Tuesday, 14 July 2009

plato's progress - 3561 words

- in defence of blogging? -

Inspired by discussion a friend's post here, I began to think about whether the blogosphere, and the Internet in general, is absolutely the right place for engaged, 'non-scholarly' discussion.

If we can define 'scholarly' work, for the time being, as that work which is based on the search for fixity, an attempt to establish 'truths', or something close to them, then we can look to 'non-scholarly' work as that which is able to spar with the new, the current, the zeitgeist-y. 'Non-scholarly work' need not be a pejorative description then, indeed it beomes essential (and a form absolutley and vitally available to scholars!).

As someone trying to write scholarly work about current and future issues, the distinction becomes tangible. I need to read about technology and its impacts so I dutifully pursue Derrida, Deleuze, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and the discussions that have risen up around them in academic circles, the cultural scholarship. I also read wired, boing boing, if:book, and teleread, all ostensibly acts of 'non-scholarly' cultural criticism (to pursue the useful, if not wholly perfect for my purposes, distinction from the girish post above). Both fields are essential, and I sit somewhere between them, blogging in a non-scholarly way, and writing my thesis in a scholarly fashion. For me this distinction rests, necessarily, on 'proveability'. When I blog, or even tweet, I can test ideas, I can be polemical, and I can feel like I'm expresing my views. When I write my thesis work my ideas have to be backed up with the work of others, with either empirical evidence, or common threads of thought which have reached near-orthodoxy. If I want to challenge any recieved point I'd better be damn sure why I'm doing so, and back up my new assertion with evidence, the desire being that my new, well-reasoned view will be, when combined with the work of other's, part of tomorrow's established wisdom.

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, writes:
"Plato’s legacy to European thought was a trio of capital letters - the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. Wars have been fought and tyrannies established, cultures have been ravaged and peoples exterminated in the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of its murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet" (pp57-58)
When we write things down they can seem 'true', or 'real'. This is part of the power of scholarship; well thought out work, refined by the non-scholarly process of discussion, then the scholarly process of evidence finding, and then bound in immutable codices, objects which seperate themselves off from the world with their thick covers, and their uneditable state - it all can't help but feel somewhat...final.

In a similar vein Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, in Reinventing Knowledge, explain how philosophy was changed by the vast repository of work in the Library of Alexandria:
"[T]he all-encompassing pursuit of 'philosophy' dissipated among the various fields of learning for which Alexandria became famous: literature, philology, poetry, georgraphy, ethnography, medicine, mathematics, and experimental science. Philosophy itself failed - almost uniquely among learned pursuits - to thrive there, at least early on. Not only does philosophy feed on oral interaction, but it arguably profits from a dearth of texts: without the seductions of a research library, scholars are thrown back on their own intelectual resources" (17)
I think that this is exactly what the Internet does for 'non-scholarly' work; it produces an environment where critics are, despire the vast repository of knowledge at their fingertips, left with only their own resources as they attempt to get a personal hold on the world which changes around them.

Hopefully this goes some way to explaining why both modes of writing are essential, and neither should be maligned. Scholarship is not just a repository for the old thoughts of non-scholars, it's where those thoughts are refined and, hopefully, become a part of our cultural heritage. Non-scholarship is not just ranting, rhetoric, and unproven opinions, it is the new philosophy, the turn-on-a-dime state of thought as it reacts to a responsive world. This is a sliding scale, and too far to either side, too much ignorance by scholarship of non-scholarly activites, and vice-versa, can only harm the work produced.



(Thanks to m.f. for the discussion)

- from chapter 1 -

"From around 5000 B.C.E Sumer, what is now Southern Iraq, saw the development of an impressive agrarian culture, as well as intense urbanisation, with the vast majority of people occupying city states along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris. Despite the heat, and the relatively dry landscape, successful deployment of irrigation from these vast rivers, as well as intensive farming of the silt rich delta, led to an overabundance of crops and extensive storage of non-perishable food, which in turn prompted fixed settlement rather than the preceding nomadism necessary for continually acquiring new spaces for farming and the grazing of livestock.

Around 3500 B.C.E, these riverside cities, with their increased demand for the organisation of a diverse labour force, saw writing emerge out of an ever more refined accounting system for work hours, population, livestock, and goods. As such, it is unsurprising that the figures first deployed resembled tallies, but there is also ample evidence of an artistic hand, a merging of pictographic representation with the abstracted calculations of day-to-day trade, which, as will hopefully become apparent, seems as good a definition of writing as any.

This script, 'Sumerian', as with the majority of written languages across history, was only ever mastered and refined by an elite of scribes, and as such its progression was a slow process. Writing, like the spoken languages in which it originates, is best evolved as a community process, with daily use causing perturbations and mutations of the illusory fixity of the rules which govern it. But, despite its limited use, from its fundamental algebraic roots it began to better mould itself to the tasks of the Sumerian culture. Wolf describes the basis for this procession, one which would be repeated independently around the world:
"Across every known system, writing began with a set of two or more epiphanies. First came a new form of symbolic representation, one level of abstraction more than the earlier drawings: the amazing discovery that simple marked lines on clay tokens, stones, or turtle shells can represent either something concrete in the natural world, such as a sheep; or something abstract such as a number or an answer from an oracle. With the second breakthrough came the insight that a system of symbols can be used to communicate across time and space, preserving the words and thoughts of an individual or an entire culture. The third epiphany, the most linguistically abstract, did not happen everywhere: sound-symbol correspondence represents the stunning realisation that all words are actually composed of tiny individual sounds and that symbols can physically signify each of these sounds for every word" (Proust and the Squid pp25-26)

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