Writing Begets Slavery

A rather stunning statement on reading, buried inside Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques:

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.

Dan Visel, who noted the passage, adds his own thoughts:

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.”

The argument is essentially one between receiving stories and experiencing them. What good, really, does reading do? Wouldn’t it be better to go out and smell a tree than read about one? Play piano rather than read bout it? Live life rather than receive it? Maybe.

The rest of the piece talks about Tino Sehgal’s fascinating installation at the Guggenheim. The New Yorker wrote about the human installations.

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