Some years ago I stumbled upon the book New Approaches to Medieval Communication. The book’s haunted me for years now. Or, to be more exact, I’ve been haunted by Mary Garrison’s essay “Send More Socks”: On Mentality and the Preservation Context of Medieval Letters.” I was already knew that archeologists had found rune sticks with messages like “Come home now” (found in a tavern, no less), but in this article I learned about the use of birch bark texts in medieval Russia. From Glosses.net, I found Дизайн и техническая поддержка, a digital repository of birch bark texts. It’s worth a look.
I’ve come across a number of readings in social memory studies that discuss the connections between culture and consciousness and make mention of studies which suggest that the ways in which we encode and remember information is cultural, that is, it is learned in early childhood and that researchers have found that the differences between individuals from within a culture are markedly smaller than the differences between people from other cultures. And this is, of course, a fundamental assumption in Ong’s theories of orality-literacy contrasts. According to The Neurophilosopher’s weblog, neuroanthropology is now trying to document this phenomena through neuroimaging:
Whereas neuroscientists investigating memory and learning have concentrated on how individual experiences alter the connectivity of cells in the brain, research in the emerging discipline of neuroanthropology seeks to explain the effects of common experiences – or ‘culture’ on the brain’s circuitry.
Juan Dominguez, a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne, is conducting research into the effects of culture on the functioning of the brain. Domingues defines neuroanthropology as the study of the effects of ‘enculturation’ on the human brain, the relationship between the brain, subjective experiences and culture, and the evolution of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin culture. At an anthropology conference held in Cairns last month, he proposed that the culture one is born into has a direct effect on how the brain functions.
“In certain societies and cultures there are certain patterns of behaviour, people may make certain evaluations, have certain opinions, there are certain tasks that are culturally specific,” says Dominguez. “We should find that the brain would have some sort of bias acquired through exposure to culture.” [Read more. ]
This kind of work makes some of us in the liberal arts really nervous, but that’s because we don’t understand cognitive studies and neuroscience well enough. Once, trying to explain how cognitive science is supporting Ong’s claim that writing restructures thought — and what Ong means by this, I was told by the Ong critic that “brains don’t just rewire themselves.” Of course, that’s not what Ong means, but, at the same time, brains do in fact rewire themselves all the time. Learning is itself a process of building new neural pathways.
My sense is that there’s a fear that if we accept or find that difference is part of our neurological wiring we’ll be taking a step back to past racist practices of essentializing and differentiating groups. This fear is, I think, rooted in the assumption that there’s some kind of culture-biology duality, that if something is wired into us it is unchangeable, because, as the Ong critic mentioned above believed, wiring doesn’t change. Those familiar with cognitive science, however, know that brains are adaptive.
And that brings me back to what like most about this post (as if the above wasn’t enough): The introduction to biogenetic structuralism theory:
Models or representations of the world differ from culture to culture, from sub-culture to sub-culture and from group to group, with individuals in each defining and interpreting their biophysical surroundings in a unqiue way, so as to produce their own cognized environment. This is a representation of the operational environment – the ‘real’ world – which is encoded by in circuitry of the brain.
The notion of the cognized environment has led some anthropologists to take a fresh look at human consciousness. According to biogenetic structuralism theory, consciousness is the neurophysiological response to the effects of the ever-changing operational environment on the cognized environment. As such, consciousness is conditioned by culture, with the dominant thoughts in a particular culture impacting upon the cognized environment – and its neurobiological basis – of individuals within that culture.
As I’ve noted before, while Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s Before Writing has, on occasion, been cited as evidence against Ong, McLuhan, Havelock, and other “great leap” theorists1, Ong himself thoroughly integrates Schmandt-Besserat’s work into his history of orality-literacy contrasts in his 1998 essay “Digitization Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today’s Computers” (Communication Research Trends 18.2 (1998): 4-21). So it was no little pleasure that I’ve found Schmandt-Besserat directly addressing the issue of literacy and the evolution of consciousness in “The Interface Between Writing and Art2”:
- A straw man label which, in my more cynical moments, I’m willing to call one of the greatest hoodwinkings in rhet/comp scholarship, but, in my more temperate moments, I refer to as a classic example of academic error. [↩]
- The Legacy of McLuhan. Ed. Lance Strate and Edward Wachtel. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005. 109-121 [↩]