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October 04, 2016


Dr. M


Your final comment brings to mind Denise Schmandt-Besserat's comment that:

"It is fundamental of symbols that their meaning cannot be perceived either by the senses of by logic but can only be learned from those who use them. As a consequence, when a culture vanishes, the symbols left behind become enigmatic, for there is no longer anyone initiated into their significance." (CIH 5-6)

Losing the sense of context in which Swift wrote renders his words and intentions "enigmatic" to readers today.

Consider as well Tom Standage's remarks in the "Foundations of Social Media" chapter of WOW --

[Humans] "form coalitions with their peers, for example, and are capable of deliberate deception, which requires the ability to hypothesize about another individual's point of view of the world" (9)

Human communication, as we keep saying, is far more complex than the mere "exchange of information" -- which any two pieces of technology can do. It involves an assessment of the being on the other end, and ideas about moving that other being, influencing, moving to action, etc. This makes it essentially rhetorical rather than informational. It puts human being in the position of always wondering "what does that mean?" -- what was the person on the other end trying to do to me when he wrote/said that? Because we know that others are capable of deception, lying, fooling, dissembling, dissimulating, being ironic, sarcastic, satirical, playful, manipulative, etc.

Standage wants to argue that this typically human situation argues for the "social brain" theory --- that we are always hungry for social information about others. No just what information they hold, but their stance towards it and towards each other and towards us and towards the common values of the community, etc. We need to know who is being "straight" and who is being "ironic" and why. And we spend a lot of time gathering data on this and creating theories on these matters.

The Swift example shows what happens when we lose the ability/interest to engage in such efforts with humans from a different historical context. They are no longer "peers" to us and thus their words and intentions become "enigmatic."

One of the most important parts of a humanities education is that it essentially forces us to "friend" and "network" with the dead, so that their words do not become "enigmatic" to the present and the future. You discovered this week that your own argument is heir to the argument that John Milton made in Areopagitica in 1644. Congratulations. He has been returned to the realm of the living!

Grade: 3

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Media Ecology Quote of the Day

  • “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. . . . When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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