The present is a time of overwhelming access to information. Much of it is contradictory, vague or seemingly meaningless. Far more facts than can ever be processed are available in already digested forms.
Discussions of early Judaism frequently point out the novelty of a community based around a book instead of a geographic proximity. The text translated itself communally over and over, spiraling outward, as the populations themselves drifted into the decentralized pockets of the diaspora. In the fossil record of documents the earliest probable ancestor to the internet is The Talmud.
The internet, like The Talmud, positions the footnote as a corridor in a labyrinth with the invisible everything/nothing of truth (the artist formerly known as God) at its center. It’s the manifestation of emanationism as the spiraling outward as text. The text is meant to beget more text; it orders the universe in footnotes meant to beget more footnotes. Endless commentaries upon commentaries. This is what a Gawker or Cracked does, they’re just not given as much time to write.
This trend continues historically in the Medieval manuscripts’ infamous marginalia. The marginalia’s content is similar to modern social media posts; lots of raucous images of God-only-knows-what and complaints directed toward a possible non-audience that, in some cases, have not been read until now. Some examples:
“New parchment, bad ink. I say nothing more.”
“I am very cold.”
The marginalia exists as the Twitter of the incunabula; the workers’ invisible griping before meme generators and the copy-paste tools’ most direct descendent, the printing press. The printing press and the ability to make relatively cheap and accurate reproductions of photographs in the 20th century led back to the offspring of the medieval marginalia and The Talmuds’ stylistic tendencies while not entirely resembling either.
The printed book, of course, acts as a disciplinary containment facility for information. The editor is “cuts down”, “slashes”, “trims”. The unedited manuscript is undisciplined, wild, free. It resists definition. Like the medieval myth of the unicorn, it runs about unable to be tamed except by a virgin. It is then promptly killed by the hunters of “meaning” and “definitive interpretation.”
The unicorn, in the 1600s, was frequently seen as a translation of the Christ myth.
THE RABBI, THE CLERIC, THE EDITOR, THE ANALYST, THE GATEKEEPERS AGAINST THE SCHIZOPHRENIC HORDES
THE GRAMMAR AS A CATECHISM, THE CATECHISM AS A GRAMMAR
The fairly recent obsession with attribution and citation exemplified at its most quantitative extreme in academic style guides is not an historical given, and has or has not been enforced for various reasons throughout history.
The early Hasidic Jewish rabbis, anticipating and joyously embracing what Roland Barthes would later call “The Death of the Author”, paid little attention to issues of attribution; they wished themselves to be transmigrated into the anonymous solidarity of folk tales. Books compiling their tales decades after the fact are filled with cautions in their academic prefaces that original sourcing in many cases can’t be found, that stories and saying in “primary” sources will be frequently attributed to multiple rabbis and that the Rabbis seemed to purposely organize themselves to yield this effect. That these stories are as often started with “Rabbi A said often that Rabbi B” said makes the errand of attribution seem that much more ridiculous.
Like Derrida, they see the world as text. Unlike Derrida, they see this as unambiguously the fount of meaning; the ambiguity is in the meaning. “Meaning” is not monolithic; the belief in God is simply an impetus toward more vigorous reading of the world. It’s said the Ba’al Shem Tov described the Torah as a Rabbi Leibe Moshe tells a parable on “The Value of Not Believing In God”. Another rabbi looks for messages from God in telegraph lines and finds it. Not having the book in front of me I must paraphrase this from memory. But that’s what the rabbis wanted, wasn’t it?
“If God is everywhere, then what does he tell us in the telegraph line?” asks a young man.
“That what’s said here can be heard there,” replies the rabbi.
The learned man, incarnated in the form of the rabbi or translated otherwise, comes to knowledge in order to serves the social goal of gerrymandering the negative space of not-knowing, what can’t be known, what knowledge is false.
Lenny Bruce discussed in a bit which diseases were sexy. He was on to something. The same way people imagine their chances dating celebrities who they don’t and can’t know, certain diseases, especially of the psychological variety, are transformed through semiotic democracy into folk heroes, villains, forces, protective or invasive forces in or around the global village. If charisma is looking like a lot of other people, the charisma of a mental illness exists in its ability to look like a lot of other peoples’ minds.
Schizophrenia is the sexiest disease of the last hundred years. The Marilyn Monroe of pathologies. But while Marilyn’s leggy cheesecake was translated into the moving image schizophrenia’s tantalizing provocations reveal their unapproachable sex in the come-ons of clinical jargon and their transmigration into the vernacular use of the term. The popular understanding of schizophrenia is a parable of the present moment and its relation to the weakening of the social hegemony of the “expert”; in the assaultive media saturation of the present, what’s more relatable than someone screaming at the non-normative voices to stop?
The most popular literary forms of the present is the container; the encyclopedia, the strident simplification. These are defense tactics. The new barbarian horde is the unregulated spiraling outward of text.
Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.