Categories
digital rhetoric

Paleorhetoric

Currently I am studying what I would term “paleorhetoric:” ˜that is the study of symbolic communication prior to the invention of formal writing systems and on the cusp between the transformation of grunts and gestures into ‘language.'” Typically, this transformation has been marked as the point when humans become humans. However, there remains little explanation for how and why this transformation took place. Two books I‚m reading right now provide interrelating theories. Haim Ofek‚s Second nature explains human development in terms of economics. Ofek notes that the concept of exchange is necessary in order for any kind of specialization to take place and that such specialization can be witnessed not only in biological terms in the specialization of parts of the body but also in nepotistic terms, in the specialization and exchange within kinship groups. However, in order to create broader social networks, in effect, in order to create a „society,‰ one requires further specialization and exhange. Ofek suggests this begins with the invention of fire ignition technology. Fire works well as a tradable commodity because the owner can easily withhold it from the buyer but can also trade the fire without loss (i.e. the original fire keeps burning). Ofek goes on to argue that as trade networks grow, there is a need for the monetarization of commodities; that is, commodities come to function as a kind of money; they gain symbolic value. Ofek‚s economic thesis may be debatable, but that‚s not what I‚m interested in here. In other ways it resonates with more disciplinary, archeological theories. Clive Gamble associates symbolic thinking with the development of “complicated societies” and a “social landscape” during the Upper Paleolithic period some 40-60K years before present (Kyr bp in their lingo). Gamble maps informational networks based on following the trade of materials between various locales. In this respect, Gamble and Ofek‚s theories coincide. Gamble differentiates complicated societies functioning in a social landscape from complex societies existing in a landscape of habit. In the latter society, individuals embody knowledge through gestures; each gesture is understood within the context of the body situated in the individual‚s place of habitation. I.e., an individual understands how to perform a specific act in a specific place. Each new piece of information must be incorporated wholesale into the body. Complicated societies, on the other hand, „chunk‰ information into a series of simple routines that can be categorized. Gestures and tools are abstracted from specific uses and locales and can be adapted for other purposes. As Gamble writes in The Paleolithic societies of Europe, “it is not bits of information but rather the chunks into which they can be assembled that is significant. To become information these chunks require signs and symbols to provide a code for action” (363). These chunks of code employed in a complicated society require a social landscape into which they can be situated. The social landscape allows individuals to share codes. This externalization of gestures allows information to be exchanged. This brings us back to Ofek and another archeologist, John Pfeiffer. All of these folks see this information explosion as the progenitor for symbolic behavior. How does this symbolic behavior work? Gamble continues, “Artifacts were no longer adjuncts to persons, meaningful only when attached in acquisition, manufacture, or use and linked in action by rhythms. Artifacts now become personified since they represented either that person or the existences of an extend network in absentia. When associated with social occasions and the transformation of locale into place, they formed a substitute foe co-presence that can be understood because they belonged to a complicated, sequenced set of routines” (365). All this seems to mean exactly what you‚d imagine a “symbol” means. Given its place within a social network, an artifact retains its meaning even when the person who gave it to you is no longer there. This is the general sense of symbolic or representational meaning, that objects in the world have meanings outside of their immediate local context and use. Perhaps this is easiest to think of in terms of trade. If I am a fisherman with an excess of fish, in my immediate context, those fish have no value. On the other hand, if I know I can travel a few miles and trade some fish for a fur coat then I recognize that fish have a symbolic value within a social landscape. So how does this relate to rhetoric and more specifically to writing technology? I see two approaches. First, taking all this information on face value, we can see that symbolic behavior, including both language and gesture, develop as tools for organizing complicated sequences (“chunks”) of information. Though the human memory remains the storehouse for that information, we now have better tools for arranging that information and communicating it. The externalization of information into the social landscape becomes a necessary step in human development. As Gamble points out, the value here is precisely that one no longer needs to be “present” in order for the information to be transmitted. This raises the second approach, however, which looks upon this anthropological discourse and senses its logocentric predilection for framing its metaphysics in terms of presence. A deconstruction of this discourse would be one option and at the very least would make clear that the concept of presence here might certainly be one being brought to this analysis by the authors rather than a problem among the people of the Upper Paleolithic. However, I prefer a different, though related approach, which focuses on the idea of networks. Setting aside the question of origins, place yourself in the situation of the Paleolithic human in the midst of this informational crisis. Increasing specialization, regionalizing of tool production, extending trade networks (I realize it‚s hard to imagine these things going on around you): it is all too much for you to handle. You need to rely on an external set of processes. You enter a social landscape that extends your network but also redefines even your most intimate relationships. In effect, you have attached yourself to a cybernetic network, a system of distributed cognition, a smart environment. This would be the moment when human consciousness as we understand it comes into existence. Before this, prehistoric humans could not think beyond the context of the body and their immediate kinship group. Now humans entered a social landscape, with the power of abstraction and symbolic thinking. Consciousness, as such, was never internal but only comes into existence through the externalization of gestures, through the creation of symbols. In this context, presence would be the antithesis of consciousness; in order to become conscious, one must be articulate oneself through a network of distributed cognition. Over thousands of years, the specialized knowledge and extensive trade network leads to agricultural practices. Setting aside the careful analysis, the symbolic practices that emerge at this moment eventually develop into formal writing systems. Even thousands of years after that, Plato writes the Phadreus and astutely identifies the problem of presence presented by writing. However, the problem is effectively misstated when we conflate consciousness with presence, speech, and intentionality. These things have never been important to consciousness. If all we cared about were presence, there would never have been a need for a social landscape at all. Consciousness is instead about what can be shared across a network of distributed cognition. As I will get into later, these possibilities extend far beyond what we have limited ourselves to so far. We have limited ourselves to sequences of codes (as we still persist in the complicated society invented over 20 Kyr bp) and by formulating these codes within a logo- and phonocentric philosophy. By looking back to the caves of Lascaux, perhaps we ca
n glimpse alternate media po

ssibilities. In addition, it is possible to argue that our current informational crisis, like that of our distant ancestors, puts us in the position of imaging a new landscape beyond the complicated and social.

One reply on “Paleorhetoric”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.