Toward a generic concept of dynamic, poly-aisthetic cultural memory systems

(Andreas Goppold)


The historical epoch of the last 5000 years can be descibed with one leitmotif: the rise and final world domination of writing-based civilization. One most general attribute of all types of writing, including musical, scientific and mathematical notation systems is their sharp limitation to static representations, and to a very narrow domain of the cognitive/ sensory performance spectrum of the human being.

The framework of this article reaches somewhat further into the history of mankind than just the last 5000 years. We have to cover about 30,000 years, since the height of the Cro Magnon Era with the following major bifurcations* [ Back-dating from a fictitional culminating point arount the year 2020.]:

-10,000 (8000 BC) "neolithic revolution" [ The parentheses for this indicate that the "revolution" was well under way in the Cro Magnon Era around - 30,000. The argument ex silentio that we found some archeological remains dating to some specific time means very little considering that neolithic technology is almost exclusively organic, and thus just doesn't leave archeological remains. The date may still hold for the development of basic "infrastructure" technologies for writing: firing ovens, bricks, metal, ink technology, fibre technology (felt, papyrus, paper, parchment).]

-5000 (3000 BC) invention of writing

-2500 (500 BC) introduction of alphabetical writing [ There is a lot of scholarly dispute about the earliest date of invention, since the phoenician "alphabet" which served as model dates from around 1200 BC, and some writers have moved the Greek adaptation closer to that date. 500 is the roundabout date when the alphabet had started to exert decisive cultural influence on Greece.]

-1250 (800 AD) invention of numerical place value system with zero [ It took about 500 years since its invention in India and its adaption by the Arabs and finally by the European merchants, so the dating is somewhat arbitrary.]

-600 (1400 AD) Gutenberg's invention of letter printing

-300 (1700 AD) formal logic calculus (Leibniz)

-150 (1830-1870 AD) programmable machinery (Jacquard loom, Babbage)

-75 (1945 AD) programmable computer.

In this special arrangement, we have given an approximate harmonic octaving scheme for the dates coinciding with major symbolical breakthroughs. The date scheme may be off by a margin of 20 %, for the purpose of this demonstration, it suffices to give an indication of the acceleration of the cultural evolution that lies behind it.

*[ Cultural bifurcations are a general model to the concept of Axial age introduced by Jaspers. Jaspers' "original" Axial age was around - 2500 which is mentioned here associated to the alphabet. The further generalization of cultural bifurcations is described in: Abraham, R. H., 1994, Chaos, Gaia, Eros: a chaos pioneer uncovers the three great streams of history (Harper, San Francisco). Apparently Abraham doesn't know about Jaspers since he doesn't mention him in the book.]

If we want to explore the origins and potentials of multimedia seriously we have to be aware of an impending copernican revision of scientific opinion about the pre-historic development of symbolization as is exemplified by the consequences of revolutionary discoveries of cave art in many places like the recent Chauvet findings [ Dated around - 30,000. Michel Lorblanchet, Jean Clottes. Spiegel 44/1995, 50/1996. The oldest murals in Australia are estimated at around - 100,000 (Spiegel 40/1996). Non orthodox interpretations of cave symbolisms: Paul Bouissac, Semiotica 1994 (Polyvalent logograms), Hans W. Bornefeld, The keys to the caverns.] . From this slowly accumulating evidence and other indications, it is to be expected that the pre-history of human symbolization will have to be re-written in a copernican way, even if this re-writing process may take another 100 years. Presently, the public consensus on the history (his story) of symbolization is that it began for serious about 3000 BC in Mesopotamia [ See, e.g. Denise Schmandt-Besserat.] , and that from the Sumerian clay token systems derived a slow evolution towards pictographic, ideographic, and finally phonographic writing systems.

Such or more or less in the same vein can be found everywhere in about 5 feet of book rack space in any public library under "history of writing". The present author may be excused here for not repeating it.An enquiry into the future potential of any media has to take the history of the existing media into account because, as everyone knows: He who doesn't know history is condemned to repeat it. We also know (if we follow McLuhan) that history is always shaped in a more or less perceptible but always decisive way by the medium through which history came into existence in the first place, i.e. the cultural memory system. In the case of western industrial writing based civilization, this was alphabetical writing. It has also to be taken into account that at all times, the writing of history was the recording of "his story" (as the feminists have it): the recording of events such as the presently dominant class of rulers saw it fit for their own aims and ends to preserve for eternity. This time honored practice began very shortly after some Sumerian merchants had invented it, and was hewn into the very stones of which hundreds of thousands are still, after 5000 years, littering the Mesopotamian and Egyptian deserts.In this version of "his story" it is only consequential that civilization, culture, or just about anything that makes human life worth living, suddenly sprang into existence with the great Near Eastern civilizations, and that anything before that was just a primitive brutish, beast-like existence, like Hobbes (and followers like Morris, Ardrey etc.) have described it so perfectly and like it is repeated with absolute (high) fidelity in all school (and university) pre-history text books. Un-orthodoxists and outsiders (perhaps best known the Old Europe theory by Marija Gimbutas and Riane Eisler) were given the "Giordano Bruno treatment". Even if they weren't burned outright, they at least never made it into the respectable scientific journals.

Life in the Caves wasn't so brutish after all

Firstly, because no-one really lived in the caves. There are too few of them to make for suitable living quarters anyhow used for ceremonial purposes. There have been outsiders who tried to voice a dissident opinion on the symbolic interpretation of the cave paintings but by and large the orthodox dogma that there could not have been cultured life to mention before the invention of writing still holds strong. Only slowly does it percolate into public awareness that life at 30.000 BC could not just have been such a primitive, brutish, beast-like existence, if people obviously had the leisure time to entertain themselves painting caves and rock surfaces up and down the mountain ranges all over Erasia and Africa, (and possibly Austro-Oceania). We may imagine that wherever Cro-Magnon (wo)man went (s)he bedecked any available surface that offered some protection against the elements (ie. all accessible dry caves, which limits the selection) with such paintings. We can assume that there were in the beginning more paintings than just those luckily preserved specimens that we toay know of. That we don't have many more surviving specimens must not lead us into the conclusion that there were no more to begin with (argumentum ex silentio). 30.000 years of intervening natural and human activity are sufficient reasons to have simply erased most of painted caves and rock faces. The Mellaart excavations of Chatal Hüyük indicate that by 8000 BC people had run out of cave walls to paint onto and they decided to build artificial ones, at least such was his interpretation of the murals he found (also non-conforming heretic material).

To create paintings as we have found in those caves, a highly skilled tradition of artisans must have existed, with a continuous tradition spanning many millennia, all together with the cultural infrastructure to support such a class. Part and parcel with this infrastructure comes symbolization, since there is no human culture to speak of without symbolization, in such we can fully follow the arguments of classical (logocentric) cultural theory. The salient difference is that the logocentric camp delimits culture to the symbolic recording of spoken language and discounts any other kinds of recordings and performances (i.e. non-phonographic cultural memory systems) as primitive. In the broad spectrum of the academic sciences, we consequently find a neat demarcation line between the studies of cultures that possess writing and those that don't. Here we have the juridical, historical, social and humanity sciences, and the arts, and on the other side of the ditch one lone department: Ethnology, or Cultural Anthropology, covering "the rest of them all", all those cultures that did (or do) not. (Plus, of course the sub-branch of Archeology dealing with "Pre-History" or Paleontology).

The insidious drawbacks of wrinting

We have to emphasize that the development of writing systems is embedded in the domain of a millennia-old cultural struggle: We all know that the non-writing cultures didn't vanish out of pure boredom from the face of this planet. They were extinguished with fire and sword, a good part of them by the more military and politically active ancestors of our present western societies. The history of the cultural dominance struggles of "the religions of the book" against the heathens is one of the more prominent facets of this epochal drama. Whenever a so-called "primitive" culture was ploughed under, its respective cultural memory system and those specialists representing it, i.e. the collected memory of this culture, its self-identity, was annihilated [ Best known example: conquest of South America. Literature e.g. Lotman, Kunst als Sprache, p. 27.] . Ever since its invention, writing has been praised as uncomparable civilatory advance of humanity tantamount to the very pinnacle and telos to which the cultural evolution must necessarily lead [ In the vein of Spencer's "evolution of culture" and all the works of the genre. Hegel's Objektiver Geist as incorporated in the state takes up the tack from a different angle, but with similar results. It became the state philosophy of the Prussian regime, and filtered through into all subsequent German bureaucracies. ].

There are very few accounts known to the present author that undertake a critical examination of the drawbacks of writing [ It seems as if the "Taboo against criticising literacy" is one of the holiest of cows in the richly stacked pantheon of the Totems and Taboos of the natives of white European races.] . Plato gave a small sketch in Phaidros, Ivan Illich made a more fundamental criticism [ Die Entschulung der Gesellschaft., indirectly: Ernst Gellner: Pflug, Schwert und Buch. Mainly indirectly in many anthropological accounts, like Levi-Strauss, Traurige Tropen, Jack Goody, etc. etc.] . Apart from these works, every one can from their own school experiences immediately discover many serious drawbacks and more or less insidious side effects of writing. Writing and reading skill is acquired by an arduous training process involving a more or less severe casernification of a whole age group of the population. There is a specific neuro-cognitive infrastructure required for a person to become proficient in it [ De Kerckhove, Lumsden: The alphabet and the brain.] . But not only that. Already the old school texts of Sumer and Egypt delight in the vividly detailed descriptions of the flogging and beating rituals that were the daily bread of the pupils [e.g. Samuel Noah Kramer, several books about Sumer. ] . This happy tradition continued throughout the millennia and is still hallowed highly in the English "public" school system and the many school systems world wide modeled after it [ Peter Gay: Cultivation of Hatred / Foucault, Überwachen und Strafen] . A certain high level of sado-masochism seems to have been the basic recipe for all school systems throughout the ages. Apart from these, more subtle effects come to light. Literary activity forces the body into a near-death posture, with extremely limited motion and restricted breath, and strong sensory deprivation [ Loud noises, brilliant colors, strong light contrasts, and agitated movements, are all distracting to reading and therefore banned from a library.] . The next best place a library reading room can be compared to is a mortuary. The combination of sensory deprivation and lack of physiological activity makes reading and writing the very antagonist to anything occurring in a ritual (as described below). It could, in the terms of "The spectrum of ritual" [D'Aquili, Eugene, and Laughlin: The spectrum of ritual, Columbia U Press, 1979.] , be called an extreme neurobiological depressant, leading to a corresponding state of mind, which was, incidentally, called melancholy in the 18th century when the reading of novels took hold in the general public, and when there occurred much-noticed waves of mass suicides in the wake of successful novels (like Goethe's Werther). The last one who seems to have been actively aware of this problem was Aristoteles who created his peripatetic (perambulating) school in order to remedy the stultifying effect of too much book learning which he apparently had become acquainted with in the Platonic Academy. Unfortunately his diligent scholastic followers never understood this most important of all elements of Aristoteles' philosophy. In other literate cultures, like the Tibetan and Indian, reading and writing has traditionally been accompanied by much gesturing, and a lot of ritualized calisthenics that surely helped to offset these negative consequences. As Illich notes, in the era of loud reading before printing took hold, the strong motion of the breath required for the loud reading, also helped offset this depressing effect. Literacy as practiced in the last 300 years in the civilized West is a thoroughly static activity leading to all sorts of pysical and mental crustification effects, that manifest in the society structure which is governed by those who became most proficient in reading and writing and the interpretation of texts. The final state of a few centuries of accumulation of these effects is perhaps best illustrated in the current rigor mortis of the German university system. But it is only a more or less telling symptomatic of the more general societal rigor mortis of an over-bureaucratized German post-industrial society that is ruled by a class of the most purebred, rigid, narrow-minded, and principle-hide-bound roman-law addicts that human cultural evolution has so far managed to bring forth. And this is also, in one paragraph, the outline of the last chapter of "Der Untergang des Abendlandes" that Oswald Spengler would have had to write to complete his cultural theory with an account of the infostructures and infrastructures [Marijuán, P., 1996, First Conference on Foundations of Information Science, BioSystems 38, 87-96. / Marijuán, P., 1997, Information and the "fluid" nature of life, FIS 96, Vienna.] of alphabetical symbol processing. We thus come to the sobering conclusion that the demise of the european aristocratic rule after WWI had resulted not so much in a great increase in freedom and democracy for the masses, but rather in an unlimited power surge of the bureaucratic elites which became world wide a completely self-serving, self-regenerating, self-governing power machine [ So very well characterized by Mumford in "The myth of the Machine". Other material on this can be found in the books of Günter Ogger: Das Kartell der Kassierer, Nieten in Nadelstreifen, also Thorstein Veblen, and Edmund Ballhaus: Die Paragraphenreiter, C.H. Beck 1997.] that was no more checked by the old forces of the less literate-bred, but more outdoors type, sporting, gaming, fighting, swearing, and fornicating aristocrats who didn't care much about the three Great R's: Reading 'Riting, 'Rithmetic for which menial tasks they had always held their minions. As with all revolutions so far, the ruling classes that replaced the former oppressors turned out to be even worse than the ones whom they replaced. We don't need to point to the (now happily defunct) Soviet Union for a prime example. The post modern world is ruled by a happy entente cordiale of this trilateral letterocrat oligarchy: the bankers, bureaucrats, and law(yers/ -makers/ -interpreters/ -enforcers).This short sketch doesn't intend to be highly scientific, nor particularly objective or impartial, but wants to emphasize that nothing comes without a cost, especially not civilization.

The Cro Magnon multimedia technology: an experiential framework for the dynamic, poly-aisthetic cultural memory system

Let us now turn to what humanity has relegated to the cultural waste heap when it obliterated all those primitive cultures with their lovely primitive spring, summer, fall, winter, birth and death, and fertility rites, and their elaborate initiation rituals. In terms of multimedia, we can subsume the whole grand theatre of ritual to one main theme: the dynamic, poly-aisthetic cultural memory system. Indigenous ritual was danced, sung, enacted, and suffered through. It was experienced though all the sensory channels the human body has, and through all of them at once, and least of all these effects was the talking. And therefore nothing important of it could be written down. That is why the task of academic cultural anthropology, though good willed and well-intended, is aimless. What it feels to go through a ritual, and especially the resulting metanoia (as Plato would call it), cannot be put down in a notebook and be brought home to a library leather-bound and complete with index and bibliography. The most eminent anthropologists discovered this essential futility of the academic effort to grasp the essence of what they were studying [ The anthropological material mainly worked through for this article is by Victor Turner, in his later-life and posthumous works.] . So, although cultural anthropology may not be the final answer, it at least indicates the direction into which we must turn if we want to get a glimpse of what the multi-medial future could hold as promise for us should our civilization muster the determination for shedding the fetters of 5000 years of logocentrism toward a less hide-bound era of multi-medial, dynamic, poly-aisthetic civilization. But we must hurry up. Because whatever may be left of all those traditions that humanity has ever evolved in the last 100,000 or so years, maybe a few thousand people world wide, are all in the age bracket over 60, and will be dead by the year 2020. Their memory will have gone extinct, this time not because some invaders, conquerors, or colonialists extinguished them, or some overzealous missionaries condemned their knowledge as sorcery and superstition, but simply because the younger generation of their cultures aren't interested in the old fairy tales any more.