Thursday, April 24, 2014

Suggested Exercises In Epistemology

There was a delightful Dr. Boli letter (it feels more recent in my garblesome memory, but went up a Month ago...), and I think I should just plagiarize quote the whole thing:

Dear Dr. Boli: So I read this book. And when I say I read the book, what I really mean is that I read a review of the book. And when I say I read a review of the book, I really mean that someone posted a link to the review on Facebook, and I read the Facebook comments. But anyway, this guy in the book says that literacy is what causes society to become patriarchal and violent. He says that society before literacy was matriarchal and peaceful, but something about literacy, and especially the use of the alphabet, causes men to take over and ruin everything. He says, “Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.” And also, “Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.” So is he right? Should I be working on forgetting how to read? —Sincerely, A (Former?) Reader in Lemington.

Dear Sir or Madam: You may make your own decision if you develop the author’s theory to its logical conclusion. Literate societies are the ones we know about, because they leave written records. Preliterate societies are the ones about which we can only speculate. So the author’s contention is that the societies we know about are patriarchal and violent, whereas the societies we imagine are matriarchal and peaceful. It occurs to Dr. Boli that this contention may say more about present human psychology than it does about prehistory.

However, if you still desire to forget how to read, may Dr. Boli suggest that you work up to that happy oblivion by easy stages? Start by reading Dan Brown novels.

What brings this to mind today, about a month later, is a strange confluence of chatting with a friend and an Easter Sermon by Fr. Provost of the near-by Oratory of St. Philip Neri, which began by setting-up the contrast
Victorian society famously would never talk about sex, but would talk about death quite easily. Today, we are all too eager to talk about sex, and never talk about death.
... his point was that, without being conscious of Death The Real, the Paschal feast won't make much sense; that is, I don't think he was trying to make any claims on the history of drawing-room (or bar-room) conversation between the reigns of George IV and George VI. Nonetheless, it is a common enough trope that "Victorians were such prudes!" and so forth, that one starts to wonder is it true? and (what is the title of today's nullary epistle) how would we know? (I'm sure the historians have their tricks; maybe from reading contemporary editorials lamenting the decline of etiquette? There must be some... but anyways.)

Just to highlight how strange this question really may become in time: in the year 1870 (or the year 1970, or the year 1990 even...) most of us did not walk about carrying audio recording wireless broadcast stations in our pockets to absolutely everywhere, and the postcard actually wasn't the prefered means of correspondence.

So, given the relatively naïve and quiet character of the Height of Steam Power, what exactly do we know about what people would talk about? We have what they wrote; and somehow, through it all, all five books of Moses, the Canticle of Canticles, the books of Ezechiel and Baruch and Jeremiah... have survived in English glaringly without emendations. The most convincing artefact I've heard of refering to the actual prudishness of some part of our language's communal history (and its usage) is the pair of terms white meat and dark meat to refer to breast and leg of cooked chicken. If you will now alow me to unstring my chosen straw man, the practical distinction between the pectoral and plantal parts of the chicken, for culinary purposes, is that the breast of a domestic chicken, getting relatively little exercise, is a fattier less-oxygenated muscle: so, jucier and perhaps more easily chewed than chicken leg, yet not as interesting flavour-wise. But by the time we get to eating them, it matters less what part of the chicken one is consuming than that one can recognise the wanted cut, once it is all carved up.

Alright, there are an interesting preponderance and interesting correlations, but it's all from written text

So, I don't know, and you don't know (really) how often (or just plain how) ordinary people in Shropshire or Reigate would talk about what their billygoats had been up to in the pastures last week; it's pretty plain, though, that they knew, and similarly knew what Sgt. Troy had been up to (for instance). I do have my own pet theory: they also knew how to make reference without verbally undressing themselves or their neighbours. Usually. And besides, is there anything more dull (conversation-wise) than what everybody knows? (I would quote some text, but... you know, that's text, not conversation.)

my batty self


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