The Book's Body: I Read You
The inception of reading and writing produced a major shift within Western culture, in the corresponding areas of communication and thought structures. This shift saw the transition from an oral/aural culture, in which a range of senses clustered around the technology of the spoken word, to a chirographic culture, based on abstract, spatially arranged visual symbols of alphabetical writing. In oral culture, the voice, sound, gesture and eye all participate in the spoken word event. With the written text, the engagement of these senses are limited - the eye becomes dominant. Correspondent to this gradual, but finally, radical shift in communication technologies were related cultural shifts in experience, thought and knowledge structures. Before writing, the main relation to knowledge was information storage; writing freed the mind, allowing exploration of other relations to information. The 'book', as progeny and container of writing, was both product and productive technology for the new modern age of objective knowledge. Writing and the book freed minds and bodies from the all consuming task of storing knowledge through mnemonics, and, through its visual and spatial stabilization of information, gave way to new thought structures, processes and methods - analysis, rationalism, empiricism, science. Not only did the book replace the brain, as information storehouse, but also the body, as involvement of the non-visual senses were reduced. The movements of history, though, are never total; instead, history is additive - a layering and overlapping. The past remains as residue, as trace, only obscured beneath successive dominant systems and processes. Beneath the dominant scopic and spatial regime represented in the written word - from early manuscript through to typographic and contemporary book - can be found in trace form, the archaic senses - the whisper of breath, of voice, sound, taste, touch. Through research in the areas of history, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, literature, and neurophysiology/sciences, this paper tracks the historical transition from oral-aural culture, where the body's Other senses -were more engaged, through to a chirographic culture of the eye. This Primitivist and Orientalist project explores that archaic land to locate those other bodily traces, hidden under shadow of the eye. In that earlier land of verbal communication, more of the body was engaged. Speaker and hearer were closer - in gesture, the moving body speaks itself; word sounds reverberate in the ear of the hearer. Here, I will look most particularly at orality - the mouth - highly engaged, it speaks the words. When the voice becomes visual mark, it becomes estranged from the body, it is not absent, only subdued. The mouth still moves, the voice still speaks -- in the scratch of quill, the press of metal type, the click of a keyboard, the memorizing murmuring monk, insistently mouthing the mute words on the page, chewing them in subvocal reading, in the turn of the page, and the breath of the reader. The voice and the text, come together, deliciously, if now silently.
Keywords: Book, Body, Senses, Voice, Speech, Writing
Professor, Liberal Studies, Ontario College of Art and Design