Monday, 21 December 2009

Epigenerating Text

- he was in the sixth hour of his crying…i thought of taking him to the hospital. But if a doctor who examined the boy thoroughly in his cozy office with paintings on the wall in elaborate gilded frames could find nothing wrong, then what could emergency technicians do, people trained to leap on chests and pound at static hearts? - don delillo -

First off some good news: in regards to my last post I got accepted to the Material Cultures: Technology, Textuality, and Transmissionconference at Edinburgh University next year. I’m thrilled to be a part of the “Automatic Writing/Automated Reading: Technology and Transmission in the Modernist Period” panels organised by Dr. Eric White and Prof. Laura Marcus, and if the prior years’ lineups are anything to go by then it should be a fantastic event, and its central concerns couldn’t be more relevant to my thesis. Thanks to Eric and Laura for the chance to put something together.

I’m currently reading Henry Plotkin’s Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge, about 100 pages to clear before I head home for Christmas and curl up with Merlin Donald’s sister text Origins of the Modern Mind (Frank Wilson turned me onto Plotkin’s work in The Hand where he drew explicit parallels between Darwin Machines... and Origins..., a book which has been in my ‘to read’ pile for way too long).

Plotkin’s particular brand of ‘Universal Darwinism’ manages to avoid making all of my Dawkins alarm bells ring by avoiding any of that biologist’s recent one-note shrillness (a shame after the undoubted power, use, and persuasiveness of his early work), instead attempting a relatively sensitive reconceptualisation of the debate as to what constitutes ‘knowledge,’ attempting to move it from a philosophical to a biological discourse. I won’t attempt to comment on the merits of his argument before I finish the book, though I suspect he’s far too smart to try and dissociate biology and philosophy entirely, but the heart of his thesis has become apparent and bears repeating.

‘Knowledge,’ as predominantly (or ‘common-sensically’ as Plotkin would have it) envisioned, can be described as a state in the brain matching a state in the world. For instance I’m able to find my way to work because I know where the building which houses me for the best part of my Saturday exists in relation to the warmth of my bed; I have a knowledge of the route, a mental map which conforms to a reality of the world. Plotkin simply and ably strips out the more troubling epistemological and ontological arguments by saying that knowledge doesn’t have to be ‘true,’ it just has to function, to be ‘workable.’ Deleuze and Guattari’s opening from A Thousand Plateaus springs to mind (if a little - typically - problematically): “it’s nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a manner of speaking” (3). There are two types of ‘knowledge’ at work here, we ‘know’ the sun rises (a knowledge which is false yet workable and conforms to a state of experience), and yet we also ‘know’ that the sun appears to rise because of the way in which the earth orbits the sun (we believe there to be state out there to which our brain’s map correlates, a truer ‘knowledge’ perhaps).

Plotkin takes this concept of knowledge, its matching of brain states to world states, and extends it to states of evolved bodies which conform to world states in the same way. When a stick insect reaches maturity it resembles a stick, and its camouflage represents a genetic knowledge of the world: a state in the insect itself maps onto a state of the world. Plotkin asks us to consider knowledge as we might conventionally imagine it as merely a subspecialty of this wider ‘biological knowledge.’ The shape of our hands, our opposable thumbs, our walking gait, our ability to develop language and articulate it, all of these adaptations, like the stick insects’ camouflage, are forms of knowledge akin to my knowing my way to work, states within matching states without.

This notion has something rather appealing about it, that bodies know like minds know, or rather minds know like bodies know to order the processes in the order in which they developed. Every adaptation, then, is knowledge of the environment that produced it. So how, as I always seem to ask myself at the moment, might this apply to books or digital reading?

It’s at this stage that the Universal Darwinism kicks in - I think that books are the products of evolutionary effects. Evolution - to describe it in a blog post which doesn’t descend into complete tl;dr fodder - requires variations which are able to be tested and replicated. For our stick insect her ancestors were a mix of more or less stick-like stick insects. The fact that she exists today shows that her ancestors were the most stick-like, because the gene pool of stick insects generated billions of more or less ‘sticky’ bugs over time, through various mutations, and those that most resembled sticks, were better camouflaged, avoided being eaten and survived to reproduce and pass on their stick-like natures to their offspring. Our current stick insect is the sum total of the knowledge of the world acquired by her ancestors. Artefacts for storing words, too, have varied over time, from clay tablets to Kindles - mutations in form and size, bindings, prices, printing speeds, positioning of marginalia, physicality or ephemerality, variations of all parameters have been generated. And we are the environment for books, we the readers are the selectors, and we ensure that these media artefacts become ‘fitter’ (better able to pass on their memes rather than their genes, but pass them on they do). In a twist it is our consumption of books, rather than our leaving them be which ensures their reproduction, but otherwise this seems to map well. If I get a chance I’d like to return to this idea in another post, because books also seem to place selective pressures upon us, but we can consider interactors and replicators another day.

For now I’m happy with the idea that this would mean, if all adaptations represent knowledge of an environment, that books do not just contain knowledge, but are knowledge, manifesting the history of their ancestor’s interactions with the human’s which held them. We may feel uncomfortable in thinking that books possess knowledge, but this would not be to say that they are conscious of their acquirements, anymore than stick insects choose to reflect the world, or our hands are aware of their conforming to objects which we would like to grip. Books’ knowledge is directed by evolutionary effects, not by guided learning, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that their bodies represent a transcription of a tumultuous past in physical form, that in every book there is every book before it. Maybe this is why digital texts can feel so wrong - bound books are a knowledge of a hard fought struggle, and not to learn from them would place our new technologies back with the typographic amoebas.

I’d like to make another argument for the value of viewing books as defined by evolutionary principles, the primary point of this post I think. Complex multi-cellular organisms, such as humans, are produced by a process of ‘epigenesis.’ In short, we are not just the product of our genes, but also of our development (the nature/nurture binary having been so long collapsed it needs no further explication here):

“Development is not an automatic, pre-ordained unfolding process which, once initiated, proceeds to the completed state of the adult organism. Rather, each individual is, in a real sense, created anew, the unique outcome of an immensely complex series of interactions between the different parts of the genetic constitution of the individual; and also between its genes, its developing parts and its environment” (Plotkin 122)

Paraphrasing Plotkin, our genes dictate a range in which an attribute may develop, setting constraints, whilst the environment of our development dictates where that attribute settles and manifests in the range. For instance my shoe size is 13, but my genes didn’t make them that way. My genes said that my feet could be somewhere between 10s and 15s, and my development, my ‘ontogeny,’ in the womb and in childhood, selected somewhere in this range (to any biologists: forgive my violence to the theory of epigenesis, my intentions are good).

It might well be productive to think of our evolved books in this way. Their genes (memes) are their form and the letters on their pages, both determined by histories of variation and adaptation. A Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses, (undoubtedly a very well adapted animal, ably passing on its memes) appears as a result of the selective pressures on its ancestors: a codex not a scroll, glue-bound not stitched, distinctive front cover art not individualistic, batch produced not hand printed, High Modernist style not genre fiction (maybe ur-genre?), etc. etc. This is the book as adapted organism, the book as embodied knowledge as described above. But it is not the text in its theoretical sense, it is not the individual instance. As has been increasingly appreciated, the text emerges in the environment of being read by a reader, much as we emerge epigenetically in response to living in our world. As readers we take that memetic material which describes the constrained ranges of attributes we designate ‘book,’ and we select, through our reading experience, along those ranges to produce the text, performing the same function as my early life’s selecting from the genetic range to produce my feet.

What could we gain from using such a metaphor? Most importantly, for me, it reminds us that the text is always produced anew by the Reader out of raw bookish materials. But, unlike Barthes' deceased Author, the theory of epigenesis as applied to texts returns an agency to the artist which most of us struggle to believe they ever truly lost. An Author may not be able to transmit meaning, but they, alongside the history of the codex artefact, do set the constraints of the text we are able to produce as Readers, a set of ranges from which we select which can be almost infinitely meaningful(l).

As a metaphor it doesn't offer up any new theory perhaps, but instead distills some of the common concerns surrounding the Reader's production of the text, most importantly the returning of an ambiguous agency to the Author by defining the extent of their abilities, and also reducing an infinite variety of reader responses to selections from within a massive but finite territory. I hope that it also functions as a shorthand for the evolutionary ideas that I outlined before. In understanding the production of text as epigenetic there must first come the conception of books being produced by evolutionary effects, and of books embodying the history of bookish adaptations, something we may want to consider as a form of knowledge. Epigenesis in books, then, also functions as a container for this prior theory.

If you’ll permit me to coin a term I’ll throw my chips in with ‘epimemesis.'