Thursday, January 10, 2008

Oral and Literate

Caleb Crain writes in the New Yorker on the decline of reading.

Reviewing a new book by Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid), he speculates that soon, after a few brief millennia of being literate, we shall become a society of "secondary orality" - in which the bulk of our information will come in oral/visual form via TV and the internet, as opposed to newspapers and books.

This reversion to the oral and visual will mean a simpler public discourse. Cliché and stereotype will be more valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis will be discouraged. Literate habits of subtlety and refinement will be sidelined, as such skills will prove largely unnecessary. Reading will become "an arcane hobby".

Less brainpower will be used because "the efficient reading brain" which we will lose, "quite literally has more time to think" (Wolf). People will be more apt to accept propaganda or "the accepted view". This is because literacy enables abstract thought and analysis, while the oral brain embeds thought in simplified stories. The effort to memorise such stories compromises the mind's objectivity and disables its ability to deal with new details.

The other possibility (to which Crain alludes) is that we are on a pendulum which has seen the triumph of the visual and oral media in the shape of TV and cinema over the past century, but will self-correct in due course. The benefits of literacy, according to this view, are too powerful to be surrendered to the passing enjoyment of a purely visual and oral world.

Twilight of the Books: A Critic at Large: The New Yorker
New blog by writers F.O. Fyford, Freddie Omm and Fred De Baer

Ills of Capitalism

There's been a flurry of anti-capitalist rhetoric in Germany of late.

The socialist SPD party in the governing coalition has been burnishing its lacklustre profile - seeking to distance itself from its centrist CDU partner on the one hand, and the ex-communist PDS party on the other.

This may seem a strange abandonment of the political centre. But in Germany the centre is very much to the left of where it might be found in the US or the UK. And the populist success of the ex-communists doesn't leave SPD leader Kurt Beck a lot of room to manoeuvre. And so he's been dusting off trusty old arguments about the iniquity of private capital, the wickedness of greedy corporate leaders, the locust-like threats of global investment, and all the rest of it. A strong central state managing everything is Beck's answer to these ills.

Stefan Theis, Newsweek's economics editor, gives an analysis of how such attitudes are actively fostered by Germany's (and France's) educational system. Capitalism and entrepreneurs are routinely blamed for the world's woes, says Theis, in the economics courses offered by their secondary schools and universities. State control is posited as necessary to curb the damage wrought by business. In this way, says Theis, France and Germany's elites are given an unbalanced view of business and the state.

Support comes from a reliable source. In the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting reviews Oliver James' The Selfish Capitalist, a study of the ramifications of what has been called Affluenza. James notes that the increased economic wealth brought about by capitalism hasn't brought increased happiness. In fact, it has apparently increased the incidence of mental illness, or at least the incidence of treatment for such ills. The inevitable conclusion, drawn by both James and Bunting, is that capitalism is therefore to blame.

Curious how politicians and intelligentsia of the left, having seen that socialism isn't much good at making citizens rich, now line up to flay capitalism for the problems material prosperity brings. The more so given that socialism's promise was always based on the pre-eminence of material goods.

Link to Bunting's review of Oliver James' The Selfish Capitalist:
The big question | Review | Guardian Unlimited Books

Link to Stefan Theis' article:
Foreign Policy: Europe’s Philosophy of Failure