Literacy and the cultural turn

Western history is a sequence of cultural turns. First, there was what philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. Google if you haven’t heard of it. Then there was the introspective or inward turn – the self-disclosing self was born; then the outward turn – the objective ideal and method developped. Then the mechanistic turn – everything was seen as a machine, God included. As we approach our own times, we witness the linguistic turn and then the information/digital and the posthuman turns, which are making our heads spin like spinning tops.

This is a wildly simplistic but convenient way to summarise 2500 years of western thought. It is not uncontroversial, but then what is uncontroversial, anyway?

All the turns mentioned above are the products of literacy and writing. The ‘Axial Age’ was a breakthrough made possible by the conceptual, abstract and philosophical inquiry which could only be sustained in writing (in Europe, Middle East and Asia) – there have never been any enduring oral philosophical schools of thought – oral in the sense of not depending on writing for transmission.

The introspective turn was confessional. In his Confessions, St Augustine turned the discourse onto himself, seeking ways to understand the dizzing intuition that there is a self worthy of knowledge, free and responsible. The book was the forum for this lonely investigation, the impersonal space which alone permitted the kind of privacy introspection required.

The same goes for all the other turns. It is particularly relevant for the linguistic and posthuman turns we struggle with today. Since the 1960s, a very influential school of thought has managed to accustom us to the idea that everything out there might be read like a text. That relationships are open to interpretations like novels and political tracts. Texts… writing, you get the point. What about the posthuman? One argument is that our self-understanding as digital computers (minds) on top of biological machines (bodies) was the result of a fusion between science and the electronic/digital bubble we live in. Digital media have their place in the history of writing and of the book – and the reflexes they produce have enabled us to imagine ourselves consubstantial with the digital tools we use every day.

A turn is a kind of totalising paradigm. Try to talk about the classical soul within the information or linguistic turn. That won’t take you very far. Try to talk in Enlightenment terms within the posthuman frame, that won’t really work.

We need to keep turning. We’ve always turned, so we shouldn’t settle for straight lines. We should all be asking what lies around the corner.

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