"The true catastrophe of Babel," says Steiner, "is not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful of planetary, 'multinational' tongues…Anglo-American standardized vocabularies" and grammar shaped by "military technocratic megalomania" and "the imperatives of commercial greed."
Which is the voice of money talking to money, in the currency that Toni Morrison, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, denominates as "the language that drinks blood," happy to "admire its own paralysis," possessed of "no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of narcotic narcissism…dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing a shelter for despots." Language designed to "sanction ignorance and preserve privilege," prioritized to fit the needs of palsied bureaucracy, retrograde religion, or our own 2012 presidential election.
History's Grim Data-Mining Operations
The vocabulary is limited but long abiding. The aristocracy of ancient Rome didn't engage in dialog with slaves, a segment of the population classified by the Roman agriculturalist Marcus Terentius Varro as "speaking tools," animate but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app.
The sponsors of the Spanish Inquisition, among them Charles V, possibly in consultation with his horse, ran data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. In South Africa during most of the twentieth century the policy of apartheid was dressed up in propaganda that novelist Breyten Breytenbach likens to the sound of a "wooden tongue clacking away in the wooden orifice in order to produce the wooden singsong praises to the big bang-bang and the fluttering flag."
The Internet equips the fear of freedom with even more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Joseph Goebbels, provides our own national security agencies with databanks that sift the email traffic for words earmarked as subversive, among them "collective bargaining," "occupy," and "rally."
The hope and exercise of freedom relies, in 2012 as in 1939, on what Breytenbach understood as the keeping of "the word alive, or uncontaminated, or at least to allow it to have a meaning, to be a conduit of awareness." The force and power of the words themselves, not their packaging or purchase price. Which is why when listening to New York publishers these days tell sad stories about the death of books in print, I don't find myself moved to tears. They confuse the container with the thing contained, as did the 15th-century illuminati who saw in Gutenberg's printing press the mark and presence of the Devil. Filippo de Strata, a Benedictine monk and a copier of manuscripts, deplored the triumph of wickedness:
Through printing, tender boys
and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain,
take in whatever mars the purity of mind or body…
Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us,
should be respected and held to be nobler
than all goods, unless she has suffered
degradation in the brothel of the printing
presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a
harlot in print.
The humanist scholars across Europe discerned the collapse of civilization, the apocalypse apparent to Niccolò Perotti, teacher of poetry and rhetoric at the University of Bologna, who was appalled by "a new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany…Anyone is free to print whatever they wish…for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, erased from all books."
McLuhan in 1964 ridiculed the same sort of fear and trembling in Grub Street by observing that, in the 20th century as in the 15th, the literary man preferred "to 'view with alarm' and 'point with pride,' while scrupulously ignoring what's going on." He understood that the concerns had to do with the moving of the merchandise as opposed to the making of it, where the new money was to be found, how to collect what tolls on which shipments of the grammar and the syntax. Then as now, the questions are neither visionary nor new. They accompanied the building of the nation's railroads and the stringing of its telephone poles, and as is customary under the American definition of free enterprise, I expect them to be resolved in favor of monopoly.
The more relevant questions are political and epistemological. What counts as a claim to knowledge? How do we know what we think we know? Which inputs prop up even one of the seven pillars of wisdom? Without a human language holding a common store of human value, how do we compose a society governed by a human form of politics?
The History of the Ultimate Toy
Every age is an age of information, its worth and meaning always subject to change without much notice. Whether shaped as ideograph or mathematical equation, as gesture, encrypted code, or flower arrangement, the means of communication are as restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that drift across the surface of the human face.
The written word emerges from the spoken word, the radar screen from signal fires, compositions for full orchestra and choir from the tapping of a solitary drum. The various currencies of glyph and sign trade in concert and in competition with one another. Books will perhaps become more expensive and less often seen, but clearly they are not soon destined to vanish from the earth. Bowker's Global Books in Print accounts for the publication of 316,480 new titles in 2010, up from 247,777 in 1998. In the United States in 2010, 751,729,000 books were sold, the revenue stream of $11.67 billion defying the trend of economic downturn and the voyaging into cyberspace. The book remains, and likely will remain, the primary store of human energy and hope.
The times, like all others, can be said to be the best of times and the worst of times. The Internet can be perceived as a cesspool of misinformation, a phrase that frequently bubbles up to a microphone in Congress or into the pages of the Wall Street Journal; it also can be construed as a fountain of youth pouring out data streams in directions heretofore unimaginable and unknown, allowing David Carr, media columnist and critic for the New York Times, to believe that "someday, I should be able to walk into a hotel in Kansas, tell the television who I am and find everything I have bought and paid for, there for the consuming."
Carr presumably knows whereof he speaks, and I'm content to regard the internet as the best and brightest machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden tongue. It is one thing to browse the internet; it is another thing to write for it.
The author doesn't speak to a fellow human being, whether a Spaniard, a Frenchman, or a German. He or she addresses an algorithm geared to accommodate keywords—insurance, Steve Jobs, Muammar Qaddafi, mortgage, Casey Anthony—but is neither willing nor able to wonder what the words might mean. It scans everything but hears nothing, as tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.
The strength of language doesn't consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. "Word work," Toni Morrison said in Stockholm, "is sublime because it is generative," its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. "We die," she said. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer's day, offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee."
Maybe our digital technology is still too new. Writing first appears on clay tablets around 3000 BC; it's another 3,300 years before mankind invents the codex; from the codex to moveable type, 1,150 years; from moveable type to the internet, 532 years. Forty years haven't passed since the general introduction of the personal computer; the World Wide Web has only been in place for 20.
We're still playing with toys. The internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Means of Communication," the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly.
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