On Sumerian Listicles and your Local Library's Propaganda Desk

On Sumerian Listicles and your Local Library's Propaganda Desk

I wish I had more time to read.

I shouldn't have picked up that Donna Haraway book, 'Staying With The Trouble' until I had finished all of the other books on my pile. It has that combination of being as dense and as inscrutable as a gas giant while also being fascinating and very readable. I have been unable to stop reading it but I am locked in a dance with Steven Roger Fischer's 'A History of Reading' as well as a personal mission to complete a critical reading and thorough archetypal analysis of H.P. Lovecraft's entire oeuvre.

The upside is that I have had plenty of fresh new thoughts as these three sources intersect and hybridize in my brain.

This week, I'd like to meander through a few topics that from my fifth dimensional vantage point appear to be related.

Haraway uses fiction as one of the blunt instruments in her Bag of Holding, in touching on models that can be used to view the world in a new light, she states that

"Stories... propose and enact patterns for participants to inhabit, somehow, on a vulnerable and wounded earth."

With the tragedy that was Post-Katrina New Orleans and now Post-Harvey Houston, I think it is hard to argue that we live on a vulnerable and wounded planet, one that appears to be fighting back against its aggressors. Stories, particularly science fiction stories, are held next to other tools, all of which she classifies as SF, or 'string figures'. The above quote sparked a question for me, is science fiction, one facet of Haraway's string figures, being used as potential (read: not yet written) stories based on projected or fictional patterns? She goes on to state, in order to but these stories as string figures as stories to use we should:

"Look for real stories that are also speculative fabulations and speculative realisms."

A major US city underwater, in the context of my life (a life began in the seventies, half lived in an idyllic country setting and the other half in impoverished or uncultured urban neighborhoods) is a speculative fabulation made real. Haraway's string figures are meant to be pattern projection as opposed to pattern recognition, in order to increase the efficacy of the former. She continues, confirming my intentions (read: fears)

"String figures is about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential, something beautiful, that wasn't there before."

Patterns, and pattern recognition, is a thread I pulled on the week before in my discussion about the spiritual qualities of reading. Steven Roger Fischer, in a section concentrating on the how the Sumerian's developed and implemented reading as we understand it has this to say:

"Sumerian writing developed not to reproduce a pre-existent spoken discourse but to commit to memory concrete bits of information"

The act of reading itself began as one of Haraway's experimental threads, a new activity explored and experimented with that had the unintended consequence of improving our recall of information that we had a need to recall on a regular basis. The method in which Sumerian's employed reading, however, is not how we would define the act today. Actually, the Sumerian reading public had different but familiar motivations for pulling on this thread further. From 'A History of Reading':

"[The development of writing and reading what was written] soon led to classifying reality in useful lists made up of nouns (names of commodities), adjectives (qualities), verbs (actions) and numbers arranged in easily comprehensible columns bearing meaning through their orientation."

Those original, first-to-be-read documents produced in the cradle of civilization can safely be classified as Sumerian Listicles, or, if we take it a bit further, the sacred and archaic Spreadsheets of Mesopotamia.

Let's consider that for a moment, the origins of reading for the Western world lies in the creation of lists and spreadsheets to further a small subset of the populations commercial goals. I am not adverse to this, mind you, I wouldn't ever try and stop or hinder someone else's 'hustle', even a long-dead Sumerian's, Zuul knows I have my own. But, as Donna Haraway points out:

"It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories"

Fischer continues, guiding us along the evolution of reading in its Mesopotamian cradle. He talks of how the some 1800 pictograms were whittled away, became cuneiform, and eventually represented a set of a few hundred phonemes that perfectly mirrored the spoken languages of Babylon. Along with this evolution in writing, the medium of the different types of things that were read changed as well. The abovementioned listicles got smaller, their form factor shrinking to fit into the palm of the hand of the reader (and I was always under the impression that Star Trek invented the iPhone), but the medium also grew. From 'A History of Reading':

"Public proclamations, laws, and aggrandized... propaganda, such as royal funerary inscriptions, were often stone or clay texts of grandiose proportions, many to be consulted for reference (much as we use a public or corporate library today)."

This quote, of course, intrigues me the most, since I work as a corporate librarian. The origins of what amounts to the reference desk in a public library or the core reference documents and knowledge objects in an enterprise environment are literally monumental. Monuments of propagandized text, their sheer size ensuring their archival quality and authority, were the progenitors of the corporate intranet and that neat little desk in your public library, behind which sits a neat little librarian and a host of expensive reference materials.

Returning one last time to Haraway, if we are to:

"Look for real stories that are also speculative fabulations and speculative realisms."

I think these are as good as any. Let's pull on the threads of the modern plague of marketing 'content' and all of those nineteenth and twentieth century scientific and legal reference tomes. What happens when we look back at their origins and view them as speculative realisms? What happens to our world when we call their authority into question? What patterns can we recognize in their fiction?