On Reading and This Progress, Connecting Lévi-Strauss and Tino Sehgal

Sehgal-500x406 Dan Visel over at he Future of the Book:

Buried in the middle of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, a book digressive in exactly the right way, is an astonishing argument about writing. Lévi-Strauss considers what the invention of writing might mean in the history of civilizations worldwide, arriving at a conclusion that still surprises:

The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes. Such, as any rate, is the typical pattern of development to be observed from Egypt to China, at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a much more likely explanation of the birth of architecture than the direct link referred to above. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other. (p. 299)

An idea this inflammatory is perhaps one that can only appear deep in a book like this, where the reader will find it only by mistake. But this is an argument that I haven't seen resurrected in all the present talk about what's happening to reading and writing in their present explosions. One sees on an almost-daily basis recourse to the position of Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus – technology, no matter how simple, inevitably leads to a lessening of human facilities of memory – but this is something different, and one that I think merits consideration. Periodically, I wish that someone would present a cogent argument against reading, rather than the oft-regurgitated pablum that “at least the kids are reading.”