Saturday, July 25, 2009

Words to the Wise

So, I had another turn as lay leader of Friday night Sabbath services at Congregation Adas Emuno last night. This time I did it together with fellow Board of Trustees member and friend Virginia Gitter, who took care of the cantorial responsibilities, which was a big relief. Since there weren't many people in attendance when I led services by myself a few weeks ago, the day before the Fourth of July, I decided to recycle two poems that I used that night, opening with Muriel Rukeyser's "To Be A Jew In The Twentieth Century," and reciting Emma Lazarus's translation entitled "Hymn," written by the medieval poet, Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, before the Mourners' Kaddish. You can find the text to both of these works on the entry I posted about that service: Independence Sabbath.

This week, I also began by mentioning that this is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, a point I returned to later.

So, at the appropriate time, Virginia said I was going to talk about the Torah portion, and I proceed to explain that such commentary is called Devar Torah, meaning a Word of Torah, and that this week's Torah portion is called Devarim, which means Words. It is the first portion from the Book of Deuteronomy, whose real name is Devarim as well, the Book of Words. In ancient times, books were not given titles, but were just referred to by their first words or first significant phrase. In this case, Deuteronomy begins by saying that these are the words that Moses spoke, hence the title, the Book of Words. And the portion is called Words as well for the same reason, so it is Parshah Devarim (parshah meaning portion or section), and it consists of Deuteronomy (1:1-3:22)—the chapters and verse numbers, as well as the Greek names, all were Christian inventions, I should add.

So, Devarim, the Book of Words, is the fifth and final book of the Torah, and much of it is a summation of the first four books (historians believe Deuteronomy was written much later than the rest of the Torah, first introduced following the return from Babylonian captivity by Ezra and Nehemiah).

Anyway, I mentioned how wonderfully appropriate it is to have this Book of Words, because we are a people of words, a people who love to talk, discuss, debate, and argue. Our God is a God of words, creation begins with God's words, Let there be light, and He talks the world into existence. Our God is invisible, known only through His words, as He speaks to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, and to Moses. And at Mount Sinai He gives us the Torah, the written word to go with spoken word. And the Torah is full of polemics against the worship of idols and the making of graven images; our God wants us to have no images because they are distractions from the word.

Devarim relates the words of Moses, his final address to the Israelites, beginning on the 1st day of the month of Shevat, and thirty-seven days before his death.Moses recalls how God freed us from slavery in Egypt, and I think it's worth noting that, unlike all the other peoples of the ancient world who claimed to be the descendants of Gods and heroes, we recall that we come from the humblest of origins. And Moses does not praise, but rather rebukes us for always complaining, and backsliding, and for our immorality and sin. We are far from perfect, constantly making mistakes and suffering for them. But we recall this because we are constantly striving to be better, to live up to a higher standard, as the saying goes.

At this point, I mentioned the Haftarah reading (reading from other books of the Bible meant to supplement the Torah reading) for this week had a similar theme, on account of this being the Sabbath prior to Tisha B'Av (meaning the 9th Day of the Month of Av), traditionally a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians, and the destruction of the second Temple that was rebuilt after the return from Babylonian captivity, by the Romans. And while in Reform Judaism, we have mixed feelings about Tisha B'Av, since we are not longing for the Temple to be rebuilt and to return to that form of worship, this Haftarah reading, which consists of the first 27 verses of the Book of Isaiah, speaks very much to the core of the Reform movement. I also mentioned how my old rabbi when I was young used to correct people who said, "I'm a Reformed Jew," saying "it's Reform, not Reformed, we didn't do anything wrong." The point being that we are Reformers, and that is a tradition in Judaism that goes all the way back to the prophets.

The selection begins by explaining that this is the "vision of Isaiah," and it is for this reason that this Sabbath is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision. And then I read the section from Isaiah:

1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the LORD hath spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me.
3 The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider.
4 Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly; they have forsaken the LORD, they have contemned the Holy One of Israel, they are turned away backward.
5 On what part will ye yet be stricken, seeing ye stray away more and more? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint;
6 From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been pressed, neither bound up, neither mollified with oil.
7 Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods.
8 And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.
9 Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts?
13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them.
15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land;
20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.
21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.
22 Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water.
23 Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth bribes, and followeth after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.
24 Therefore saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies;
25 And I will turn My hand upon thee, and purge away thy dross as with lye, and will take away all thine alloy;
26 And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counselors as at the beginning; afterward thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.
27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.

At this point I also explained that this came after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (which led to the legend of the ten lost tribes), and Isaiah was addressing the southern kingdom of Judah, saying, you better clean up your act or you will meet the same fate, which in the end they did at the hands of the Babylonians. A prophet, it has been said (by Marshall McLuhan, among others), is not someone who predicts the future, it's someone who tells you what's going on right now, because everyone is fixated on the past, not the present.

Returning to the Torah portion, Moses recalls how God led us to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and the events that followed. Significantly, when Moses sent spies to scout out the Promised Land, they returned telling tales that they encountered "A people greater and taller than we; cities great and fortified up to the heavens, and we have even seen the sons of giants there" (1:28). So we were afraid to enter, despite the assurances that Moses gave that God would protect us. So God becomes angry, and says that this generation shall not enter the Promised Land, which is why we had to wander the dessert for forty years. The Jewish people that entered Israel was not the fearful generation born into slavery, but a new generation of free men and women.

But another way of looking at the story is that it wasn't fear, but rather we simply did not want to leave the desert, and Mount Sinai, God's mountain. We wanted, naturally enough, to remain near to the presence of God. There is a sense of spiritual purity in the desert, away from distractions of everyday life, away from seductions of civilization, close to the divine. We were originally a desert people. Abraham runs away from Ur, the greatest city of its time in Mesopotamia, to become a desert nomad, followed by his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob. The city, on the other hand, is the site of evil, famously in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. And when we went down to Egypt, we were enslaved so that we would build cities for the Pharaoh. Also, Moses gives instructions to Joshua in this parsha, and Joshua will lead us to the fortress city of Jericho, where we will bring down its walls with sound. (Some of this understaning I credit to Jacques Ellu, who has written about the meaning of the city in the Bible, writing in regard to Christian theology.)

So, we didn't want to leave the sacred space of the desert. The Kabbalah speaks of the dangers of mysticism, that one might enter a higher realm and get lost and never return. In the tradition of Jewish mysticism, the whole point of having a spiritual experience is not to transcend and lose touch with the profane world, but to bring the sacred back into our everyday lives, to use that gift to make things better in the here and now, to repair and heal the world, and fulfill our role in God's plan, which is to complete the task of creation.

So we would have been very happy hanging out at Mount Sinai, almost as if it were the Garden of Eden, with God close by, feeding us with manna from heaven--it was as close to paradise as anyone could get. But God said to us, "You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Turn away and take your journey…" (1:6-7). The commentary on this from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is worth relating:

The mountain we're talking about is Mount Sinai, scene of the most monumental event in human history: G-d's revelation of His wisdom and will to man. Still G-d says: "You've been hanging around this mountain long enough. Move on!"

In our lives, we also have moments, days or years of revelation, times when we learn and grow and are enriched. But the purpose most always be to move on, move away, and carry the enlightenment and enrichment to someplace else -- some corner of creation that awaits redemption. (taken from right hand column on this web page: <> thanks to Chabad for making this available)

One of the hardest things to accept for us is the passage of time. Time moves on, whether we also move on or choose to live in the past. In Devarim, time moves on for Moses, his life and his amazing journey from slave to prince, from shepherd to prophet, from redeemer to lawgiver, is coming to an end, and he prepares his people to move on without him by giving his final address, his last words. Time moves on for our people, as we must leave the desert, the time of escape and exile when we were separated from the rest of the world, and take our place as a nation. Time moves on because we were the first people to truly live in history, in an unfolding time that moved from Abraham to Moses to the time of judges and then kings, to the destruction of the first Temple, and later the second, both of which we commemorate on Tisha B'Av next week, to the centuries of exile culminating in the long night of the Holocaust, followed by the return of Israel reborn.

And in our own lives, we need to be mindful that, no matter how pleasant the situation, no matter how magical the moment, sooner or later it will be time to move on. We live in a world that is dynamic and changing, growing and evolving, and we were not meant to remain in one place, frozen and unchanging. We are travelers, nomads in this world, in this life. We all can experience moments when time seems to stand still, when everything seems to fall into place, when we are in the zone, at one with the universe, times of peak experiences, moments of revelation, moments of communion, moments of rapture. We can find eternity in a moment. But we still live in time, not outside of it, and the time must come when we must turn away from the mountain, and continue on with our journey. As we journey together on this Shabbat, may our travels be filled with God's grace and blessings, for ourselves and for all of creation. Shabbat shalom.

Here endeth the sermon, as they used to say. And those are all the words I have to share with you on this blog entry. Peace be with you.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blue Race Riot!

So, my friend Thom Gencarelli is quite the musician, that in addition to being a fellow media ecologist, co-founder of the Media Ecology Association and current Vice-President of the organization, member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, and chair and founder of the new Communication Department at Manhattan College (which is in the Bronx, naturally, ha ha).

Anyway, Thom is in a band. called Blue Race, and they recently released their first album. It's called
World is Ready, and is available on Amazon, through iTunes, etc. Here's what they look like:

Thom is the one on the bottom right. And I've listened to the album a number of times now, and I can recommend it to you with enthusiasm. It's good old fashioned, straight forward rock music. Do you remember what that sounded like? If not, this album will help refresh your memory. If you do remember, then you know why you need to buy this album. You need it! And no, I'm not getting any kickbacks on this, I just like my rock and I like these tunes.

But don't take my word for it. You can sample their sound on their MySpace profile page (just click here, you know that!). If you're on MySpace yourself, then send them a friend request (you know you can never have enough bands on your friends list, right?).

Now I know what you're about to say: Lance, what kind of crazy name is Blue Race, anyway? And my answer is, I don't know, but does it really matter? You know how these musicians are, you know what I mean, right? It's that kind of thing.

Well, there is an explanation, if you can call it that, on their MySpace page. Here it is:

What is a bluerace? bluerace, the concept, denotes a future in which all of the human races blend together as one. bluerace, the band, took their name for two reasons. First, the band is a blend of four distinct musical personalities, which, like a true bluerace, somehow come together to create a singular ensemble greater than the sum of its parts. Second...well, the band members all thought the name sounded pretty cool. bluerace, the history, goes something like this: Roger and Thom were introduced at a studio jam session arranged by an old friend of both blueracers. The session evolved into a regularly-scheduled event, then into a band, then into the original five-member bluerace. When Dean singlehandedly replaced two of the original members in the late 90s (O.K....he really plays with two hands, like most bass players), three quarters of the race was complete. Finally, in 2005, Vic, Dean's former bandmate from Dino and the Groovies, became available and bluerace set out from the starting gate once again...this time without stopping or looking back.

So, happy now? Look, pay no attention to that. Just why don't you bluerace right out and buy a copy right now? Oh wait, there are no more record stores anymore. Okay then, why don't you race your browser right over to Amazon or iTunes and order or download it right now. Don't wait for me, I already have a copy, I'll just be waiting here whenever you get back. So, go, go on, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Language vs. Speech

So, a while back I signed on to a listserv about general semantics, one not affiliated with the Institute of General Semantics, but a listserv that's been around for some time, and is populated by some long time general semanticists. The folks on this listserv have no background in media ecology, and I just recently tried to explain some basic concepts about orality and literacy to them. And to be honest, I don't think I was very successful, at least not in getting though to the two individuals that most of my exchanges were with--perhaps I made an impression on some of the lurkers, I can't say.

The problem is not that they are steeped in general semantics, I hasten to add. There are many of us who work in both worlds, and others who are mainly in general semantics but have the intellectual breadth and depth to also be receptive to media ecology, like my IGS colleagues Marty Levinson, Jackie Rudig, and Bruce Kodish. No, the problem has more to do with the difficulty folks from a variety of backgrounds have with understanding form as form, technology as technology (apart from the uses we put it to), media as media (apart from their content). My friend Joshua Meyrowitz has said that people who say they study media study everything but the media, because just studying media itself is hard.

Anyway, the interchange did give me an opportunity to explain some media ecology concepts in relatively simple terms, and to try to make connections to general semantics in doing so. And since I went to all that effort, if nothing else, at least I can record my comments here in Blog Time Passing, for anyone who might be interested in reading them.

I won't use the names of the other participants in the discussion, and won't quote directly from their posts, since I haven't asked them for permission to do so. The exchange started with one individual asking if anyone could explain the follow quote from Walter Ong: ”Human voices are different than written words because the voice always speaks of an interior, an inside. Interiority is not a property of the flattened, and printed page." Here's my response:

Voice comes from inside of us, it goes from inside, from the lungs and diaphragm, through the larynx and mouth, to the outside. It is an outering of the inner world. Because it comes from inside of us, it is inherently subjective, you cannot separate the speaker from him or her words.

Writing is an invention that represents, symbolizes the spoken work in visual form, typically on a flat surface. It is about surface, the outside, not the inside. The written word exists outside of the communicator, it is inherently objective, separating the knower from the known, making possible a distanced appraisal, reflection, and criticism.

The sounded word is always an event, it happens in time. The written word becomes an object. Writing turns words into things.

Aristotle is a product of the literate culture of ancient Greece. I mention this is the article that was just published in the January issue of ETC, "The Future of Consciousness"

Simply put, oral cultures are inherently non-Aristotelian, literacy opens up the possibility of Aristotelian logic, and electric and audiovisual technologies, being postliterate, open us up to non-Aristotelian/post-Aristotelian thought. It's no accident that general semantics is formulated in the age of radio and talkies, just as it's no accident that Milman Parry establishes the basic research on oral culture around the same time, or that McLuhan starts to understand media as television takes over from radio.


I admit it, throwing "Simple." in at the end was a bit cocky. I was half joking, and thinking of a tape of Marshall McLuhan where he says that at the end of an explanation. But I really didn't expect it to be as far off the mark as it turned out to be. And as it turns out, the response I got was along the lines of, I don't understand, could you please explain, etc. So here's my next response, which repeats some of what I had said previously:

what you wrote is not without merit, in that people have bodies (which is what nonverbal communication is all about) and bodies have feelings (internal states that emotions are symbolic and cultural expressions of), and voice cannot be separated from the human body, at least not until the relatively recent invention of sound technologies. Voice is often used in an abstract and metaphorical way to refer to an aspect of writing style, but this is not what Ong is talking about. He is talking about the human voice as a concrete, physical, oral/aural phenomenon. The written word has no voice, it is silent. It has no paralinguistic cues, although punctuation marks and the like are an attempt to compensate. But there is no human presence, no body present, typically. This makes writing impersonal and text unable to answer questions, as Plato points out in the Phaedrus. The written word in decontextualized, that is, taken out of the context of human voice, human presence, human dialogue.

Voice and sound are physical phenomena.

Voice is produced by filling the lungs with air, and exhaling with the air passing through the larynx and mouth. Voice comes from inside the body and is sent outside of the body. The sound of your voice is at the center of your being, intimately bound up with your identity. Oral cultures, in which language only comes from within, do not separate words from the person speaking the words, in the way that we become accustomed to.

Writing, as a physical act, occurs outside of the body, through the use of tools such as a pen and paper. The written word exists outside of the writer, writing is written on a writing surface such as paper, or a wall. It is about surfaces, the outside rather than the inside. And once written, the text exists independently of the writer, and in this sense takes on a life of its own, and makes it possible to separate words from their author, knowledge from the knower.

Sound is a product of vibrations traveling through a physical medium like air, picked up by the ear as a sense organ, and of course processed by the brain. This physical process works in a significantly different way from that of vision, which is a product of light rays (particles/waves) traveling through a physical medium like air, picked up by the eye as a sense organ, and of course processed by the brain. All sound is surround sound, we listen in a 360 degree radius, occupying the position of the center, which is a subjective position. Vision, unlike sound, is directional, we cannot see all around us, we have to choose which direction to look, and for that matter, we can close our eyes but not our ears. When we look, we often look at "things" whereas sound is a kind of scanning of the environment in toto. And when we look, it is as if we are outside of the picture we are seeing, voyeurs on the outside looking in. This is an objective position.

And while we use all of our senses, the way that we use them and the balance among them is subject to change. When we evolved from walking on all fours to walking erect, our sense of smell atrophied, because our noses were no long close to the ground, and our sense of vision became more important to us. Before writing, when language could only take the form of speech, our senses worked in a relatively balanced way, and the sense of hearing had special emphasis because of the importance of speech. After writing was invented, but more so with the spread of literacy and its increasing prominence, more and more emphasis was placed on vision, while the activity of reading amounts to eye exercises that changed our use of vision. The result has been termed visualism, an emphasis on the visual and the written that first appears in ancient Greece and Roman in limited fashion, and takes full hold of western culture after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Visualism has gone into decline during the past century because the electronic media include sound transmission and recording, and otherwise work counter to literacy.

Once again, what Korzybski terms Aristotelian can only be produced by a literate culture (and does not have to be). Oral cultures are inherently non-Aristotelian, in the same way that they are naturally more attuned to Einsteinian relativity rather than Newtonian physics. Electric technology and audiovisual media also open up the possibility of non-Aristotelian thinking. I think that rather than the Aristotelian/non-Aristotelian dichotomy, we might think instead of pre-Aristotelian, Aristotelian, and post-Aristotelian.

There also was a second comment from this person about the distinction between oral and written communication not being physical like the parts of a spider, which I answered by saying:

Oral and written communication are physical phenomena as much as parts of a spider. Speech is a physical action, writing is a physical action that leaves behind a physical object. We can assess the differences between these two forms of communication, and look at how they relate to the differences between cultures that have speech but no writing, and cultures that have both speech and writing.
And then I responded to a further series of questions with:

Speech is a physical action, writing is a physical action that > leaves behind a physical object.
To the question of what physical object remains after speech, I said

None, that's a key distinction between them, that's the point I was making in that sentence. Both speech and writing are physical actions, but the action of writing leaves behind a physical object, the text, while speech does not. Ong puts it quite eloquently when he says that "Sound only exists as it is going out of existence." If you have never read Ong, you are missing out on something absolutely essential. His book Orality and Literacy is a popular summary, and the earlier work The Presence of the Word is his response to McLuhan's Understanding Media.
Then there was some further questioning on my comment

We can assess the differences between these two forms of communication, and look at how they relate to the differences between cultures that have speech but no writing, and cultures that have both speech and writing.
The argument being made by this other person was unclear, so I wrote

I'm not sure of your point here. Yes, we are making generalizations, just as scientists do. Without writing, you cannot look anything up. Without writing, you have no choice but to rely on memory. Without writing, it is very difficult to achieve verbatim memorization, because there is no text to check against. Without writing, you need to "think memorable thoughts," as Ong puts it, which tends to be in the form of concrete drama, actors performing actions, rather than ideas and concepts, and tends to be in poetic form, structured by rhythm and meter. Without writing, the tendency is to think in relativity concrete form, rather than utilize the higher level of abstraction that literates are accustomed to. Without writing, it is difficult to maintain large scale social organization, beyond the size of a tribe or village. Without writing, it is difficult to form a large army and exert command and control from a distance. Without a writing, there are no empires. Without writing, or numerical notation, it is difficult to go beyond the barter system in economics, and establish the idea of money. Without writing, there is no codified law, and judges rely on parables, sayings, precedents, not on abstract rules to settle conflicts. Without writing, there is no religion in the sense of a doctrine that you must accept or reject in either/or fashion, as there is no sacred text, no conversion, no heresy, and no abstract concept of monotheism for that matter.

I could go on in this vein, but I think that's sufficient for making the point.

At this point, there was a comment from another listserv member, a highly respected senior gs-er, who has had some exposure to media ecology, who made a connection to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of "deterritorialization", and Korzybski's "elementalism." This was a little bit of a tangent, and my response in turn was

In regard to intellectual history and patterns of influence, Deleuze and Guattari come after McLuhan and Ong, as do all of those poststructuralists and postmodernists, and were significantly influenced by media ecology scholars such as McLuhan and Ong, although they don't always acknowledge it, and by Korzybski, who of course preceded McLuhan and Ong, and have an effect on their thinking, albeit not as much as on Postman, McLuhan and Ong being more strongly influenced by Sapir, Whorf, and Dorothy Lee, and Vygotsky and Luriia.

At this point, the person who first posed the question about Ong's quote brought up the concept of "voice" in writing, which prompted the following comments from me:

Writers need to find their "voice" (or so some critics and teachers say). Writers have no voice because the written word is silent, unless someone reads it out loud, voices it. How absurd it would be to say, Speakers need to find their voice. There is no speech without voice. And the voice they use to speak with is obviously "their voice" (and if I read your words out loud, I am reading them in my own voice). One of the side effects of literacy education at an early age, as is the norm for us, is that we lose the important distinction between speech and writing, and it becomes hard to learn how to recognize it again.

At this point, this person marveled at how literal I was being, and insisted that speakers also need to find their voice! So I countered with the following:

you asked what Walter Ong meant. I tried to explain it to you. Yes you are speaking on another level, you are using "voice" as a metaphor, and that particular metaphor is in some ways a confusing one, because it obscures the important distinction between writing and speaking, and implies that they are essentially the same. The fact that so many people use "voice" in this abstract, metaphorical way without giving any thought to where the term comes from or the historical context is a sign of confusion.

Looking for one's "voice" as you put is a great way to catch the IFD DIsease. Idealize the abstraction of "voice" and go looking for it, never knowing when you've found it because there is no operational definition for it, which leads to frustration and demoralization for those learning how to write. The best writers I know generally reject the idea of voice, because their writing is not limited to one particular style.

At this point, the other person conceded some points, admitted ignorance in regard to Ong's work as opposed to McLuhan's, and questioned the validity of claims about a return to an oral culture, claims I don't recall making, hence my reply:

McLuhan had the popularity, while Ong was a very widely respected scholar, a scholar's scholar. He also served as president of the MLA.

No one really says that we return to an oral culture. Rather, many aspects of electronic culture either undo some of the effects of literacy and typography, or are themselves homologous with what Ong terms primary orality. We have not returned to a preliterate state, we are now postliterate. Big difference. Korzybski only considered the vertical dimension of abstracting, higher and lower levels or orders of abstraction. What needs to be added are qualitative differences on a horizontal axis, distinctions relating to the mode of abstraction. Put another way, the process of abstraction is one aspect of the process of mediation

So now, for some reason I can't quite determine, this person brought up the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, so I added this:

McLuhan did get into the brain hemisphere distinctions, especially after his brain surgery. I believe he was influenced, in part, by Julian Jaynes. If you find this interesting, you might also be interested in the book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain who recently passed away. Len was a surgeon and media ecologist, and he gave the 2007 AKML. A summary of the argument appeared in ETC, and was reprinted in the recently published General Semantics Bulletin.

Now, another listserv member left a comment using the term "verbal" instead of "oral" and bringing up the general semantics concept of time-binding, agreeing that writing enhances that function, to which I replied:

In referring to the distinction, we use terms like oral, aural, spoken, sounded, acoustic, auditory, etc. While verbal is sometimes used to mean the same thing, its basic meaning and root meaning has to do with words in general, as opposed to nonverbal for example, and not to speech or sound. In regard to time-binding, writing is more effective for information storage, yes, but also for the process of evaluation, because it allows us to step back from our words, literally view them and re-view them, and in separating the knower from the known, allows us to reflect on our words and criticize them.

He in turn responded that it seemed as if I was only referring to non-technical writing, and that he hoped I was also referring to math and physics. This led to yet another participant commenting on mathematics as a symbol system, and some further comments from the person who first brought the subject up. And my next post was this:

I don't believe I have made any statement that suggested I was only discussing one type of writing, as opposed to writing in general. I have been referring to writing in its totality, as a technology or medium, and as McLuhan says, the medium is the message.

Korzybski for the most part wrote about language is general, and symbolic communication in general, about words and symbols as media.

The concept of language itself is an abstraction of speech. To the best of our knowledge, all human societies that exist now and that have ever existed have speech. Only a small minority of them also have writing. Speech is hardwired into our biology, in the structure of the brain, of our throat and mouth, and in the genetic predisposition to begin babbling in infancy as a first step towards language acquisition. While no one knows when speech first appeared, as sound leaves no fossils behind, some estimates date it back to the first appearance of homo sapiens some 100,000 years ago, others to the creative explosion in prehistoric art that began some 30,000 years ago (there are theories that place it further back and others that place it more recently, but the range of 100,000-30,000 seems to be the general consensus). Writing first appears about 5,500 years ago, and was not widely used until the printing revolution less than 600 years ago.

Scholars of writing define it as a secondary symbol system. Writing consists of symbols that stand for other symbols, specifically, spoken words. Every word you read is a symbol that stands for the sound you would make if you read the word out loud, and that sound you would make if you read the word out loud is a symbol that stands for some concept.

Writing is a map, and speech is the territory. Writing is structurally similar to speech, but it is not speech. The written word is not the spoken word it represents. The written word does not represent all there is to represent about the spoken word. Writing being symbols of symbols, is a form of self-reflexiveness.

Writing abstracts speech out of the context of human presence and interaction. Writing, being itself an abstraction, opens the door to more abstract forms of thought that previously was possible or at least common. Writing allows us to step outside of the system of spoken language. You cannot fully understand or evaluate a system form within, Korzybski argued that non-Aristotelian language was needed in order to understand and critique Aristotelian language for example. Writing makes it possible to study speech (indeed, it is not possible to study anything without writing, which provides some "thing" to study), which makes possible the study known as rhetoric in the ancient world, and for that matter the entire trivium of grammar and logic/dialectic.

Writing does not just abstract language, it also transforms an acoustic phenomenon into a visual one. Writing uses visual symbols to represent oral/aural symbols. This shift in the use of sense organs has profound effects, as this gives language a permanence it never had before, making it available for study, evaluation, and criticism, and opening up the possibility of objective distancing. Even the relatively recent invention of sound recording technologies cannot duplicate all of these functions. The transformation from acoustic to visual is a qualitative change of immeasurable implications.

A distinction can be made between writing, which is understood as a medium for representing speech, and more limited systems of notation, which may be precursors to writing. Numerical notation precedes writing, and the first writing system, cuneiform which is invented by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, was developed by accountants. Some also make the distinction between literacy and numeracy. But as numerical notation leads to writing, it evolves the abstract conception of number in and of itself, as opposed to number as an adjective that can only refer to something concrete being counted. Writing then goes hand in hand with the development of mathematics. When the Semitic alphabet reaches India, and was adopted and adapted there, it led to the invention of zero (a higher level abstraction than other numbers, as the null set implies awareness of the set as a whole as opposed to the individual members of the set), and the invention of positional notation. Numerical and mathematical notation is generally considered a separate symbol system from writing (note the fact that while we use alphabetic writing, which is a phonetic representation of speech, numbers are logographic, aka ideographic, as you do not pronounce the numeral 2, it is not like letters which are combined to form words, it stands for a word in its entirety, and can be pronounced as two/too, or as dos, deux, zwei, shtaim, etc.). But numerical and mathematical notational systems have a close relationship with writing.
I want to interject that a lot of what I'm saying in these posts are things I say when I teach classes on this subject. Anyway, the original questioner now questions the idea of writing as a secondary symbol system by pointing to pictorgraphs, with Chinese writing as an example, as not being phonetic. So this prompted me to provide the following explanation:

The first writing systems to appear are all logographic, meaning one character stands for one entire word. This includes cuneiform in Mesopotamia, hieroglyphics in Egypt, Linear A in Crete and Linear B in Mycenaen Greece, the first writing system in India, Mesoamerican writing, and the Chinese writing system, which has been in continual use for thousands of years (it has not been abandoned because China has numerous, mutually unintelligible languages, and their writing system can cross linguistic divides much the same way that numerals do).

Logographic systems (aka pictographic and ideographic systems) are not considered phonetic, but they are still writing systems, secondary symbols systems where each character stands for an entire sounded word, that is, each character stands for a meaningful utterance. A lographic system, because it requires a different character for each word, has to have thousands, and tens of thousands of different characters.

Logographic systems usually start to add phonetic elements, but in a few instances a breakthrough occurs and the writing system is replaced by a syllabary, that is a system in which the characters no long stand for entire words, but for the sounds that are combined to form words. A syllabary would have one symbol for the sound "ba" for example, another for "be," another for "bi," another for "bo," another for "bu," etc. With a syllabary, we only need hundreds of characters rather than thousands. When the Babylonians took over from the Sumerians, they developed a syllabary, and this coincides with Hammurabi and the begining of codified law. The Japanese today have a syllabary, although they also learn Chinese writing and the western alphabet.

Phonetic writing is more abstract than logographic writing, because phonemes are abstracted out of morphemes, the sounds of speech out of the spoken word as a whole. The alphabet is an even more abstract from of phonetic writing. While vowels are syllables, consonants are not. The Semitic alphabet appears around 1500 BC, and is composed of 22 consonants. Consonants are on a higher level of abstraction because they are not syllables, they are not sounds, they are only potential sounds that only become souns when a vowel is added to them.

While logographic and syllabic writing may well have evolved independently in different places at different times (but may not have, we don't know for sure), the alphabet was only invented once. At present, the first apperance seems to be in the Sinai desert, and in its wake we get Moses and monotheism, and the second great instance of codified law. It is used by various Semitic tribes, including the Phoenecians, who sailed the Mediterranean, and introduced it to the Greeks. The Greeks called it Phoenecian writing, from when the term "phonetic," and they changed some of the letters to vowels to reduce ambiguity, and perfect the invention. A few more letters were added to the first 22 over the centuries, the Romans changed things around to create our own Latin alphabet, the Semitic alphabet evolved into Hebrew/Aramaic writing, and then Arabic, and diffused over to India where they developed their own version, another version of the Greek alphabet was brought to the Slavic peoples by St. Cyril, and the Koreans adopted the alphabet while using letters that resembled Chinese characters.

In sum, all writing stands for speech. Logographic writing uses characters that stand for an entire word (although in the process define what is and is not considered a word). Syllabic systems use characters that stand for the syllables that are combined to form words. Alphabetic systems use letters that stands for parts of syllables.

Writing abstracts and is associated with elementalism. In oral cultures, there is no concept of "word" as we understand it. Rather there is an utterance, which may be a signle word, or an entire epic poem. Writing abstacts out of utterance individual words, isolated as characters, and this is a form of elementalism. In normal speech, people do not go around saying "Cat. Dog. Sun. Moon." etc. Words are not isolated out of a speech situation, or out of the flow of conversation. Phonetic writing abstracts sounds, phonemes, out of words, breaking words down into syllabic elements. And alphabetic writing abstracts part of the process of making sounds out of the sounds themselves, reducing words to elements that cannot even be uttered as syllables for the most part.

So now this person asserted the traditional and erroneous idea that each character in a logographic system stand for an idea. And ok, I admit it, at this point I was getting fed up with this person, and the discussion, which was reflected in my reply:

At the risk of being blunt, you are wrong. The terms ideogram and ideographic are misnomers. So are the terms pictogram and pictographic, which is why no one could figure out what hieroglyphics meant, even though they are little pictures, or ideas, if you like, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which provided the exact same text in the Greek alphabet, in hieroglyphics, and in an Egyptian cursive script.

I do appreciate your curiosity.

This was my last post. The person who first asked about Ong did post an URL that led to a website on the topic of visual communication which had a list of definitions, including some of the traditional definitions of pictograms and ideograms that have been shown to be misleading. I was tempted to say something about the difference between a website with no citations or author, and my summary of the thinking of leading scholars studying the history and nature of writing for the past half century, But it just didn't seem worth the effort. And the other person who brough up mathematics insisted that mathematics is about concepts, and again I had lost the motivation to respond along the lines of how without spoken language, there is no such thing as mathematics, etc.

The problem, I think, is that if you only look at the meanings we make, or the semantic reaction to use genersal semantics terms, then sure, anything can be a symbol and stand for a concept. But there is are fundamental differences between symbols that are abritrary and conventional, and signal that have a direct and causal relationship to what they represent (and we can have signal reactions to symbols, and symbol reactions to signals, but that's another story). In semiotics, there is a fundamental difference between a symbol, an index (essentially the same as a signal), and an icon which resembles what it represents. Likewise, Susanne Langer differentiated between presentational and discursive symbols systems, and also among the many different art forms that fall within the presentational category. And there are fundamental differences among speech, writing, print, and the electronic and audiovisual media.

Maybe the problem is that form easily becomes transparent for us, as we become used to it, fluent and literate. In this sense, it becomes routine, taken for granted, and fades into the background, becoming part of the invisible environment. That, maybe, is why it took about 30,000 years of artistic activity to arrive at modern art, especially abstract expressionism, with its obsession with pure form, color for color's sake, paint for paint's sake, etc. An obsession that was quickly abandoned, I might add.

Or maybe it's me?

Nahhhhhhh. Couldn't be... could it?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Kennedy Shoots the Moon

This being the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, which was one of the most amazing events to occur in my lifetime, we've been hearing the clip of John F. Kennedy saying that we will go to the moon over and over again. But have you ever heard the entire speech? The address was given at Rice University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. Here it is in its entirety, courtesy of YouTube:

Apart from the dedication to winning the space race, what is notable about this speech is JFK's use of a common motif of condensing a long span of history into a shorter period of time (or alternately into a short distance), in this case, 50,000 years into 50. This technique for providing perspective on the relatively short period of time that civilization and modernity occupies, was frequently employed in popular discourse by media ecologists and intellectuals working from allied perspectives, especially those calling themselves futurists.

So, let me share with you the text of the speech as well, which can also be found online with audio recording: Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort.

Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort
President John F. Kennedy
Houston, Texas
September 12, 1962

President Pitzer, Mr. Vice President, Governor, Congressman Thomas, Senator Wiley, and Congressman Miller, Mr. Webb, Mr. Bell, scientists, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen:

I appreciate your president having made me an honorary visiting professor, and I will assure you that my first lecture will be very brief.

I am delighted to be here and I'm particularly delighted to be here on this occasion.

We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation¹s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man¹s recorded history in a time span of but a half a century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America's new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward--and so will space.

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

In the last 24 hours we have seen facilities now being created for the greatest and most complex exploration in man's history. We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn, generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor. We have seen the site where five F-1 rocket engines, each one as powerful as all eight engines of the Saturn combined, will be clustered together to make the advanced Saturn missile, assembled in a new building to be built at Cape Canaveral as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field.

Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were "made in the United States of America" and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.

The Mariner spacecraft now on its way to Venus is the most intricate instrument in the history of space science. The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the the 40-yard lines.

Transit satellites are helping our ships at sea to steer a safer course. Tiros satellites have given us unprecedented warnings of hurricanes and storms, and will do the same for forest fires and icebergs.

We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them. And they may be less public.

To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains.

And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this State, and this region, will share greatly in this growth. What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your City of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community. During the next 5 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area, to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City.

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year¹s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year--a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United Stated, for we have given this program a high national priority--even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.

I'm the one who is doing all the work, so we just want you to stay cool for a minute. [laughter]

However, I think we're going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don't think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.

I am delighted that this university is playing a part in putting a man on the moon as part of a great national effort of the United States of America.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."

Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Thank you.

Not too shabby, as oratory goes. And a special thank you to my old friend Peter Darnell, for bring this up in an email to me this morning. So, in the immortal words of Jackie Gleason: To the moon Alice! And awaaaayyyyy we gooooo!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

And That's The Way It Is

I won't try to compete with all of the broadcast and cable news programs who have paid tribute to the passing of Walter Cronkite, the man whose example they pay lip service to but do not follow. His passing is also the passing of an era, and we mourn for him and also for the past that is irretrievable. Anyway, here's the poem that I wrote immediately after learning of his death on Friday, which I've already posted over on my MySpace poetry blog.

And That's The Way It Is

And that's the way it is.
They shout their warning:
Low water! Low water!
To no avail…
The ship has run aground.
Sands have barred your way.
They say, this far, and no further.

And that's the way it is.
When fiduciary strains filled the air,
And the sure-handed steersman
Summoned and dismissed
The gods and demons of the day.
Now the evening meal is over,
And the long night thins the air.

And that's the way it is.
As one ritual bleeds into another,
Breaking bread and news and earth.
Our father now in heaven,
How hollow are the men and women who
Followed in your wake,
False-faced, fair-featured and unbalanced
Minds, unmeasured,
Punch drunkards who have
Replaced report with retort,
And trust with the bluster of fools.

And that's the way it is.
Seabee essence!
Adjourn nihilism!
Low water! Low water!
Goodbye, night chronicler, you can
Sail high to the stars now, and
Steer clear of this angry, noisy age.
Sail high to the stars now…
And that's the way it is.

And I thought I would add some of the more salient responses I wrote to comments left on my MySpace blog:

we will not see his like again, the most trusted man in America. He could have been president if he wanted to.

I used the nautical metaphor because Cronkite liked to go sailing, and one of his anecdotes about his hobby was a wonderful reflection on fame and hubris. He was on vacation, steering a sailboat at some resort, and he "heard" the people on the beach shouting to him, "Hello, Walter! Hello Walter!" So he smiled and waved back at them. And then ran aground, and realized that what they were really shouting was, "Low water! Low water!" The story stuck with me, and struck me as the perfect metaphor to mark his passing, and the quality of his successors.

the phrase [And that's the way it is] summed up the concept of objectivity in journalism, which we all rightly critiqued for as long as I've been a student of media. And the criticism took hold, so now we are flooded with news personalities who have thrown all pretense of objectivity out the window, and it doesn't seem that we are better off for it. For me, the phrase speaks of a simpler time when someone could make an honest effort of reporting facts as a professional responsibiity, trying as best as possible to eliminate bias and opinion, and the audience could take comfort in the moral certainty that provided, however fallible. But it is only a precious few, it turns out, who can even approach being a fair witness to history, and he certainly benefited from working at a time when the separation of "church and state," as journalists referred to the separation of news as public service and commercial entertainment as business, was still maintained, by executives like Fred Friendly and William Paley.

an interesting icon for the youth culture, but he conveyed a sense of authenticity and honesty that we longed for and felt was missing, for the most part, from the older generation. And when he gave his assessment of the Vietnam War, he cemented his image as one who speaks truth to power, and to the powerless alike.

of course, he was the anchor, the anchor's anchor really--as a nautical metaphor, that would have been a bit too obvious, though.

Trust is sacred, without it what do we have? Cynicism? Suspicion? Paranoia? At a certain point in this process, a society can disintegrate.

He was trained as a print journalist, unlike today's talking hair-dos, and print is what gives us a sense of objectivity and adherence to facts. And now we are facing up to the fact that print itself is passing away.

"So passes the glory of the world" indeed, and we shall never see his like again. This brings to mind the poem by that title that Emily Dickinson wrote:

"Sic transit gloria mundi"
Emily Dickinson

"Sic transit gloria mundi,"
"How doth the busy bee,"
"Dum vivimus vivamus,"
I stay mine enemy!

Oh "veni, vidi, vici!"
Oh caput cap-a-pie!
And oh "memento mori"
When I am far from thee!

Hurrah for Peter Parley!
Hurrah for Daniel Boone!
Three cheers, sir, for the gentleman
Who first observed the moon!

Peter, put up the sunshine;
Patti, arrange the stars;
Tell Luna, tea is waiting,
And call your brother Mars!

Put down the apple, Adam,
And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father's tree!

I climb the "Hill of Science,"
I "view the landscape o'er;"
Such transcendental prospect,
I ne'er beheld before!

Unto the Legislature
My country bids me go;
I'll take my india rubbers,
In case the wind should blow!

During my education,
It was announced to me
That gravitation, stumbling,
Fell from an apple tree!

The earth upon an axis
Was once supposed to turn,
By way of a gymnastic
In honor of the sun!

It was the brave Columbus,
A sailing o'er the tide,
Who notified the nations
Of where I would reside!

Mortality is fatal --
Gentility is fine,
Rascality, heroic,
Insolvency, sublime!

Our Fathers being weary,
Laid down on Bunker Hill;
And tho' full many a morning,
Yet they are sleeping still, --

The trumpet, sir, shall wake them,
In dreams I see them rise,
Each with a solemn musket
A marching to the skies!

A coward will remain, Sir,
Until the fight is done;
But an immortal hero
Will take his hat, and run!

Good bye, Sir, I am going;
My country calleth me;
Allow me, Sir, at parting,
To wipe my weeping e'e.

In token of our friendship
Accept this "Bonnie Doon,"
And when the hand that plucked it
Hath passed beyond the moon,

The memory of my ashes
Will consolation be;
Then, farewell, Tuscarora,
And farewell, Sir, to thee!

And what more is there left to say but, And that's the way it is!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Independence Sabbath

So last Friday night, July 3rd, I was the lay leader once again for Congregation Adas Emuno, and it being the day before the Fourth of July, there were not many people in attendance, which was expected. But I did prepare a few special things for the service anyway, and I thought I'd share them here.

I started by noting that the holiday of Independence Day reminds us of the values of freedom and justice, values that are so very central to Judaism, which is why we have found such a good home here in the United States, and why our founding fathers looked to the tradition of ancient Israel for inspiration when they were creating our republic.

I then read a poem written by the American poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) during the dark days of the Second World War, entitled To Be A Jew In The Twentieth Century.

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

This sonnet emphasizes the fact that we must choose to be Jewish, we have to choose to live as Jews, in effect to choose to be chosen, choosing to sacrifice safety and security, choosing to live for freedom.

The service then proceeded as usual, until we got to the part where we either have a Torah reading or sermon. I explained that that week's Torah portion was Parsha Chukat-Balak, which is Numbers 19:1-25:9, a double parsha that contains an extraordinary number of elements. Throughout it all, we can see the first great struggle of a people to emerge out of a tribal mentality dominated by myth and ritual, an oral culture, and into a literate and rational mindset and culture.

The parsha begins with the laws of the Red Heifer, a ritual purification for anyone who has touched "the corpse of a human soul" and thereby become unclean. The ritual is prerational, but the laws are an attempt to make it rational, and it reflects a predominant cultural concern with health and hygiene.

Next, there is the death of Miriam, sister of Moses, and source of water for the Israelites wandering in the desert.As we seem to do over and over again , we start complaining. The Torah makes it clear that we are fallible and prone to many failings, and we're always grumbling and stumbling and straying from God. So we bitch and moan, and Moses and his brother Aaron go off and pray to God. God tells Moses: "Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink."

Instead, Moses himself is disobedient, and strikes the rock with his staff, and God tells him for that reason he will not enter the Promised Land. No doubt, Moses was hot, and tired, and irritatable; he didn't feel like talking to a rock, and lost his temper. And maybe God comes across at harsh here, if not petty, but the important point is that Moses, while the greatest prophet of all in our tradition, was only human, and capable of screwing up, just like everyone else.

Next, Moses asks the King of Edom to give us safe passage as we travel towards the Promised Land, and but he refuses, so we have to take a detour. Aaron dies at this point, so the priesthood is passed on to his offspring, and Moses is left to carry on alone. Then, we are attacked by the Amalekites, but emerge victorious in the battle because God saves us.

Then we complain some more, this time about the manna. We're sick of the manna, all the time manna, manna, manna. We're tired of it (can't God send us some pizza? or Chinese food?). So God gets angry, and sends serpents into our midst, and many die from their poisonous bite. God then tells Moses to make a copper serpent, put it on a pole, and all who were poisoned and look upon it will be cured. Again, mythical thinking, sure , but eoes this sound familiar? Yes, it's the origin of the symbol of the medical profession, commonly referred to as the Rod of Asclepius, and associated with ancient Greece:

You may have been thinking of the Caduceus, a symbol of Hermes that displays two snakes:

But the Caduceus is not the traditional symbol of medicine, the Rod of Asclepius is. And as for the parsha, once again, we see this strong emphasis on health in our culture.

As our journey continues, we are ambushed by the Emorites attacking from the cliffs above us , but God performs a miracle, moving the mountains to crush them and save us. Again, it's a brutal scenario, but that's typical of the ancient world. As Walter Ong put it, oral cultures are agonistically toned.

Next, we ask the king of the Emorites for safe passage, he refuses and attacks, God grants us victory and we occupy their land. The king of Bashan then attacks us, we win, and occupy their land as well. This is a pattern or formula that echoes the great tale of Egyptian bondage and freedom, and echoes into current events as well.

The next part of the parsha is my favorite, and involves elements of oral legend in a comic mode, as God makes a donkey talk. It begins with Balak, the King of Moab, worrying that he'll be next on the Israelite hit parade. So he sends messengers to the Land of Midian, to speak with Balaam, who is a prophet of God, and a sorcerer as well, and not Jewish.

This is a very important point, in my opinion. You do not have to be Jewish, or an Israelite, or Hebrew, or whatever, to worship God. That goes back to the story of Noah, where a basic religion for all the peoples of the world is presented. There are priests, shaman, and prophets who are not part of our people. Our outlook has always been that each people forges its own relationship with God. It has to be done as a community, the individual is not enough, the group must take responsibility for itself and its conduct. And every community, every people, has to make its own deal with God. The Jews were chosen, and chose to accept a special covenant, special responsibilities, and special hardships. But there are as many relationships with God, pathways to God, as there are communities. This, I would add, is part of the oral aspect of Judaism, as opposed to extreme literacy that brings with it the ideology of individualism.

So, anyway, King Balak's messengers ask Balaam to come and to put a curse on us. But God appears to Balaam and tells him not to go, saying, "You shall not curse the people because they are blessed!" So he refuses, but King Balak sends more prestigious messengers, offering to reward Balaam with great riches, and this time God tells Balaam he can go, but he must only speak the words that God tells him to.

What follows is taken directly from Numbers 22:

21. In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries.

22. God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

23. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it back onto the road.

24. The angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side.

25. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and she was pressed against the wall. She pressed Balaam's leg against the wall, and he beat her again.

26. The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.

27. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam's anger flared, and he beat the she-donkey with a stick.

28. The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?"

29. Balaam said to the she-donkey, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."

30. The she-donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" He said, "No."

31. The Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

32. The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you, for the one embarking on the journey has hastened against me.

33. When the she-donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. Had she not turned aside before me, now also I would also have killed you and spared her [the she-donkey]."

34. Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. Now, if it displeases you, I will return."

35. The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, "Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak." So Balaam went with Balak's dignitaries.

So, it's a great miracle and a bit of a farce, maybe not laugh out loud funny, but imagine Eddie Murphy playing the donkey, like he does in the Shrek movies, and maybe you get what I mean:

So anyway, Balaam arrives in Moab, and tells Balak to build seven altars, and offer sacrifices to God, which he does. And then Balaam blesses instead of curses us, saying, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?" King Balak is angry, takes Balaam to a second location, builds altars and offers sacrifices, and again Balaam has no choice by to bless us. King Balak then tries a third location, with the same result. This illustrates the difference between the concrete, nonliterate conception of the divine as local, immanent, tied to a particular place, in contrast to the new literate and abstract monotheism of the Israelites, where God is omnipresent (a similar theme is found in the book of Jonah, where it is shown that it is impossible to run away and escape from God).

So, Balaam makes with a blessing, the beginning of which is part of our liturgy, but which then goes into a brutal, agonistic mode (this from Numbers 24):

5. How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
6. They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water.
7. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.
8. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood].
9. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.
And then Balaam concludes with a prophecy about the end days and redemption, when the evil of Assyria, Esau, and the Amalek will be defeated. This is the first apocalyptic vision of armageddon that appears in the Bible.

The parsha concludes with the Israelites being seduced by Moabite and Midianite women, and their idol worship--it's the ancient world's equivalent of the Huxleyan rather than Orwellian dystopia (see my previous post, Huxley and Orwell Redux). So, God tells Moses to execute the guilty ones, and at the same time a plague breaks out, clearly a reference to venereal disease, again a story that resonates with current events. One of the leaders of the Israelites is cavorting in public with a Midianite princess, until Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, kills them both with his spear. Not only is this brutal, but also phallic, as the way, I believe, the story is understood is that the couple are copulating, and he spears them in the act, then holds them up on his spear for all to see (I didn't go into these details at the service, as there were young people present). Again, we can discern the brutal, agonistic world of oral culture, and a very heavy symbol that Freud, no doubt, had a field day with. But this ritual sacrifice ends the plague, and once more we see a special interest in medicine.

The point, I believe, is not to sanitize these stories, but, once again, to understand them, not literally of course, but as a reflection of a struggle to emerge out of the oral, tribal, agonistic mode of life, and evolve into something new, and better, a people governed by law and justice, ethics and rationality. It was a long and difficult struggle, but we were engaged in it long before others were.

The service then proceeded as usual, but before the Mourner's Kaddish, I read a poem by Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, one of the Hebrew Poets of Medieval Spain, translated into English by the 19th century Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus:

Almighty! what is man?
But flesh and blood.
Like shadows flee his days,
He marks not how they vanish from his gaze,
Suddenly, he must die-
He droppeth. stunned, into nonentity.

Almighty! what is man?
A body frail and weak.
Full of deceit and lies,
Of vile hypocrisies.
Now like a flower blowing,
Now scorched by sunbeams glowing.
And wilt thou of his trespasses inquire?
How may he ever bear
Thine anger just, thy vengeance dire?
Punish him not, but spare,
For he is void of power and strength !

Almighty! what is man?
By filthy lust possessed,
Whirled in a round of lies,
Fond frenzy swells his breast.
The pure man sinks in mire and slime,
The noble shrinketh not from crime,
Wilt thou resent on him the charms of sin?
Like fading grass,
So shall he pass.
Like chaff that blows
Where the wind goes.
Then spare him, be thou merciful, O King,
Upon the dreaded day of reckoning!

Almighty! what is man?
The haughty son of time
Drinks deep of sin,
And feeds on crime
Seething like, waves that roll,
Hot as a glowing coal.
And wilt thou punish him for sins inborn?
Lost and forlorn,
Then like the weakling he must fall,
Who some great hero strives withal.
Oh, spare him, therefore! let him win
Grace for his sin!

Almighty! what is man?
Spotted in guilty wise,
A stranger unto faith,
Whose tongue is stained with lies,
And shalt thou count his sins so is he lost,
Uprooted by thy breath.
Like to a stream by tempest tossed.
His life falls from him like a cloak,
He passes into nothingness, like smoke.
Then spare him, punish not, be kind, I pray,
To him who dwelleth in the dust, an image wrought in clay!

Almighty! what is man?
A withered bough!
When he is awestruck by approaching doom.
Like a dried blade of grass, so weak, so low
The pleasure of his life is changed to gloom.
He crumbles like a garment spoiled with moth;
According to his sins wilt thou be wroth?
He melts like wax before the candle s breath,
Yea, like thin water, so he vanisheth,
Oh, spare him therefore, for thy gracious name,
And be not too severe upon his shame!

Almighty! what is man?
A faded leaf!
If thou dost weigh him in the balance lo!
He disappears a breath that thou dost blow.
His heart is ever filled
With lust of lies unstilled.
Wilt bear in mind his crime
Unto all time?
He fades away like clouds sun-kissed,
Dissolves like mist.
Then spare him! let him love and mercy win,
According to thy grace, and not according to his sin!

The medieval mentality is also different from our own, less comforting and gentle, but it too is part of our long history, a tradition that encompasses the ancient and medieval as well as the modern (and postmodern, if you like), a tradition of orality and literacy in harmony, and a tradtion of freedom, justice, and memory. Well, anyway, that's the way I see it.