In our passage from pre-modernity to modernity, and then to postmodernity, our literacy-cognitive patterns suffered several significant transformations. Our hermeneutic pre-understandings, to use Heidegger’s term, shifted, and in the process they shaped us profoundly. And they keep shifting, creating new forms and new understandings.
We haven’t always read the way we do. Actually we haven’t always read. Not to mention writing. Technology evolved, but it was always underpinned by deeper structures of consciousness, ideas of getting things done and visions of possibility.
We are constantly transformed by what we do and what is being done to us. Transformed by what we hear, what we read, what we say, what we write. Also by how and what we should to remember. And then by how we interpret.
Here are 3 significant transformations I notice:
- In reading: we’ve moved from a meditative-ethical model of reading to one that emphasizes utility and is subject to a mechanistic view which we see in other areas of life. We expect to find more information than knowledge in our books. Reading has become a way of accessing that information. Some of our fantasies involve memorising books by merely touching them, like a wireless charger. Fiction and poetry are among the few objects of reading to resist this model.
- In memory: we keep outsourcing human memory to machines. In an orality-dominated environment, human memory was everything. Writing took that away, and Socrates complained. Now machine memory is widespread, and human memory is increasingly imagined and understood in terms of machine memory.
- In hermeneutics: this has to do with interpretation. Ironically, we’ve been moving from an open, porous system of meanings to something which resembles a closed system. I say ironically because culture has moved the other way around in most other areas. The medieval model of interpreting the Bible, for instance, was multi-level, ranging from literal to moral. Today we tend to subscribe to one level only, whatever it may be, and not just in reading Scripture. Print did away with the multiplicity of manuscript copies and (en)closed them in a single, authoritative version. Writing did away with the profusion of oral variants. Genres, taxonomies, divisions are interpretational tools meant to flatten and reduce the diversity of meaning and possibilities to a wieldy few, sometimes to just one. We’ve realised the recent danger of reductionism (a species of hermeneutic fundamentalism) and we fight against it.