March 18, 2022
For two years of a pandemic, we have been isolated from one another. John Donne said that no one is an island, but we have all been castaways shipwrecked upon our loneliness. “Distancing,” although already in the dictionary, became essentially a newly coined word, defining a new social practice that became a new psychological condition. Now, all across the United States, restrictions have been lifted so suddenly and completely that some people are understandably confused and distrustful. We were told for so long that you could die from being in a room with other people, or that you might possibly kill some of them. Some people are still masking, and I find their caution completely understandable. Still, every time I go to the grocery store, I see fewer masks—the last time, only three in the entire store. We have discovered something about ourselves through this pandemic. We have discovered how intensely we hunger for immediacy, for presence, for an unmediated contact with other human beings. Yes, even a naturally reclusive introvert like me.
There is always a distance, of course, even when we are face to face. We close that distance, insofar as it can be closed, through language, possibly the greatest creation of the human imagination. Then, a few thousand years ago, a secondary invention, writing, enabled language to communicate across great distances of both space and time. A funny thing: the younger generation is often supposed, and sometimes supposes itself, to be happier with writing rather than direct speech. Students have informed me through classroom discussions that you do not call your peers—you text them. Calling is weird and inappropriate, bordering on rude. I can see the reason: phone conversations always have a bit of awkwardness to them.
Nevertheless, younger people’s preference for distance only goes so far. They were not at all happy about Zoom, and I very much shared their unhappiness. It was mildly amusing to hear students complain about not being able to come to class after having listened to their complaints about attendance requirements for my entire career. And Zoom had a few incidental advantages, one of which for the teacher being that there was no longer such a thing as a snow day, a cancelled class that wreaks havoc with the schedule. Zoom resulted in a few charming moments. One girl attended class with her laptop on the floor, so that her pet rabbit would calmly lope across the screen every so often. The rabbit eventually became something of a class mascot. It was also charming to see students lounging comfortably in their rooms, although that could backfire. I got used to watching one girl, lying on her bed propped up on pillows, slowly fall asleep in more than one class because she was simply too comfortable. Slowly, her eyes got heavy, and eventually down she’d go. But we all agreed that social bonding through bunnies had its limits, and that classroom discussion suffered on Zoom. Direct interaction in the classroom, because of its immediacy, at its best can develop a mood, an energy that draws people in, even if they do not directly participate. It is by no means always at its best, let me tell you, but the possibility is there. Whereas it is difficult to feel fully connected with the set of talking postage stamps you see on your screen during a Zoom session. This is true for the teacher as well. When people say what they miss about teaching after they retire, they always say “the classroom.” That direct, spontaneous, adrenaline-eliciting interaction is a good part of what makes teaching addictive. It is a performance art, dependent upon the feedback loop between performer and audience.
Why do we go to concerts to hear music that we could hear, no doubt with better sound quality, on a CD or the Internet? Because, we say, we want to hear it “live.” This varies. People at a classical concert are supposed to pretend for the duration of the music that they are invisible, and above all inaudible, spirits looking down from heaven, untroubled by any merely mortal frailty such as the impulse to cough.
Some popular performers keep their interaction with the audience limited to a “thank you” after the applause. But with some performers bonding with the audience is a vital—I use the word advisedly—part of the performance. Art with an improvisational component—blues, rock, jazz, and for that matter improv comedy—feeds off of audience energy, and the audience goes to hear a song or a solo that is spontaneously reinvented every time it is performed. For many performers, losing that connection with a live audience for the two years of the pandemic was clearly as demoralizing as the loss of income.
How deep does the imagination go? Possibly, in fact probably, down to our genetic code and its wiring of our brains, at least according to Noam Chomsky, the most influential linguist of the last century. Chomsky speaks of what his follower Steven Pinker has called a “language instinct”: our brains are wired with a predisposition to learn language and with “deep structures” universal to all human languages on a level far deeper than rules of grammar. Circumstantial evidence for this is that children learn language largely on their own, in an astonishingly short period of time: despite parental convictions, caregiver instruction accounts for only a fraction of linguistic learning. But the actual language has to be learned—and the learning is live, dependent not just upon hearing the language but on interaction with caregivers in conversation. A child will not learn language from any amount of TV watching: there needs to be an interaction with another human being. From its very beginnings, language is present, immediate, live, very nearly alive itself—at least, like a living thing, it is based on a linguistic version of a genetic code whereby an infinite variety of messages can be created by the permutations of a relatively small number of units of significant sound, called phonemes. A child has to recognize those phonemes, about 40 for English, before learning the vocabulary and syntax that are constructed by their combinations. It is a staggering task, largely accomplished for most children by the age of five.
The study of oral language and of oral societies is called “orality,” a rather unfortunate term, in my view, evoking false associations with dentistry or pornography. But a writing culture like ours is fascinated by the contrast between orality, which was after all the default condition of the human race for most of history, and literacy. What can oral language do that written language cannot? First of all, speech, like singing, involves the body, and by doing so minimizes the split between body and mind. The pleasure of conversation is, on at least a deep level, a physical pleasure, a release. What does this mean for introverts? After all, the best-known book, by Susan Cain, about introversion in ordinary life is called Quiet. But introverts are not necessarily cut off from speech and its vibrant physicality. There are contexts in which speech is disconnected from socializing and social judgments, so that introverts can find release into a natural orality. Teaching is definitely one of them. More damaging is the type of male conditioning that convinces men that a real man is a strong, silent type. Many men are not comfortable talking in a class discussion, and never develop the fluency of some of the women.
A second feature of oral language is expressiveness, so difficult to achieve in writing. Those 40 phonemes are only part of the story. Intonation, speed, enunciation (or lack of), loudness—we are interpreting all of these signals when we listen to someone speaking, usually without much thinking about it. On some subliminal level, we “know” such “rules” as that, in English, a question usually ends on a rising tone, so much so that a rising tone can sometimes turn what is syntactically a statement into a question: “This is your idea of a fair salary?”
We also know—somehow—that such a ploy may indicate sarcasm.
Moreover, orality goes beyond the merely oral. Because speech is necessarily in the immediate presence of the listener, it is accompanied by what we call “body language,” which includes proximity and posture. It also includes non-linguistic yet expressive noises: sighs, groans, yawns, and the whole repertoire of laughter, from chuckles to giggles to full-throated roars. Most of all, perhaps, it includes facial expressions. Among the other inconveniences of masks is their partial occlusion of facial expressions—although it was a revelation to me in the age of masking that people smile with their eyes as well as with their mouths. The smile has in fact been the object of a huge linguistic controversy by unsmiling linguists, because infants smile, sometimes by themselves and sometimes clearly in response to the smile of another. But what does that mean? Is it an element of a universal human communications system, signifying happiness or well-being? Is it an evolutionary hangover from animal reflexes?—but, if so, there is a strange divergence. A full human smile with teeth showing means “I am not a threat,” whereas if a dog shows his teeth to me, I will be prudent if I interpret it as the opposite of “I am not a threat.” Linguists admit this is something of a puzzle. But the whole point is a vast range of communicative signals that accompany oral language, which depends upon the physical presence of speaker and listener. In writing, we have had to invent a whole range of symbols, from emojis to LOL and WTF, to compensate for the lack of such expressive devices. But these are mere semaphore at a distance, helpful but limited.
Given this human hunger for presence and immediacy and for the orality to which they are closely related, it may be surprising to learn that there has been a widespread reaction again all three in the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. For simplicity’s sake I will reduce this reaction to two distinct but related waves, the first of which was a reaction against the impact of television on modern life. Much of this took the form of a debate within the field of communications studies, which came to scholarly maturity while the impact of television was being registered. The Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, in such books as Orality and Literacy (1982), sometimes spoke of the mass electronic communications media as tending to produce what he called a “secondary orality.” True, they are communication at a distance, and television is primarily visual and only secondarily oral, but perhaps no communications method in history had the immediate, spellbinding presence and immediacy of television. Television was addictive—as addictive to young people then as the Internet is now, and there were plenty of people who regarded it as the End of Western Civilization.
The most famous communications theorist of the 20th century, Marshall McLuhan, became a household word in the 1960’s by contrasting the mental habits of literacy with those of what he called the “cool medium” of television. Where your mother told you that TV would rot your brain, McLuhan praised television for fostering, especially in the younger generation, a new kind of consciousness, gestalt rather than linear, holistic rather than analytic, sensory rather than abstract. He thereupon was turned into a pop culture guru, still trendy enough in 1977 to have a bit part in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The whole controversy was muddled, and in fact addled, yet at its center was the serious question of the mental habits fostered by print culture in comparison with the mental habits fostered by the electronic media.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), another communications theorist, Neil Postman, came to conclusions diametrically opposed to McLuhan’s. Postman emphatically said that he was not attacking television for its junk, for the mindless game shows, sitcoms, soap operas, and the like. Junk TV is like junk food: it will not harm you unless you make it your sole diet. What he worried about was what happened when what he called “America’s serious public business” was taken over by television. Postman agreed with McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message,” but reversed McLuhan’s value judgment. That is, the medium or vehicle of communication necessarily remakes its content in its own image. Television is “images in action,” and everything on TV is literally sensationalized. Therefore, politics, the news, religion (it was the era of the big TV evangelists) all become forms of entertainment spectacle. Print is the realm of ideas and complex argument, which simply do not work on TV. The message many people took from McLuhan, or from the popularizations of McLuhan, was "Books are doomed.”
Postman does not mention Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which books are illegal because they make people think, and when people think they become unhappy, not to mention possibly dissatisfied with the power structure of society. His model instead is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. George Orwell’s dictatorship in 1984 did not happen. But, he says, the hedonistic dystopia of Brave New World did happen, only people have not noticed, because they are too busy amusing themselves to death. Postman was valiantly trying to push back against the anti-intellectualism that has always been a feature of American society, but I think his conclusion was partial and perhaps a bit puritanical. No doubt that television and now the Internet are a real-life equivalent of Huxley’s happy-making drug soma: never underestimate the addictive craving for passive “amusement.” But perhaps much of the motive for that addiction is less hedonistic than anesthetic. Perhaps the various forms of would-be mindless entertainment, whether television or video games, function as electronic opioids to numb the pain of isolation and loneliness in a fragmented society. At the same time, social media promise, however ambiguously, to provide what people are most deeply yearning for, which is not mere pleasure but connection, contact. That yearning is why so many of my students cannot stop checking their phones, all day and even in bed at night. What would two years of lockdowns and distancing have been like without the Internet—without social media, Zoom, email, and the rest? The scenario is almost too nightmarish to contemplate: mental health suffered acutely even as it was. For many people, it would have been like two years in solitary confinement.
A more radical rejection of orality, whether primary or secondary, and the desire for immediacy and presence that drives it, manifested itself in the movement that dominated most of the humanities, most intensively philosophy and literary theory, in the later 20th century, most often known by the vague but all-inclusive term “post-structuralism.” The most influential post-structuralist philosopher was Jacques Derrida, whose philosophy of deconstruction came to prominence in the form of an attack on speech in the name of writing, especially in his volumes Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference (both 1967). What is wrong with speech, with orality? Derrida is a highly complex thinker, but for our purposes we can summarize this aspect of his thought by saying that orality collectivizes, while writing individualizes. Orality, including the secondary orality of the electronic media, binds people together into the wrong kind of unity—basically, into mob mentality. Derrida’s major works were written before the Internet, but his generation (he was born in 1930) witnessed the frightening example of Hitler’s oratory whipping up thousands of people into hysterical war-hungry frenzy.
Nowadays, such fomenting takes place through the Internet: to me, the most chilling moment of the current Batman movie is when the Riddler announces on social media his plans to produce complete social chaos by flooding Gotham through seven simultaneous detonations of hidden bombs. Before his announcement is even finished, the discussion board to the side of the screen is exploding (ahem) with excited comments from Proud Boy types, cheering and offering their own DIY tips about munitions. I recommend the movie, which is thoughtful and touches upon themes of previous newsletters, including vengeance and the need for hope. I didn’t even mind the three-hour running time because it was taken up with real plot and thematic development rather than needless fight scenes and even more needless special effects. My myth critic’s eye noticed—I hope correctly—that the various calendar dates thrown out during the film place the action during the week stretching from Halloween through about November 6: in other words, through days when all hell breaks loose and underworld spirits are abroad (Halloween, All Soul’s Day) and when insurrections involving explosions are planned (Guy Fawkes Day, November 5). Most of the action takes place at night, and it rains constantly, adding to the deluge motif of chaos coming again.
I might add in passing that this mastery of “secondary orality” is what Vladimir Putin conspicuously lacks. He is old school, ex-KGB, and therefore thinks only in terms of brute force. And who is his opponent? An ex-comedian who is rallying his people and trying to rally the West through electronic media. It is true that Donald Trump is Putin’s toady, but it is also true that Trump has, unfortunately, the gift for social-media fomenting that Putin lacks. I am afraid that Joe Biden largely lacks it too, and, as I said last week, at least some of his lack of popularity is due to his invisibility. He lacks almost all presence in the media, and therefore to many people doesn’t seem to be a leader at all. Some of this may be deliberate, the decision not to give the Republicans a target to shoot at. But it seems to me to have become an increasing liability. True, it is dangerous to rely on the charismatic presence of a leader, which can easily turn into cultism, as it clearly has with Trump’s MAGA mob. Even more seemingly benign charisma can cover for a multitude of sins: Ronald Reagan’s warm, fatherly image and George R. Bush’s common-guy manner were used as fronts, behind which were hidden various forms of capitalist greed and the will to power. But sometimes, especially in moments of crisis, a leader’s charismatic presence can become the focus of a progressive social movement, as it did with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The post-structuralists were a disaffected, disillusioned lot, and thought in almost completely negative terms. If speech promised immediacy and presence, writing promised difference and detachment. Immediacy and presence to them implied a unity that in real life can only be achieved by the rejection of difference. Derrida was an Algerian Jew who had suffered from anti-Semitism when young, learning at first hand how unity is achieved by scapegoating those who are identified as “different.” The collectivizing tendency identified with speech is highly contagious, all too easily able to turn into a psychological pandemic, and to someone like Derrida writing is a kind of social distancing. Writing stresses analysis, critical detachment, real individuality instead of right-wing “individualism,” which is in fact a collectivized parody of it.
Some post-structuralists went so far as suggesting that the development of language on an oral basis was an unfortunate accident. Could the human race have learned to communicate through writing instead of speech, bypassing the oral altogether? Insofar as I follow the discussion as a non-linguist, the conclusion seems to be that none of the world’s major languages has ever been fully pictographic—visual rather than visual representations of something originally oral. Writing systems that have at times been taken to be pictographic, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese characters, are in fact comprised of logograms, not pictograms. In other words, the visual symbols stand for words, ultimately for speech. (I am oversimplifying: Egyptian and Chinese are in fact hybrid scripts employing heterogeneous elements but are still basically logogrammatic. For interested readers, I pursue the issue of orality versus literacy further in The Productions of Time). Nevertheless, the dream of a language of purely visual symbols “liberated” from their slavery in the service of representing speech seems to haunt some people, with the symbolic languages of mathematics and computer programming serving as analogies. The intelligent film Arrival, in which a linguist learns to communicate with aliens by learning their entirely visual language, by which she alters her consciousness and is liberated from her anchoring in time, was based on “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, a science fiction writer who is also a computer programmer.
I think it has been a mistake to identify orality with a potentially authoritarian collectivism and writing with all the tendencies that oppose it, including rigorous analytical thinking and acceptance of difference. The yearning for presence and immediacy represents a real human need and is not just a narcissistic denial of the reality principle. In short, McLuhan was wrong: the medium is not necessarily the message. Speech can incite to anarchism and violence, but it can also be a weapon in defense of freedom and a means of real community based on connection, on a possible intimacy. And writing is not always innocent: Trump couldn’t even spell but still governed the country through Twitter until they figuratively took the loaded gun away from the three year-old. As I have said elsewhere, a medium is what you make of it.
Moreover, writing has been guilty of another kind of abuse. Post-structuralism sometimes praised “writerly” over “readerly” texts. Writerly texts are relatively emancipated from the conversational human voice and from the illusions that we call authors and readers. They are pure signification, emancipated from the desire of the author’s ego to “say something” and the desire of the reader’s ego for a “message.” One sees the point, but in fact the “writerly” style leads to a kind of impersonality that can be used to disguise or deny individual agency or responsibility. The classic text about bureaucratic and political obfuscation and evasion through the use of impersonal, formal, authoritative-sounding language remains George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” still rightly taught to undergraduates although its examples have dated. Regrettably, an update would need to include examples of needlessly formal academic prose. It is ironic that post-structuralists and post-modernists were among the biggest abusers, producing texts that were nearly impenetrable, decipherable only by those initiated into fashionable theoretical terminology and allusions. Such rhetoric is in fact a power play: the heavy jargon rolls in like tanks and intimidates people. Things are better these days, on the whole, but it is still true that many if not most articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals in the humanities are heavier and more formal than they need to be. The humanities are currently in trouble because of economic and political forces that they have no control over, but they have not helped their situation by failing to engage with the common reader, despite their often admirable advocacy of difference and diversity.
Writing has its uses. It can do things that speech cannot. Writing is the inevitable vehicle for an elaborate complexity of thought and argument. People complain about classroom lectures, which are, it is true, an inefficient way of conveying information. Exposition of any complexity is hard to follow orally, and also exhausting. But the purpose of a true lecture is twofold, to clarify and dramatize. A good lecture (and there are many incompetent ones, of course) focuses and gives a handle on a complex subject matter. It also brings that subject to life, answers the reasonable student question “Why should I care?” For this purpose lectures are irreplaceable, as anyone who has been thrilled by a brilliant lecturer understands. There is in fact a hunger for good lecturing, and that hunger is often fed these days by elite lecture series like TED talks and, at the grass roots level, by podcasts, including my own. Orality, at least secondary orality, is alive and well. But that does not mean that lectures and podcasts can replace the hard work of analyzing long and complex texts. That is especially true if you are looking for the Big Picture, for a comprehensive vision of connection and interrelation. There is a reason that The Productions of Time is 450 pages long, beyond Dolzani’s admittedly notorious long-windedness. Or at least I very much hope there is.
I will add one further and rather unexpected capacity of writing, one that comes out of my own experience, both personally and as a teacher. Writing can, it is true, be impersonal and distancing compared to speech and direct contact. And yet sometimes it can create a type of intimacy that would be inappropriate and impossible in direct conversation. I have come over the years to learn extremely personal things about some of my students’ lives and feelings, things that in some cases even their friends or family might not know, because, without being urged to, they disclosed them in writing. I am honored that they would trust me with such personal disclosures, but do not take credit for eliciting the revelations. It is the medium of writing that somehow makes such openness possible. Long-distance relationships over the Internet have obvious limitations but can also enable people to learn one another in a way that might never happen from living together in the same house.
We live in a society starved for conversation, for contact, for touch. There are so many barriers. I have wondered at times how many woman are grateful for the pandemic mandates to work from home because they no longer have to worry about being groped by their employer. Both #MeToo and the pandemic have forced those who are naturally touchy-feely types to avoid the momentary touching of an arm or an occasional judicious hug as a way of conveying warmth and support. I am one of them, but I have women friends who feel the same way. Americans have always been stand-offish. Our comfort zone of “personal space” in direct conversations is so large that people from other cultures sometimes interpret our distance as aloofness. Babies who are not touched do not thrive. But does that make the desire for touch regressive, infantile? The picture painted by Russian experts of the way Putin now lives is at once tragic and appalling. He is completely isolated from all but a few close associates. I just saw a photo of him meeting with advisors at a table that must have been 40 feet long. Putin was at one end, the advisors at the other. To his fear of Covid has now been added fear of assassination. Without, I hope, giving too much away, Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog is about a man destroyed in the most horrible way by his yearning to touch and be touched.
Hence Expanding Eyes, both the podcast and this newsletter. The ultimate purpose of my writing to you, whoever you are, is, now and always, to keep in touch.
PS—Readers may note that I am hopelessly old-fashioned about the word “media,” which is, or used to be, or ought to be, the plural of “medium.” A medium is a vehicle of communication, and there are various media, plural. McLuhan did not say “The media is the message.” While “media” has become almost universal for both singular and plural, including by members of the media, I always find it jarring. You will not find me writing “a media.” Just sayin’.