Thinking about Linking

by kiminogomi

Nonphonetic writing breaks the noun apart.  It describes relations and not appellations.  — Derrida, “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing”

If any further proof were needed, Vannevar Bush’s 1945 “As We May Think” establishes that the cybernetic process of complete separation between the speaking body and the written word existed as a mode of thinking about language before, or just as, the technology emerged to activate this potentiality of language.  The decontextualized indexical system of Bush’s imaginary “memex” transforms linear texts from objects to be read (that is, as-if vocalized as statement, sentence, gestalt) into quanta, visual objects interlinked by relations of similarity.  During the retrieval process, contiguity and syntactical relations are first generated by the researcher and only secondarily by the individual texts that are read against each other, once they have been dragged out by the scruff of their metatags.

Of course texts have always produced meaning through second-order contiguities produced by repetitions and likenesses; the most obvious example is the process of thematicization, which lends itself to visual diagrams.  The modern novel is in this sense highly cybernetic.  As a set of connections, E.M. Forster’s Passage to India looks like this:

OoviumMM concept map of Passage to India

While rather fun to produce, however, this diagram is most useful in the context of a more general structuralist assertion about Forster’s masterpiece as a typical and admirable Modernist attempt to negotiate between cultures.  Structuralism may represent the aspirations of literary study toward scientific systematics, but its proponent Claude Levi-Strauss also saw it as the cure for suicidal European colonial arrogance.   Decontextualized knowledge is a sterile pleasure, at best.  At worst it leads to false consciousness.

As always, there are analogous processes as soon as there are print; new media endlessly rediscover the same genres and devices.  The trick of collecting extracts onto a commonplace book, which was the early modern version of a blog, in plays and novels quickly (and perhaps unfairly) became a shorthand trait for pretentiousness and illiteracy.  Shakespeare created just such a character in Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, who is a fount of bad advice.  Ironically, his most commonly-quoted utterance is “To thine own self be true,” which is almost always used aphoristically without the rest of the sentence: “and then it follows as night follows the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”  This quote contains a clever Shakespearian logic joke: the relationship of “following” between night and day is one of sequence, not of causality.  Polonius’ statement is a fallacy, meant as an ironic sign of his folly and veniality, and its use as an aphorism an example of decontextualized knowledge producing false consciousness.

But the transformation of words into metatags is a further decontexualization, one which leaves no traces of the word’s meaning-in-context; the memex is only as capable of producing knowledge as its operator.  The concealment of criteria possible in the “real” memex, the search engine, further renders operations of selection and control invisible.  Disembodied, the word conceals more than it reveals.

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