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Beyond the Rational Mind
The Repercussions of Secondary Orality
History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. - Ecclesiastes 1:9, NLT
Reading has a way of sticking thoughts in your mind. In college, during my senior honors project, the notion of secondary orality stuck in my mind from the writings of McLuhan and Ong. I’ve written about it here and here. Secondary orality is the idea that oral and electric communication-dominated cultures have much more in common than we may think.
In a nutshell, oral cultures cannot “put down” their thoughts and reflect on them like we do. Critical thinking, as we conceive of it today, is not possible. Subordinate ideas, hierarchical lists, and abstractions don’t work because it’s much harder to “hold” a thought and “come back to it.” Literacy transforms how we think by allowing us to write things down, make lists, and accurately capture things instead of just remembering the gist of something. These shifts may seem minor, but they fundamentally transformed society, especially as we moved into the time of the printing press. Widespread literacy meant that the average person could utilize the technology of writing to gain more control of their thinking. Standardization. Concrete measures of time. These things and more changed how we live.
Electric communications technologies do a funny thing to culture. Due to the speed of information transfer and the prolific nature of the sharing they allow, elements of society revert to the ways of being before literacy.
In the Spring 2023 issue of The New Atlantis, Tara Isabella Burton writes about a change happening in the rationalist community. Writing to give some background, she explains:
Central to the rationalist worldview was the idea that nothing — not social niceties, not fear of political incorrectness, certainly not unwarranted emotion — could, or should, get between human beings and their ability to apprehend the world as it really is. One longtime rationalist of my acquaintance described the rationalist credo to me as “truth for truth’s sake.” No topic, no matter how potentially politically incendiary, was off-limits. Truth, the rationalists generally believed, would set humanity free.
There is a certain confidence in the belief in the finality of a person’s reason that screams of literacy. Being able to abstract the person from our creatureliness, as some in the transhumanist flavor of rationalism believe, is a level of separation and categorization that orality and oral-based cultures couldn't conceive.
As it turns out, that level of abstraction wasn’t tenable even in the rationalist community.
One former high-level employee of the Centre for Effective Altruism, who asked not to be identified by name, called the period he spent there in the 2010s the “most exciting time of my career by quite a lot.”...
But he soon grew disillusioned with the utilitarianism of rationality culture, which focused so intently on quantifiable markers of success — the number of people on college campuses recruited into EA-approved professional fields, say — that it seemed to leave out something profound about the other side of human life.
Effective altruism, he found, “depowered a lot of people. It made them less interesting and vibrant as people, and more like — trying to fit into a slightly soulless bureaucracy of good-doing.”
Burton goes on in the article to detail the shift that’s taken place in the rationalist community over the past few years. As I’ve been reflecting on her piece, I can’t help but hear echoes of McLuhan and Ong as they reflected 50 years ago on what Secondary Orality might one day look like. The rationalism Burton writes about is the logical conclusion of 500 years of literary culture. It’s the complete takeover of all aspects of life by the idea that reason alone can let humanity flourish. It’s the idolatry of our minds, the belief that we can map out our worlds so entirely that we can remove all the unknown edges, close our eyes, and let the map tell us how to navigate.
As it turns out, that’s no way for a human to live. While I could enjoy Soylent for every meal, I really enjoy it when my wife and I get to visit The Anchorage here in Greenville. I love the endless creative ways simple vegetables can be prepared, and while it might not be the most efficient and rational way to consume my daily calories, I really enjoy it.
Secondary orality brings many different impacts on our culture, almost all unexpected. But as Ecclesiastes and Battlestar Galactica inform us, “all of this has happened before and it will happen again.” Humans are not wholly rational creatures and are incapable of sustaining a life lived in an entirely rational way forever. There are many places where rationality is a good tool for us to use to work in and make sense of the world, but we have to recognize that it is just that: a tool—one of many tools we have.
Let’s remember that we live here in a post-literary culture and have many more tools than previous generations. Forcing the tool of rationality on our world will never work because the world is not entirely rational. Our hearts and souls know this to be true; can we also let our minds in on that secret?
With that, thanks for reading. See you next time.
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