“No one sleeps in this room without
the dream of a common language.
– Adrienne Rich, “The Origins and History of Consciousness”
My granddaughter Siona is 23 months old, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?). But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, koh, bay, ekk, choo,sniff with nose [flowers], cluck with tongue [horsey]. She has a couple dozen signs that are fairly conventional in baby sign language: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”… Until she learned to articulate the word “yes” clearly and firmly this week, she had a funny way of nodding her head, tightening her whole chest and saying “Unnhh!” for affirmation. We all imitated it and laughed. Now she says, “Yes,” with a tiny trace of her former sign, and it’s disappearing fast.
Writing and reading are acts of telepathy. The author tells me what’s in his mind. I try to decipher it. It can be an ecstatic communion, or dull. But assuming there’s another mind may help us out of the postmodern moral abyss.
Yes, the author’s story is just a version. The characters are just representations. The author tries to reduce the arbitrariness of selecting these few signs out of an infinity of possible others through force of will and practice and erasure. If we resonate with what we read, we respect and admire and can be pleasured by word art. But who is to say what is right or wrong in anything?
Welcome to the postmodern abyss, where morals throw themselves off the cliff to die. Where ethics are a matter of local taste. Where the world is anything you make it. Chacun á son goût. Or a“Negative Theology,”what Charles Taylor saw in Derrida’s philosophy.
When you open a book, are you already judging the author against some ideological test? Or do you try to know the author’s mind first before deciding he had failed your personal litmus test?
Reading the Talmud is good training for suspending your judgments.
The Talmud is a hypertextual text of a symposium among hundreds of rabbis and scholars spread across continents over the first five centuries after the Destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The Mishnah plus Gemarah that make up the canonical Talmud, along with inclusions of sanctioned commenatries by Rashi and others, are at least 6000 pages long. But the Talmud project has never stopped growing and promises to keep growing as commentators comment on commentators to adapt the Torah to an evolving reality. Easily millions of pages have been written about it. Not only is it a cryptic attempt at capturing a convoluted conversation, the conversation itself is an attempt to reconstruct a text that was never supposed to be written down, the Oral Law of the Jews. In short, the mere act of learning to read the Talmud requires years of study just to give it a fair hearing, to try to understand what the sages were trying to say before deciding if what they said had any merit.
Anyone can dip into this sea of interpretations and stories and pronouncements and duels among rabbis and extract something out of context to prove a point. But just to learn the names of the “authors,” the eras and cultures in which they lived, the assumptions underlying their discourse, and the pretexts for that discourse, requires a lifetime. It’s good practice for suspending your self-interested interpretations when reading a mere 300-page novel by a single author.
How I learned to stop worrying and love Google for their telepathic creation of me
“Virus on Host” NPR.ORG image
In other words, privacy is over and it’s awesome. Google and Yahoo and Amazon and Facebook, with help from the NSA, have won. They have removed any shred of hope we could retain our privacy. But I don’t worry. In fact, I find the occasion joyous.
First, an apology. When I use the word telepathy, I do not mean reading minds in the magical, fantastical, ESP, science fiction, paranormal sense. I do mean “reading minds,” but whether telepathy is real, whether thoughts can be directly exchanged, mind to mind, or plucked by one mind from another, is irrelevent to my goals. So I’m sorry if you’ve come seeking something more romantic, but in my mind, this is where the real romance is.
The telepathy I mean is the only telepathy most people have ever experienced: getting thoughts between minds by using a medium of communication. T
ext on paper or the computer screen, words spoken over the phone. To be clear, I call this Technologically-Mediated Telepathy, or TMT for short, and every time I refer to telepathy, this is the kind I mean. Even language itself is a technology – it is after all the brain’s most fundamental artifice but an artifice nonetheless. So even speaking to each other, whispering intimacies in each other’s ears or shouting from a mountaintop is a form of TMT.
Writing is another TMT. I’m arranging a finite set of symbols – 26 in English plus some other marks – in infinite recombinations to wrestle what’s on my mind into what you’re reading. You’re reading. You’re reading my mind through the technology of the alphabet, a machinery so ubiquitous, powerful and transparent, we forget to see it as a technology at all.