The Blind leading the blind…

Imagining Homer and his guide – 1874

Thinking about truth and why so many people seem to believe Trump lead me to re-read Information Ages:  Niteracy, numeracy, and the Computer Revolution by Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman.  It is a treatise about information. Hobart and Schiffman believe that there is no “no overarching definition of information serves for all time” but at the same time they insist that information did not always exist.  Information is a product of literacy.  They write:

Information derives from the twofold process of abstraction involving the related movements of “drawing away from” and “taking out of.”  When he draws away from the flow of experience in a consistent manner, the record keeper will come to realize that he expresses the phenomenon of sixty sheep verbally in two words – a noun and an adjective, a name and a number.  This point marks the threshold of writing, and once crossed, the mind begins to reflect on its own products, to mediate experience with mental objects. (at page 38)

The first age of information began with the invention of writing. It is hard, perhaps impossible for us to truly understand the world which existed before writing – the world of orality. For those with an oral frame of mind, speech was continuous with the flow of experience. In the pre-literate pre-informational world, the knower was not distinct from the known.  Mental objects did not mediate between the thinker and reality. What was spoken was experienced without being formed as a quality outside of the experience itself.  Much of what we know of oral traditions is gleaned from the study of the great epics. The epics, such as those attributed to the blind poet Homer, transmitted as songs and stories were part of an oral tradition. They were part of a flow of experience, until they were written down.  And only then did these stories become information.

Hobart and Schiffman argue that the ancient Greeks had geographical and historical knowledge about their lands, oceans, and ancestors, but this knowledge did not “constituted a stable, isolable body of information”  and thus was not information as we know it (at page 29).  They write:

The Greeks knew of Thrace because they sailed there; but were they to have stopped, they would have soon forgotten its existence.  What we call historical information had an existence even more transitory.  Living amid the architectural ruins of the Mycenaean predecessors, the Greeks eventually attributed such massive buildings and walls to a race of Cyclopes.  (at page 29). 

The Homeric epics were themselves an activity – a commemorative activity.  The authors write:

Each epic consists of a sequence of scenes or situations that serve to map the actions of the narrative.  These scenes are linked together by aural cues – spoken words and phrases that are remembered like visual images because they form certain types of patterns.  Memory in an oral culture thus involves the recollection of abstracted patterns, both visual and aural, not words.  (at page 25)

The discussion of the nature of orality in the Ages of Information provides the basis for a discussion of information – its changing nature and significance in human activity.  The authors’ basic idea is that while information is hard to define, it is sufficiently well formed to be traced through three distinctive information ages, the classical, modern and contemporary. Information in the classical age was produced by a process of identification and classification.  The organizing principle and objective was wisdom.  In the modern age, the metaphor shifted from that of a list to that of a map and the motivation became knowledge – modern scholars explored the world in order to discover the laws of nature which, they believed, could then be reduced to mathematical formula.  These formulas would provide knowledge as the ultimate information.  

The metaphor of the contemporary age is less clear, but Hobart and Schiffman suggest, it involves the qualities of power and play.  (Play they define following Johan Huizinga Homo Ludens  as a voluntary rule based activity.  Another story also very interesting)  In this contemporary age of information, the seriousness and purpose displayed in the classical and modern ages are replaced by superficiality and seeming lack of purpose.  Information appears in techniques, procedures, and rules necessary for the immediate game.  The activity is not governed by wisdom or undertaken in the pursuit of knowledge.  In the contemporary age information is shaped by activity undertaken for the sake of the activity. In this age there is a loss of faith in both wisdom or knowledge.    Wisdom seems personal and knowledge contextual, open to interpretation and critique.  Certainty is seen as momentary agreement amongst players. 

In the twenty years since Hobart and Schiffman wrote their book, information itself is increasingly at play.  Facts are no longer distinguished from opinion and truth, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.  The question then is whether information which is no longer stable can be imbued with a quality of being right or wrong, true or false. And if it cannot be fixed, is it still information. Perhaps a world of alternative facts is a post informational world. Or perhaps, the absence of information indicates a turn to a pseudo orality where remembering and forgetting define what is real.

Trump’s talent lies with his command of American – the spoken, not written, form of the language.   His talents are oral. At one level, the MAGA rallies resemble church revival meetings with the call “crooked Hilary” is met with the reply of “lock her up”.  At another they can be seen as entertainment. Trump performs as the epic singer or story teller.  Emotion is more important than reason, but emotions are reasoned through Trump’s heroic stories.  Remembering grievances and planning revenge. Trump is not trying to inform or persuade his accolytes.  Who cares about policy?  Who cares that the speeches themselves may be incoherent.  The performance may be theatrical, but it is more than entertainment. It is participatory, fun and empowering. In each telling of the tale, a new version of the Trumpian epic emerges fueled by the passion of the crowd. Success is defined by the participation of the crowd, not the critical reception of the speech. 

It may help that Trump is, for most intents and purposes, illiterate.  Tony Schwartz, who ‘helped’ write the Art of the Deal commented that Trump didn’t read much, certainly not books.  Mary Trump in her book, Too Much and Never Enough noted that Trump had once hired someone write an entrance exam for him.  During his time in the Oval Office Trump became famous for insisting on short briefing documents.  It was reported that some aides were concerned that he seemed unable or unwilling to read.  He excelled in his Twitter commentary, but not because of his command of written English.  In his speeches Trump was not encumbered by the norms of rhetoric. Still he communicated well.  Those who chose to listen seemed to understand what he was trying to say.  It may well be that this success involved a guileless grasp of the tools and traditions of orality – the norms of communication in the pre literate world. 

Of course, it might just be that the seeming lack of literacy in Trump’s political performance was due to ignorance or anti intellectualism.  He related well to his followers because they shared his disinterest in information, whether it be true or false, and his love of the tall tale.

Whatever the reason, be it orality or ignorance, for the literate and well informed, Trump’s appeal remains hard to fathom.

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