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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Metaphysical Life of Paper

Posted by John Holbo on 11/22/05 at 02:03 AM

Let me extend our series on lust and decrepitude, i.e. the advantages and disadvantages of paper for life. if:book linked a few days ago to a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker piece, “The Social Life of Paper". I agree with this critique, in particular; which pretty much strips the Gladwell piece back to some interesting anecdotes. (If I were to add anything, it might be: ‘the paperless office’ is a slogan, hence not really a worthy target for sustained analytic assault to begin with.)

Let me change the subject slightly, by way of working up to a sort of interesting point about ... the literary Wittgenstein. Lisa (of if:book) links to some free bits of Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, which I haven’t read for - I dunno - five years? I find myself alienated from Birkerts alienation, whereas I distinctly remember thinking at the time that the man made pretty good points. (I’ve changed, obviously. They got to me.)

Let’s consider:

The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Syntax is the substructure of discourse, a mapping of the ways that the mind makes sense through language. Print communication requires the active engagement of the reader’s attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation. Symbols are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver. Print also posits a time axis; the turning of pages, not to mention the vertical descent down the page, is a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is static–it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward. The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader’s focus and comprehension.

There are many things wrong with this. For one thing, it seriously overreaches in the philosophy of mind. But let’s make the attack at a different level, courtesy of Gladwell: “Paper is tangible: we can pick up a document, flip through it, read little bits here and there, and quickly get a sense of it. (In another study on reading habits, Sellen and Harper observed that in the workplace, people almost never read a document sequentially, from beginning to end, the way they would read a novel.) Paper is spatially flexible, meaning that we can spread it out and arrange it in the way that suits us best. And it’s tailorable: we can easily annotate it, and scribble on it as we read, without altering the original text.”

So Birkerts’ nostalgia has nothing to do with affordances of paper and print. He is nostalgic for a literary culture, and projecting points of readerly discipline onto dead tree bits that couldn’t possibly be responsible for their enforcement. (Perhaps this point is just obvious.) What he misses is an era when the novel was predominent, or at least much more culturally eminent (I would guess this is his instinct, but maybe I’m wrong.)


The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted “bullets") impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.

The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of “plainspeak.” Syntactic masonry is already a dying art.

The problem with complaining about laterally associative movement is that, unless you are careful, you end up being against libraries and bookstores, which no booklover is. And at that point it becomes clear, again, that the problem isn’t the lack of syntactic masonry - libraries have lots of that - but particular sorts of syntax.

Being a curmudgeon is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Someone has to hoist the warning flags and raise some issues that the fast-track proselytizers might overlook. Here are a few reservations worth pondering.

A dangerous job, too, to judge by what comes next.

1. Knowledge, certainly in the humanities, is not a straightforward matter of access, of conquest via the ingestion of data. Part of any essential understanding of the world is that it is opaque, obdurate. To me, Wittgenstein’s famous axiom, “The world is everything that is the case,” translates into a recognition of otherness. The past is as much about the disappearance of things through time as it is about the recovery of traces and the reconstruction of vistas. Say what you will about books, they not only mark the backward trail, but they also encode this sense of obstacle, of otherness. The look of the printed page changes as we regress in time; under the orthographic changes are the changes in the language itself. Old-style textual research may feel like an unnecessarily slow burrowing, but it is itself an instruction: It confirms that time is a force as implacable as gravity.

There is a deep irony in Birkert’s selection of TLP 1, as a bulwark of print culture against hypertext. Let me adapt a bit of my dissertation - a point about TLP proposition 1 I have never seen made to my satisfaction anywhere else. (So I should publish it, but this will do.)

Proposition 1 has a peculiar status, as a footnote indicates:

The decimal numbers assigned to the individual propositions indicate the logical importance of the propositions, the stress laid on them in my exposition. The propositions n.1, n.2, n.3, etc. are comments on proposition no. n; the propositions n.m 1, n.m 2, etc. are comments on proposition no. n.m; and so on. 

This is not so dramatic, yet ought to be rather striking. (This is the only footnote in the whole book. Wittgenstein cannot have included it lightly, given his obsessive concerns about textual aesthetics.) Wittgenstein is often said to have adopted his decimal notation in imitation of Principia Mathematica. What the footnote suggests is that the imitation must be highly adverse in spirit.

Russell and Whitehead adopt the decimal notation for the pedestrian reason that it allows the interpolation of extra steps into proofs, as necessary, without tedious and confusing renumberings. Wittgenstein, by contrast, apparently employs the very same decimal notation by way of denying that there are any proofs on offer whatsoever. Everything is just ‘elucidation’, to use a technical term that comes in later:

The meanings of primitive signs can be explained by means of elucidations. Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive signs. So they can only be understood if the meanings of those signs are already known. (TLP, 3.263)


Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
Philosophy does not result in ‘philosophical propositions’, but rather in the clarification of propositions. (TLP, 4.112)

This is peculiar, even paradoxical. One begins to suspect that the first sentence of Wittgenstein’s preface is to be taken literally: “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it – or at least similar thoughts” (TLP, p. 3). Putting the point in terms of the text: the contents of the Tractatus are just elucidations – of what? “The world is all that is the case” (TLP, 1). If one understands this one understands everything. But how does one understand this? By reading Wittgenstein’s mind? By having an experience?

Furthermore, granting for the sake of the argument that one does understand proposition 1, in what sense does – or can – one understand everything, i.e. all the propositions that follow? Not logically, i.e. deductively. Wittgenstein says it is, to the contrary, a matter of clarification. But this notion stands in need of self-ministration. In what sense, ‘clarification’? More basically: how can one read the Tractatus as offering anything but arguments, of one sort or another? The decimal notation provides the somewhat surprising answer.

Consider, by way of illustration, the paths branching out from proposition 3: “A logical picture of facts is a thought.” Thank goodness. Someone has gone and saved me the trouble. The answer is: there are 11 possible paths forward (not to mention you might turn around and go back.)

So where should we turn after reading proposition 3? The numbering system ranks our alternatives in terms of ‘logical importance’. But we are not bound to begin with what is most important, I think. (There is also the little problem that it probably isn’t the case that ‘logically important’ is a sensible notion, in Tractarian terms. Wittgenstein doesn’t offer anything like a ‘relevance logic’, after all.)

We ought to seek understanding where it lies; it may lie in a number of places. That is, there are many paths through the Tractatus, since there is no one path. Some are shorter, some longer, but none – this turns out to be important – are essentially sufficient, i.e. absolutely right. For the shortest path of all, proposition 1 by itself, might be sufficient unto itself. On the other hand, the completest account can always be made completer, as the Tortoise said to Achilles. The numbering system shows that this is so. Finally, it is vitally important to add that these many paths are not subjective, simply because there are many. These are not contingent paths of private discovery. They are aspects of a single Thought, more or less in Frege’s sense ... but with qualifications. 

Well, I won’t go into what Frege thinks a Thought is, and what Wittgenstein accepts and rejects. I take it you see the point I’m making. The Tractatus really ought to be done as hypertext because it is quite important to its author that it is not a linear production, neither a path of proof nor even a line of thought.

When I wrote my dissertation (in 1999), I didn’t just come out and say: Wittgenstein wants the TLP to be hypertext. Obviously, per the link above, others have had the same thought. (I do think there has been a failure to think through exactly why Wittgenstein did it this way. But never mind me: I just want to think I’ve had a special thought, probably.)

The reason I didn’t say it - to extend at least some consolation prize to Birkerts - is that I do associate hypertext with a style of surfing that is utterly inimical to the spirit of the TLP; which mostly just goes to show, I think, that Wittgenstein wasn’t managing to lock in the sort of response he wanted, by adopting the literary form he did, which is basically hypertext before its time. The Tractatus is an unstable straddle between Principia Mathematica and language poetry, I suppose.


John, this is a stellar example of a bait and switch!

Re. the bait: I like the Gladwell piece. Sure it’s chatty and a little old-fashioned, but some of the critiques at peterme.com are unfair: Melvil Dewey is hardly mentioned “in large part because he was an ‘outspoken racist and anti-Semite’”: Gladwell is referring to a whole approach to knowledge (one that is perhaps not entirely unrelated to Dewey’s politics, come to that). Anyway, how can someone be trusted who writes “There is nothing particularly sacrosanct about pressed, bleached wood pulp”?

I found the Gladwell article quite reassuring, no doubt because of my messy desk. Here’s what he says about “piles”:

But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that “knowledge workers” use the physical space of the desktop to hold “ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.” The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to “recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay” when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.

Came across a link to a radical new organizational system involving manila folders. It makes such intuitive sense I want to cry, though as I said on my blog, I don’t think it would work completely, at least for me.

The real question is, why does the Gladwell article evoke such hostility? It is an echo of the pen vs. keyboard argument that took place on this site some time back. The third link you offer, John, from if:book, offers a balanced view; it puts Gladwell in perspective but acknowledges his appeal.

By Miriam Jones on 11/25/05 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The green background is so dark it is a strain to read the black print.

By on 12/26/05 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Richard, there’s a problem with trying to view the site using Explorer for mac, which is clearly what you are doing. All other browsers produce a nice white page, just like they are supposed to. For some reason Explorer for mac refuses to play nice. We’ve tried and tried. Sorry. You’ll have to use another browser.

By John Holbo on 12/26/05 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have access right now to Mac IE, but it may provide some way to let you override a site’s CSS and get plain black text on a plain white background.

By Ray Davis on 12/26/05 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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