A Future Literacy

Thoughts on “languages outside the word.”

Changes of idiom between generations are a normal part of social history. Previously, however, such changes and the verbal provocations of young against old have been variants on an evolutionary continuum. What is occurring now is new: it is an attempt at a total break. The mumble of the dropout, the silence of the teen-ager in the enemy house of his parents, are meant to destroy. Cordelia’s asceticism, her refusal of the mendacities of speech, proves murderous. So does that of the autistic child, when it stamps on language, pulverizing it to gibberish or maniacal silence. We empty of their humanity those to whom we deny speech. We make them naked and absurd. There is a terrible, literal image in “stone-deafness,” in the opaque babble or speechlessness of the “stoned" Break off speech to others, and the Medusa turns inward. Hence something of the hurt and despair of the present conflict between generations. Deliberate violence is being done to those primary ties of identity and social cohesion produced by a common language.

But are there no other literacies conceivable, “literacies” not of the letter?

I am writing in a study in a college of one of the great American universities. The walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music coming from one near

and several more distant amplifiers. The walls quiver to the ear or to the touch roughly eighteen hours a day, sometimes twenty-four. The beat is literally unending. It matters little whether it is that of pop. folk, or rock. What counts is the all-pervasive pulsation, morning to night and into night, made indiscriminate by the cool burn of electronic timbre. A large segment of mankind, between the ages of thirteen and, say, twenty-five, now lives immersed in this constant throb. The hammering of rock or of pop creates an enveloping space. Activities such as reading, writing, private communication, learning, previously framed with silence, now take place in a field of strident vibrato. This means that the essentially linguistic nature of these pursuits is adulterated; they are vestigial modes of the old “logic.”

Yet we are unquestionably dealing with a literacy, with codes of recognition so widespread and dynamic that they constitute a “meta-culture.” Popular musics have their semantics, their theory of genres, their intricate play-offs of esoteric against canonic types. Folk and pop, “trad music” and rock, count their several histories and corpus of legend. They show their relics. They number their old masters and rebels, their betrayers and high priests. Precisely as in classical literacy, so there are in the world of jazz or of rock’n’roll degrees of initiation ranging from the vague empathies of the tyro (Latin on sundials) to the acid erudition of the scholiast. At the same time there is an age factor which makes the culture of pop more like modern mathematics and physics than the humanities. In their execution of and response to popular music, the young have a tension-span, a suppleness of appropriation denied to the old. Part of the reason may be a straightforward organic degeneracy: the delicate receptors of the inner ear harden and grow opaque during one’s twenties.

In short, the vocabularies, the contextual behaviorpatterns of pop and rock, constitute a genuine lingua franca, a “universal dialect" of youth. Everywhere a sound-culture seems to be driving back the old authority of verbal order.

If music is one of the principal “languages outside the word,”mathematics is another. Any argument on a postclassic culture and on future literacy will have to address itself, decisively, to the role of the mathematical and natural sciences. Theirs may very soon be the central sphere. Statistics can be shallow or ambiguous in interpretation. But those which tabulate the growth of the sciences do, in plain fact, map a new world. More than 90 percent of all scientists known to human record are now living. The number of papers which may be regarded as relevant to an advance in chemistry, physics, and the biological sciences—that is, the recent, active literature in these three fields alone—is estimated as being in excess of three and a quarter million. The critical indices in the sciences—investment, publication, number of men trained, percentage of the gross national product directly implicated in research and development—are doubling every seven to ten years. Between now and 1990, according to a recent projection, the number of monographs published in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology will, if aligned on an imaginary shelf, stretch to the moon.

Less tangibly, but more significantly, it has been estimated that some 75 percent of the most talented individuals in the developed nations, of the men and women whose measurable intelligence comes near the top of the curve in the community, now work in the sciences. Politics and the humanities thus seem to draw on a quarter of the optimal mental resources in our societies, and recruit largely from below the line of excellence. It is almost a platitude to insist that no previous period in history offers any parallel to the current exponential growth in the rate, multiplicity, and effects of scientific-technological advance. It is equally obvious that even the present fantastic pace (interleaved, as it may be, by phases of disillusion or regrouping in certain highly developed nations) will at least double by the early 1980s. This phenomenology brings with it wholly unprecedented demands on information absorption and rational application. We stand less on that shore of the unbounded which awed Newton than amid tidal movements for which there is not even a theoretic model.

One can identify half a dozen areas of maximal pressure, points at which pure science and technological realization will alter basic structures of both private and social life.

There is the galaxy of biomedical “engineering.”Spare-part surgery, the use of chemical agencies against the degeneration of aging tissues, preselection of the sex of the embryo, the manipulation of genetic factors toward ethical or strategic ends— each of these literally prepares a new typology of man. So does the direct chemical or electrochemical control of behavior. By implanting electrodes in the brain, by giving personality-control drugs, the therapist will be able to program alterations of consciousness; he will touch on the electrochemistry of motive to determine the deed. Memory transfer through biochemical transplant, for which controversial claims are now being made, would alter the essential relations of ego and time. Unquestionably, our current inroads on the human cortex dwarf all previous images of exploration.

The revolutions of awareness that will result from full-scale computerization and electronic data processing can only be crudely guessed at. At some point in 1969, the information-handling capacity of computers—that is, the number of units of information which can be received and stored—surpassed that of the 3.5 billion brains belonging to the human race. By 1975, computers will be leading by a fifty-toone ratio. By whatever criterion used, size of memory, cost, speed and accuracy of calculation, computers are now increasing a thousandfold every fifteen years. In advanced societies, the electronicdata bank is becoming the pivot of military, economic, sociological, and archival procedures. Though a computer is a tool, its powers are such that they go far beyond the model of governed, easily limited instrumentality. Analogue and digital computerization are transforming the relations of density, of authority, between the human intellect and available knowledge, between personal choice and projected possibility. Connected to telephone lines or to more sophisticated arteries of transmission, multipurpose computers will become a routine presence in all offices and most homes. It is probable that this electronic cortex will simultaneously reduce the singularity of the individual and immensely enlarge his referential and operational scope. Inevitably, the mathematical issues of electronic storage and information-retrieval are becoming the focus of the study of mind.

Another main area is that of large-scale ecological modification. There is a good deal of millenarian. naïveté and recoil from adult politics in the current passion for the environment. Nevertheless, the potentialities are formidable. Control of weather, locally at least, is now conceivable, as is the economic exploitation of the continental shelves and of the deeper parts of the sea. Man’s setting or “collective skin" is becoming malleable on a scale previously unimaginable. Beyond these fields lies space exploration. Momentary boredom with the smooth histrionics of the thing ought not to blur two crucial eventualities: the establishment of habitable bases outside a polluted, overcrowded, or war-torn earth, and, remote as it now seems, the perception of signals from other systems of intelligence or information. Fontenelle’s inspired speculations of 1686 Sur la pluralité ties mantles are now a statistical commonplace.

We cannot hope to measure the sum and consequence of these developments. Yet all but the lastmentioned are in definite sight. That not one of these exploding horizons should even have appeared in T. S. Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture indicates the pace of mutation since 1948 when that book appeared. Our ethics, our central habits of consciousness, the immediate and environmental membrane we inhabit, our relations to age and to remembrance, to the children whom we may select and program, are being transformed. As in the twilit times of Ovid’s fables of mutant being, we are in metamorphosis. To be ignorant of these scientific and technological phenomena, to be indifferent to their effects on our mental and physical experience, is to opt out of reason. A view of postclassic civilization must, increasingly, imply a vision of the sciences, of the language-worlds of mathematical and symbolic notation. Theirs is the commanding energy: in material fact, in the “forward dreams” which define us. Today, our dialectics are binary.

But the motives for trying to incorporate science into the field of common reference, of imaginative reflex, are better than utilitarian. And this is so even if we take “utilitarian,”as we must, to include our very survival as a species. The true motives ought to be those of delight, of intellectual energy, of moral venture. To have some personal rapport with the sciences is, very probably, to be in contact with that which has the most force of life and comeliness in our reduced condition.

At seminal levels of metaphor, of myth, of laughter, where the arts and the worn scaffolding of philosophic systems fail us, science is active. Touch on even its more abstruse regions and a deep elegance, a quickness and merriment of the spirit come through. Consider the Banach-Tarski theorem whereby the sun and a pea may be so divided into a finite number of disjointed parts that every single part of one is congruent to a unique part of the other. The undoubted result is that the sun may be fitted into one’s vest pocket, and that the component parts of the pea will fill the entire universe solidly, no vacant space remaining either in the interior of the pea or in the universe. What surrealist fantasy yields a more precise wonder? Or take the Penrose theorem in cosmology which tells us that under extreme conditions of gravitational collapse a critical stage is reached whereby no communication with the outside world is possible. Light cannot escape the gravitational field. A “black hole" develops representing the locale of a body of near-zero volume and near-infinite density. Or, even more remarkable, the “collapse-event” may open “into” a new universe hitherto unapprehended. Here spin the soleils noirs of Nerval and romantic trance. But the marvelous wit is that of fact. Very recent observations of at least two bodies, a companion to the star Aur and the supergiant star Her 89, suggest that Penrose’s model of a “hole in space” is true. “Constantly, I seek a poetry of facts,”writes Hugh MacDiarmid:

Even as

The profound kinship of all living substance
Is made clear by the chemical route.
Without some chemistry one is bound to remain
Forever a dumbfounded savage
In the face of vital reactions.
The beautiful relations
Shown only by biochemistry
Replace a stupefied sense of wonder
With something more wonderful
Because natural and understandable.

That “poetry of facts” and realization of the miraculous delicacies of perception in contemporary science already inform literature at those nervepoints where it is birth disciplined and under the stress of the future. It is no accident that Musil was trained as an engineer, that Ernst Jünger and Nabokov should be serious entomologists, that Broch and Canetti are writers schooled in the exact and mathematical sciences. The special, deepening presence of Valéry in one’s feelings about the afterlife of culture is inseparable from his own alertness to the alternative poetics, to the “other metaphysics” of mathematical and scientific pursuit. The instigations of Queneau and of Borges, which are among the most bracing in modern letters, have algebra and astronomy at their back. And there is a more spacious, central instance. Proust’s only successor is Joseph Needham. By that I mean something entirely concrete. A La Recherche du temps perdu and Science and Civilization in China represent two uncannily sustained, controlled flights of the re-creative intellect. They exhibit what Coleridge termed “esemplastic powers,”that manybranched coherence of design which builds a great house of language for memory and conjecture to inhabit. The China of Needham’s passionate recomposing—so inwardly shaped before he went in search of its material truth—is a place as intricate, as lit by dreams, as the way to Combray. Needham’s account, in an “interim” essay, of the misreadings and final discovery of the true hexagonal symmetry of the snow crystal has the same exact savor of manifold revealing as the Narrator’s sightings of the steeple at Martinville. Both works are a long danse of the mind.

It is often objected that the layman cannot share in the life of the sciences. He is “bound to remain forever a dumbfounded savage” before a world whose primary idiom he cannot grasp. Though good scientists themselves rarely say this, it is obviously true. But only to a degree. Modern science is centrally mathematical; the development of rigorous mathematical formalization marks the evolution of a given discipline, such as biology, to full scientific maturity. Having no mathematics, or very little, the “common reader” is excluded. If he tries to penetrate the meaning of a scientific argument, he will probably get it muddled, or misconstrue metaphor to signify the actual process True again, but of a truth that is halfway to indolence. Even a modest mathematical culture will allow some approach to what is going on. The notion that one can exercise a rational literacy in the latter part of the twentieth century without a knowledge of calculus, without some preliminary access to topology or algebraic analysis, will soon seem a bizarre archaicism. These styles and speech-forms from the grammar of number are already indispensable to many branches of modern logic, philosophy, linguistics, and psychology. They are the language of feeling where it is, today, most adventurous. As electronic data-processing and coding pervade more and more of the economics and social order of our lives, the mathematical illiterate will find himself cut off. A new hierarchy of menial service and stunted opportunity may develop among those whose resources continue to be purely verbal. There may be “word-helots.”

Of course, the mathematical literacy of the amateur must remain modest. Usually he will apprehend only a part of the scientific innovation, catching a momentary, uncertain glimpse of a continuum, making an approximate image for himself. But is this not, in fact, the way in which we view a good deal of modern art? Is it not precisely through intervals of selective appropriation, via pictorial analogies which are often naïve in the extreme, that the nonmusician assimilates the complex, ultimately technical realities of music?

The history of science, moreover, permits of a less demanding access, yet one that leads to the center. A modest mathematical culture is almost sufficient to enable one to follow the development of celestial mechanics and of the theory of motion until Newton and Laplace. It takes no more than reasonable effort to understand, at least along major lines, the scruple, the elegance of hypothesis and experiment which characterize the modulations of the concept of entropy from Carnot to Helmholtz. The genesis of Darwinism and the subsequent re-examinations which lead from orthodox evolutionary doctrine to modern molecular biology are one of the “very rich hours” of the human intellect. Yet much of the material, and many of its philosophical implications, are accessible to the layman. This is so, to a lesser degree, of some part of the debate between Einstein. Bohr. Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Born—from each of whom we have letters of matchless honesty and personal commitment—on the issue of anarchic indeterminacy or subjective interference in quantum physics. Here are topics as crowded with felt life as any in the humanities.

The absence of the history of science and technology from the school syllabus is a scandal. It is an absurdity to speak of the Renaissance without knowledge of its cosmology, of the mathematical dreams which underwrote its theories of art and music. To read seventeenthand eighteenth-century literature or philosophy without an accompanying awareness of the unfolding genius of physics, astronomy, and algebraic analysis during this period is to read only at the surface. A model of neo-classicism which omits Linnaeus is hollow. What can be said responsibly of romantic historicism, of the new mappings of time after Hegel, which fails to include a study of Buffon, Cuvier, and Lamarck? It is not only that the humanities have been arrogant in their assertions of centrality; it is that they have often been silly. We need no poet more urgently than Lucretius.

Where culture itself is so utterly fragmented, there is no need to speak of the sciences as separate. What does make them so different from the present state of the humanities is their collectivity and inner calendar. Overwhelmingly, today, science is a collective enterprise in which the talent of the individual is a function of the group. But, as we have seen, more and more of current radical art and anti-art aspires to the same plurality. The deep divergence between the humanistic and scientific sensibilities is one of temporality. Very nearly by definition, the scientist knows that tomorrow will be in advance of today. A twentieth-century schoolboy can manipulate mathematical and experiential concepts inaccessible to a Galileo or a Gauss. For a scientist the curve of time is positive. Inevitably, the humanist looks back. The essential repertoire of his consciousness, the props of his daily life as a scholar or critic, are from the past. A natural bent of feeling will lead him to believe, perhaps silently, that the achievements of the past are more radiant than those of his own age. The proposition that “Shakespeare is the greatest, most complete writer” mankind will ever produce is a logical and almost a grammatical outrage. But it carries conviction. And even if a Rembrandt or a Mozart may, in future, be equaled (itself a gross, indistinct notion), they cannot be surpassed. There is a profound logic of sequent energy in the arts, but not an additive progress in the sense of the sciences. No errors are corrected or theorems disproved. Because it carries the past within it. language, unlike mathematics, draws backward. This is the meaning of Eurydice. Because the realness of his inward being lies at his back, the man of words, the singer, will turn to the place of necessary shadows. For the scientist, time and the light lie before.

Here, if anywhere, lies the division of the “two cultures” or, rather, of the two orientations. Anyone who has lived among scientists will know how intensely this polarity influences life-style. Their evenings point to tomorrow, e santo è l’avvenir.