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Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace

Author: James J. O'Donnell
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998
Review Published: November 1998

 REVIEW 1: Patrick J. Cook
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: James J. O'Donnell

As is often true of successful books about today's communication revolution (I am thinking, for example, of Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck), it is James O'Donnell's willingness to keep two aspects of his thinking self involved in freewheeling dialogue that makes Avatars of the Word so illuminating and engaging. On the one hand, O'Donnell is a digital adept. Editor of an electronic journal (Bryn Mawr Classical Review) and an on-line index of electronic journals (NewJour), former coordinator of the Center for Computer Analysis of Texts, and currently Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania, he is sufficiently familiar with the evolution of cyberculture to offer knowledgeable predictions about its future. On the other hand, O'Donnell is a distinguished classical scholar, well-known as an expert on late Latin antiquity, the period from roughly 300 C.E. to 600 C.E. that, he finds, "offers a distinct and useful vantage point from which to consider the development of our ways of recording, using, and transmitting the written word" (x). His understanding of earlier revolutions in the technology of the word leads to new perspectives on our "genuinely new and transformative" (9) information environment, and vice versa. As a result, his book will appeal to students of cyberculture seeking historical background and to students of past times curious about both where we have been and where we are headed.

The first five chapters are a more-or-less chronological series of "deliberately associative and informal" (x) and often highly personal meditations, each on a particular historical situation. The first returns us to the epochal moment famously described by Eric Havelock as the Platonic turn from orality to textuality, when the Greek mind decisively elevated the written word above the spoken and initiated western civilization's dependence on the written text. O'Donnell in part accepts Havelock's theory and uses the example of Socrates to confirm our distance from oral culture. We value writing for its "objectivity and externality," he observes, the very reasons for which Socrates condemns it in Plato's Phaedrus. But Socrates' skeptism about writing also reveals the absence of a Havelockian "sharp boundary created by a single development in society separating before and after" (25). Then as now, change brings complexity rather than sharp definition, as practices coexist and interact.

Consideration of the way our concept of memory depends on the very idea of writing leads to the second chapter's linkage of our modern fantasy of a universal "virtual library" to the great pagan library of Alexandria and the fifth-century C.E. emergence of a self-conscious Christian tradition that "took written texts seriously and began to organize them theoretically" (34). Key developments in this early Christian project included authoritative written interpretations of the Bible, most notably by Augustine, and such centralizing instruments of the church as chancery letters and missal books, all of which promoted the values of the monologic authoritative voice and textual fixity and duration. As Christian documents were gathered, the "poetic" emphasis of the ancient libraries, which glorified great "literature," was replaced by a modern "nonfictional" arrangement "placing objective truth at the center of the collection and organizing everything else around it not for beauty but for utility" (38). The subsequent history of books and libraries continued this textual tradition, but O'Donnell argues that in the coming "networked communities" the "stable, reassuring set of texts and truths" (41-42) implied by the virtual library fantasy -- which assumes that "information is a scarce resource" (43) -- will grow increasingly problematic. In a world without gatekeepers of information and where publishing and reading are simply the two forms of textual activity practiced by all, "the possiblity of even imagining totality" will disappear.

After a inter-chapter "hyperlink" on the tendency of digital text to become unreadable as software and hardware evolve (four chapters give way to such brief tangential excursions), Chapter 3 relates the development of the bound codex book-form, which gradually replaced the papyrus scroll in the first five centuries C.E. The great advantage of the codex is non-linear access but, as the example of the modern scholarly journal demonstrates, the need to bind together small pieces not meant to be read sequentially is also a major disadvantage. O'Donnell sees the dissolution of codex textuality in academic writing just around the corner, as the learned journal in a post-print world becomes not the physical repository of an article, but a means of identifying and endorsing texts of interest within the infinite ocean of cyberspace.

Chapter 4 considers two typical, but unsatisfactory reponses to new technologies of the word. The first is a reactionary "pragmatics of the old" illustrated by the sometimes surprising resistance put up by early opponents of print. These included sensualists preferring the luxury of books hand-copied from printed texts, moralists lamenting "not only the wide distribution of error but the uniformity and consistency of error in print" (78), and practical souls fearing the perishability of paper (most manuscripts were copied onto more durable materials), a very real problem plaguing archives today. Equally unsatisfactory is an over-confident "theoretics of the new" exemplified by Marshall McLuhan, whose futuristics failed because he grossly underestimated the difficulties of accurately reconstructing "technology-influenced mentalities of other times" (84). O'Donnell recommends instead a "pragmatics of the new" and offers sixth-century Cassiodorus, the subject of his doctoral dissertation and 1979 monograph, as a worthy exemplar. Faced with the decline of classical culture, this Roman statesmen devoted his Italian monastery at Vivarium to preserving and expanding a Christian culture that assimilated the classical, largely through the copying of manuscripts and the organization of texts into codex volumes. The newer codex technology thus carried the contents of papyrus scrolls into the future.

The second half of Avatars of the Word displays a shift in emphasis from the comparison of early and modern cultural revolutions to a more present-oriented look at the state of education today and the opportunities for a pedagogical pragmatism. After deftly considering the ways study of Greco-Roman and other forms of "classical" literature has served the restrictive legend-making identity politics of modern centuries, O'Donnell argues that "the secret truth of the cultural traditions we inherit is that they are so diverse, polymorphous, and surprising" (120). Augustine becomes a case study in how modern scholarship, and especially biography, suppresses the multiple perspectives required to view past and present honestly. Online publication of both primary texts and scholarship on them, he predicts, will work counter to this tendency, facilitating "a multiplication of approaches and comparative interaction" (133) and lessening reliance on a limited number of scholarly experts. The scholar's publication will also become a more tentative thing, offering itself less as a long-consideredpronouncement of truth than as an experimental "continuing seminar" that is "interactive, dialogic, and self correcting" (136). The "play-like character of the electronic environment" (140) will puncture the "high dignification of western civilization" (139), allowing a more creative interaction of past and present.

In the two closing chapters O'Donnell's focus narrows even further as he speculates most interestingly on the evolution of the modern university. "What happens to higher education," he asks, "when every student has a link to a flood of words and images, metastasizing in every imaginable way from around the world, and when every teacher and student can reach out to each other at all hours of the day and night?" (148). A number of highly desirable things, he answers. "Resource-based learning," that is, self-paced interactive instruction using automated teaching tools, will reduce the more rote activities of the classroom. Faculty specializations will become independent of geography, since students will find specialists in anything ready at hand. The role of the professor will be "not to provide information, but to advise, guide, and encourage students wading through the deep waters of the information flood" (156). We will abandon much traditional pedagogy that has little to do with real-world preparation (the "seminar that ends with a dozen disconnected papers," for example) in favor of new means of "collaboration, interaction, and student activity" (185). Evaluation will be separated more fully from instruction, as students receive "feedback from both colleagues and teacher in an ongoing dynamic way" (186).

Avatars is a brief book covering an enormous amount of ground. As a result it is overloaded with provocative insights upon which one wishes that O'Donnell would expound more fully. That is not a negative criticism, but a measure of the work's impressive mixture of scholarship and speculation. Although a printed document, the book admirably displays the tentativeness that it predicts for future scholarship. And when it leads the reader to its richly informative website, it will become the kind of continuing seminar that is coming soon to our electronic university without walls.

Patrick J. Cook:
Patrick J. Cook is an Associate Professor of English at George Washington University. He has published a book on the tradition of epic poetry from Homer to Milton -- Milton, Spenser and the Epic Tradition (Scolar Press, 1996) -- and numerous studies of Renaissance literature.  <pcook@Tidalwave.net>

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