Writing as Slavery

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss considers the status of writing in the history of civilizations, by which, as Dan Visel suggests, “Gutenberg’s invention of movable type leads directly to the excesses of European colonialism” (“This Progress” at if:book):

The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied [writing] is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals, and the distribution of those individuals into a hierarchy of castes or classes. Such is, as any rate, the type of development which we find, from Egypt right across to China, at the time when writing makes its débuts: it seems to favour rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of humanity. This exploitation makes it possible to assemble workers by the thousand and set them to tasks that taxed the limits of their strength: to this, surely, we must attribute the beginnings of architecture as we know it. If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. The use of writing for disinterested ends, and with a view to satisfactions of the mind either in the fields of science or the arts, is a secondary result of its invention—and may even be no more than a means of reinforcing, justifying or dissimulating its primary function. (C. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell [NY: Criterion, 1961] 292 [silently edited])

The primary function of writing is slavery. Its secondary functions—in science or art—are more or less disguised slavery.

. . . because it is a sword in disguise.

Or, as seminal communicologist Harold Innis puts it, “The sword [power] and pen [knowledge] worked together” (30). Innis’s discussion of the space-binding media like newspapers and books that facilitate empire-building is apposite (see Empire and Communications [1950; Toronto, Ont.: Dundurn P, 2007] and Wikipedia).

Innis offers a suggestive binary model of social “biases”:

  • time-bound society: oral, narrative/mythic/mnemonic, tribal, hierarchical/communal
  • space-bound society: written, conceptual/rational/calculative, imperial, egalitarian/individual

For him, Classical Greek civilisation (surprise!) balances the two—embodied, presumably, in Plato’s dialogues, which unite the oral and the written, and the mythic and the rational. Modern Western civilisation, especially in the USA (but now globally), has tipped the balance toward the latter: it is entirely space-bound and thus obsessively present-minded.

The overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and magazine has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication. Their entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity. The emphasis on change is the only permanent characteristic. (Changing Concepts of Time [1952; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004] 11)

It could be argued, though, that the technology that has usurped pen and paper—the personal computer and the Web—reverses this trend: it has given voice to a new orality, opened and expanded the archive and its mythopoetic possibilities, fostered virtual and glocal tribes, etc. But all this takes place within the horizon of transcendental capitalism, which renders groundless and ephemeral any competitor for its monopoly on permanence. The Last Trump has blown; we live in the End Times.

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