And people here stand in line for hours, waiting for their official documents, from the bank, the police, the registration office. This is home of the bureaucrat. The one positive thing you can say about America is that statement you see occasionally at the bottom of your federal tax forms… something about “the paperwork reduction act.” Boy, they had some good productivity consultant working on that deal for a few years, don’t you think? Yet, we recognize that bureaucrats still fill the town halls, city halls, and State offices, just as they do the halls of Congress, the smoke-free corridors and the once-and-future smoke-filled back rooms at the White House.
Following the lead of our eyes and the ever increasing primacy of sight, writing tends to draw us way from the aural surround – including the speaking and hearing of language – into the more strictly linear formality of the written, and finally, the alphabetic text. Words, subordinate clauses, sentences, and paragraphs all line-up rather neatly, just as citizens patiently line-up to receive their approved documents from the bureaucrat in charge. The logic of communication is standardized; there is no pure melody, pulse, or polysemy as in the organic immediacy of speech, no rise and fall in tone or timbre. The terrain is leveled, sterile, and flat, like those citizens waiting in queue to receive official notification. What’s more, the hierarchy inherent in such bureaucracies follows the logistical hierarchy of written communication – the same hypotactic subordination found in virtually all Indo-European grammatical schemes. There is hierarchical ordering and subordination within the linguistic field of textuality, just as there is subordination on the battlefield, and in the theatre of political debate – a theater of the absurd as we recently witnessed. Everything about our Western Curriculum reeks of hierarchy, and its foundation is easily discovered in the common structures (semantic, syntactic, grammatical, and logistical) of our written tongues.
Here is where I suggest we isolate the turning point in the closing or domestication of the savage mind, as Jack Goody points out in his book of the same title. Is it not interesting how the nicely aligned rows of plowed fields, those “amber waves of grain,” led to urban surpluses, which then were stored and accounted for through the production of linear tables and rows of numbers in the written records of our earliest civilizations — the very first signs of written language, along with documneted codes of social control? The haphazard plots of pre-urban horticulturalists (cross-over H/Gs) were simply not comparable with the tilled and plow-tended rows of the argriculturalist, just as meandering herds of sheep among the earliest practitioners of animal husbandry cannot compare to the meticulously aligned stalls of the modern abattoir. And the language of control, the written document, was key to building the assorted hierarchies that would henceforth manage the herds, the fields, the supplies, and the citizens, as well as the outsiders. Legal institutions, advocates and judges, guilt and innocence, along with police forces and the military were born in that self-same moment of our earliest history. It is here that the West was lost.
When we hear so much chatter today about losing our moral compass, for example, in the world of gluttonous casino-capitalism, or the covert decisions issuing from the back rooms of Washington D.C. office buildings, we think we are hearing a meaningful statement about something that can be addressed and rectified. But the very idea of rectification is itself a symptom of the disease with which we have all been infected from our very first lessons in the Curriculum by our moms, dads, politicians, priests, or rabbis. Solutions must go deeper — much deeper. We need to go behind the logic of justification, of competition, of winners and losers, of right and wrong, of good and evil, of us against them. But this will require such a strenuous transformation of our self-understanding, that it should be impossible without a prior collapse of the entire system that currently supports this self-concept. Yet, even then, those who emerge from the rubble of infrastructural and societal collapse, will still — as on autopilot — seek to justify or rationalize their own actions; for rationality a.k.a., enlightened self-interest, is almost all we have been taught for at least the past six thousand years. Several of the popular post-apocalyptic books and movies have made this point painfully clear, time and again.
Where does that leave us? It is not quite the story of the Tower of Babel, where we find communication impossible because we all speak in different tongues. Quite the opposite. In fact, the majority of us now populating the globe speak with one voice – the strictly linear voice of power and control, of nationalism, of domination, subjugation and sublimation. And religion is no less a key ingredient in this stew than is politics or law. They are all three brothers born of the same father, having forsaken mother earth long ago. But wait, I hear the spiritualists telling me that religion as we practice it in the churches, the temples, and other institutions is indeed a problem; but spirituality, they say, will be our saving grace. Well, excuse me, but I would suggest that perhaps the Druids are in better shape to assist in the recovery of embodied-selfhood than are the transcendentalists or those seeking spiritual enlightenment. Of course, the technologists will tell us about how advances in science will lead us to the promised land. But, over how many dead bodies, including our own… because we will not need bodies anymore, anyway, so they say. Is that what we want; is that where we are heading. And all the while our politicians are just dime-a-dance snake oil salesmen, prancing around at their masters behest, while the police are left to round up all the terrorists and the other degenerates. Wow, what a party.
But now we have turned a new page, and gone well beyond the Tower of Babel; we are now living within a new linguistic paradigm, the world of cyber language, the virtual language of the computer and its capacity to satisfy our visual gluttony. It is still linear mind you, a binary code of 1’s and 0’s all lined up in neat little rows. Less and less a matter of direct speech, it is increasingly a matter of solipsistic behavior patterns issued from a disembodied set of keystrokes on a lifeless keyboard. Indeed, we no longer speak directly face to face with one another, we “chat” online; commanders no longer issue orders to the field, they launch stealth drones from an underground bunker with a keystroke; bureaucrats no longer request your written data on forms, they acquire it without even your permission from servers stationed around the world, just as our President no longer needs to declare or sign a declaration of war. Even our highly vaunted freedom of speech seems superfluous today, because so many of us no longer actually speak; and everything that we say online (which is the only saying that seems to matter anymore) is carefully monitored by security personnel, bureaucrats, and other political appointees without our knowledge or our consent. It is no wonder that freedom of speech has become a comical issue (just ask the US Supreme Court); for speech is no longer something we think we engage in anymore… only paid advertising and propaganda that goes to the highest bidder counts as speech. So when the American public hears that our freedom of speech is being curtailed or dismantled they simply screw-up their eyes, scrunch their noses and say: “Well, at least we still have our computers.”’
The Tower of Babel is not really about the multiplicity of tongues, anyway. Even in Genesis, it is a representation of the overarching structural integrity of a universal language, and its ability to subordinate and unify disparate members of the citizenry within a shared foundational grammar and project. I would say it is a mythic recognition of the univocal trajectory of writing — its capacity for disambiguation, thus enabling greater displays of command and control. The story was possibly an expressed regret over the loss of freedom, polysemy, and intimacy that preceded the birth of cities, kings, and written codes. Why else would the story speak so directly about divine intervention to confuse yet again the tongues of man.
No doubt, much was gained with the move to literacy, with the univocity of the documented word. It provided the hierarchy and structure to manage the new menagerie of human community, and realize the possibilities that civilized life now afforded. As the story in Genesis (11:5-6) relates:
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
The building of cities, the concrete establishment of civilization — the Tower — was dependent upon the unambiguous univocality of the written word, and the hierarchical control it afforded the literati of the imperial court. And so, in strict conformity to a burgeoning universal logic, the early empires of the Near East were established and blossomed, despite (‘divine’) attempts to again confuse the tongues of man. This logistic and its subordinating structural coherence provided the basis for effective exercise of bureaucratic power relations and management control. But, what was lost in this transformation to the written word, in the subordination of thought and speech within the apparently universal grammar of literacy and its proper voice — the sterile logic of the syllogism and, finally, of mathematics? In any case, can any of what was lost be recovered? And, finally, how are we to survive all of these extravagances we so relentlessly pursued and created?