Reverting to orality

People have been speaking and using words for a very long time, but writing and reading is something relatively new.

The bicameral mind, psychologist Julian Jaynes’ idea that for most of humanity’s history internal thoughts were regarded as the voice of gods or spirits, is a way to understand why the ancient Greeks believed that supernatural forces were directing human feelings and behavior. Thoughts and feelings, they believed, were not one’s own.

In what was either an evolutionary leap or cultural impulse, thoughts became regarded as internal, generated within one’s own mind, not placed by outside forces. Revelation was replaced with deliberation, as Descartes, in his famous dictum, Cogito Ergo Sum – “I think, therefore I am” averred. After eons of oral tradition, writing transformed thought and speech into fixed form, and literacy, the ability to read, in Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “using an eye for an ear,” became ascendant.

Once Gutenberg made reproduction of the printed word easier using interchangeable type on a printing press 500 years ago, literacy quickly spread. This is not to say that everyone can read; there are still vast reaches of population who remain functionally illiterate. Widespread literacy, however, underlies many of McLuhan’s observations about the nature of cultural transformation, technology, and media.

McLuhan, presciently, understood that the use of aural electronic media – radio, television, and now computers – produces cultural change. He predicted many of the effects we’re presently witnessing, including a return to tribalism and the ways people relate to information and it’s sources. He sagely predicted a reversion to orality and a period of new illiteracy.

The new illiteracy is not one in which people cannot read at all, but rather that people choose not to read, preferring to absorb their information from visual and auditory sources instead. This has been accompanied by a rapid decline of traditional printed media. Printed newspapers and magazines, although some exist in digital versions, have been disappearing quickly. Media sites, such as TikTok, YouTube, and Reels have become increasingly dominant forms of mass communication.

Moreover, postmodernist thought about language itself generated suspicion about the nature of truth, and the words and written sources that have historically carried it. This hastened the emergence of “alternate facts” and the increased use of disinformation. Words themselves have always shifted in meaning and usage, a contextual transformation that reflects cultural change.

Words are not just carriers of information, however, but also carriers of emotion. This latter aspect pairs perfectly with the type of political and cultural change taking place in the world right now. Mirroring Orwell’s “newspeak” in his book “1984,” words are being stripped of their subtlety and reduced to a simplified, impoverished language of insult, bombast, outrage and emotion. Political rallies have increasingly become Orwell’s “Two Minutes of Hate.”

Like chimps in the wild hooting and screaming at their rivals, the sounds we make today are frequently declarations of claimed territory and assertions of dominance. As such, they reflect primitive primate behavior. In an illiterate culture, words themselves are secondary to their emotional intent and aural effect.

Impoverishment of language accompanies a decline of reason and critical thinking. This too was a major theme in “1984.” And many years earlier, in 1726, Jonathan Swift touched on this very same concern in “Gulliver’s Travels” as he described the foul, shit throwing behavior of “Yahoos,” human beings who had reverted to tree-dwelling primates bereft of language.

But perhaps I’ve said too much.

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