An Interview of
Dr. David Abram – The Spell of Literacy
Dr. David Abram is a renowned visionary, cultural ecologist, philosopher, author, teacher, speaker, and performance artist. Utne Reader named him one of a hundred visionaries currently transforming the world and he has been the recipient of numerous other honors including fellowships from the Rockefeller and Watson Foundations. His highly acclaimed book "The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World" received the international Lannan Literary Award for non-fiction. His essays have appeared in journals including: Orion, Parabola, Tikkun, Wild Earth, Resurgence, The Ecologist and Environmental Ethics. A highly sought after public lecturer, Dr. Abram delivered the keynote address to the United Nations "World Environment Week" at Muir Woods and the New England Aquarium and the Orion Society sponsored a public debate between him and the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson on the topic of science, ethics, and the future of environmentalism. Dr. Abram is the founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics a consortium of individuals and organizations that employs the arts, often in tandem with the natural sciences, to provoke deeply felt shifts in the human experience of nature. Additional bio info
"The Magic of Reading"
"...Western culture, or Western civilization, seems more precisely named “alphabetized civilization”, or “alphabetic civilization”.
"... Once we start writing, we are able to then reflect back upon what we have written, and we enter into this kind of recursive relation to our own written signs. ...and only then does a certain degree or experience of self-reflection, that we now sort of take for granted, come into being."
"It's not by chance that the word spell has this double meaning - to cast a spell, or to arrange the letters in the correct order to spell out a word. ... to be able to arrange the letters in the right order, to actually conjure, as it were, that thing that you just spelled—it was experienced by oral peoples, who had not met the written word before, as magic, as a very powerful form of magic."
"So, the history of the Jewish people, and hence, of Christianity as well, is integrally intertwined with the story of the alphabet — with this phonetic writing system that unlike any others that came before it, or any others that developed elsewhere, that privileged the human voice."
"...our writing system, very very powerfully, not only impacts our experience of our own subjectivity, it also profoundly impacts our experience of the sensuous surroundings. So much so, that I would have to say that the alphabet has played a very crucial role in the deepening environmental crisis—ecological crisis that now besets us on every hand."
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: One aspect of our work has to do with understanding the roots of the confusion involved in learning to read. That of course leads to exploring the relationship between the code and the brain and the uniquely artificial challenge to the brain that processing the code involves – a challenge that depending on how well children come through it, can be all but fating to their lives.
So, we’ve got to understand the code. The influence of the code has been staggering, on both the infrastructure of civilization and the infrastructure in our brains that generates our awareness, as well as on a great many of the different dimensions that grow out of both. And yet, the code is something that most of us take for granted.
As you know we interviewed Dr. Robert Logan in Canada. His book, The Alphabet Effect basically extends the paper he and Marshal McLuhan co-wrote called Alphabet Mother of Invention, and in some ways dovetails with your work. We would like to hear from you about your understanding of the code and its affects on humanity. With that as a backdrop, we then want to look at what’s happened to this code because the earliest code is radically different than the English code we read today – different in terms of the levels of ambiguity that have to be processed, faster than the speed of thought, in order to construct the virtual reality stream we call reading.
Reading is Like Magic:
Dr. David Abram: Right. Now, you know, from glancing at my work, that I interpret a number of these points, the ambiguity for instance, in different ways. And, I speak of this in very different ways. So, for instance, it’s not so simple for me to think of the alphabet as a code, because my angle, which traces its influence upon culture, beginning with, and looking at, oral cultures and the first experience of writing, as very much as a form of magic. And, it seems to me that that’s been a very compelling angle from which to understand different forms of writing, and, in particular, the alphabet. So, calling it a code frames it also.
From where I’m coming from the alphabet does have a lot of irrationality in it, and that’s what I want to emphasize. To me, it’s the non-rational aspects of reading that make it marvelous. And, I suspect, this is one of my personal suspicions, is that it’s not possible to get it down all in a nice rational code, because there’s something in the whole practice that is inherently, for lack of a better word, it’s a kind of magic. That is, it involves imagination. It involves ambiguity from the get-go. It is so inherent to this very bizarre, I believe, animistic act of reading—to focus one’s eyes on these little bits of ink on a page, and see visions, and hear conversations that are unfolding on the other side of the planet, to see scenarios that happened, not just elsewhere, but two thousand years ago and to experience all this through my participation with these little, ostensibly inert bits of ink on a page is, it seems to me, a kind of magic.
So I see reading as a kind of animistic participation not that different from an indigenous Hopi woman stepping out of the pueblo and walking along the path and having her eyes grabbed by a small bush wherein a spider is weaving its web. And, as she focuses her eyes on that spider, she suddenly feels herself addressed, or spoken to by the spider. Or, a Lakota man strolling down a path and seeing a boulder and his eyes are captured and he focuses on a patch of lichen on that boulder and suddenly finds that the boulder is speaking to him. And, he enters into a conversation with the boulder. We do just the same thing, with our own scratches and scripts. We come down in the morning, open the newspaper, focus our eyes on these little bits of ink, and they start speaking to us. And, we enter into this rich, magical field of conversations happening at other times and other places. This is an intensely concentrated form of animism, but it is animism none-the-less. As outrageous as a talking stone, or a talking spider. We do it with our own scratches and scripts. Our ancestors did it with leaves, spider webs, tracks of animals, clouds, twigs, boulders. It’s as though we have focused down this animistic proclivity of our senses in order to practice it so intensely with our own scratches and scripts, that this new magic we’re engaged in has effectively eclipsed all the other forms of participation in which the human organism once engaged. So, the sun and the moon no longer speak to us. Trees no longer seem to speak directly to us. Boulders, certainly not. Gusts of wind. Uh, uh. But, the page does. Or the neon sign, with its lettering, does. Wherever we see letters of the alphabet, we feel ourselves being spoken to, addressed.
And, I would say that that is homologous, it’s directly related, to the way a non-writing culture, a culture without any formal writing system experiences the whole of the sensuous surroundings as expressive, as speaking, as animate, as alive—not primarily speaking in words, but, nonetheless; the more we pay attention to the world around us and the things around us, the more our experience is filled with expressive, meaningful gestures and stories to be learned from.
David Boulton: I’m very interested in what you’re saying; let’s travel through some of the work that you’ve done and show the unfolding effect of writing on our minds and culture and, at that point, go back into a deeper exploration of just what you said, which I think is beautiful.
Yes, we probably have different meanings about ‘ambiguity’. It’s not that important that we go into that now.
We’re very interested in the effects of learning to read on us, in every possible way. There’s over a hundred million people whose lives are being negatively impacted by reading-related issues in this country alone. So, that’s the space we’re getting to. But, in order to get there, we need to de-mystify, and, in some ways, bring about a richer myth about this whole process of becoming literate, which is brand new in the evolutionary unfoldment, and has had a profound and radical effect on us. We can’t look around us, unless we’re pretty deep in nature, and not see something that’s an expression of the affect of thinking through this system.
Dr. David Abram: Through this system, and certainly everything we, these days, call Western culture, or Western civilization, seems more precisely named an “alphabetized civilization”, or “alphabetic civilization”.
David Boulton: Yes, there are scientists that work on cognitive processes that can see that whether one grew up taking off and reading easily or didn’t affects their ability to think abstractly. This is analogous to the difference between oral cultures that have never been exposed to writing and highly literate cultures. So, exploring how literacy affects how we think is critical.
How Reading Affects Us:
Dr. David Abram: Yeah, absolutely. I guess in a sense, my focus has been that I’ve read so many wonderful studies on its influence upon how we think. And, I’m curious; I’ve been particularly interested in how does it affect how we perceive the world when we’re not reading? And, how does it affect our experience of language, and linguistic meaning once we have become literate, alphabetically literate?
So, I’m coming as a cultural ecologist and philosopher, and noticing these things that would be wonderful to unpack at more depth, because it’s very obvious to me, for instance, (and it’s amazing that this has not been brought out, or I haven’t seen it in other people working on the alphabet), that only when the alphabet comes into a culture, when a phonetic alphabet arrives, only then does that culture get this odd notion that language is an exclusively human property, or possession. And, the rest of the land falls mute. You don’t experience this in that way among Eastern cultures working with more ideographic, or somewhat iconic scripts. Certainly not among the Mayan, and obviously not among the Egyptians. But, our writing system very, very powerfully not only impacts our experience of our own subjectivity, it also profoundly impacts our experience of the sensuous surroundings. So much so, that I would have to say that the alphabet has played a very crucial role in the deepening environmental crisis—ecological crisis that now besets us on every hand.
David Boulton: In the sense that that ecological crisis is a reflection of what literacy has done to our minds?
Dr. David Abram: Well, David, I wouldn’t say as a reflection of an internal crisis happening here, but that the crisis, for me, has been from the get-go, a crisis out here. It’s not in the world, nor is it in us; it’s in the relation between the two. And, the alphabet, like any writing system, is a relationship between the human organism and something external to it, in the surrounding, sensory world. In this case, it’s the written marks on the page and the way in which those marks, the way in which the letters, the written characters, interrupt the spontaneous sensory reciprocity between the human organism and the organic world—the spontaneous solidarity and participation between the human senses and the rest of the sensuous, the whole of the sensuous surroundings.
In a sense, the letters usurp that participation and they break that circuit. They short-circuit this old reciprocity that any oral culture and the participants in any oral culture are experiencing, in relation to the animate earth that surrounds them. And once that’s broken, then the rest of nature is not being felt nearly as richly, nearly as poignantly. It begins to seem like just a kind of inert or passive backdrop against which human unfoldings happen. But, it’s not a player in those unfoldings. Whereas, for every oral culture, it’s a major player, and the various other animals, the plants, the winds, are major players in human unfoldings.
I think we could still make the case that they really are, that the surrounding, natural landscape, whichever bio-region we happen to inhabit, is deeply affecting the human goings-on there. But, we take it entirely for granted. We can’t see it. We don’t notice it. It’s just passive stuff, a bunch of objects or, worse, just a set of resources for us to manipulate and use for our own purposes. Hence, the environmental crisis is a crisis of perception, an inability to see anything outside the frame of an exclusively human discourse, an exclusively human conversation. Because meaning, once the alphabet arrives, gets encapsulated within an exclusively human sphere. It’s something that we carry, and we speak of it being inside ourselves, and we trade it around among one another, you know, between ourselves. That is the foundation of a tremendous crisis, when the surrounding landscape, when the earth underfoot, and the air that envelopes us, and the water we drink, is not seen as having its own meaning. We’re the ones who give meaning to the world. The rest of the world is just, basically, inanimate or, at best, determinate—a set of entirely mechanical processes. So, that was just responding to why I don’t see it entirely as a reflection of something going on in here. It’s a whole breakdown of relationships that have happened between us and the world because we’ve entered into this new relationship with “the page”.
David Boulton: So how is it that becoming alphabet-literate—what is that changing about human beings that is resulting in what you’re describing?
Dr. David Abram: What I would say is that the alphabet and alphabetic literacy does not cause our human estrangement from the more-than-human natural surroundings. But, it makes it possible in a way that simply is not possible for traditionally oral, indigenous peoples, who are so deeply embedded in the particular landscapes that they inhabit. And, they are practicing relationship all the time with the various other organisms, the other animals, the plants, but also with the winds and the weather powers. They have to, just for strictly practical purposes, in order to make their living. They have to apprentice themselves to the other animals, in order to get close enough to another animal in order to bag it for dinner. So, they’re in a very deep, reciprocal relationship with the land and the land itself is experienced as something expressive, as something that is active, is animate, is alive. And, writing, and particularly alphabetic writing, makes possible a forgetting of that larger field of active agencies. It makes it possible that a literate person gets caught up in a conversation, strictly with other people and with books and with his own things that he or she has written last week, and reading those things over and gradually situating herself entirely in a space of meanings that are exclusively human; then nature can fall away. But, that last little piece that I said actually doesn’t make a lot of sense without first speaking in a little more depth about oral cultures and the way language and linguistic meaning is carried within oral cultures.
Culture Before Writing:
David Boulton: OK, So perhaps an interesting point that we should touch on here is how writing affected the oral language of non-literate people. That’s one area of particular interest to us. But, go back as far as will give you a good takeoff into the differences. What is oral language like for a culture that never had writing? Then how was that affected by writing.
Dr. David Abram: Right. Well, I think it’s very hard for us literates to imagine our way into the experience of a culture without writing, by which I mean, without a formal system of writing that is tied to the spoken language, as ours is. Because, of course, there are writings, one could say, all around us. Wolves are writing with their urine. They’re leaving scents in various places to be read by other wolves about their territory and terrain. There are this sort of curious calligraphy made by rivers, as they wind their way through the land, and they inscribe the arroyos and canyons into the earth. So, writing, in a certain sense, is a part of what the world does. It leaves traces and tracks of itself—the tracks of bear, the tracks of deer. The world also speaks, and is an expressive world, richly expressive. And, it speaks in a thousand tongues.
Very few people have wondered how the ancestrally-accumulated knowledge of a community is preserved in a culture without the written word, in a culture without writing. Because, let’s remember that, for the vast bulk of our existence as a species, we lived without any formal system of writing. How, then, was all of the necessary knowledge about how to survive in any particular land preserved and handed down? How to survive without depleting the plants and the other animals of this terrain, without screwing up the land, without inhibiting the ability of the land to replenish itself? Or, the knowledge of how to get on among ourselves, without too much strife, and where to find particular plants that are good for food and then which plants are good for food, which parts of those plants are toxic, and how to detoxify them? Which plants are good for healing cramps, or for healing headaches, and how to prepare various animal skins in the appropriate season for clothing, or for shelter? All of this ancestrally-accumulated knowledge that would have been necessary for our indigenous ancestors to survive. How was this knowledge carried and preserved?
For us, it’s easy. We go to the library. We find a particular book that has the information we’re looking for. We look up in the index, find the right page. And, it’s right there. But, in a culture without books, how’s the language held? How is all of this knowledge held? And, for those who have pondered this a bit, and maybe you have, some, you would immediately realize that, hmm, in stories, in vital, dynamic stories. Oral cultures are story-telling cultures. They’re cultures of story, of face-to-face story-telling. And, the stories, of an oral, non-writing culture, are like the living encyclopedias for that culture. The stories carry all of this information in the tales, tucked in various points within these tales, or in the cycles of stories that are told in certain seasons. And, sometimes, the storyteller will break into a chant or a song, a rhymed set of couplets that carry particularly careful, carefully encoded information about how to make a particular food or how to construct a particular artifact that one might need. So, these are held in songs, and sung stories, and stories that are told often. But, the question then remains, how is it that the stories are remembered, in a culture without writing. Again, we would just go find the right story book, to find the story.
But, in a culture without books, how are the stories remembered and preserved? And, the answer to this has not, as yet, been well enough understood by scholars and anthropologists. At least, a very crucial factor in the way that oral stories are preserved for oral peoples is that the stories, well, for one thing, they will have often, as central characters, other animals that one would meet regularly as one goes about the course of one’s day. So that, the key characters in these stories are often not people, but coyote, or raven, or spider, or wolf, or deer. Other animals that are endemic to the landscape within which an oral culture is situated. So that, whenever any person within that community is going about his or her daily business, and, encounters one of those animals, it sort of triggers the memory of the various events in which that character figures, in which coyote has played a role. And, this sort of enables the land, in a certain sense, to be a kind of memory trigger for the oral stories.
But, much more important, and much more significant is that the stories of an oral culture are very often associated with particular places in the land where those stories happened, or where the events in those stories are believed to have happened. And, so, when you come upon that particular site, that cluster of boulders, that bunch of old trees and tree skeletons at this spot, or this river edge, it triggers the memory of the events that happened there, in those stories. So, the land, in this sense, is the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for remembering the oral tales, which carry all the information for an oral culture.
So, as a simple example, my colleague, the American poet, Gary Snyder, was visiting Australia and staying with some Aborigine people and an aborigine elder was driving Gary through the outback in a pick-up truck. His name, I believe, was Jimmy Tjungurrayi. And, Mr Tjungurrayi is driving Gary through the outback and as they’re driving, he’s telling him various stories from the dream time. He’s telling him a story about the wallaby women over there, where they bumped into some of the green ant people and they got into a big fight and so the green ants went running up on top of that hill over there, where they encountered some of the crocodile men. Whoa! And, then some fornication happened, very difficult, and so the crocodiles came running down. And, he’s telling the story so quickly that Gary, listening, wants him to slow down, you know, slow down, so I can follow the story, until suddenly, Gary Snyder realizes, with a start, that these stories were originally meant to be told while walking. But, they’re traveling through the outback in a pickup truck. And, so they’re passing each of the sites where these stories happened very rapidly. The intimacy between language and the land, in a traditionally oral culture, is so intense, that you have to pace the speed of your speaking to the speed at which you’re moving through the terrain. Many other examples of this could be given, many. But, the important thing to recognize there is that living in an oral culture is experienced as living in a speaking, expressive land. Because the land is alive with stories, sprouting from every creek, and every dry riverbed, and every cave and every cliff. The land is the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger for remembering the stories, for remembering all the linguistic information.
Writing Displaces Nature:
Well, when writing first comes into such a culture, and the stories begin to be written down, the stories, that is, are being stripped off of the particular sites where they are believed to have occurred, and are being planted on the page of the book. And, the ink’s traces made by the pen as it moves across the page begin to replace the tracks made by the animals and by one’s animal ancestors as they moved across the land so that the page now becomes the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger for remembering the linguistic information. And, the land begins to seem superfluous. It’s no longer necessary to the act of thinking. You no longer need to see those cliffs, and these mountainsides, and these kinds of trees, to remember clearly the stories that form the whole matrix of your thinking awareness. The stories now, in books, can be carried elsewhere. They can be read in distant cities, on distant continents, and they’re read by people who read about these curious stories, these folk tales and fairy tales. We read about the little people who live off in the fields, the tiny little beings who dwell under mushrooms and we think, ‘ah, what a wonderful imagination those unlettered peasants had!’ But, if we were still living in that kind of culture, and our grandmother was tugging us out and saying, you know, ‘come, look at this wee one there.’ ‘Aw, look at that little one there, just there under that mushroom, yeah, do you see him?’ ‘Ah, there he comes, coming out now!’ And, you look closer to see what she’s looking at, and you slowly see slug man, slowly emerging from that mushroom, comes the slug with his antenna extending and slipping back, and you begin to realize that these stories carried real information, about real things going on in the real earthly world. So, it’s quite a dramatic change in our felt experience of the more than human natural landscape once we step into a regime of writing.
And, perhaps you can understand now, perhaps we can understand better the desolation and the difficulty experienced by so many traditionally oral indigenous peoples when they are suddenly forced out of their ancestral homelands, because we want to clear cut their forests on some island in Indonesia. And, so, we’ll push the people, we’ll relocate them onto another island. Or, perhaps we want to flood the homeland of some indigenous oral people because we want a new hydroelectric dam, and so we have to relocate these oral people into another land. But, you see, to push a traditionally oral people out of their ancestral homeland is tantamount to pushing them out of their mind. Because the land is the very matrix of linguistic meaning for an oral or non-writing culture. They need the land to think by. So, perhaps we can understand the destitution of so many traditionally oral peoples that have been displaced from their lands.
Of course, for us literate moderns today, we no longer think that we need the land to think by. We no longer believe that we need the land in order to think correctly. But, perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps the increasing ecological disarray that we see around us and the ever-increasing rapidity with which species are slipping into extinction, and, with which, the air that we breathe and the water we drink is losing its integrity and its healthfulness, suggests that there is something amiss in our thinking, that we have been forgetting something.
David Boulton: That was nice. A couple of things came to mind listening to you. One is the analog to the early churches. I mean, churches were memory theaters; their art and, later, architecture, evoked memories and thoughts – the way the art was distributed ‘told’ stories somewhat analogous to your description of how the landscape cued thoughts and memories. The big difference being the churches were purposefully designed to evoke stories in people, and that’s a big step away from the way oral cultures experienced nature’s memory theater.
Dr. David Abram: Yes, very much so. But, it’s interesting, because there’s a rich transition there from the land itself as, sort of the matrix of meaning and the memory theater. But, it’s not a theater then, it’s before there is any theater. But, then, in the Dark Ages, in the Middle Ages, gradually, there emerges this sense of the great memory work, and the masters, the ars memoria, which involved, for orators, constructing in one’s mind a sort of memory palace through which you would walk, and each site, every window, every niche would remind you of a topic. And, that’s why they’re called topics, because they were originally topoi, that is “places”, topos were places within the palace that would trigger the memories. But, it all derives from, I think, this very old ancestral experience for a million years, of having our organism in this deep, participatory relation with the living landscape and having memory held there. Not humans projecting it upon the land, but, quite organically, emerging between the people and the land.
David Boulton: Hmmn. Yes, I understand the distinction you’re making. It parallels a distinction that we make between artificially structured virtual reality and natural reality, and the role of writing systems in the emergence of the artificial. It seems like the oral language…( btw, you just said a million years, as you know, there’s quite a lot of debate out there about how long we’ve been speaking) but regardless of ‘when’, the most interesting question to me is how did we become so verbally self-reflexive – how did self-awareness via words become our primary modality of awareness? When does that creep in? How much of a role does writing play in the development of verbal-self-reflexivity?
Dr. David Abram: Right. It’s interesting for me how often scholars and thinkers associate language with self-reflexivity, from the get-go. That is, they associate verbal language with this kind of self-reflexivity. Whereas, it seems to me that that common mistake is the mistake of taking for granted writing, and the assumption that writing is just a sort of neutral record of spoken speech, when, in fact, writing brings such a remarkable transformation within our experience of language and linguistic meaning. Once we start writing, we are able to then reflect back upon what we have written, and we enter into this kind of recursive relation to our own written signs. So, only then, a certain degree or experience of self-reflection that we now sort of take for granted comes into being.
Prior to that, it is not that oral peoples and traditionally oral, indigenous peoples are not self-reflective and are not, in fact, brilliant in their cognitive gifts and styles. But, the reflexivity experienced by traditionally oral peoples is much more related to the more-than-human natural landscape. That is to say, they feel themselves still reflected in the land, and by the land, and they enter into relation with themselves by being in close relation with other creatures, with other shapes of sensitivity and sentience, with trees or with whole forests—so that many traditionally oral peoples have practiced what anthropologists, for lack of a better term, began to call “totemism,” which is simply the sense that human society and human culture in its multiplicity and diversity is mirroring various relationships that one sees in the surrounding natural landscape. So that, if I am of turtle clan, and you are of raven clan, our relationships as people carry something of, and need to draw certain guidance from, the relationships that we see between turtles and raven in the surrounding land. I could speak on this for quite awhile and I don’t want to get side-tracked there; it’s actually fairly delicate, and the specifics of totemism is probably not something worth drawing upon for your program. But, totemism is the experience of a kind of mirroring between human culture and the natural landscape.
When we speak of reflection and self-reflection, it’s important to realize that for a traditionally oral, non-writing culture, thought is not self-reflexive. It’s not caught in this loop where I can enter strictly into a relation with myself, through my own language. That is something that emerges with the written word, that kind of self-reflexive loop, that, I would say, short-circuits the spontaneous reciprocity between the human organism and the sensuous, natural landscape, where we are in a kind of reciprocal field of relationships that we are carrying on with ravens, with wolves, with the sun, calling the sun up out of the ground in the morning, with the moon as it moves through its phases, with the forest, with the winds and the weather patterns of this place. So, we’ll do our dances to help invoke the rain when it is the right season. We’re in this active field of reciprocities with the surrounding land, taking much of our sustenance from the land, but also giving back to the land through our dances, through our songs of praise, through our honoring of the land in ever so many ways.
So, there’s this kind of a loop, or reciprocity, that is basic to the human organism that gets interrupted, it would seem, when writing comes into a culture and people begin to enter into this reflexive loop with their own written signs. The land is left out of account and begins to seem superfluous, or perhaps as now, just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds. Or, perhaps a passive set of resources for us to mine, mine up and use for our own purposes. It no longer has its own rich, inherent value and life on its own part.
David Boulton: That speaks elegantly to the fall out of resonance, lack of communion, or participation, that you are describing. The other side of this fall though, is significantly increased verbal self-reflexivity and an increased ability to be volitionally abstract, to think about what we’re thinking, to become more and more meta-aware, and analytical. Yes, we can compartmentalize and say, ‘well, there’s a lot of bad stuff that comes from that, there’s a lot of trouble that comes from that,’ but, there’s also a lot of the marvels of our world, the nature and structure of a lot of what we take for granted that’s good, that has also been constructed out of this process.
Dr. David Abram: Very much so.
David Boulton: And, so, as we speak to what becoming literate did to our relationship with nature, and the more-than-human world, there’s also this powerful enablement that’s come from it that I want you to speak to as much as you’re comfortable with. And, I appreciate what you’re saying, that because we’ve become so occupied and engaged with this non-human thing – this code, this writing – we’re spending less time with nature. We have a different reality, a different experience, a different way of experiencing reality. That seems to be part of the story.
But, there’s also something else that’s happening to us—how we process reality, how we slice and dice and cut it and assemble it. That’s different and that is brought about by writing.
So, those are two points that connect to where we were, to what you’re saying, that interest me.
Dr. David Abram: Yeah, nice. Right, right. And, which I’d love to speak to some. There is one thing that I don’t want to forget, so let me just set it here as just one small factor. I’m curious if you folks have bumped into any questions regarding this sort of abstraction and reflection that has been made possible by the alphabet. It’s interesting that the interior thinking, the inner monologue that we tend to experience when we are cogitating, that it is a sense of words playing within my head.
David Boulton: The self-talk story; what we say to ourselves becomes a primary learning environment. We’re developing it.
Dr. David Abram: Right. But, I’m wondering if just the very visceral, the very felt inner-sensory experience, audibly (with one’s mind’s ears) hearing this play of words inside our heads—what the Buddhists call roof-brain chatter. It’s not clear to me that that has been in existence very long. We do know that the experience of reading silently is much, much more recent than the experience of reading with the alphabet, which was for many, many centuries an experience of reading aloud. Or at least mumbling, often because there was no punctuation, and there were not even spaces between the words, so that you needed to sort of sound it out in order to discover what the words were that you were reading.
But, in the Middle Ages, once spaces are introduced into the text between words, and various new forms of punctuation, it’s much more possible to see and get the meaning without sounding it out. And so, a kind of inner, just reading-to-one’s-self, becomes possible. It’s evident to me that the experience of inner speech, of inner thinking, as we think inwardly all the time now and we experience it as being interior, does derive from that interiorization, or that moment when we begin to be able to read silently, because the experience of inner discourse, inner thought, is very kindred to the experience of reading silently.
David Boulton: When we talked to Russ Whitehurst, the Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of research, he said something that fits in right here, something to the effect that: ‘reading and thought become the same thing‘ There’s a point at which what we call thought today and what’s going on with reading are just indistinguishable, that their structures are so similar. The same is true across the cognitive science conversations.
Then, as you alluded to, there’s the Greeks where all the letters run together without any spaces between words. They, at least, recognized that the Phoenician’s sound system was different from theirs and they had to do things in order to match it up with their sound system. Something the English didn’t do.
Dr. David Abram: Right, interesting. And, one place we should get back to later, is vowels. It’s a very big one for me.
The Magical Spell of Writing:
Maybe just the first thing I’ll say in relation to the questions you are raising is that I’m not in any way interested in demonizing writing or the alphabet or in saying that it’s bad in any way. I am a writer, and I love the written word; I love it. And, I love what it enables for me. What I am saying is that writing is magic and that it is a very potent form of magic. And that, unless we recognize how potent, how powerful this technology is, and how profoundly and how even in many non-rational ways, it influences our experience, unless we recognize the magic of the written word, then we are simply under its spell. And, it’s not by chance that the word spell has this double meaning – to cast a spell, or to arrange the letters in the correct order to spell out a word. Because these two meanings were at one time very, very close. Because to learn to read with this new magical technology, to be able to arrange the letters in the right order, to actually conjure, as it were, that thing that you just spelled—it was experienced by oral peoples, who had not met the written word before, as magic, as a very powerful form of magic.
“Talking leaves,” is how words on pages were described by many of the native peoples on this continent when they first encountered missionaries who would read from books that they would open up, or when they would make their own writing in those books. And, then they just look in them and seem to experience words, coming off of the page. Or, they would open a letter sent from afar, and they would understand what someone had written to them. To many of the indigenous peoples of this continent and other continents, it seemed like here this flat piece of paper, this leaf, was speaking—talking leaves. I think there’s something true and right to the notion that writing is a kind of magic, because its effect upon us is not entirely rational. It has very deep, emotional, cognitive, and perceptual effects upon our experience, upon our experience of the sacred, and our experience of meaning and the surrounding world.
David Boulton: I agree with you that we must recognize the incredible and even magical power of writing. And, we don’t really recognize the power of language either. I mean you could say that most people realize there was a ‘before’ and ‘after’ walking upright. People somewhat recognize there was a before and after coming into spoken language. But, our society generally doesn’t appreciate that as much as walking upright. And, it seems to me that when we talk about what’s most defining of modern humans, you’ve almost got to start there. And then, there’s coming into literacy as a species, what it’s done to us.
So, let’s talk about that progression; what oral language was like before there was any writing, from your experience with oral cultures. And then, moving from that, let’s go into a brief history of writing, from your view, with emphasis on the alphabet—the emergence of the alphabet and its effect on the first major cultures. Rather than try to be as comprehensive, let’s talk about the things that strike you the most, and that live with you the most. Perhaps we can begin with whatever you can say that’s juicy for you about what happened to the Hebrews, a kind of before and after, culturally, as a people, as a community, before and after writing. And, then do the same thing for the Greeks.
The Alphabet's Big Bang:
Dr. David Abram: OK, to speak of the Hebrews before and after, that’s very interesting, but, it’s quite a conundrum. The Jews become a people, during the Exodus, when Moses goes up a mountain, with two blank stones, and he comes down with writing on them. The guy’s a scribe, obviously. It’s a tradition. It’s a scribal cult. A scribe initiates the whole tradition, through the power of these letters, and what they make possible. Of course, the tradition says God wrote on the tablets, or he dictated to Moses. But, obviously, the guy was a scribe. He went up with blank stones and he came down with writing on them, with the ten Mosaic commandments.
So, writing has a profound effect on every aspect of our experience, including our relation to the sacred, and to the divine. It is there, the alphabet, is there at the beginning of the monotheistic tradition, the beginning of this sense that behind all of the many manifestations of the divine in the world, there is a unity. And, what’s more, it seems to speak with a human voice. But, it has a kind of eternity to it that does not fade with time. This experience of human speech, or language, that is eternal, is made possible by the written letters, and the writing down of previously oral speech, and the giving of a permanent form on the page, or on the scroll. It now is there, and, it lives there. The scribe who wrote it may die; still, those words are there, and you can look back and still hear that voice—It speaks to you from a timeless dimension. So, the history of the Jewish people, and hence, of Christianity as well, is integrally intertwined with the story of the alphabet — with this phonetic writing system that unlike any others that came before it, or any others that developed elsewhere, that privileged the human voice.
You’re asking about oral culture, prior to writing, and I’ve said a bit about that in relation to story and memory, and the land —for oral cultures, indigenous cultures. It’s very dangerous and wrong, really, to generalize at all about cultures that, even those in existence still today, are so different from one another, I mean, outrageously different in their beliefs, customs, ways of life, and styles of intelligence and grace.
Animism - Nature Speaks:
And yet, there are a few commonalities to every wholly oral, non-writing culture we know of. All of these were indigenous cultures and they all display a certain perceptual style, a mode of perceptual experience that was termed “animism” by ethnologists and anthropologists (at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century), by which the anthropologists meant to describe a style of awareness that does not distinguish between that which is animate and that which is inanimate. Rather, for these peoples, it seems that everything is animate. Everything moves. It’s just some things move a lot slower than other things, like the ground, or a mountain, or this chair. But, nonetheless, they all move. Each thing has its interior pulse, its own, active agency. Each thing is an active power, influencing the things around it, the space—Influencing us when we turn our attention toward it. Such seems to be the spontaneous experience of the human organism and nervous system. In the absence of any intervening technologies, we seem to spontaneously experience the world as alive, through and through.
One other commonality that one finds in virtually every oral, deeply oral, culture is that not just that everything is alive, but that everything speaks. That everything has, at least potentially, the power of meaningful expression. Things speak by the way they move, by the sounds they make, like a birdsong, to be sure. The rhythm of crickets is a kind of voice, and the hooting of owls, but, also, the wind in the willows, too, is a voice. That is to say, it’s experienced by most non-writing peoples as something that is meaningful. And, they will listen closely to hear what is being said, what is the meaning. ‘Ah, the wind in the willows, the speech of the leaves is saying that a storm is brewing’, or other such meanings that one finds in the speech of the waves as they crash upon the rocks, or the babbling speech of a brook as it moves over the stones. So, these are elements, I would say, that are basic to oral or non-writing cultures, and hence, basic to our own oral ancestry, until we begin to step into formal writing.
One very important element of human language, our kind of language, which we call “verbal” now, takes that particular form when it’s not written down on a page or on a sheet of papyrus, or on a scroll; without which human language doesn’t have a visible representation. Human language, when it’s not written down, is primarily speech. It does not have this external, objectifiable, form on a page so that you can think about it, and name it as language, and think of it as something that one can set aside, or pick up or do things with. Rather, language is something we inhabit. It’s a medium we are immersed in, as it were. And, that medium shows itself as speech, as this very bodily, expressive, rhythmic sounding thing we do with our voice.
But what’s very interesting is that, oral peoples the world over seem to recognize that speech is nothing other than sound-breath. It is shaped breath. We speak by inhaling this mysterious, invisible substance that we are immersed within. We inhale it, and then, as we breathe out, we shape our ‘out-breath’ with our teeth, our lips, and our palette, and we let it vibrate some chords in our throat, and send it out into the world. And, it is my breath that carries my sounds, my speech, into the world. And, it is this invisible air that carries my words to your ears, or your words to my ears. So, the air, the breath, the wind, these are, in many ways, the mystery of mysteries, for many, many oral peoples—the mysterious nature of the enveloping atmosphere, the wind, the air. Why mysterious? Well, because we can’t see it. We can see that it’s moving the branches of trees. We can see it’s lofting the clouds overhead. We recognize that we cannot think a single thought without continually imbibing this invisible substance. So, how do we know that it is not the wind that is also thinking our own thoughts? That the air is thinking within us?
And, in fact, this is a conception that is found among various, indigenous, oral peoples, like the Navaho people near here, the Dinè people, as they call themselves. Their most holy, in a sense, cosmological power, is something they call “nilch’i“ which means “The Holy Wind”. The Holy Wind is the whole body of the air, the sky above, the air we breathe, the air that moves and circulates within our bodies—all of this is nilch’i, the Holy Wind. And, Holy Wind is what gives all things life and breath and awareness. The Navajo elders and chanters will say, well, you cannot see the Holy Wind directly, but you can see it by the traces that it leaves. It leaves these little spiraling patterns wherever it moves. So, these spiraling patterns in our fingertips, they say, are where ten little winds entered into our fingertips when we were born, and the spirals in our toe tips are where ten little winds entered into our toes when we were born. The little winds in our toes hold us to the ground. And, the little winds in our fingertips hold us to the sky, that’s why we don’t fall down when we’re walking. But, they say there are also these spiraling folds in our ears, and that’s where two little winds dwell within our ears, “wind’s children”, they sometimes call them. We know they’re there because there are these spiraling folds in our ears. And, when you’re thinking thoughts, when you hear that play of words inside your head, the Navajo elders, the Dinè elders say, well, that’s just wind’s children talking to you, from inside your ears. But, of course, these little winds in our ears are messengers of the winds of the Four Directions, who themselves are subsidiaries of the vast body of nilch’i, the Holy Wind. So, this is a notion of awareness, or mind, not as something that is inside us, but, mind or awareness as that which we are inside of, along with all the other animals, and the plants, and the trees and the clouds. We live within nilch’i, the very body of awareness, which is the invisible air. So, air, wind, breath, is a great magic to a culture without writing, to a culture for whom language is nothing other than shaped breath.
And, the experience for so many oral cultures is that one is immersed in this thick, meaning-filled plenum. It’s invisible, but, the air, nonetheless, is filled with voices, and communications, criss-crossing between various animals, and humans, and plants sharing their pollen with bees. And, so many messages, so much meaning, lives in this invisible substance in which we’re embedded, in which we’re immersed.
Sacred Breath and the 1st Alphabet:
So, it’s very interesting that the first alphabet that we know of, the earliest phonetic Aleph Bet, originates among Semitic people, perhaps 1500 years B.C., perhaps earlier. It’s a very interesting thing that this earliest Aleph Bet does not have vowels in the writing system. Only the consonants are written down. The consonants, which are the shapes that we give to the breath, the ‘b‘, the ‘buh‘, the ‘kuh,’ ‘duh,’ ‘wuh.’ So, the consonantal shapes are written down, but the vowels are not. In fact, the reader, when reading a traditional Hebrew text, even today, the Hebrew Torah, the Scroll, in the synagogue—the reader has to add his or her breath to those bones on the page, to make them come alive and to speak, because it’s not clear what vowels to add. Why weren’t the vowels written down on the page? Because the vowels are the breath sounds. The vowels are the sounds that the breath, unimpeded, makes as it moves through the mouth, ‘ahh,’ ‘ee,’ ‘ay,’ ‘oh,’ ‘oo.’ And, as breath, they are sacred. They are invisible and, for the Hebrews, as for so many other tribal peoples, one cannot make a visible representation of the invisible spirit. In Hebrew, the word is “ruah“, which means “wind and spirit” inseparably. It’s the wind which is the spirit, the spirit which is the wind.
The 'Not Now' and 'Not Present':
David Boulton: Good. Let’s rewind a little bit. I want to ask about the way that the people that hadn’t been exposed to writing but who lived in a culture that was writing began to think through the lens, through the machinations of writing. In other words, how writing among the elites of a culture changed the oral language of the broader culture and brought about a kind of literal thinking even in the non literate. One of the things that seems important to me is the growth of thought about the not-now, and the not-present. Oral language cultures seem more grounded in the immediate present-now. Their communication has less reference to time and the not-present, not-now. In other words, as you said earlier, the writing system allows us to kind of freeze the language stream and look at it, and push on it, and reflect on it, and do things to it. Without that tool, without ever having experienced that tool, the stream of language is more like the stream of nature. And, one of the differences is this abstract movement away from being in the stream, this now versus, the abstract not-now. So, that is affecting something very fundamental in the way that we think. I want to get at that as best we can.
Disinheriting the Wind:
Dr. David Abram: All right, let’s return to the Navajo, and the nilch’i, the Holy Wind. This notion of mind as wind, it can seem very alien to us today, until we look at the evidences in our own language. In English, our word “spirit” is embedded in our word “respiration”, in the Latin word “spiritus”, which means “a breath”, or “a gust of wind.” So, spirit and wind were once the same thing. Our word “psyche” from which we get “psychology” and “psychiatry”, this word for the mind, originates in the old Greek word, “psychein,” which means “to breathe,” or “to blow”, like the wind. And, for the ancient Greeks, psyche, a psyche,was a breath, or a gust of wind. The word “animal” comes from this old word for “soul,” “anima”. Animal is a being of soul, being is a unanimous sharing one mind, together, and one soul, together. Anima—this word also originally means “a breath” or “a gust of wind.” Even such a scientifically respectable word as “atmosphere” shows its link to the Hindu word “atman,” meaning “soul,” the original word being “atmos” which is the air, which is the soul, or, the soul which is the air.
The Hebrew people, ancient tribal people, also has a word which means spirit and wind, inseparably, just like nilch’i, of the Navajo. The Hebrew word is “ruah”which is perhaps best translated as “rushing spirit”. It is the wind which is the spirit, or the spirit which is the wind, and it’s very sacred within the Hebrew tradition. It’s there in the first sentence of Genesis: ‘The world was without form and void and a ruah of God moved over the waters’. A wind of God moved over the waters. Wind is the very presence of the Divine in the material, sensuous world, that is ruah. But, it’s not the most sacred word within the Hebrew tradition. The most sacred combination of letters would be the four-letter name of God. The Tetragrammaton, YHWH, or as it’s called ‘Yahweh’. Very sacred, very secret. We’re not even sure how YHWH is to be pronounced. Why? Because there are no vowels in the name; it’s just the letters: Y, H, W, H. Why didn’t we write down the vowels? Well, because the vowels are the breath sounds, and the breath is the ruah. It is the invisible spirit. And, you cannot make a visible representation of the invisible spirit. It would be sacrilege. And, so, in the ancient Hebrew writing system, there are no vowels written down. Only the consonants are written. And, the reader has to add the appropriate vowels, just to intuit what vowels to sound out as he or she is feeling her way through the consonants on the page. It’s as if you have to add your breath to those bones on the page to make them come alive and to speak. So, the Hebrews, who are the first keepers of the alphabet, of the Aleph Bet, of this magical, phonetic writing system, they did something very interesting. They became literate, in relation to the visible world, and the visible shapes of the world. And, they would say, God is not that tree. And, God is not that golden calf, is not in any visible image. That is not divine. God is elsewhere. So, they developed this new literate distance from the visible world.
But, they stayed oral with relation to the invisible breath, to the wind, to the invisible ruah that moves between all things. It’s very interesting. It’s a case of a culture that became literate without giving up fully its orality. So, ancient Hebraic religiosity is just as much oral as it is literate. And, I think there’s much to be learned from that, for us today, perhaps. How to be literate and oral at the same time. For me that’s a key and important aspect of the transition from oral to literate is this sense of being immersed in an invisible, meaning-filled plenum, that we now call the atmosphere, or the wind, or the breath, or the air. Whereas in the world we now experience we don’t speak of the air between me and a tree, or between you and I. We just speak of the empty space between us. We don’t notice that there’s anything really here. We can’t see anything there, therefore, it’s just empty space. Literate thought has lost all of that richness, and that magic that it has for oral peoples. How did this happen? Because the Hebrews did not write it; they did not make an image for the breath sounds, the vowels. They carefully refrained from de-sacralizing this magic of the wind, the air, and the breath.
David Boulton: Are you saying that the vowels were not written because they thought it would be sacrilegious to represent that which is sacred, a la the Ten Commandments itself, with an image? Or, because they didn’t differentiate the writing system in the same way that others would do later, as an instrument? They didn’t get meta enough, they didn’t get analytical enough, at that stage of the emergence of the alphabet, to think about ways to improve its effectiveness. In other words, is it a religious aversion to doing something that would be sacrilegious, with respect to imaging the breath with letters for vowel sounds? Or, is it a technological development?
Dr. David Abram: Two ways of saying the exact same thing. It’s entirely possible that they never even thought of it. But, they could not think of it because it was sacrilegious, because the breath is the very breath of the Divine. It is the presence of divinity in this world.
David Boulton: Let’s go to the Greeks, and their oral culture, their oral bard, Homer, and the trajectory you were on to intersect with the alphabet.
Dr. David Abram: OK. So, the Phoenicians pick up this very interesting Semitic innovation, this new writing system, the Aleph Bet. The Phoenicians are an ocean-going, sea-faring gang and carry the Aleph Bet across the Mediterranean, to Greece, and the islands of Greece, where it is picked up and begins to be used by the Greeks. But, it moves into the culture only very slowly, because the Greeks have such a rich, oral tradition. The works of Homer are a case in point.
The great Homeric epics, were only written down fairly late in their history of being recited. It’s fairly clear that Homer himself was blind, was not literate; he was an oral bard. This is clear because the structure of the epics is filled with these patterns of language that one finds in any deeply oral culture, where there are phrases, rhythmic phrases, that repeat themselves again and again. ‘The wine-dark sea’ – ‘When dawn spread out her fingertips of rose.’ There were so many formulaic phrases that Homer had in his awareness, and drew upon whatever was needed to fit the rhythmic structure of the line, as he improvised this tale afresh. He needed something with the right syllable structure, and drew it from this fund of formulaic phrases, in this trance of telling. He’s like a rap artist in the old sense, in the original sense, of, you know, perhaps even strumming a simple instrument, and accompanying himself, maybe rocking, with his body, as he’s telling. The stories unfold, and people hear them, and, at some point, these stories are written down. But, then, do people in the schools, do students read the Homeric epics? No, they still, in Athens, are learning the stories by heart, so that they can tell them. In other words, they become some of the oral inheritance of a culture that puts great value and great weight on oral story-telling, and stories that are the common property within the culture, that everybody knows.
Nonetheless, there’s this interesting shift in the early, phonetic Aleph Bet, or alphabet, once it is brought to Greece. At some point, the Greek scribes realized that they could make it yet more efficient by inserting vowels, by actually writing down not just the consonants, but indicating with written characters the vowel sounds themselves. Wouldn’t this make it much clearer how to read a particular phrase, how to read a particular line? Sure. And, so, they seemed to have no qualms about inventing letters for the vowels themselves. In fact, they actually borrowed some letters that were consonants in the Hebrew writing system, because they had no need for those consonants in the Greek language, and adopted them, and shifted them, as signs for vowels.
So, the Hebrew character, aleph, became “alpha” with the Greeks, from whence comes our “A”,. But, the Hebrew aleph was not a vowel. It was a consonant. It was a glottal stop. This little ‘ch‘ sound of the throat opening in the back of the mouth, before any utterance. The Greeks said, well, let’s use this for our sound, ‘ah,’ or ‘a.’ And, they also took the image of the aleph from the original Hebrew writing system, or the old Semitic writing system. The aleph was originally written as an upside down A, what we would call an ‘a’, but that was sort of turned on its head, like this. Because in the Semitic languages, in Hebrew, aleph means “ox.” And, theit’s quite clear, was a picture of an ox’s head, with its horns protruding. Once the alphabet is brought to Greece, the Greeks also change the direction of the writing system, that is, one no longer reads it from right to left, but, you start reading it from left to right, and, also, of course, then, writing it from left to right. Well, inverting the direction in which one writes, a lot of the letters also got turned over, or turned on their side. And so, the the aleph, got turned upside down, as it became the “alpha”. And, it became the ancestor of our Roman letter “A.”
No longer an image of an ox, the word alpha does not mean anything other than the letter itself. It has no referent in the sensorial world. It doesn’t refer to anything in nature. So, the letters now get a new degree of abstraction from the sensorial surroundings. For the ancient Hebrews, many of the letters still carried this link, both in the image and in the sound. Such as the Hebrew letter “mem”, which is the ancestor of our ‘”M.” Mem, in Hebrew, means “water,” and was drawn as a series of waves. When it is appropriated by the Greeks, because they don’t have that word in the Greek language, the reference of this image to water is lost. It just becomes a way of imaging the sound. Our letter “M,” we now see the “M” and we immediately go ‘mmmm.’ But, we don’t think of anything in the surrounding world of nature. And, this happened with various other letters, like the Hebrew letter “qof”, ancestor of our “Q,” the qof. Qof means, among other things, “monkey”. And, it seems that the image of a circle, and then, intersected by a dangling line that curves a bit in the old Hebrew script, was a little picture of a monkey, as it were, seen from behind. But, that referent to something in the earthly surrounding, more-than-human world, is lost as the Aleph Bet was [came to and was adapted into the Alpha Beta in] Greece. So, the letters now, for the Greeks, no longer refer to anything in the surrounding earth. They simply point back to the human face, to your mouth. You see a “B” and you go ‘buh.’ You see a “C” and you go ‘kuh.’ For the Hebrews, when they would see a “B,” the “B” was our ”B” lying on its sideּ. It was a little house, with a door in the middleּ. That’s what the middle of the “B” was. It was a little house with a door. Because “bet”, the name of this letter, meant “house.” When the letter’s turned up on its side, for the Greeks, and they changed the name from bet to “beta”—that is, they preserved the name, but they switched it into their Greek sound.
So, Aleph Bet becomes “Alpha Beta”. And, the word beta doesn’t mean house. It doesn’t mean anything except the letter itself, which just refers you back to your own face. So, the letters begin functioning as mirrors, as it were, just referring the human back to itself. This is unlike other writing systems, older writing systems, or more pictorial writing systems, more iconic writing systems, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics, or the hieroglyphs of the Mayans in the Americas, or even the more ideographic writing system of China, where many of the characters in the writing system are derived from stylized images of things in the more-than-human world. So, you have stylized images of human implements, houses, interspersed also, with a sunrise, a sun rising behind a stylized tree, mountains. In the Egyptian hieroglyphs, many animals. So, that, the reader, reading one of these writing systems that is not alphabetic, the reader reading these characters is continually reminded of language’s link to the whole, more-than-human surroundings, to the more-than-human field of nature.
The letters, the written characters in a hieroglyphic writing system, or even in an ideographic writing system, or logographic, like the Chinese writing system, the written characters give a new distance from the surrounding world of nature that is different from that deep, sensory participation that oral peoples engage in. The written characters of an ideographic or a more pictorial, iconic writing system, give a new distance from that surrounding, visible, sensory world. But, nonetheless, the written characters still function as windows opening onto that more-than-human world. You can still feel the presence of other animals, of the land, of sun, of moon, of cloud, because they’re still present in the written characters, even in a very stylized and derivative way.
Once the phonetic writing system is developed and then is brought to Greece it loses all of those pictorial ties that still lingered within the ancient Semitic writing system. For the Greeks, the letters no longer operate as windows opening onto that wider, more-than-human field of nature. They now operate as mirrors reflecting the human form back upon itself. So, I no longer think of anything in nature when I’m reading, when I’m seeing a “B,” or a “C,” or an “M.” Instead, I’m going ‘buh,’ ‘kuh,’ ‘mmm.’ The letters are pointing me right back to my own mouth. They’re referring me back to myself. With this shift, with this transformation in writing, human language and meaning begins to close in on itself. For those who begin to wield this new technology, The Alphabet, as it is taken up from the Semites, and then transformed by inserting letters for the vowels, themselves.
By inserting letters for the vowels, the Greeks effectively gave representation to what was the invisible air of our speech, it was de-sacralized. They made it possible for us moderns to forget the air entirely, because it was now something that could be represented like anything else and, they, the Greek scribes, in a sense, broke the taboo that the Hebrew scribes never broke by not making a visible image of the invisible wind, the invisible ruach. Only after the vowels are inserted could the air come to seem just like empty space, a void. And, this is a dramatic transformation in human experience, because the air, of course, is what palpably connects us to one another, to the ground underfoot, to the soil, to a swallow swooping by. It is also a breathing being and the air we’re breathing out is being taken up by all of these rooted plants around. And the air they’re breathing out, the oxygen that the plants breathe out, we’re breathing in. The air is what makes all of us part of one body. Once it is forgotten, once it becomes something that is just empty space, a big distance opens between us and the other things of our world. Things no longer seem to participate in a common meaning.
For the Greeks, their experience of this new alphabet is one where the letters, as I’ve said, are referring them back to themselves, functioning as mirrors, reflecting the human form back upon itself, and so, language, for the first time, begins to be experienced as an exclusively human property, or possession.
Socrates and Plato:
The Western philosophical tradition begins in ancient Athens, where the father or the grandfather of Western philosophy, Plato, is working. He’s a student of the great teacher, Socrates, teaching in Athens, early in the fourth century B.C. And, these two gentlemen, the one of them, Socrates is in all likelihood entirely oral. Maybe he could write his own name, with the new alphabet, but, apart from that, it’s clear that he didn’t write. He didn’t leave any written records. His student,Plato wrote, no doubt, also adding his own twist to many of the conversations that Socrates had with his students. The great Platonic dialogues are all dialogues between Socrates and various other young men of Athens. And, together, these two thinkers inaugurated the new thought style that was to become the Western inheritance, a thought style that was made possible by the Greek alphabet as a mirror [to the human face or voice, foreshadowing/leading closely into ‘interior space’ to follow].
A Transformation in What Writing Represents:
David Boulton: Before we go on to Plato, one of the interesting things that I’m hearing, that I would like to draw out, is that there may have been a multi-ordinal written-oral language connection in the Hebrew writing system that didn’t carry forward in the way the writing system was adapted by the Greeks. And, by that I mean, like you’re describing, something like the way a wizard uses ‘spells’ or the kabalistic use of the alphabet. In one case, there are these elemental representations of the forces of the universe that can be combined in spells and formulas that create this magic in our minds. And, in the others, it’s a disconnected series of elements for transcribing spoken language. The way the Hebrew’s writing system worked is not the same way that the Greek’s did. So the Hebrew’s were able to experience more of nature and the world flowing together to suggest a word and that’s really different than assembling a word from these sound bit cueing letters.
Dr. David Abram: Yes. So, the letters carry more of that magical, animistic feel, still for the Hebrews. And, the fact that they did not introduce letters for the vowels themselves also is central to their preserving some of the oral animistic feel of things. But, they preserved it in relation to the invisible, the invisible air, the wind, the breath, the ruah, the “Holy Wind.”
David Boulton: Even before the Hebrews, with picture writing, or rebuses, all early writing systems have a similar effect in connecting us to what they represent. But by using letters to construct the word, it is constructing the queuing of that word-to-mind in a really different way, both in learning to write it and learning to read it, that affects us.
Dr. David Abram: Yes. You’re speaking of non-phonetic, or, no, you’re speaking of earlier forms. Yeah, the pictorial inheritance of those letters, even if they are now being used as rebuses, or even if, for the Hebrews, the letters are now being used in a largely phonetic manner, they still carry that sensuous tie, or, at least some of them still carry that sensuous link to visible things, and beings within the world, and so there’s still a sense of the world speaking.
David Boulton: Yes, the placement of these letters together in the Hebrew system had an ability to connect concepts, almost more like the ideographic systems did, that would then yield the word, rather than this thing being these pieces of sound that would be assembled to yield the word. And, that, possibly, with the Hebrew system, these two systems worked at both levels, whereas, with the Greeks, this would get stripped away.
Dr. David Abram: Yes. But, it’s important, as I was saying, that with the Greeks; their oral tradition was so strong that literacy didn’t move into the culture much. And, it’s only at a certain point when it caught on, when it’s being taught in the Athenian curriculum, which is right around when Plato’s going to school in Athens, became more of a common property. But, there was so much respect for the stories and for the oral comments of the culture.
Back to Socrates & Plato:
David Boulton: We interviewed Bruce Thornton who wrote the book “Greek Ways: How The Greeks Created Western Civilization” and he said it was a myth that the Greeks were a literate society at any point. They were always an oral culture that used writing in a number of ways that would affect their oral system. But, it never transitioned to being a literate society, in the way that we might think of it.
Now, this suggests a point of entry into the Greeks. One of the most powerful stories that I got from your book had to do with Socrates. A lot of people talk about the Greeks coming into alphabetic literacy. There’s Drucker’s Alphabetic Labyrinth, Logan’s Alphabet Effect, Shlain’s Alphabet vs. the Goddess and so on. But, you made a point, which I think is very powerful, which has to do with the way Socrates expresses himself. Socrates is not expressing himself as an oral culture person, even though he doesn’t write. He doesn’t read.
Referring to this very distinction we’re talking about happening even between Socrates and Plato gives us a sense of the impact writing had on oral language culture, even for those who didn’t read and write, as exemplified in the Socrates/Plato difference.
Dr. David Abram: Right. Well, I think, at this point in Athens, when Western philosophy is born, I think something quite dramatic does happen for those who participate in this new tradition, the philosophers, the lovers of wisdom.
The philosophical tradition seems to originate with Socrates in Athens, carrying on these conversations with various young men, challenging them in a very strange way that had not been experienced by the citizens of Athens before. Here was a man asking about wisdom. ‘Tell me, young man, what is wisdom?’ And, the young man would start to tell a story, one of the stories that he knew, and that others knew, about a wise person, a particular wise individual in one situation. And, Socrates would say, ‘No, no, no, no. You’re telling me about a person. I want to know what is wisdom itself?’ And, his interlocutor would begin telling another story or a little anecdote from another story about another wise person, or a person who acted with wisdom in another situation. And, so it would go. And, Socrates would stop him and finally say, ‘Wait, you are telling me about many different wisdoms, but, I’m asking you about wisdom itself. What is wisdom itself?’
And, this mode of questioning was experienced by the Athenians. One of them said it was like an ‘electric shock’. And, you would wonder, how did the Athenians know what an electric shock felt like. Well, from the sting of a sting ray, or perhaps, of an electric eel. They described Socrates’ teaching or his questioning as being felt like the electric shock of a sting ray. His practice, this mode of questioning, in a sense, what he was doing was interrogating the oral memetic mindset common to oral peoples where one is always drawing in one’s thinking upon this common fund of stories and teaching tales that have been handed down and passed on. It was a shock because Socrates was challenging, each time someone would reply to him in one of these oral modes, when he would interrupt it and say, ‘No, what is beauty itself? What is justice itself?’ And, the person he was asking would then, once again, fall back upon another story of a just man. And, Socrates would interrupt him again. ‘No, I’m asking about justice.’
This mode, the famed Socratic Dialectic, is perhaps best thought of as the interruption of the oral, memetic trance, as it were, by a mode of thinking made possible by the Greek alphabet, which only begins to be taught in the Athenian curriculum in this time, when Plato is a young student, studying in Athens, and just around this time when Socrates is enacting this wild new form of teaching. And, yet, Socrates, himself, was not literate. He’s not a man who writes. He’s an oral man. But, nonetheless, he was making use of the new capacities for reflection that were made possible by the written letters, because only when one writes down the word “justice”, and one has it there as a written, visible word, can one begin to think of justice as a thing in itself, independent of various just situations, or just individuals. And, when you write down the word “wisdom”, you can begin to have a sense that it now exists within the experienced world, within the perceptual field. It has an existence as an independent object in its own right, something that can be thought about. And, it has an existence independent of various, wise individuals—because here it is, on the page. It’s not just being enacted in various situations, because it also exists here, written down.
And so, there was a new kind of reflection, literally, reflection, because as I said, the letters are now functioning as mirrors, in a sense. They are enabling those who write to look back at what they have written, and, what they had written a week earlier, and so, what they were thinking a week ago, and to think further about the same thing, and write some more thoughts, and then to look back and reflect on those. That is, one could now enter into a relation with oneself, or have one’s own thoughts interacting steadily just with other thoughts that one had thought a few days earlier, independent of engaging in conversations with other people, or interacting with the land, with the fields, with the forests, with the buildings. You could now just interact and reflect upon your own written signs. And, this new reflexivity is the origin of what we now speak of as the “reflective intellect”. This mind that we now, as a result of this transformation, think of as being something that is interior to me, located somewhere in my head, that has an autonomy. It’s even independent of my body. It’s able to just reflect upon whatever it wants. But, it has this remarkable independence from the bodily world, and even from my own body. The mind seems to be a separate entity, not entirely tied to the body. It also has an autonomy that is quite new, and it has an abstractness that was not experienced before.
David Boulton: In your example of the conversation between Socrates and the people that he was talking to, every time he asks them a question, they’re going to a specific example, an incident, because there is no generalization that bridges all of these things for them because the only way they know it is in these isolated, individual examples.
Dr. David Abram: Well, they’re not isolated; they’re very contextualized because they only know it in these examples.
David Boulton: They only know it through real experiences. They have not got to the kind of generalizations/abstractions that they can reflect on that connects them all the same way.
Dr. David Abram: Right. That’s right.
David Boulton: And, yet, Socrates picks this up, introduces this, even at the same time, he’s condemning the writing system.
Dr. David Abram: No, no, no, no, no. Let’s be clear that most everything we know of Socrates we know through Plato and through Plato’s writings, in which Socrates plays such a major role, in the Platonic dialogues. And Plato then, first tutored by Socrates or by attending many of these conversations that Socrates conducted with the Athenian youth of his time, Plato then begins to develop a mode or a style of thought that is entirely new in the world, growing out of this dialectic that Socrates practiced. Plato begins to speak of the ideas, the pure forms that exist independent of the sensuous world entirely. They are, as it were, the archetypes, the archetype Justice, Wisdom, Beauty; each of these Plato begins to suggest in his written dialogues, and, he gives the insight, as it were, to Socrates. But, we don’t know how much Socrates was formalizing this way of speaking himself.
David Boulton: I seem to remember Socrates saying (ed. note: The following is from the Phaedrus – a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus written down by Plato (bold emphasis is ours ))
Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
It seems to be that Socrates has an aversion to writing, at one level, and, on the other hand, his dialogues exhibit the properties of mind that are a product of writing.
Dr. David Abram: Yes, but we have to recognize here, and make a distinction between Socrates and Plato’s Socrates. Who you were speaking of is Plato’s Socrates.
David Boulton: Do we know of another? And, how do we know of another?
Dr. David Abram: He’s been written of briefly by some of the other philosophers of the time. I think there are some fragments about him in Aristotle, and others.
David Boulton: Enough to have a picture of him, contrary to this?
Dr. David Abram: Yes, little bits. There are other records of his trial, right? He’s put to death because of this wild move that he is making, interrupting the oral modes. But, it seems to me, (and I would think to many other scholars), that it’s more likely that Plato is the formalizer of this system. And, it’s quite likely that it is Plato who is putting into the mouth of Socrates many of his own teachings, including his disparagement of writing. So, Plato, himself, who is himself a literate man, and, in fact, creates one of the first large corpuses of written work in the whole Western heritage, nonetheless, it seems that he is not particularly aware that what he is developing and promoting is a style of thought that is dependent upon this new technology. He is just practicing this new style of thought that has so much power and efficacy. At the same time, he is also disparaging writing as something that destroys memory, and, once truths get written down, then people have no need of remembering the truth. Any person who hasn’t really learned these truths in his own life, or with careful teaching and schooling, could just pick up that piece of writing and come into possession of an insight that he won’t know how to use and he may misuse that insight. So, in various ways, Plato criticizes or shows that he is wary of this new technology.
Nonetheless, Plato is aware of his participation, in writing as a new technology; but, unbeknownst to himself, is that his own thinking, his own nervous system, is being influenced and informed and profoundly impacted by his interaction with it, making possible this unique style of thought that we call the Platonic Philosophy. Which is, the idea that there exists, as it were, a heaven of pure forms, of pure ideas. The pure form, not just of Truth, of Justice, of Beauty, of Virtue, but as Plato continues working and teaching the students in his academy, he begins to write and teach about the pure form of Tree, the pure form of Table, the ideal form of House, of Elephant.
David Boulton: Isn’t this similar in some ways to the kind of perception of ‘spiritual-animation’ that oral cultures have with nature? Isn’t there an analog there?
Dr. David Abram: I don’t think so. I think it’s profoundly different. What Plato is doing is he is isolating what is common about this table and that table and that table over there which that vendor is selling in the marketplace; because all of these partake of the term Table, but, now, for the first time, the word “Table” does not slip out of existence. Once it is spoken, it doesn’t vanish. Or, let’s say, “River”. There’s this river and there’s that river, and there’s another river, and there’s a very small river that runs by my house. But, each of these rivers had their own unique style, and way. To be sure, they were all called river, but the word, the oral word, river, is spoken, and then slips out of existence until it is spoken again. Once it is written down, the word River now has an existence, visible, independent of these particular rivers. And, the written word lasts. This river may dry up. All of these rivers may dry up. But, this form, River, still exists. It has a kind of eternity. It seems likely that Plato’s intuition is that there exists, in some eternal dimension, the pure form of River. The pure form.
David Boulton: That which is Riverness, the signature distinction that makes this thing different from that thing.
Dr. David Abram: Yes, but you have to understand that he is the first to speak of a realm that is entirely outside of any bodily ken, whatsoever. Plato’s description of the realm of pure forms, of which the things in this world, all of the things in this world are merely facsimiles, poor facsimiles of a Heaven of pure forms. Even the Christian notion of Heaven, originates with Plato’s disclosure, or invention, of another world that is eternal, where things do not change. They do not grow and decay, they just keep existing.
It seems likely that his intuition of such a realm of pure, eternal existences was secretly dependent upon his participation with the written letters, which had this new abstract, independent existence. And, when we would write down a word, that word, or whatever that word named; now that name had its own existence independent of what it named. And, nonetheless, Plato’s insight and his inauguration of this new way of thought, while it was dependent upon what the new alphabet made possible, it seems like that dependence was not recognized by Plato, himself, who disparaged the writing system. Nonetheless, he was making use of it, and, in fact, inaugurating a new, abstract style of intellectual reflection that would become the inheritance of the whole of the Western alphabetic world. And, it is a style of thought that is entirely dependent upon alphabetic writing.
David Boulton: Regardless of the attribution of what’s truly Socrates, or what’s truly Plato; the important distinction here is that they are both unaware of the degree to which they have been profoundly affected by the alphabet’s effect on the oral language they’re using, whether they’re writing or not. The thing I’d like to put a finer point on is the degree to which alphabetic writing leads to greater generalization. We take generalization for granted. Like Justice, like Truth and so forth. It’s just part of the way we all think today. That’s a major thing.
Dr. David Abram: Yes, but, I bet there’s better ways for something. I mean, generalization, yes. But, it’s dicey there and you don’t want to waste time in your series articulating something that’s very difficult to articulate, because people will say, well, obviously, though, there are generalities in the world itself. And, we say, ‘well, no, not until they’re spoken of.’ OK. But, if they’re speaking of, and they’re calling this the Tigris River, and they’re calling this the Euphrates River, and they’re calling this the Black River and this the White River, they’re using the word river for all of those, so, obviously there is something that people are recognizing that’s general. And, that’s an important point because if you’re using “river”, you’re recognizing some generality there. So, you’re right, there is a new experience of the existence of the general.
David Boulton: Well, in the conversation you’re talking about, the conversation that Socrates is having with these people, their mind’s gravitating toward responses which are specific, this river, not Riverness. He’s asking for Riverness but they’re saying ‘this river, this river, and that river.’
Dr. David Abram: Yes, [those answers/replies] are embedded in context, story context in the actual world.
David Boulton: While the use of the word “river” implies a certain level of generalization because of the very nature of the word. It’s a different level of generalization then Socrates is pointing to; and that difference is an important one in the development of our modern minds. Today we commonly think in abstract generalizations and it wasn’t always so. So let’s try and get deeper into the role of the alphabet’s enabling effect on our powers of abstraction and abstract generalization.
Dr. David Abram: Sure, we can do that. There’s another little piece that is useful to point out that has to do with the reason why these guys were not aware that the alphabet was working them over in this way—or an important factor that has to do with the way that a phonetic writing system, that the alphabet, hides itself. The alphabet, as a writing system, even as we engage it, hides itself from us. That is, as soon as we look at the written words on the page, they trade our eyes for our ears, so that we actually don’t see something. We end up hearing something. When we’re reading, the experience is of a kind of internal discourse, a hearing rather than a seeing of something. So, the visible letters themselves hide or mask their own existence.
David Boulton: They become invisible as we drop through them.
Dr. David Abram: They become invisible as we drop through them. And, nonetheless, they seem to leave a kind of curious trace. Plato’s ideal forms are, as it were, that phantom trace of the written letters themselves, and the written words. But, the simple thing I wanted to say is that the alphabet is such a marvelous magic, and, one of its magics is its ability to hide, or to occlude, its own influence. So that, even as we engage it, we become unconscious of its agency and its activity and its influence upon us, because the letters on the page trade our eyes for our ears and we gaze at something and end up not seeing anything at all. We end up hearing sounds, hearing voices. As soon as we look at a piece of writing, we see what it says–It speaks. And, we no longer notice that there’s something visible, and actual, that there are visible shapes there on the page which we have been interacting with.
These visible shapes have a kind of eternity, and, when they are arranged to form words, in any case, those words now seem to have a kind of generality, a kind of independence and autonomy, and, an independence from the world of growth and decay. It is a kind of eternity to themselves that is very different from the temporality that we experience as bodily beings. And, it is hard to imagine that Plato’s notion of another world beyond the body’s world, outside the sphere of fixed stars, where there dwell the pure ideas, the pure archetypes that are the basis for everything that we do experience in this world; it’s hard to imagine that Plato’s notion of this other world that has no bodily, sensuous aspects whatsoever, could have emerged in anyone’s mind, or been invented by anyone without the influence of the written letters and the new independence and generality that they gave to our spoken words.
David Boulton: There’s a parallel between the elemental combinatoric way that we construct words with the alphabet and the Platonic ideals, and the Greek’s atomistic physics and the whole thought process tradition they develop for reducing things to little pieces that we can assemble. They’re all connected somehow.
Dr. David Abram: Yes, they are all connected somehow. And, that is an aspect of the alphabet that I’ve not pondered sufficiently to have anything particularly original or useful to say, except that; I have noticed the combinatorial aspects does seem to provide the archetype for the, by now, very ingrown Western propensity. Which is to analyze things into their fundamental basics and to imagine that the world and its phenomenon can always be broken into a set of basic elemental elements. But, what I am sure of, and that I find bizarre and wild and fascinating, is that the letters themselves are, it seems to me, the archetype of our whole notion of archetypes, of Plato’s notion of the ideas. That whole notion of the ideas rests upon the actual visible shapes of the letters themselves. But, those letters hide themselves. They mask themselves, so we do not notice them. And, very few philosophers have ever imagined, or even noticed, that the letters on the page themselves have a power, and could even be the origin of the ideas that are so powerful and profound within philosophic thinking.
David Boulton: What else do we have that’s prior to the alphabet that’s anything like it in terms of a limited number of elements out of which we can combine and describe virtually everything? What else is anything like that, prior to the emergence of the alphabet that could be a model for such powers? What I’m hearing is that, it seems like the way that we think now, of analyzing things down into their constituent parts and being able to assemble them, that whole process is connected to the alphabet. Again, what came before the alphabet that would even give rise to such modes of thinking? Like you were saying with the Hebrews, it wouldn’t even occur to them add vowels – they weren’t functioning with this same kind of reductionism. It would be kind of against the grain for them. They needed, we needed, something outside of ourselves to create the opportunity to think differently. If it wasn’t the alphabet, do you have any sense of what else might have done it, what might have led to this discreteness, this atomistic reductionism?
Dr. David Abram: Oh, I have no doubt that the alphabet is the key player in that. There are many other factors, but they all to me seem to be related to the alphabet. For instance, I don’t think that the notion of separate individuals could even arise without the dispelling of the sacredness, the divinity, even of the invisible atmosphere that binds all of us together and that connects my body quite palpably with everything, you know, with the chair, with the house, with the trees outside, with the clouds overhead. I’m in direct, physical contact with them through this body of air. Only when air begins to be forgotten, really, just forgotten, and so, experienced as just sheer emptiness does it become possible to think of entities as being discrete and separate from one another. And, I believe, only after this forgetting of the air could one then imagine a heaven that is not just invisible, it’s intangible. It’s not sensuous in any way whatsoever. It’s entirely outside of all bodily contact or apprehension.
The original experience from which that is born, I believe, is the experience of invisibility of this mysterium that moves between you and I, and between me and the ground, between me and the storm clouds overhead. The invisibility of the air has this magic sense of being a kind of source of everything. It’s the source of my life. I have to continually be inhaling it and breathing it, in order to be doing anything. And, I see that it’s moving everything around. So, it has this sense that it yields to us quite spontaneously, of being that which moves things, that which gives things life, that which is moving the branches, that which, if I stop inhaling it, I die. And, so, there’s a sense of a great holiness, and a great wondrousness that lives right here and is entirely of the body’s world, or the body is of its world. It’s only when that invisible dimension is forgotten that the new notion of a spiritual realm that is not just invisible, but entirely intangible, can be born. The notion of the spiritual heaven, of Christian belief, for instance, could not have come into existence, certainly without Plato’s invention, or discovery, of a pure, disembodied realm, of ideas that only the human intellect has access to, that only the disembodied mind has access to. And, in fact, the human mind, really, in Plato’s formulation, originates in that realm, in that heaven, and comes from there, and gets stuck in this world in a human body, imprisoned, he says, as it were, in a body, and secretly longs to return to that realm. So, you can see how this really is very much the origin of our more religious sense of a heaven, an eternal heaven, to which we will ascend after death.
But, that whole notion of another world to which we ascend would be impossible if we did not first lose, or forget, our experience of the spirit that we are immersed within that has its very mysterious aspect because we cannot see it. But, nonetheless, we can feel it. And, that is the experience of spirit, or of spirits, for oral cultures the world over, who often refer to the spirits in their various terms and languages. ‘The spirits are gathering.’ Or, ‘I feel the spirits speaking to me.’ Or, the ancestors; ‘My great-great-grandmother was just speaking to me.’ Is it an experience of, what, entirely disembodied presences? No—of gusts of wind, of invisible whirlwinds and vortices, of whiffs that reach your nose of a smell that reminds you of a place you were years ago. All of this, this is the spirits. The invisible influences that ride on the breeze. And, so, the experience of spirit and divinity is much more palpable, bodily, and imminent for all of our indigenous oral ancestors. And, hence, that’s very, very different from this new notion of spirit, or mental archetype that later becomes the kind of spirit, realm of heaven, a realm of pure, eternal form, that Plato inaugurates. It’s entirely different. It’s sheerly mental, in the sense that part of us is born and grows through interaction with the written word, and not necessarily the breathing world.
David Boulton. Backwards from the biblical order, God, many have said, is made in the image of man. Our notions of spirit and God are creations of our minds as affected by language and writing. I appreciate the distinction that you are making about this whole, general drop-out from the body. And, I’d like to go back to the correspondence between the alphabet as this series of elements that can be combined and assembled and more generally how our mind’s have come to think in elements that can be combined and assembled and which now radiates into how we think and function.
Dr. David Abram: Well, I’m sure there are many other combinatorics, but, I have not reflected, or given enough time to be able to reflect on a number of other examples, and to show that they all derive, in some sense from the alphabet. And, I’m not sure if they do.
David Boulton: As somebody who has spent a lot of time understanding and thinking about the oral language, what examples, in the absence of written language, have those qualities to it?
Dr. David Abram: For an oral culture what have the qualities of separable…
David Boulton: . . .separable, combinable, elemental, things with which we can describe.
Dr. David Abram: Well, wampum beads, shells, markers that are given in trade are some. But, I don’t think of those as having a finite number that then creates every possibility within itself. We would have to reflect some on the origins of numeracy and numbering, which I think, is very deeply related to the origins of the alphabet, as well as to various writing systems. It seems that linguistic writing is only born in very close relation with numerical writing, and sometimes, in fact, it’s the very same characters that are used as letters on the one hand, and as numbers, on the other. For the Hebrews, each of the letters signifies a number. And, one of the practices within Kabbalah is reading texts and then adding up the numerical value of the letters within various words and seeing what other words have the same sum within it, and recognizing then that there is a magical relationship between those various terms that share that symbol of the same sum.
David Boulton: Like numerology, today.
Dr. David Abram: Yes.
David Boulton: They’re both, in our language, code processes. They’re both representation systems that you can use to describe or to process.
Dr. David Abram: Right. The interesting thing to me is that the notion of a code, which seems to denote a sort of one-to-one correspondence between elements, is itself an artifact of the alphabet. So, to describe the alphabet as a code is a little bit problematic.
David Boulton: Sure, it’s circular, but there are people who are dealing with codes, who don’t think of the alphabet as a code.
Dr. David Abram: Sure. Fine.
David Boulton: So, you’ve got to fold it all back. The Alphabet is the mother of all codes.
Dr. David Abram: It is the mother of all codes. Or, it’s the mother of all combinatorics. That seems very likely to me, because I can’t really isolate or think of any experience within a purely oral context of something that would have that power and that would yield that sense of a fascination with combination and analyzing.
David Boulton: Some examples might be law, a codified law system.
Dr. David Abram: But, when were the Atomists, like Lucippus? When were those guys? Do you know
David Boulton: My understanding is they’re certainly subsequent, they’re in the classical, not archaic period; they’re post-alphabet.
Dr. David Abram: Um hm. Yeah, I know that. I’m wondering how long after, after Socrates, after Plato. They’re not long, but, I think they are after. But, I don’t think that the original Atomists had anything like the atomic sense that we now have, vis-a-vis physics. They were seeing things in terms of a sort of a pointillist principle, or particles.
David Boulton: But, you can reduce reality to a series of basic elements, out of which it’s constructed.
Dr. David Abram: Well, I’m not sure that they were saying that there is a finite, set number of these elements, and that they weren’t saying that they’re just like grains of sand, that there are, as it were, infinite, but that the elements swerve into one another and combine in various ways. But, I don’t know if they were saying that there is a set number of basic atoms, or basic shapes to an atom, or anything like that. So, I don’t think that they, originally, I think that what you’re speaking about is more a propensity of modern physics, that is, I think, quite alphabetic in its origin. I think the original Atomists were a little more wild, and a little more interesting than that, or had a notion that was a bit more magical. But, that’s just my sense. So, all of this, I’m obviously speaking of things I haven’t thought about that much in response to that question. But there’s other stuff, too. Can we move on, are there any other obvious things to ask about?
David Boulton: Yes. You’ve covered the main things that we’ve been interested in, and we’ve gathered a good many things that go beyond what we need and that enriches our notions of the way the alphabet affects, profoundly, how we think and relate to the world, and ‘the word’; and the West’s philosophical heritage of abstraction, analysis, reduction, and intellectuality.
Dr. David Abram: Well, a couple things that might be mentioned. One, I’d just like to say that the Hebrews, as the first carriers of this audacious magic that we call the alphabet, perhaps because they were the first to really come into and hold this new technology, they never lost their oral sense of the magic of writing itself, and how magical this new techne was. So that, the Jewish mystical tradition, which is usually called “The Kabbalah”; the letters of the aleph bet are magical powers. And, each letter within the alphabet has its own, unique secrets. Each letter is, as it were, a gateway into a whole sphere of existence. And, the Kabbalists would meditate upon these letters in order to gain access to various hidden dimensions of the world. So, writing itself retained a kind of aura of magic for this tribal people that were, in a sense, the first progenitors of this new technology. And, it’s interesting. We can look at it as a technology on the one hand, but, as a magic on the other hand.
The magic of written words has a felt influence upon us that is not entirely rational, and that we cannot be entirely aware of. We just know that it does influence us, that the letters have a power that radiates into the world and affects things, just as the letters made possible the new philosophy born in Athens, with Plato. The letters, in some sense, also by their magic, gave birth to monotheism and the experience of a single God that reigns, as it were, behind all of the other divinities that had been experienced by humankind until that time. This is something that is still very much with us today, whether we are religious, or whether we are atheists. We still have been profoundly impacted and inflected by the monotheistic ethos, which is the ethos of the Western world.
Dr. David Abram: So, the letters have a wonder and a power that, to me, can only be called magical. They are marvelous. And, they work marvels. They make it possible for the human organism to reflect back upon its own thoughts and to think about them more deeply and to write those new thoughts down, and reflect upon those, and so, enter into a kind of recursive dialogue with itself. They make possible a new independence of the human mind, or the human self, from the surrounding world. In a sense, there is an interiority within me that experiences an independence of everything around me, into which I can retreat to just think over a problem, or to think over something that is puzzling me, or anything I choose.
This sense of a vast interior to the human being, I think, is also an inheritance from the alphabet itself. And, that is not to say that oral indigenous peoples, without any writing system whatsoever, do not have rich, psychological lives. But, the interior with which they are most familiar is not so much a space that is inside of them, inside each individual. It is not an individual interior. It is, rather, the experience of living inside the vast, interior of the world itself, and inhabiting a common story with the other animals, and with the plants, and the winds, and the storms, and, that has its own wonder, and its own magic and a sense of living in a world that is filled with magic, and magical influences. And, one’s body is in a kind of empathic relation with the other bodies that surround, whether it be the body of an aspen grove or the body of a single oak tree, or the body of a slab of granite in front of my house. I can feel. I feel differently in relation to this boulder than I do when I bring my body close to a sandstone rock. And, I can sense different qualities to the sandstone than I can sense from the granite because my body feels differently. And so, I know that there are emanations, or interactions happening between my body and the other bodies that surround me. This is the sense of being alive inside a living world, inside a common interior.
It’s only when that vast, common interior is forgotten, or lost, that we, in the West, have developed this individual sense of interiority that moves and churns inside each of us, but the interior mind that is mine is very different from your interior mind, very different from anyone else’s. And, it becomes very difficult, sometimes, for us to understand how we can communicate with one another, and make peace with one another, because we each have such different interiors.
In a certain sense, this is not understandable except when thinking about the common interior that was lost. Because I’m realizing that it’s not just about the alphabet, what I’m saying. For instance, the loss of the Ptolemaic universe, with the Copernican revolution—that’s a big transition. Our indigenous ancestors experienced life as If they were living inside a fairly intimate, closed, spherical world. And, when that was dispelled by Copernicus, suddenly, it’s an infinite space and there was, “whoa!” Everybody was ungrounded and that, in a sense, is also the birth of the modern interior, because you had to find that interior. It fled inside everybody’s skull. But, the alphabet is not the only player there, by any means.
David Boulton: No, no. But, it’s part of the foundation of the thought process that would lead to the kind of observations and abstractions that Copernicus and Galileo and others would make that would give rise to what we’re talking about.
So, what else do you think we should discuss in our remaining time?
Story and Place:
David Abram: An important piece that we did speak of at the very beginning, which is really important to understand, has to do with story and place—the intimacy, the complete isomorphism of story in an oral culture to landscape.
David Boulton: It’s the carrier wave. The story is the book, the structure of it is carrying all of the information.
Dr. David Abram: Yes. So that we can understand there’s been this big question, always, how is it that the Jews, this small, tribal group, managed to continue to exist century after century while in almost continual exile from its ancestral homeland, while so many other tribal groups fell by the wayside, at least, once they were forced out of the lands that they had dwelled in and that their ancestral stories all lived within.
It’s important to understand that, for the Hebrews, writing, and the writing down of their oral stories, was not just a convenience. It was a necessity for a people that was on the move and often experiencing exile from the lands where their stories originated. They had, in the Torah scrolls that they carried with them, as it were, a portable homeland. Because the stories which, until then, for every other tribal group, the stories which lived in the land, and were held by the land—for the first time, for the Israelites, those stories, yes, they were held in the land, but when they were forced out of their lands, they had those stories in the Torah, in the scrolls that they carried with them wherever they traveled. And, so, the Book for the Jewish people, The Torah, is a portable homeland. And, it’s like a stand-in for the land itself. And, the Jews never really forget that through the Book they feel Israel. They feel their homeland, and this wistfulness that perhaps, some day, they can return, or taste it again.
It’s interesting that for the rest of Western culture afterwards, once the alphabet spreads through Europe, exile has become sort of our common inheritance, although we don’t realize it, or think of it as such. There’s an experience of sort of being cut off from the earth, from Nature.
David Boulton: Of not being grounded in the land. Instead, grounded in one another, in movements through the land.
The Magic of the Letters:
Dr. David Abram: Yes. A couple of other pieces, the one other small one is just to underscore again what I alluded to earlier which is that, the letters themselves, and today still, have for all of us a kind of magical quality. This is in the sense that, if I were to hold up a bit of writing on a piece of paper and just flash it to you for a split second, and ask you not to look at them as letters, to just see them as shapes on the white surface, or the brown surface, just see it as shapes on the surface, there. Were you able to do that? Were you able to not see what it said?
David Boulton: No.
Dr. David Abram: It’s well nigh impossible for us, once we become literate. The letters are invisible because, as soon as we look at them, we see what they say. That is, they speak to us.
David Boulton: For those of us that are on the other side of transparency. There’s more than half of us that it isn’t so easy for.
Dr. David Abram: Understood. The simple point I wanted to make was that as soon as we look at it, we see what it says. That is, it says something to us. It speaks to us. This is not different from an indigenous person focusing her eyes on a leaf fluttering in the wind and suddenly being spoken to by the tree, and entering into conversation with the tree. It is a very concentrated form of animism that we now practice with our own written signs to make them speak to us with such intensity. And, it does take a lot of concentration to learn this practice of reading. But, once one is inside of it, it is a kind of magic, a kind of animism, a very concentrated form of animism that is so intense that it has effectively eclipsed all of the other forms of participation in which we once engaged with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings. Understanding that is really important, to me, anyway.
David Boulton: I like what you did. I think we should play with that. We’ve been experimenting with drawing people into just how fast the mind’s functioning when it’s reading, by how many milliseconds you can strobe a letter before it’s picked up, or a word is recognized. It’s amazing how fast reading works, and much faster at reading a word, than you can say it. Because we’re getting it, all at once, ‘pop.’
Dr. David Abram: Yep. So, the final thing that I wanted to make sure comes in is to speak about the child a bit.
I’ve had a lot to say about oral culture. It seems to me that orality and the style of life common to non-writing peoples is also a very important part of our inheritance, that the mode and style of discourse common to orality, that is, oral story-telling, as well as prayer, (not in the sense of praying to a transcendent divinity, but prayer just in the very specific, simple sense of talking to the world instead of talking about the world, but knowing that the world, itself, speaks and so listening for its replies, speaking to it, replying to the speech of the things,) are aspects that are common to oral cultures. Such ways of speaking are also necessary for our health and wholeness. There is a style of experience that is somewhat animistic that feels and intuits the world as alive, as alive through and through, and as expressive. Not literally alive. Not literally speaking, in words, because literal truth is an artifact of literacy. The very notion of literal truth originally means being true to the letter of the law, to what is written in the Scripture, to what is written on the page. But, when we speak of orality, we’re speaking of an experience of the world that is prior to the splitting of the literal from the metaphoric, or the literal from the figurative, prior to that splitting, when one really is speaking of the actual world, the palpable world, but, it is not literal. It is not a world of facts. It is a world that is not just metaphoric, it’s metamorphic. Everything, each thing is crouched in readiness to become something else. It’s a shape-shifting field. And, it is a world that one can speak of, and speak to, only poetically. And, that love of poetry and playful speech that children spontaneously engage in is also necessary for any human to learn and participate with before she becomes literate.
In order for a child to negotiate the art of reading, to learn to read well, and be able to function easily within the literate context of the world, in order to become literate, one must first be oral. One must first have the experience of language as a palpable field that one inhabits with one’s sensing, animal body. And, it’s an imagination that is not carried inside of one’s own head, but an imagination that belongs to the land, itself, inside of which you live and run and jump and play, along with the other animals, and with your friends, a sense of the imagination that is the world’s. This is the realm of oral language and oral discourse and story telling.
It’s very important today that we begin telling stories to our children much more, much more regularly, rather than trying to bring them into the written word as swiftly as possible, sometimes as soon as they’re able to walk. Not to even speak of plugging them into the computer and synapsing them to the screen of the terminal. But, before the computer, before even the written word on the page, it’s important that the child experiences a world of stories that he or she grows into because his parents, his uncles, and aunts, his parents’ friends are tugging him outside and improvising stories about how the river feels each season when the salmon return to its waters. Or, just what goes on inside that forest edge, every full moon. Stories that live in the land and that are not written down, but that we engage in with our bodies. Kids need to feel themselves being told stories, not just read stories by a parent who has her eyes glued to a book. Put the books down and also tell stories to your kids, and improvise stories with your children.
This is essential to a child coming into her body and coming into language with her whole body first. Then, she can begin to manipulate the symbols on a page and engage in this new symbolic layer of language more fruitfully and more fully because it is felt as a transformation of that deeper, bodily layer of language that she already shares with the living landscape. As an ecologist, as a cultural ecologist, I believe that the rejuvenation of oral culture is an ecological imperative because I do not think that we can find modes of culture that are appropriately responsive to the needs of our particular landscapes, our particular ecosystems where we live, and the particular ecological crisis we find ourselves in today, without rejuvenating the layer of language that, by its very nature, is local and holds people in a felt-bodily relation to the living land that they inhabit. So, I really think it’s important to start telling stories again, face-to-face. Gathering people together for festivals and holding community celebrations to honor the migration of a particular species that’s moving through our locale, just at this time of the year. As the cranes are flying by overhead, having crane dances, and celebrating. Here, in Santa Fe, we have a holiday called all-species day, when the whole town dresses up as various animals and plants of the locale, of the local ecosystem, and parades through the streets. And, then, we have giant puppet pageantry on that day, and the kids prepare in their schools for a couple months in advance, making the masks and the costumes, and studying in their social studies classes about the influence of particular animals on human culture. This is how one begins to rejuvenate a layer of culture that has been forgotten and left out of account for too long in the alphabetized West. That participatory reciprocity with the land which is fundamental to oral culture, to the language.
The Oral-Local to Digital-Global Continuum:
And, finally, I want to say that the culture of the book and of writing, the culture of literacy is inherently cosmopolitan. It makes possible the rich, cosmopolitan buzz of our cities, that delicious dazzlement of Manhattan, or Chicago, where stories come and intersect with one another from cultures all around the world. And, one experiences tastes and foods, but also styles of thinking that originate in many different places. They all mingle and jive and dance with one another in the cities. That rich, cosmopolitan thing that is so integral to contemporary civilization is one of the great fruits of our culture that is made possible by writing and by literacy.
The culture of the Internet, of computer literacy, it’s not really cosmopolitan. I would say the culture of the computer and of the Internet is inherently global, and globalizing. It is what has made possible this very rapid globalization of the economy through the instantaneous transfer of economic bits of money, hither and yon. When I log into the computer, onto the Internet, I sort of slip out of my body in order to dialog with other body-less minds that have logged on in other places. It’s even more disembodied than the text and the alphabet. The computer makes it possible to experience, not my individual body, but sort of to take on the earth as one’s vast spherical body, in a sense.
So, the simple thing I’m trying to say is that, if literacy is inherently cosmopolitan, and Internet and computer literacy is inherently globalizing, then oral culture, the culture of face-to-face story-telling, is inherently local. It is the culture of stories we tell in this place, and because they’re not written down, those stories are not carried elsewhere. They’re the stories that live in this land. And, what I believe is that the globalizing culture of the Internet and the cosmopolitan culture of the book, and of literacy, will only begin to really make sense and not be destructive of ourselves and our communities and of the earth that we inhabit when they are rooted in a thriving oral culture of face-to-face story-telling, which will necessarily be like that of oral cultures. Because each valley, each watershed will have its own body of stories, told with their own accents, in their own inflections and dialects. Oral cultures, as diverse as the landscapes, the ecosystems in which humans live, are diverse. Rejuvenating oral culture is an ecological imperative because oral culture is the root and the soil in which alphabetic literacy is grounded, and in which Internet and computer literacy is grounded. They both, the culture of writing and the culture of the Internet, are still secretly drawing from that deep source of oral tradition, and we need to begin to enact it again.
David Boulton: Thank you. Excellent.
Special thanks to volunteer Carol Covin for transcribing this interview.