In this book, ethnographer and poet Michael Jackson addresses the interplay between modes of writing, modes of understanding, and modes of being in the world. Drawing on literary, anthropological and autobiographical sources, he explores writing as a technics akin to ritual, oral storytelling, magic and meditation, that enables us to reach beyond the limits of everyday life and forge virtual relationships and imagined communities. Although Maurice Blanchot wrote of the impossibility of writing, the passion and paradox of literature lies in its attempt to achieve the impossible--a leap of faith that calls to mind the mystic's dark night of the soul, unrequited love, nostalgic or utopian longing, and the ethnographer's attempt to know the world from the standpoint of others, to put himself or herself in their place. Every writer, whether of ethnography, poetry, or fiction, imagines that his or her own experiences echo the experiences of others, and that despite the need for isolation and silence his or her work consummates a relationship with them.
The Other Shore Essays on Writers and Writing
I considered myself a writer long before I completed a volume of poetry, wrote a novel or published an anthropological monograph. Writing, for me, was a way of life. As for the origins of this calling, I suspect that it was a longing to connect with places, people and periods of history that lay beyond the provincial town in which I came of age. Fascinated by exotic worlds, I saw writing as my means of transport and escape. Writing, I came to realize, was a technê,1 like prayer or ritual, for bridging the gulf that lay between myself and others. In this sense, writing resembles religion, which also works at the limits of what can be said, known or borne, entering penumbral fields of experience where the absent is made present, the distant becomes near, the inanimate appears animate, and the singular subsumes the plural.2
In the half century since my first book appeared,3 I have witnessed - and adjusted to - mind-boggling transformations in communication technologies. I have switched from fountain pen to typewriter to word processor. In the early '60s I worked as a letterpress machinist before the offset press made me redundant. Nowadays, books are published online and read on electronic tablets.4 But while many claim that these new technologies are "disruptive", undermining and transforming the way we work and live, I see them as "sustaining" what we have always sought to do5 - bearing witness to what we learn of life, struggling to express it adequately, comparing our findings with the findings of others.
Yet ours is, undeniably, an information society. We move about with our heads in clouds of data. E-mail, Skype, Facebook and LinkedIn keep us in touch with scattered friends, family, colleagues and collaborators. We cross streets with cellphones pressed to our ears, or stand on the sidewalk talking unselfconsciously to an invisible other, oblivious to those around us. Though ethereally elsewhere, we can always be located. No one has to guess where we are, where we have come from, or where we are going; the details are relentlessly tweeted, twittered, blogged or e-mailed. We pass the time playing interactive games alone, unsurprised by this apparent contradiction in terms. Our most banal opinions can be accessed by all and sundry. Our perverse yearnings, romantic longings and wild imaginings are disseminated without a moment's thought. Hardly a month passes that some new App or device promises still faster and more fantastic means of making connections. The safe storage of personal files is no longer entrusted to memory, which is fallible, but to cryptic facilities with multiple backups. Our computers are not simply extensions of our brains, they have minds of their own, and dictate the terms on which we comprehend our own psychology. As books morph into e-books, read on IPads, Nooks and Kindles rather than printed pages, machines translate our spoken words into visible signs. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto used the phrase mysterium tremendum to capture the awe, humility and fascination we feel in the overpowering presence of "the wholly other." Technology now inspires the mixture of rapture and dread once associated with the divine. The critical tension in our lives is no longer between the sacred and the secular, but between the divine and the digital. When Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, retired on May 2011, he spoke of the "digital revolution' that had occurred during the previous 25 years, as "a revolution that is now over. We are a digital culture."6 But perhaps our infatuation with the new blinds us to our continuities with the old. To what extent are we dealing with "digital affordances"7 - new ways of doing old things? Which among the new technologies (biogenetic, prosthetic, robotic) can be said to utterly transform our sense of who we are and what life means? This question has always been asked about novel technologies, from the knotted cord to the hieroglyph, from the manuscript to moveable type, from the typewriter to the word processor, from the telephone to the cellphone. There is a long tradition in scholarship of seeing oral and literate technologies of communication as betokening essentially different sensibilities and essentially different ontologies. It is argued that the transition from orality to literacy entails a dramatic transformation in consciousness in which words cease to sing,8 intellectuality becomes divorced from feeling, the arts of memory atrophy, vision is privileged over all other senses, thought becomes independent of conventional wisdom and the reader is alienated from his or her community.9 These arguments are often informed by a romantic view that oral cultures enshrine a more ecologically balanced and socially attuned mode of existence in which the life of the community takes precedence over the life of the mind - as in Walter Benjamin's lament that modernity prefers information processing to storytelling, data to wisdom,10i an echo of Socrates' conviction that writing is a phantom, undermining memory, poisoning/drugging the mind, and leading us astray.11
The shock of the new leads us to confuse means and ends. We assume that a technology of communication actually determines the character of what is communicated. The medium is the message. Yet, before the digital revolution there was always more than met the eye - subliminal signals, non-verbal nuances, ambiguities, unspoken intentions. There was always a cloud of unknowing in the ether that surrounded us and obscured the space between us. There was always a gap between a speaker and his or her interlocutor. The monk hesitated over his manuscript as the student now panics at the sight of a blank page. Some small betrayal was implicated in every attempt to speak one's mind, recount an event, or faithfully pass on a piece of news. Convinced that history is marked by radical discontinuities, one worldview giving ground to another, we fall into thinking that every new invention fundamentally alters our lives when, in fact, it may simply enable old goals to be met in new ways. Is a story written with a quill pen basically different from a story written on a typewriter or word processor? Is the life of a reader so very different from the life of someone listening to an oral tale? Did literacy bring about the atrophy of face-to-face social life? Does text-messaging diminish the quality of a teenager's life? In this book, I am interested in the rite in writing. My argument is that writing is like any other technology of self-expression and social communication, and that in exploring the lifeworlds of writing and writers we discover the same existential imperatives that have always preoccupied human beings, regardless of their cultural or historical circumstances - the need to belong to lifeworlds wider than their own, to feel that they can act on the world rather than merely suffer its actions upon them, and to express what seems peculiar and problematic about their own experiences in ways that resonate with the experiences of others.1 I draw on Bernard Stiegler's extensive discussions of technics in theorizing writing less in terms of what is communicated than as a technology for creating webs of intersubjective connectedness. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998-2009). Svetlana Boym argues that technologies of communication might be compared with nostalgic longings for lost times, far flung places or absent loved ones. Both are modes of 'mediation'. Indeed, technê and art share the same etymology. "Technology is not a goal in itself but an enabling medium. While nostalgia mourns distances and disjunctures between times and spaces, never bridging them, technology offers solutions and builds bridges, saving the time that nostalgia loves to waste. The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 347. 2 For a sustained and detailed account of this point of view, see Michael Jackson, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiosity and the Real (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), xii-xv, 5-8. 3 Michael Jackson, Latitudes of Exile (Dunedin: McIndoe, 1976). 4 For example, my own recent book, Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes (Dunedin: Rosa Mira Books, 2012), www.rosamirabooks.com 5 Gerard MacDonald and David Hursh, Twenty-First Century Schools: Knowledge, Networks and New Economies (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2006), 139-142, 185. 6 Electronic document http://joi.ito.com/may8,2011 7 Frank Moss, The Sorcerers and their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab are Creating the Innovative Technologies that will Transform our Lives (New York: Crown Business, 2011), 10. 8 David Howes speaks of this as "a crisis of intonation", and describes the "dwindling power" of traditional songs in the Trobriand Islands where older people lament the passing of a "golden age of orality" when the measure of human greatness was the resounding quality of one's vocal presence. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 64-67. 9 J.C. Carothers, "Culture, Psychiatry and the Written Word," Psychiatry 22, 307-20; Jack Goody, ed. Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1962); Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (Methuen: London, 1982); David Riesman, 'The Oral and Written Traditions," in Explorations in Communications, ed. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960). 10 Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller,' in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968). 11 Plato's Phaedrus, trans Christopher Rowe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005), 61-64. See also, Jacques Derrida, 'Plato's Pharmacy,' in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (London: Athlone 1981), 66-94.