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Friday, April 30, 2010

Octavio Paz: "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" Part 002

In all written word, there appears to be some sort of level that I can only equate to prophesy. This is the case with Octavio Paz' essay on "The Verbal Contract" and how it affects societies. Mind you here is an Octavio Paz writing in the late 1970s, rabid with theories about how technology influences language. I am a true believer in the after-life, and, if it is as Borges once stated (I have always imagined that Paradise is a kind of library), there has got to be a very confused Octavio Paz trying to reconcile his theories to the "conflict" that our new technology has affected on language. The technology Paz writes about in the essay is essentially television. Television came around in the late 40s and early 50s, but it really took nearly 25 or 30 years for scholars to take a good and critical look at it. Even in the early 1980s, Neil Postman was perhaps the only one looking at it from an academic perspective. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman problematizes the epidemic of "educational" television shows and the effect on children who are brought up to believe learning has to be fun, and, even worse than that, educators that embraced (and continue to embrace) the idea that it is imperative to present lessons that are "entertaining and engaging." In this sense, Paz and Postman could have agreed. There's a basic level of rudimentary learning that is not fun, or entertaining, and it is a fundamental part of learning during our earliest years. Many researchers now see the parallel of the argument for "fun" in the classroom with the decline of subjects such as science and mathematics. At any rate, the technology that I wish Octavio Paz had had access to in his time, of course, is the Internet. He states that: "Media, as their name indicates, are not languages. With great brilliance but faulty logic, Marshall McLuhan once tried to demonstrate that the relationship between messages and media was similar in type to that between sound and meaning within language: each medium has a corresponding type of discourse, just as each morpheme and each word emit a meaning or set of meanings.... To a certain degree, the communications media are neutral; no convention predetermines that certain signs will be transmitted and other not. So to speak of the languages of television or films is to use a metaphor: television transmit language, but in and of itself it is not language. It is possible, of course, to say--once again, as figure of speech or metaphor--that there is a grammar, a morphology, and a syntax of television, but not a semantics. Television does not broadcast meanings; it broadcasts signs that convey meaning." I have not reason to disagree, and I strongly believe that his theory becomes even stronger when applied to the Internet, or wireless communications in general. The idea that there are "no semantics" to technology transmitting meaning takes on a life of its own when applied exclusively to text messaging. There, I believe Octavio Paz might have come straight to a dead end; that is to say, text messaging, over the course of just a few short years, has, in fact, developed its own semantics. In this case, symbols do convey the meaning behind the message without having to separate the meaning from the symbol. Various reports about the usage of text messaging by young people conclude that most prefer text messaging to e-mail, and even consider e-mail a thing of the past. I remember the first time--I think it was late 1980s--when I encountered the lexicon of the new technology. I was minding my own business in a chat room (having connected to a local free access Net at the blazing speed of 1200 bauds) when someone made a comment after something I typed. I meant my statement to be humorous, and one of the other people in the chat room typed in "LOL." Well, my interpretation of that was "Loser Online," and you can imagine how I responded. Of course, I was put in my place and realized, even back then, that the technology in this case was molding meaning and that the semiotic convention was evolving too fast to date. Text messaging has its own set of abbreviation meanings that (in my opinion) do convey specific content of semiotic information. Perhaps this is extending the argument, but I am incline to believe that some of the text messaging abbreviated language even crosses cultural boundaries, and, if it is as Octavio Paz states that "Culture is... in the totality of things, institutions, ideas and images that a given society uses, because it has either invented them or inherited them or borrowed them from other cultures. A culture is above all a totality of things..." then there's much to say about the transmission of language and meaning today. Octavio Paz is correct in arguing this premise, and, to his credit, arguing it even beyond his times: if language dictates the development of a culture, and it cannot be transmitted by media in a world dependent almost entirely of media, how then, do we continue to expand knowledge, language, meanings? Perhaps William Gibson's assertion in "Neuromancer," where he coined the term cyberspace, explaining in a rather illogical way that "there's no there there," could have put Octavio Paz in his place. If there's no there, then there's no language or meaning, and whatever is flying around in that space that is not space is not transmittable or meaningful.

I am reminded of the anti-trust case against Microsoft back in the late 1990s. One of the Senators bringing down the heat on Bill Gates asked the present audience to raise their hands if they primarily a Mac based system; only a few hands went up. When he asked to see how many used a Windows based computer, 90% or more of the audience raised their hands. "You see, Mr. Gates," the Senator blared confidently, "that is a monopoly." I sort of disagree with this method of conclusion/logic, but I do have to think of the importance of the Operating System language. If Windows, in all of its mutated versions, is used broadly throughout the world, say, in Kenya, Thailand, Vietnam, England, Belarus, Romania, and South Korea, the design and interface of the system has, by virtue of its plurality, become a language of sorts, meanings, and even semiotics. While the usage of Macs is on the increase, Windows as a media transmitting meaning through its interface language still dominates. Imagine that, Bill Gates turns over Octavio Paz' theories... techno geek against Nobel Prize winner... who to believe?

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