Word Processing and Authority

In her thesis entitled Bookish versus electronic text Leona Flim quotes Ivan Illich's definition of lay literacy:

...a distinct mode of perception in which the book becomes the decisive metaphor through which we conceive of the Self and its place.... The lay literate is certain that speech can be frozen, that memories can be stored and retrieved, that secrets can be engraved in conscience and therefore examined, that experience can be described. By lay literacy I mean therefore a weaving together of categories that--since the 12th century--has shaped the mental space of the illiterate laity just as much as that of the literate clergy. (37)

Flim defends her rather long quotation by pointing out that the passage describes some of the main certainties of the bookish mind: "frozen" speech, storage and retrieval of memories, examination of secrets engraved on the conscience, and the description of human experience. She also notes that the passage outlines Illich's argument that "individual human experience may be shaped by technologies even without direct contact (38)."

Illich's argument is directly applicable to the change in Western views of text caused by the proliferation of word processors during the past 15 years. I believe that there has been a radical shift towards a view of text that existed prior to Illich's lay literacy. The extremely mutable nature of electronic text in a word processor has shaken readers' faith that text can be frozen; faith that once written, text has permanence and therefore authority. To shake belief in the authority of the written word to convey meaning and truth rather than simply denote information is to shake the foundation of 900 years of cultural development based on that authority.

In the preface to The Electronic Word Lanham writes:

A volatile and interactive electronic text leads directly, as well, to our current debate about authoritative and canonical Great Books. To volatilize text is to abolish the fixed "edition" of the great work and so the authority of the great work itself. Such volatility questions the whole conception of textual authority built up since the Renaissance scholars resurrected Alexandrian textual editing. The "Great Books" view of Western culture that depends on these great fixed texts thus becomes imperiled. Not only does electronic text dissociate cultural greatness from the codex book form, but... it threatens a reappraisal of that greatness. The electronic word incarnates the distinction between literate and oral cultures... (Lanham, xi)

The interactive relationship between readers and word- processed e-text breaks down the separateness of that text: as "Great Books" are changed into electronic forms, their ability to stand alone and apart from the changes in cultural reality since they were written is worn away. Electronic text so democratizes the Bakhtinian discourse between reader and text that the entire relationship must be renegotiated.

Lanham goes on to point out the curious relationship between modern literary theory and electronic text. As one studies e- text, it is nearly impossible not to note the embodiment of theory in the forms that electronic text takes on. The electronic realm is so perfectly suited to rhetorical poststructural text that it seems to be an extension of it. Like oral rhetoric, it is inherently democratic, since nearly anyone who can read e-text has the ability to respond in the same form. Much later in the book, Lanham contextualizes Marshall McLuhan's writing within this context (Lanham, 199-204). Lanham claims that the most basic tenet of McLuhan's theories is the dichotomy between oral and literate cultures. From there, McLuhan characterizes books as fundamentally literate, and electronic media as fundamentally oral in nature. By extension, any electronic medium shares an oratorical tradition: in my opinion, e-text is not an exception, even if it does share the symbolic code of letters and words with the codex book.

The oral tradition democratizes knowledge by making all intellectual knowledge public property. When intellectual knowledge is public property, its authority is reduced because the separation between those with the knowledge and those receiving it is erased. No longer is the intellectual realm the realm of privileged "literate clergy." For years the cry of hackers on the internet has been "information wants to be free." Such a cry is a double-edged sword, however. Democratization of cultural knowledge simultaneously demeans that knowledge in the eyes of the public. Cultural knowledge moves from the philosophical realm of wisdom to the rhetorical realm of simple information.

There is a much more complete treatment of authority in a web at this site.

[Index] [Pages/Monitors] [Authority] [Hypertext] [Society] [Bibliography]

Created by Jonathan Stade, 1996.