Language, Writing, and Introspection

The readings for today – Walter Ong’s “Writing Restructures Consciousness” (Ch. 4) in Orality and Literacy, and Ursula Le Guin‘s speculative short story “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” – are both interested in parsing out what writing is, and how its use either shapes or is shaped by the inner lives of its authors and readers. There’s a lot going on in each reading, so I’m going to focus on the idea that a particular mode of writing can be related to not only to the content of a text but also to the inner workings of the brain, and even the spirit or soul of the individual, which comes across in each reading.

For me, this appears most strikingly in the literature of the dead ant in Le Guin’s story. The “orderly arrangement” of these seeds (3) marks them as having special purpose or intent, and immediately reminded me of Ong’s discussion of the linearity of the technologized word in writing: laid out left to right, right to left, or top to bottom in a simultaneous physicalization of what otherwise would be fleeting utterances (84, 100). The unnamed ant reflects on the eternal nature of writing, which “may be found when [I am / you are] dead,” calling out “[I am / you are] here!”. This understanding of writing as a way of expressing “[my / your] soul’s sweetness” (Le Guin, 4) is that leap from text as a mode for record-keeping to text as creative literature that Ong says came “quite late in the history of script” (86).

Le Guin’s story shows how cultural norms are important to how individuals think and are able to express themselves in language; these seeds apparently make up the first example of first- and second-person writing in the imaginary Ant language. This reflects the communal nature of ant societies, in which individuals do not even understand how to refer to themselves or other individuals in intimate ways – no “I” or “you,” only “him / her / them / we”. But even under these powerful constraints, the author of the acacia seeds finds a way to take this individualist position, claiming that “being without ants [alone] is as sweet as honeydew,” even if it inevitably means death (5). This argument for solitude suggests an interiority that transcends group norms, which in the story is explicitly connected to writing’s leave behind signs of the self (“[I am / you are] here!”). Ong claims that writing, as a kind of imaginary speech to an imaginary audience, is inherently solitary, and that what comes with this is the ability to “increasingly articulate introspectively,” to identify and share an inner life (101, 105). For the ant, this culminates in a rejection of the social organization to which she belongs: the political statement “Eat the eggs! Up [down] with the Queen!” and seems to result in her execution (5).

This kind of introspection and defiance humanizes the ant for me, as a western reader primed to see individualism as a sign of a free-thinking mind and artistic reflections on the nature of life as a sign of a subtle, sensitive soul. The pathos of her small broken body next to this intensely personal writing makes the idea of killing ants (something I have been known to do when they invade my kitchen) suddenly horrifying. Le Guin’s story asks us to consider whether animals – or even plants or rocks – might share our penchant for language and the capacity for abstraction that comes with writing, and what that might mean for how we interact with the world. More than anything, the effectiveness of this story for me speaks to Ong’s claim that we have come to see and know ourselves (as individuals and human beings broadly) through a literate approach to the world. It then begs the question of what this means for us as we increasingly communicate through images in the digital age: GIFs, emoji, time-bounded encounters with streaming media, etc. Will this surge of visuality reshape consciousness and our understanding of humanity in new ways? Or have we inherited enough visual language and culture that it will merely be a sped-up continuation of an ongoing approach to communication?elmo

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