; 28 Mar 2017

Explanations Have to Start Somewhere (years active: ? – present)

By Thomas Dodds

History is the process of information becoming aware of itself. Everything in the past was happy, normal and continuous, then everything fell off a cliff. We reach back into history only to say that history is not relevant to us. It’s not just the facts that count, it’s whether you trust the person coming towards you with a needle ready to pump something into your veins. Now we live in a time of all-at-once-ness, the beginnings of material representation.


Almost every culture has a figure who invented writing or a god who invented language. Socrates is looking around and seeing documents where previously there was nothing. The ability to represent ideas in writing allows a different approach to problem-solving. It’s no coincidence that pre-alphabetic societies were also the pre-scientific ones. And how did Homer work? Did people just remember it and recite it in one sitting? Each tribe has a bard that recites the genealogy of the tribe. Every father wishes for his son to be a speaker of mythoi and a doer of deeds (some things never change). But how does mythoi function in this context? For the homeric hero it means being able to speak plausibly and convincingly about everything that you and your mates have done and everything that your dad and his mates have done and everything his dad and his mates have done and everything that his dad and his mates have done (ad infinitum).

Iconic representations become increasingly necessary as you develop agricultural societies, greater degrees of social organisation, and trade. Which is the sheep/oil transaction and which is the ducks/geese transaction though? And so on and so on. People began to use tokens which represent, you know. Tokens are just little things, they’re just little pebbles, they fall apart. I would have 3 and you would have 5. Writing extends from a tool of accounting/trade to a vessel for literature. Writing circulates equally amongst those who understand as those who have no business with it. Oral testimony, for example, could be distinguished much more clearly from written testimony when poets no longer composed their works in the course of chanting or reciting them. Now we have new technology just for sieges.

What tends to happen to libraries is that they tend to burn down. Librarians tend to increase their collections by theft or conquest. Nineveh had 30,000 texts, many stolen from Babylon. What you do to show that you’re diminishing another power is you go in and you destroy it’s library.


I’m not one of these scroll obsessed Jews, pagans, Romans, whatever; I’m not one of these new, disturbing, book obsessed people who’ve seceded from the true religion. For the Christian Church, it was the codex above all which conveyed authority. I trust that book and I don’t trust that nasty scroll over there.

You had inherited the property over many generations but now you needed a piece of paper to prove it. The odd thing was that they were forging documents that were true. They were centres of extreme trustworthiness that were putting that trustworthiness to a kind of beneficial lying. The codex is really handy, you don’t need to unroll a whole scroll to get to page 269.

Spacing between words is developed really rather late, it comes after the medieval era, and page numbers were developed as a response to censorship. Those that had page numbers usually got them wrong, the damn Chinese came along and burnt the lot. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years, the word written on paper will last two hundred years. All those people living with manuscripts, boy were they stupid, just dumb. Marshall McLuhan coming in there and shouting about print.

People shouldn’t be reading, it’ll stir people to rebellion, civil wars tend to spook people. The first century of printing was marked by intellectual ferment, and by a ‘somewhat wide-angled, unfocused, scholarship.’ New links between disciplines were being forged before old ones had been severed. In the age of scribes, for instance, magical arts were closely associated with mechanical crafts and mathematical wizardry. The religion of the prince will be the religion of the people. Literally every church has a holy object.


Don’t use too many fancy words but try to improve your vocabulary. Some journey gentlemen, powder, as they ponder, some foreign words. When you formalise – to put the cranks on the outside – there’s a good chance you become corrupt, you get canals which make possible not only the cheap transportation of goods but also of people. The coffee houses are referred back to as an important moment in freedom of speech. People are a little more discreet in France than they are in Britain, people start talking about an ‘age of information’. What people talk about as ‘print culture’, it’s very misleading. People think that one technology supersedes and replaces another, usually one just nudges aside the other and gradually becomes bigger.

Typography arrested linguistic drift, enriched as well as standardised vernaculars, and paved the way for the more deliberate purification and codification of all major European languages. Incompatible portions of inherited traditions could be sloughed off, partly because the task of preservation had become less urgent. Copying, memorising, and transmitting absorbed fewer energies. When ‘technology went to press’ so too did a vast backlog of occult lore, and few readers could discriminate between the two. The ancients were the ones who understood the world, we’ve just become befuddled. Martin luther was never particularly nice to me anyway. It was inevitable, people thought, that the Chinese would adopt an alphabetic system. It’s like spelling on your iPhone: you write mother and it comes out Massachusetts. The swiss are tired of sending their sons off to be killed far from home.

I should mention at this point that I’m on this commission for the future. Mitt Romney said you’ll have to borrow a little more from your parents. One group was coaxing people in cafes to join them and another group shouting up to the tenements above. They were essentially using twitter to mislead the secret police. Since the renaissance people have gone to this statue and posted scabrous verse there about the people in power. Instead of taverns, men – almost always men – started going to coffee houses, reading all these newspapers that begin appearing. The most ingenious company meet amongst promiscuous company in either coffee houses or public taverns. His Antwerp circle offers yet another example of the ways in which religious conviction and economic self-interest can reinforce each other.

You think of going to a website in the way you think of going to a place in a city, it’s a kind of epigraphic writing, continually trying to find a rich widow to marry. The blog, in a way, rediscovered the form of the 18th century periodical, the news-junkie upholsterer. We’re going to feed you stuff to put in newspapers, once in a while you can put in mean stuff about us. The role of reading in daily life was changing – people started talking about a reading addiction. Previously, reading had been scholarly; there’s a shift from intensive to extensive reading.

By the 16th and 17th century people started reading silently, by the 16th or 17th century to not read silently is a sign of ill-education. It used to be you couldn’t get out of 8th grade without reading Jane Eyre. The idea of curling up with a book, escaping the world by reading emerges in this period. Which literary forms benefitted most from the advent of silent reading? Pornography required silent reading and there’s no difference between the fool and the sage when you’re quiet. How did you know the Austrians had won a battle? You didn’t just pick up the New York Times. The daily news doesn’t tell you about a war, it just tells you about yesterday’s battles; the news is morselized.

The notion of the author clearly emerges some time around here, and lots of authors emerge around this time. Were I to buy an hat, I would not have it from a stocking maker, but an hatter. Writers can, for the first time, earn a living as writers without patronage. Most are drudges who write in newspapers, even now.

It’s an interesting word, public. The community as an aggregate, what does that mean? What’s the difference between the american people and the american public? Why do the Egyptians have an Egyptian people but not an Egyptian public? Public opinion is opinion that lives in this collection. It’s about the feelings of information overload people felt in the 17th century – too much to read. When you see a passive participle in a dictionary you should put your hand on your wallet. That’s a little shift in the theory of knowledge, the organisation of knowledge is fixed and natural. You could wander around, most things that seem common sense to us are the result of two thousand years of speculation. That’s certainly one force that’s driving the organisation of knowledge in this era. Soon, learned and erudite men will be no more than walking catalogues.

Get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like the fish, by the tail. “Maybe god meant this… Maybe god meant that” are you kidding me? The clockwork god in which they were going to synthesise all knowledge. Try to find some technological innovation that people don’t describe as revolutionary. This is not a useful moat, it just hints at moat-ness.


they were worried about portents, the world was turning weird, apt to run from house to house and carrying infectious steams. Certainly, Christopher Wren had been involved in putting different liquids in people’s veins and seeing if it would help. If these people are going out and surveying the dead, can they be trusted?

The fact is, the encyclopaedia grows out of the tradition of Bacon, Chambers, Diderot. It implies a systematic, hierarchical depiction of knowledge. He believes there’s a structure down there that we can see and map. When you go to wikipedia you’re not going to find how to make shoes, or make wigs, or make firecrackers. It isn’t considered part of the representation of all human knowledge. Becoming informationally literate revolves around knowing when you can trust those schema.

The interesting thing about the dictionary is that it’s not very good for teaching you the definition of a word – unless you’re looking for a marlinspike or something. It’s really hard to see which meaning of the word is correct in the right context. The dictionary is about saying: look, from this discourse we have procedures for extracting the rules of what language does. With this in mind, we can be confident that we can uphold the quality of public discourse.

Once you have a sense of citizenship – which is a strange thing that develops in the 18th century – you also want to know who’s an alien, who’s outside, you start thinking about racial groups, you start registering numbers of people in professions.

What we’re speaking is this pastiche, this creole of many different languages. The desire that the french language will become illustrious, and fixed – so it doesn’t just change every 16 years. The poorer type of farmers that used to spend their evenings telling ghost stories are now reading Tom Jones or something. This new written discourse is the vehicle to shape this new public opinion, if you want to see the public sphere in action, listen to sports talk radio. ‘Broadcasting’ comes from throwing out seeds when sowing, casting them broadly about.

England has become a nation of readers, reading is constitutive to how we view ourselves. We are a nation because we read. The english language is destitute to a test or standard to which we can hold it to. People get hysterical about it every so often. English changes too quickly. Such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be. Everyone agrees that our language is barbarous, the English language became corrupt during the restoration. People believed that now America’s independent, naturally it’s gonna develop it’s own language. Orthography becomes the means of distinguishes two languages for largely political reasons: sweater or Rutabaga, you’re not sure if they’re gonna say that. They’re clearly part of our habitus, our concerns; why not think of thunder gods? The Chinese think it’s the year 4,000. We won’t talk about perspective in painting but we will talk about double entry bookkeeping and marine charts. The odd thing about account books is that from the early middle ages they all had links within them to other documents, sometimes documents on the other side of the world that had to be correlated.

Market-driven society is going to destroy the stones of the old church. Conspiracy theories and prophecies always seem to blame those catholics on the continent. Napoleon wanted literate soldiers because he felt literate soldiers marched in step, they can all read arabic just enough to recite. Wilkins tried to devise a system of language that would relate absolutely to the world outside and would therefore be universal, it was he who discovered – or reassured us – that there was air in the world, but obviously, the one about the monstrous calf seems a bit weird to us.

The valentine was kind of an invention of the Post Office. The American Post Office subsidised delivery of newspapers heavily at the expense of personal letters until the 1830’s. In the 1830’s and 40’s they reduced the cost of personal letters but needed to teach people how to use the system, and so encouraged the sending of valentines. One of the nice things about the liberal state is that it keeps it’s violence under cover, you don’t have entities exerting raw political power. I love the fact that it’s covered up.

Confucius says “…I transmit, not create…”, so he’s very much like Alexander Pope in that respect. You’re going to be in charge of printing and if anything revolutionary comes out, if anything seditious comes out, you’re gonna catch it. The roots of IBM go back to the 1890 census. The recreation looks almost Babbage-esque. During the second world war women were known as ‘the computers’. Babbage probably never even thought about that. I wish to God these calculations had been committed by steam, probably thinking of how to calculate the end of time. This is really a machine-like task, so why not build a machine to do this task? This strange quaker who left the Met Office because it was run by the military, what we think of as the state was becoming the informational state. The first thing was to set up a state archive, the next was to set up a state printer *whoosh*. Is the library the right model for the internet, and if so, when can we burn it down? Nobody knew but they all proclaimed to have great authority on the issue, leading to at least 300 years of war.


There were various things along the way sowing seeds for what we’d now call ‘computers’, clocks being one. ‘Computing’ as a word turns up in the 17th century as a prescribed act, it was used to describe people who were attempting to compute the end of days. Much faster than people writing in manuscript with books, France Telecom accidentally produced a kind of early email service called minitel. He had strange religious ideas, weird scotsman. Leibniz had that really weird note-taking device

Why do photographs seem more truthful to us? Photographs have a claim to truthfulness, but to what extent can we trust that truthfulness? We don’t believe that we can make a photograph of a concept or abstract idea. Look, why do local newspapers never investigate elevator accidents? Who puts advertisements in local newspapers? That’s right. There were deliberate attempts by governments to cut underwater telecommunications links. In a few years people will be searching for the last pencil because we have such nice typewriters.

Before, history ended at 1930. Like a simulation of workplace discrimination, we always wish that technology would give us the world that we want. The newspapers don’t matter, it’s all about what your bard says. Nowadays literacy can be leapfrogged. They airdropped the alphabet by helicopter on oases and came back 20 years later and it looks like a literate society. Well, that’s the past. Any phrase-making yokel could become the world-centre, the strange irishman that changed all your lives. An exponential curve looks scary no matter when you get on it.

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