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Cleo Protokhristova


For the last two decades the issues of reading have produced an overwhelming quantity of critical response which seems to keep permanently increasing. This fact is undoubtedly due to the formation of an unprecedented cultural situation characterized by acute shifts in the ideas of the book, of literature and reading. It is the initial attitude towards the present cultural condition that predefines the choice of formulation and indeed a vast number of qualifications have been attributed to it - ranging from enthusiastically affirmative references to high technologies and multimedia information to sceptical metaphoric definitions overburdened with nostalgia or even frustration. Most pertinent to the biases of this presentation appeared the coinage Postgutenberg situation.

Since the starting point of the present argument is determined by an irresistible suspicion towards any kind of prognostics in the sphere of humanities, the attempt to rationalize the complexities of reading manifested in the current cultural processes will be made in the perspective of their axiological isomorphism with the only corresponding and commensurable experience undergone by the Western civilization - the advent of literacy in Ancient Greece in 5th c. B.C.

The appeal to the cultural developments experienced in Ancient Greece is motivated by the conviction that the general outlines of the increasing literacy in the late 5th century B.C. could be utilized as highlights for the theoretical rationalization of the ongoing cultural processes representative of our own time. The combination of practical utility and relative unfamiliarity of the adventing "literacy" was dramatic and encouraged ambiguous or even contradictory attitudes. Also, since the increasing literacy in Greece was only one of many interrelated influences it did not affect the different spheres of culture synchronically or to the same extent. Therefore Greek culture at the time of Pericles was not identical to the dominant ideal values at the surface of the system, but rather a territory of dynamic pulls usually neglected by historians in favour of the Winkelmann- Hegelian idea of Classical Greece. These dramatic tensions between competing values in the Greek 5th c. B.C. are similar to those at the end of the 20th century.

I have to admit that the intellectual initiative thus outlined is not free from arbitrariness. It is founded on the principle of homology which is itself not granted the privileged status of indisputability. The logic of the approach chosen here stems from a rather risky presumption of similarity between cultural events belonging to different historical stages and still typologically related. But the goal of the experiment is not an overall reconsidering of the current cultural situation by means of its supposed morphological compatibility with a time as remote as the age of Pericles. It is rather the prospecting of a pertinent screen that might display more clearly the contemporary interrogation of books and reading. This estimative perspective is present in the peculiarity shared by the two historical moments - namely the turbulence of competing ideological orientations mutually challenging the status of dominance and supremacy.

Before carrying out the juxtaposition between the ideas of the book and reading in the present situation and in the age of Pericles it would be pertinent to specify the initial paradox involved in this comparison. One can trace it in the circumstance that both periods lack a well founded metaphysical idea of the book. In the former case it is still not consolidated, while in the latter it is already disintegrated. A much more relevant symptom for the presence of a fundamental paradox though is the fact that in the conflict between literacy and orality developed in the 5th c.B.C. for all its analogy with the present competing between linguistic and visual, it was the visual that was considered a main suspect. Conceived as an alternative to oral discourse and burdened with the claim to be its material and more effective equivalent, writing provoked a cluster of suspicions, originating from the anxiety that it might cause the fail of memory - the fundamental value of oral culture - and invalidate it. The suspicion toward writing was also due to the conviction that it privileged vision. At the same time Greeks considered vision a most powerful stimulus to Eros - the quasi corporeal power that enters the soul through the eyes. Therefore writing was associated with private, secret and deceitful communication, predominantly of an erotic nature.

In the context of this historical experience the fact that the present cultural situation overemphasizes the opposition of linguistic and visual aparently dealing with a definitely nonmaterial idea of words acquires specific implications. In such mental perspective both writing and books are seen not in their demonstrative concreteness but as metaphysical constructs. Thus the hints offered by the commesurable historical experience of Classical Greek culture that could be used as a reference point are neglected and consequently unnoticed remain instances of integrity between linguistic and visual that could moderate the interpretation of linguistic and visual as unresolvable polarities (such as Japanese calligraphy and some specific conventions concerned with writing in Arabic world).

Some particular features coinciding in the ideological landscape of the age of Pericles and in the present situation are really enlightening. For example, a fundamental phenomenon expressing the shift to a new cultural situation in Ancient Greece was the debate about history corried out in the polemic of Thucydides against Herodotus. For Thucydides history was not just a matter of fixing facts in writing in order to preserve them from oblivion but an investigation inquiring strenuous examination of the truth. He rejected the fluid surface of discourse still oriented to oral context in Herodotus to suggest a more critical penetration into evidence, juxtaposition of divergencies and theoretical abstraction. In the context of this circumstance the reflex of postmodern thinking to bring forth the problem of historical knowledge acquires additional meaning.

Another telling resemblance between the two historical moments is the co-existence of different cultural paradigms as well as the uneven shifting between them whereas the different spheres of culture are not equivalently affected. Both cultural situations are characterized by an acute tension between the drive towards a fixed point of orientation and organization around which the mental energies are focused and the tendency to a diffusion of the intellectual project. The difference between the time of Pericles and the present moment in this respect is that the emphasis in the former was on the principle of intellectual organization provided by writing as an alternative to the mental diffusion specific of oral culture, while the latter is characterized by ever increasing tendency towards repudiation of all suggested systematicity of knowing and knowledge.

There is also a well expressed similarity between the two moments in their ambiguous attitude toward conventions. Specific was the lack of consistence in the political sphere at the age of Pericles when written laws were considered a safeguard against tyranny and guarantee of the principles of fairness and equality representative of democracy but nevertheless unwritten laws still enjoyed a supreme prestige identified with ancient tradition and sacral use. The result of this conflict of values was a total suspicion towards both legal systems which is very much alike the persistent post-structural mistrust of whatever moral principles, officially or intimately followed, and of their interrogation and repudikation as ideological constructs.

Both historical moments manifest an exceptionally intensive interest for the ambiquity of language as a mediator in knowing. Both historical moments are similarly marked by a shift to a more abstract, intellectual and less personal mode of communication.

The similarity is really telling and sheds light on the crisis implicit in the current cultural situation. The typological compatibility between Classical Greece at the age of Pericles and our own time is symptomatic primarily for the coexistence and simultaneous activity of competing values - in the former between those of orality and literacy, in the latter - those representative of the culture of the book and of multimediality. In the Postgutenberg situation which is our main concern the clash of values produce lines of oppositions including the book vs. the cd, the Library vs. the Net, memory vs. intellectual dexterity, discipline vs. improvisation, logic vs. game, depth vs. superficiality, systematics vs. fragmentarity, erudition vs. conversance, teleology vs. self-sufficiency, narrative vs. dictionary.

The fundamental changes in reading and its axiologies due to the coexistence of the two competing cultural paragidms might be additionally enlightened by the utilization of an opposition constructed to support the current argument. This opposition reveals not only the existing valid alternatives in the choice of a reading modus - let us call them a Gutenberg and a Postgutenberg modus - but displays also the conflicting axiologies implicit in the practice of traditional reading itself as experienced in the current moment. The alternative of the book vs. the Internet is an abstraction. What is really at hand is a hegemony of a heterogenous modus of reading. Even stubbornly "traditional" reading, reading concentrated on books and libraries is "infected" by different, alien axiological imperatives. The conflict between the different regimes of acquiring information present in the current practicies of reading seems to be best exemplified by two alternative metaphors of eating - digest and browse.

Interpreting the process of reading through images of eating seems a reasonable decision since the idea of the book has been permanently associated with gastronomic symbolism - ever since the Holy Scripture with the telling texts from the Apocalypse (10:1-2; 9-10) and Ezekiel (3:1-4). What makes the present two metaphors different is the challenging circumstance that unlike the universal usage of digest, the verb browse refers to animal nutrition only.

The basic meaning of browse is nibble, graze. The figurative meanings of the same verb form a sphere of activities associated with the basic meaning by analogy based on the consistently emphasized mark of certain indiscriminacy and defficiency. One browses through nespapers and magazines, browse means to pick up absently pieces from a book or to search idly through a shop or mass of items in the hope of finding something interesting. Although dictionaries and usage tend to associate browse with sheep, its semantic character diverts from the picture of sheep meekly and systematically pasturing. The already mentioned connotations of browse lead predominantly to the eating manners of goats.

Meanwhile browse with its modification browser turned into an Internet term with remarkable frequency to stand for a basic client’s program. Because of Internet’s stable relatedness to reading and books browser has been translated in Bulgarian as прелиствач - that is to say "leafer" or the one who turns over the pages. From this Bulgarian translation though missing is the fundamental and enlightening meaning of browse associated not so much with the leaves of the book as with the "leaves of grass". The fundamental instruction in Internet reading is to nibble at the tender shoots and twigs of trees just like goats. This modus of reading is similar to the imperative of compulsive switching over in multi-chanel TV brought to its extreme in the case of multiple screen.

The second verb - digest has a more limited range of meanings. It is also associated with the practice of reading through the convention of the so called reader’s digests. In its gastronomic meanings digest as opposed to browse emphasizes the process of devouring and absorption of food. Related to the process of reading digest activates the notion of slow, concentrated swallowing up of a text, with instances of repetition facilitating the digestion. In this point we come close to the idea of ruminating, of chewing the cud. By the way, the Bulgarian equivalent of ruminate is преживям - a verb that is tellingly close to преживявам, which means to experience, to live through.( It is interesting to note that in many Bulgarian dialects the part of a cow’s stomach where the rumination takes place is called книга that is to say "book").

Ruminating and reading come together to express the ideal of traditional reading as repeating over and over again to final digestion and ultimate experience. It is fairly apparent that browse and digest are mutually incompatible alternatives.

It may seem just a matter of emotional disposition to qualify as sad or vice versa - ridiculous the turn of wit by which the dilemma of reading in its current dramatic situation is compared to the choice between ruminating and browsing. Or, probably, still better - to the gentle pasture of the sheep and the jumping nibbling of goats.

This choice though might turn more serious than it seems. And it might as well offer if not a solution at least a consolation. For a suggesting comparison reminds of a non-accidental text where the dilemma is set like this:

"...and he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goat.

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left." (Mathew, 25:32,33)

In this same text, further (25:42), the reproach to those on the left reads as follows:

"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink."



© Cleo Protokhristova
© E-magazine LiterNet, 15.02.2000, № 2 (3)