Putting Ourselves on the Spectrum

Back when we concerned ourselves with the actual behavior of real humans — that is, before we retreated entirely into the political fantasyland of Race / Class / Gender — historians vigorously debated mentalites (say it French-style for ivory tower street cred — mon-tall-ee-tays).  What did people think, and how did those beliefs drive their actions?

It led to some fascinating speculation.  If Julian Jaynes is right, for instance, then pretty much everything we know about the ancient world is wrong… but it doesn’t have to be that radical.  Take “literacy.”  How much information can you convey without written language?  This, for instance

is a high-medieval depiction of Christ surrounded by the four Evangelists (clockwise from top left: Matthew, John, Luke, Mark).  We assume this is didactic, as were all the carvings on medieval churches.  But: What does it teach?  Can you convey complex moral instruction this way?

It matters, because people in a society more complex than a small subsistence village has to be able to hash things out for itself.  “Don’t murder” is a pretty easy rule, you’d think, but even that can get muddy pretty quickly.  What if you legally deprive a man of everything he has, and his ability to get more?  Isn’t that tantamount to murder?

This is why some historians once claimed that “the Christian centuries” weren’t actually Christian in any meaningful sense.  In the tiny world of your ancestral village, there’s no need for theology.  The “Christ” you pray to might as well be Jupiter, or the Divine Augustus, or Cernunnos, or Nature herself.  Just do what you have to do to keep the priest happy, such that the divinity blesses your crops.  Chant the paternoster?  Ok.  Put money at the foot of the statue?  Sure.  Human sacrifice?  If you say so…

You only get complex thought, it seems, with writing, and you only get that in a city.  And even there it takes a long time – Linear B, for instance, is mostly for keeping lists.  Even stuff like Egyptian hieroglyphics, which can seemingly convey complex, abstract, information, isn’t didactic… for people.  It’s right there in the word — “hiero-glyphic” means “sacred carving.”  The Pyramid Texts contain scads of abstract information, but they’re addressed to someone who’s already dead.

What you need, then, is a group of urban-dwellers.  More than that, though, to really get written language going — to develop a writing that can easily convey abstract information — you need rootless cosmopolitans.  Check out this list of written languages.  Though some of them were used by cultures with large empires, the writing was brutally complicated, carried out entirely by a caste of specialists who did nothing but compose letters.  Only heavily urbanized trade cultures, like the Phoenicians, developed phonetic alphabets… after which, like magic, you see the birth of modern thought.

The point of this long excursion through palaeography is to highlight the relationship between written language and abstract thought.  Which seems like a pointless rehash of the obvious, except….

…. the process is reversing.  English (which in modern times should properly be called “American”) is the most efficient language ever devised for conveying abstract information — entirely fitting to a race of tinkerers.  But even American isn’t for rootless cosmopolitans.  Our language is full of proverbs, allusions, tropes and schemes and figures of speech of all kinds, none of which make sense outside of a shared culture.  And even though the American language will happily co-opt any useful word from another language (e.g. a calque like “brainwashing”), it still relies on those figures of speech to get meaning across.

See, for instance, the metonymy “top brass” (from the linked list of figures of speech).  It means “the upper level of leadership in an organization.”  It is itself metonymical — “the brass” meaning “officers.”  The only way you’d know that, though, is if you were familiar with the military.  But not the modern military, which wears sewn-on badges of rank in most situations.  Only formal uniforms have metallic badges, none of which actually look like brass.  Gorgets do, but those went out in the 18th century (here‘s George Washington wearing one as he goes off to fight the French and Indian War).

But that’s just history.  In practice, I doubt actual soldiers use the phrase “top brass” much anymore (given the military “leadership’s” set of priorities these days, I’m confident that the words most soldiers use for their commanding officers all have four letters).  Moreover, most Americans have never been in the army; lots of Americans don’t even know anyone who has ever been in the army.  When we civilians use the phrase “top brass,” then, we don’t actually mean “the upper level of leadership in an organization;” we mean either something like “the powers that be” — the vague, utterly unaccountable someones who seem to run things with no reference to us proles — or something like “a guy with very little actual power who carries on like the little king of everything.”  As in, “Tommy just got promoted to head fry guy on the afternoon shift, and all of a sudden he thinks he’s top brass — just him and Ronald McDonald running things.”

Now, here’s a fun challenge: Express the meaning of the phrase “Tommy thinks he’s top brass” in plain English, using no figures of speech whatsoever:

“Tommy behaves in the manner of a general in command of an army.”  That’s meaningless — have you ever even met a general, let alone been around one when he’s generaling?

“Tommy behaves as if he has more power than he actually does.”  Well, ok, but… what does that mean?  Tommy issues his orders (which is what we assume a general does all day), but Tommy actually has the power to do that — he’s the head fry guy, after all.

“Tommy insinuates that he has knowledge of the company’s inner workings that he doesn’t.”  Does he?  How?  How would you know?

“Tommy behaves arrogantly.”  That’s getting closer to what “Tommy thinks he’s top brass” actually means, but what if he’s that way all the time, or for non-work-related reasons?  Maybe Tommy is also the captain of the football team and the prom king.

“Tommy behaves more arrogantly now than he used to.”  Ok, now I think we’ve got it, but…. what’s “arrogant,” anyway?  See what I mean?  Even that — arrogance — is highly culture-specific…

Modern communication — Internet communication —  is truly rootless cosmopolitanism.  How can you say that Tommy is behaving in a way that intermittently oversteps the bounds of social convention in a specific context — which is the most bare-bones meaning of “Tommy thinks he’s top brass” — if there’s no “social convention” in the first place?

Our language encodes our culture.  The bulk of the abstract information written language conveys isn’t stuff like the Pyramid Texts, about the geography of the afterlife and whatnot.  Rather, it’s a set of common expectations.  Calling Tommy “top brass” is a mild, chiding insult.  You can express the same idea with “he’s gotten too big for his britches” or “he’s all puffed up” or any number of other idioms, but they all have the same purpose: To reinforce social norms.  “Tommy thinks he’s top brass” highlights the fact that we’re not in the army, and Tommy’s not our commanding officer, so he should stop acting like he’s a better person than the rest of us.

To Generation Snowflake, however — raised on blinking touchscreens; for whom slogging through a 120 character Tweet* is the equivalent of reading War and Peace — the phrase “Tommy thinks he’s top brass” is meaningless, baffling, frustrating.  Tweets, text messages, Facebook posts, blog comments etc. aren’t sequential– how often do you see people even here, on a blog with 14 readers, commenting on posts from a year or more ago?  They’re contextless, by definition, and I can prove it.  Go back through your Facebook posts or Tweets (if you’re one of the few remaining sane Americans who don’t do social media, get on your grandkids’ accounts).  Start scrolling back.  After a month or two, the whole page might as well be in Swahili.  Oh, look, there’s a picture of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on a beach, with the caption “I got this!” photoshopped onto it.  What the hell does that mean?

Which brings us, at long last, back to the start.  Can complex thought be conveyed graphically?

For every historian who speculated that Europe wasn’t meaningfully “Christian” until the Early Modern era because you can’t do theology with altar carvings, there were ten who pointed out that pictures are aide-memoires — they don’t tell the story, they recall the story, i.e. the teaching of the local priest who, after reforms like Gregory the Great‘s, was probably halfway decent….

… but that, in turn, presupposes a tight-knit community with a long tradition.  Which you had in the Middle Ages, but now?  There are no cultural touchstones, only each moment’s memes.  Cultural expectations, such as they are, are conveyed by movies, all of which are sequels to prequels of reboots.  Orwell said that the purpose of Newspeak was to make forbidden thoughts impossible by eliminating the language used to express them.  He thought this would take a massive, decades-long effort to rewrite the dictionary.  But then Twitter happened, as my students would’ve said back in my teaching days, and we threw the whole damn thing out voluntarily in the space of a few years.

If it’s possible to convey abstract information with memes, we’d better find out awful damn quick, before our society volunteers to go fully autistic.  If not, well, we’ll be seeing how they did it in the Middle Ages up close and personal here in the next few decades.



*If you doubt that we’re well and truly screwed, that article is about the best illustration I’ve got.  The length of the average tweet, it reports, is 33 characters.  The preceding sentence used 48 characters, not counting punctuation marks.  Simply grunting and pointing is a more effective communication method.

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6 thoughts on “Putting Ourselves on the Spectrum

  1. Pickle Rick

    Oh, start looking up the complexities of metaphors and wampum belts in the 18th century. The Six Nations, preliterate and non-urban, created a polity and a rhetorical style that contemporary Europeans favorably compared to the best of the ancient Romans. Or, when crossed, they’ll burn you at the stake and eat you…

    “Let this Belt of Wampum serve to Chastize You; You ought to be taken by the Hair of the Head and shak’d severely till you recover your Senses and become Sober; you don’t know what Ground you stand on, nor what you are doing. Our Brother Onas” [Thomas Penn] Case is very just and plain, and his Intentions to preserve friendship; on the other Hand your Cause is bad, your Heart far from being upright, and you are maliciously bent to break the Chain of friendship with your Brother Onas. We have seen with our Eyes a Deed signed by nine of your Ancestors above fifty Years ago for this very Land, and a Release Sign’d not many Years since by some of your selves and Chiefs now living to the Number of 15 or Upwards. But how came you to take upon you to Sell Land at all? We Conquer’d You, we made Women of you, you know you are Women, and can no more sell Land than Women. Nor is it fit you should have the Power of Selling Lands since you would abuse it. This Land that you Claim is gone through Your Guts. You have been furnished with Cloaths and Meat and Drink by the Goods paid you for it, and now You want it again like Children as you are. But what makes you sell Land in the Dark? Did you ever tell Us that you had sold this Land? Did we ever receive any Part, even the Value of a Pipe Shank, from you for it? . . . for all these reasons we charge You to remove instantly. We don’t give you the liberty to think about it. You are Women; take the Advice of a Wise Man and remove immediately. You may return to the other side of Delaware where you came from, but we don’t know whether, Considering how you have demean’d your selves, you will be permitted to live there, or whether you have not swallowed that Land down your Throats, as well as the Land on this side. We, therefore, Assign you two Places to go–either to Wyoming or Shamokin. You may go either of these Place, and then we shall have you more under our Eye, and shall see how You behave. Don’t deliberate, but remove away and take this Belt of Wampum.”

  2. MBlanc46

    I don’t see the problem. To convey “Orange Man Bad” all you need is a picture of President Trump with the red circle and slash over it. QED. Seriously, though, that’s quite a rumination, and beyond my competence to answer. As English loses its subtitles—the subjunctive, agreement in person and number, etc—will English speakers lose the ability to make the sorts of subtle distinctions that they’ve been able to make in the past? Maybe not. On the other hand, it lost all those inflections that Latin and German have, and, in my view, at least, we’re the better for it. Stay tuned.

    1. MBlanc46

      “Subtleties”, not “subtitles”, of course. Failing vision + autocorrect = mistakes.

  3. Henry

    I have no doubt that in my usage of grammar and syntax on this web page, there is enough evidence to prove that most people my age are near illiterate. The proliferation of illiteracy is antagonizing, I have to explain a few words a week to some of my closest friends. Most conversations consist of fewer than 50 different words. And as I am writing this and reflecting on those conversations, I think my facial expressions and tones are more effective than words.

    No one actually means what they say, for example; when someone my age says “I fucking hate that professor” I hear “I am struggling in that class” or “I dont understand anything in that class” or “that professor is weird” but it often depends on their tone and facial expression. When I am with a group of friends I spend so much time listening and trying to translate what they say to what they mean that I am often asked why I am being quiet (which is often the first time someone has actually spoken English), to which I reply; “I’ve got no fucking clue what y’all are talking about”. And if I am with some of my closest friends they will call me retarded…. I cant help laughing in response.

    To note: As we were studying for finals yesterday, one of my closest friends said ” I will be so happy to never have to read a book again, I will go the rest of my life never reading a book, I fucking hate reading”.

    I honestly dont think that we will recover from this illiteracy for another 50 years or more. I think the problem in modern communication is abstraction but maybe I just dont know a better word for what I described. I think it is very difficult for people my age to communicate plainly and directly. I think they abstract everything to the nth degree.

    1. Severian Post author

      I think what you’re describing is what Orwell described in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which is still the best thing ever written on Leftism’s destruction of language. He writes:

      This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house…. [such tacked-together phrases] will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

      “I fucking hate that professor” seems to work this way. It’s designed to cut off thought. If your friend came right out and said “I’m not doing well in that class,” then the natural question is, “why?” (And the natural answer is likelier “I don’t go to class, don’t study, etc.” than “the professor is a bad teacher” (though not discounting, of course, the very real possibility that the prof is a bad teacher)). Same thing with “I don’t understand anything in that class.” The phrase “I fucking hate that professor” puts the entire burden on the professor (I saw this all the time from the other side of the desk).

      If you think it would help others in your situation, I’ll put together “The Shitlord Reading List” for dissident college students. Orwell’s essay is a good start, but if you really want to get to the bottom of what you describe — and see, step by step, exactly what your professors are doing to you — check out Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Stop me if this sounds familiar:

      1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
      2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.
      3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
      4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
      5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
      6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
      7. Doctrine over person. Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
      8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

      Reducing functional language to 50 words is a combo of “milieu control” and “loading the language.” The college students I’ve heard — and remember, I’ve heard thousands, over many years — have similar vocabularies, and they’re a weird combo of gutter and grad school. “Dude, that’s so fuckin’ cisgendered” sounds like hokey dialogue from a bad parody movie, but I’ve heard lots of similar stuff out of students’ mouths. You can’t communicate in college without the weird grad-school words, but you lack the words to discuss just what exactly those weird grad-school words actually mean.

      This is deliberate, I assure you.

  4. Henry

    If you wouldn’t mind taking the time to make that list I would appreciate it, and there are other people I know who would be interested in more text. To some degree it amazes me that the thoughts and perceptions I have are thoroughly and professionally developed by people much more intelligent than I. But as a read more (I am currently reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) I am beginning to understand that man has existed and thought for thousands of years, and to use a cliche, nothing under the sun is new.

    As I recall my public speaking course material, the material described Aristotle’s methods of persuasion in the first chapter. But then the rest of the book is dedicated prescribing rhetorical speaking. The evidence of the destruction of language is becoming more clear the more I read.

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