FutureText Part One – Books and a changing social consciousness

Eoin Purcell

Emma over at Snowblog set some homework. She asked people to read this piece by Mark Booth over at The Independent online and to discuss it. I’ve much to say on it but for today I’d like to hit on CONSCIOUSNESS. To give you a good idea of what it’s about here’s a quote:

The great new literary form that will replace the novel will, I believe, arise on the net and will take on its wild frontier spirit, its intellectual risk-taking, its two fingers at academic control-freakery. But it will also help forge a new form of consciousness in a much more fundamental way that has to do with the form of the internet.

There really is much more to the piece, a lot of which I agree with. For instance Booth talks about the impact the internet is having on reading and the nature of our leisure time. There is truth in that. We are spending more time reading online and that is changing the form. But how far does that go?

Let’s ask Stephen Fry
A man who up until two months ago I’d have thought as unknowledgeable about these things as most but how wrong has he proved me and anyone else who thought like me (just read this post to confirm his wonderful geekery).

Commenting on the strange beast that is Facebook (which I like for status updates, Warbook and the odd photo but otherwise use it very little) he wrote the other day a most apt line:

But let the rise of social networking alert you to the possibility that, even in the futuristic world of the net, the next big thing might just be a return to a made-over old thing.

And therein lies the rub
The assumption that Mark Booth makes is that when there was no way of recording it, there was no internal narrative in peoples’ minds, that they were somehow not at the same level of consciousness or at least that that narrative was different:

In the esoteric view, consciousness has changed in a much more radical way than historians generally allow, and the importance of the great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries is the role they played in forging the sense we all have – and take for granted – that we have an interior narrative. If people experienced this before the novel, if they earlier saw their lives as micro-histories with turning points, dilemmas and meaningful structures, they left no record of it, and, according to the esoteric account, they had no inkling of it except in sermons.

I’d suggest strongly that this is not the case
Just think it through with me. For that to be true we have to assume that people in the past were not like us. That their consciousness was somehow of a different nature. And that situation was caused by their lack of access to the written word, and specifically the novel.

You’d have to accept too that the epics of Homer didn’t build an internal narrative for those who heard them or the folk tales that have gone unrecorded had no role to play in building consciousness and the oral histories or the plays, or even Beowulf with its powerful messages and its heroic themes offered no grist for an internal narrative mill.

Funnily enough Nassim Nicholas Taleb has some excellent stuff about exactly this type of situation in The Black Swan, he calls it Silent Evidence and offers the Phoenicians as a great example of it. It was long believed that they were commercially obsessed and did not use the alphabet they invented for creative purposes. Of course it now appears that they simply used perishable materials to record their creative impulses.

if we can mistake destroyed art for no art, then I suspect we cannot be sure about the hidden consciousness of oral cultures and pre-text cultures. I suspect that the internal narratives we take for granted now existed in those cultures. Perhaps the priorities were framed by different horizons and paradigms, perhaps experiences were more important than knowledge in building that consciousness. There is simply no way to know how they formed, how different they were or indeed how similar.

So you see, I don’t think Mark Booth’s new consciousness is anything other than an old consciousness ‘made-over’ as a new thing*.

I’ll think this through again but I’m pretty sure I won’t change my mind.

*That’s not to invalidate any of his thinking on the direction of publishing technology! But more on that tomorrow.

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