Mar 10, 2013

Nietzsche's typewriter

Friedrich Nietzsche's eyesight was failing. The effort of focusing on the page resulted in excruciating headaches, and he feared he would have to give up writing altogether. He determined he would purchase a typewriter, learn to use the tips of his fingers to press the thoughts onto paper, eyes closed. He ordered the latest gizmo - portable yet imposing, colored ribbon at the ready for dramatic effect. In the mail arrived his new Malling-Hansen Writing Ball.
The ball did help somewhat, but an odd side effect was soon noted by a close friend. He began to notice that Nietzsche's prose had changed, "from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”  
 “You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” 

"We are not only what we read," claims Maryanne Wolf, professor and Director of the Center for Language and Reading Research at Tufts University, and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain"We are how we read." In fact, our brains learned to read only a thousand years ago, and are configured differently now than when we started. The reading of cuneiform script shaped it one way, and then at some point soon thereafter (evolutionarily speaking) it was called upon to contend with the alphabet, written cues, a litany of words. Not the same brain at all, the glutinous organ repeatedly celebrated its plasticity by adapting. As writing emerged, our need for memory decreased, and other skills took center stage. Attention, and linguistic practices like contextualizing information, were increasingly engaged. English and Chinese languages utilize different brain systems, so even discerning between languages required somewhat different brains.

There are critical implications here. As the next wave of technology takes hold and our brains are being hailed to skim, scan and multi-task, scholarly articles are aflutter with commentary about which skills might be lost. Intellectual descendants of Marshall MacLuhan believe "the medium is the message:" a medium's effect on us is the result of not only its content, but how it habituates us to perceive. When new media technologies are introduced into society, the hierarchy of our senses is reordered. Some are elevated, some filed away. For example, the arrival of the printed word dulled the need for audio, and celebrated the visual, helping to ferry a more focused, individual, linear society toward Western capitalism. Critics scoff at this "technological determinism"; they'll concede that technological advances may change the way we live, but do not agree that they necessarily become part of our biology or are deeply embedded in social values. 

Is it possible to revel in the internet age, become global, habitually connected citizens, but still take a moment, mid-book, to let our minds wander beyond the page as word triggers memory, moves to idea, falls back into the imagination? It would behoove us to foster this opulent, associative dimension to reading. According to Wolf, it is vastly important that we preserve "the profound generativity of the reading brain." 

Here on this page dawns a new day, a brain emergent, a new flurry of posts. And now, if we can muster them, a few reflections all our own.

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