What I Write When I Should Be Writing

Writing and reading are so seemingly essential to modern life, especially modern academic life. This might seem odd to people that believe that the advance of technology would destroy the written word. However, the internet has not devalued the written word but made it more powerful and omnipresent. Now, the majority of the American populace is literally surrounded at all times by more written information than ever before in human history. Furthermore, though places like Amazon may have “killed” (a ghastly metaphor) the brick-and-mortar bookshop (though not in all cases); they have not “killed” the print book. Indeed, this seems odd given the advance of devices and apps such as the Kindle, Google Books, and iBooks; for some, ebooks truly rule the day, but for many people physical books are still very much desired and used. Positing why this is the case can only be pure conjecture, utterly tainted by personal preference. However, I believe that the there is something in the physicality of tangible books that make them appealing to many people; there is also the aspect of visibility. It is impossible in most cases to tell from a passing glance what someone is doing on their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Maybe they are reading an ebook, or maybe they are scanning Facebook; it’s a mystery. Whereas with a physical book there is no mystery, it is easy to tell at a glance when someone is reading a physical book. Moreover, I would hazard a guess, that a third aspect contributing to the continued presence of print books is a desire to differentiate activities.

There is a serious danger when one is reading on a screen to flit to something else, a game, a social media app, etc. This can seriously damage one’s reading; indeed, only the dedicated reader will not yield to temptation when a boring section of a book occurs. Clearly, there is a danger to flit between tasks with a physical book as well. It is all too easy to put a book down during that dull section. However, I would posit that there is a fundamental difference in these two types of task switching. Fliting between apps on a smartphone is as simple as putting down a book, but far less physical and, thus, (I would guess) far less memorable. Whereas after putting down a physical book it is still there in what can sometimes be oppressive physical omnipresence, reminding one of the task they’ve abandoned; switching apps on a smartphone is easily forgotten, it is easy from minute to minute to go from iBooks to Facebook to Twitter and on and on, without returning to iBooks. Closing out the app removes the presence of the book as does shutting down one’s Kindle or other e-reader. The book is in some sense gone, vanished, not, as with physical books, oppressively omnipresent. Giving up reading Gravity’s Rainbow on a reading app is much simpler than abandoning it physically. The file takes up no physical space, it does not stare one in the face every time they pass their bookshelf; in short, electronic books are more easily forgotten than physical books. Furthermore, I believe that many people probably want to differentiate their tasks, between “screen-time” and “non-screen-time;” especially with the growing body of evidence that screens are changing our brains [1]. I think it is safe to say that print books are going nowhere anytime soon. However, this does not get us any closer to why reading and writing are so fundamental.

It seems odd that something so artificial has shaped the modern world in more ways that it is really possible to fully comprehend. It is hard for any literate person to imagine a world without writing; I do not mean that it is hard to imagine what it is like to be illiterate. This is something, I think many can easily imagine, though I doubt many can understand the deeply unsettling emotionality of adult illiteracy. However, I think that to imagine being illiterate, or actually to be illiterate, presumes literacy. The lack assumes to the presence. To imagine being blind, or to be blind in reality, necessitates that sight exists. Similarly, illiteracy necessitates that reading and writing exist. This is why imagining a world totally without reading and writing is so difficult. However, stepping back from our phenomenal present existence and considering writing from a distance we can see that it is strange and artificial.

Speaking and listening are deeply natural for humans. We are linguistic creatures. This is evidenced by the fact that all humans in all places speak some language or another from infancy onward. Indeed, even deaf individuals develop and use language, though not spoken, that is deeply and structurally linguistic every bit equal to spoken language. Language is what people do. Many in the modern literate society, such as the United States, would unreflectively assume that writing is just as natural, evidenced, no doubt, by its omnipresence in society. However, upon reflection it becomes clear that writing isn’t natural. It is artificial. Consider indigenous societies that even today do not write. They are non-literate societies – NB they are not illiterate societies; they are non-literate, meaning that they live without writing and not without the knowledge of writing.  Of course, many of these indigenous populations are now illiterate societies, having been brought into contact with the written word. However, it should be clear that writing is not something natural in the same way that speaking (or signing) is natural.

Writing was invented a few times in a few places, the big ones are Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica; but there are other places where writing was invented, for example Crete and the Indus valley. For a long time a theory called monogenesis ruled the day. The theory held that writing was invented once, in Mesopotamia, and spread from there to Egypt; however, more recent finds have shown that the Egyptians invented writing on their own. Obviously, China and Mesoamerica (the Maya and Aztecs) were not in contact with the Mesopotamians, and thus could not have stolen writing from them; though this was, for obvious reasons, never seriously postulated. (Now, if certain people are correct, monogenesis may yet be saved, as obviously the aliens invent writing and gave it to everyone; but until there’s actual concrete evidence for these “aliens” it’s safe to say that the Egyptians and the Mesoamericans invented writing independently.) From these inventions of writing, the idea spread and morphed along the way. Soon Phoenician traders had developed what would become the alphabet, though they didn’t have vowels in their version. These traders spread their invention around the Mediterranean. The Greeks took hold of it changed some letters from “barbarian” sounds to vowels, thus creating the alphabet the majority of the world uses today (the “Latin” alphabet is an Italian variant of the Greek and the Cyrillic is a Slavic variant) [2]. All of this should show that writing is far from natural, in the sense of innate. It may have become naturalized because of its singular ubiquity but it is, nonetheless, created, artificial. Writing is an art and a gift that those of us in literate societies too often take for granted.

We’ve lost touch with the art of writing in two senses. The first is the rather forgivable loss of appreciation for the beauty of the written form, as handwriting and calligraphy slip more and more to the periphery; however, this loss is not so great given that writing began as something merely functional in many ways, after all most early examples of writing are basically accounting records. The second loss is much graver, we have, I fear, lost touch with the art of writing in a broad sense. By this I mean that we have lost the sense that there is an art to writing; that writing is something special, that it is something to be grateful for, and something to appreciate and cherish.  I fear that writing has become something so merely functional, so basic, and so base that it has lost all meaning to most literate people. It may be unclear what this loss means, but I fear that its implications are as deep and wide. If we forget that writing is something special we run the risk of relegating it to merely another technological tool, something to be used without much thought; something, moreover, to be abandoned if something better comes along. We forget that though writing is an artificial gift, it is a gift nonetheless, and has deeply changed our world. Forgetting the art of writing is forgetting the power of writing.

It cannot be denied that writing is the most power thing people have ever invented. This claim is bold but true. Certainly, inventions like the wheel, the utilization of fire, and guns have shaped the world and qualify as important inventions. However, the knowledge of these things can only be transferred in two ways: speech or writing. Indeed, the oral tradition is the older option, useful in many cases, but severely limited in scope. In the oral tradition things are passed down generation to generation in a direct line, this means that if any one part of the chain is broken the knowledge is lost. Since the oral tradition is also limited to the size of a human community, a break in the change is more likely than with writing. In writing, knowledge can skip a generation, or more, as long as the text isn’t lost. For example, it is possible for anyone to become a Scholastic scholar even if no one else in the family ever read St. Aquinas. Furthermore, unlike the oral tradition, writing is not limited to the size of any one human community; any one can learn the language of a text and read, regardless of their membership in a particular community. An additional benefit of writing is that written information is less prone to change in meaning than oral information. One need only think of the children’s game where something is whispered alone a chain of people and the message is changed, often extremely, by the end of the chain. Writing allows not only for the widespread and, generally, accurate transmission of technical knowledge for building wheels and weapons; it also, more importantly, allows for the spread of the most powerful thing in human history: ideas.

I believe that it is ideas that rule society and history. Indeed, to quote Ludwig von Mises [3]: “The history of mankind is the history of ideas. For it is ideas, theories, and doctrines that guide human action, determine the ultimate ends men aim at and the choice of the means employed for the attainment of these ends.” There is no better way to disseminate ideas than writing, itself an idea of sorts. Writing allows for the spread of ideas regardless of context, place, time, culture, or any number of factors that limit other means for spreading ideas. With the advent of the printing press the spread of ideas in writing grew faster, freer, and wider. With the ideals of universal education and literacy that blossomed in the mid twenty century, though never fully achieved, the advance of writing was finalized as universal. It is a tragedy that in all this the medium of advance has been largely forgotten and ignored; writing hardly receives a seconds thought as it is used to spread ideas around the globe. It is hardly considered that it is writing that heralded scientific revolutions, writing that convinced men to send armies to march across the globe to advance written ideas, writing that championed the ideals of world peace and an end to war, writing that simultaneously sent people to their deaths and promised that there would be death no more. Writing is a neutral tool as all tools are, the hammer can be used to destroy as well as to build, no less can writing. Nevertheless, it is the unique providence of writing to be that omnipresent tool that is used for every imaginable end. War and peace are penned in the same medium, racism and antiracism proclaimed with the same tool, theology and atheism championed in the same form. Writing and the advance of ideas, thus the advance of history, are inexorably linked. Writing as the basic representation of spoken language in symbols is often, unfortunately, overlooked and forgotten; its unique place in history and society overlooked; however, in a different sense writing is hardly ever overlooked or forgotten.

Writing as prose or poetry; writing as essay; writing as literature; in short, writing as the thing taught in English classes, is rarely overlooked. Compositional writing is the likely the first thing that jumps to people’s minds when they think about writing. Organized writing rules the day, in books, newspapers, magazines, and even television and movies (which use written scripts). There is no doubt that organized writing is important and world-changing; however, it is thoughts of composition, of order, that remove one from the wonder of the medium itself. As important as good composition may be, it is impossible without the presence of the medium of writing itself. A well written piece is something to be admired and praised but without the letters it is impossible. It is important that in composition we forget about the letters in favor of the words, or even forgetting the words in favor of the structure of a piece; however, though this leads to good composition it also leads to a loss of wonder and appreciation for writing qua writing. It is important that we take time to learn what makes a good composition a good composition, but it is equally important that we take time to reflect on the medium of composition itself: the art of this artificial thing that was invented a few times and in a few places; the beauty and power of the invention that changed the world; the might of this tool that we call writing. Writing is the most human of inventions and tells the most human of stories.

 

[1] See here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cravings/201609/how-internet-use-is-shaping-our-brains

[2] For a more in depth history of writing, watch Thoth’s Pill by Nativlang here:  https://youtu.be/PdO3IP0Pro8.

[3] von Mises, L. (1977). Planned Chaos, p.62. Foundation for Economic Education: Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

On 2016

As the year draws to a close, it is a perfect time to reflect on the year and look to the future.

According to some 2016 has been the “worst year” (e.g. here). Indeed, some very bad things did happen in 2016. Here’s a brief list: celebrities died, the United States continued to be a statist nation that elects presidents who have too many powers, there were diseases, there were wars, terrorism, other things anyone doesn’t like happened. How sad. I mean compared to 2016 all other years fail to even register as bad, for example: 1916 with the Battle of Somme; or the Plague years; or 1941-1945, with the Holocaust; or 1520-21 for the Aztec (fall of empire); or any of the years 1861-1865 in the United States.  I think my point is clear, 2016 wasn’t all that bad, it wasn’t great but there has never been a “great” year if you think about it.

Beyond the nostalgic view of some golden pass, every year looks pretty bad but also pretty good. Here’s the long and the short of it. People die; fight; make choices others think are wrong, stupid, dangerous, or whatever; bad, even terrible, things happen, often to good people; there are diseases and wars and potential despots and dictators. However, there are many positive things that make life worth living, for example (without getting religious): the sun continues to rise and give warmth; people fall in love, make friends, and build communities; cures for diseases are found; disasters are avoided; people innovate more and more every day. Indeed, it is true that there are many, many things that are terrible in the world, but there are just as many things that are wonderful. Certainly, some things are looking down, but just as many things, if not more, are looking up.

There is an important point here that is easy to miss. All of us are very good at projecting problems into the future, both our own problems and the world’s problems; but we are very bad at predicting the innovations, the solutions, and the ideas of the future. If you truly believe that 2016 was one of the worst years ever, than it should be a starting point to inspire new solutions. Indeed, that’s what has happened before. Many things have gotten better over the time. Disease, violence, war, and poverty have decreased over time; whereas, life expectancy, literacy rates, and standard of living have increased over that same time. Indeed, if you think about it, one of people’s biggest complaints about the year is that it “took” so many celebrities.

First of all, the year does not “take” any one, the year doesn’t do anything. People die during the year, not because of the year, but because of any number of things including: age, health conditions, lifestyle choices, accidents, or a combination of these things. More importantly, it shows how go things actually are that one of the biggest complaints about the year is that so many famous people have died this year. It is true that anyone’s death is a tragedy, but it hardly makes a 2016 any worse. I also understand that many people that bemoan this year aren’t complaining mainly about the death of celebrities but about war (a legitimate complaint, but overall this year was better than, say one hundred years ago – WWI), or, sadly much more likely, political votes not going how they would have liked.

First it was Brexit (a truly ridiculous word, but never mind) and then it was the election of Donald Trump. Let me be honest, I think the British vote to leave the European Union was a good thing (light your torches) and I am a harsh critic of Donald Trump and I voted against him (for Gary Johnson). Let’s talk Brexit for a moment, I believe that it was the best option not because I believe strong nationalism is necessarily a good thing, nor do I hate immigrants; furthermore, I think the average British person that voted in support of Brexit did not vote nationalistically or because of some deep and profound hatred of immigrants; I would hazard the guess that most of them were simply unhappy with the increasing power of the EU. I understand that one can think I am totally wrong and that’s perfectly okay and won’t ruin my year. Now onto Donald Trump; if his election actually ruined your year, I’m sorry. I really am. You see, if it truly ruined your year you obviously are under the twin delusions that (a) the US president is all powerful and (b) government and society are actually the same thing. Guess who also has these delusions: people that blindly support Donald Trump. Will he be a great president, no; a good president, maybe; a bad president, maybe; a terrible president, maybe; a dictator, no.  If you are honestly afraid of Donald Trump, you have a problem; there’s a difference between being literally afraid of him and thinking his policies will be bad.

The president is not all powerful, they cannot do anything they wish, the likelihood that one will become a death camp administering life-long dictator is low; not impossible, but very, very long while this country is at least somewhat stable. The likelihood that Donald Trump will become dictator for life is next to zero, as is the probability of him jailing those that dissent. There is a simple reason: everyone is on guard about his actions before he has actually assumed power. The moment he does something debatably unconstitutional he will have hundreds if not thousands of people fight him in the courts.

More deeply, politics is not life. Government is not society. At most it is a poor and distorted reflection of society. We must not allow government to replace society, the bullet to replace the book, or the black-and-white thinking to replace nuanced, gradated thinking. In the end, life will go on no matter what individual is the president of the United States.

2016 has been a mixed bag, but every year is. Think back to any other year and you’ll find that there were just as many negatives as 2016. Perhaps, the problem is looking for the negatives. If one looks to be saddened, outraged, or otherwise made upset, they have ample opportunities and outlets. 2017 is fast approaching and it will be just as much a mixed bag as 2016. Maybe, just maybe, if we all try not to find ever more things to be upset by and to divide ourselves over the world can continue to improve. I hope that 2017 will be a year of increased intellectual dialogue, informed and nuanced thinking, and ever more free discourse.

Pulling away from this wide view of the year and towards the personal, you are the only one that can determine how the year was for you and how the next year will be for you. In the words of Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”