Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Deep, Webbed Rabbit Hole in the Center of Campus

Here's a question: what is the proper role of professorship in an age of world mind? Last night, after spending some time in class discussing ancient sources of Odysseyan legends, Homeric and otherwise, I found myself following a series of hyperlinks concerning fairytales and legends deep into the labyrinth of the oh-so-aptly named World Wide Web. Living as I do in a rural area with no cellphone service and only a weak internet connection at home, I do not often run the risk of losing myself in the Web, but last night using speedy campus servers as my wings I found myself as quickly entangled in my informational misadventure as any foolish fly. When I retraced my breadcrumb trail of links back out of the rabbit hole ("block that metaphor!"), I discovered I had gone about 2 hours and 50 links deep (and/or sideways), and had not only encountered a great deal of reputably documented information I had not known about, as well as a number of questionably sourced articles I could more or less ignore, but had wandered into realms so far removed from my original query as to be in some ways absurd--the later colonial history of Trinidad and Tobago, the lore of spectral hounds in the British Isles, the impact of Isidore of Seville on the medieval preservation and distortion of classical learning, and so forth.

Can a hyperlinked world be anything
but interdisciplinary? Is the best role of the lecturer/professor/mentor now to be a guide, a pointing finger only, a Virgil to the myriad student Dantes who have stumbled from their various thickets into the swirling limbo of facts and fictions that is this Web, this Matrix, this human-tended, human-groomed, superorganismic termite underhill of world mind? How should we then teach, when information itself is so superabundant that the single brain is stunned on contact? As the oracular Web itself reminded me, the world of scholarship was once so different. Back when that learned 6th-century Spanish Catholic and "last scholar of the ancient world," Isidore of Seville put together his compendium of world knowledge, the Etymologiae, it was brutally reductive and biased, but it was still a single, manuscript volume compiled by one scholar and then used as a primary source for nearly a thousand years by several thousands of later clerics, including the first teachers of what would become the great European universities. Yes, long, long ago, and yet. . . . Are we still teaching in a way that tacitly presumes such weighty tomes are the anchors and guarantors of our knowledge, when knowledge and lies alike now form one bewitching, fay electric swirl that halos and tempts astray each of our confused little heads? Is it even possible for individual human minds to follow the eerie, flickering lights of the Web, to wander into that world "under the hill" and safely return at all, much less with only true stories to tell?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shadow Stories of Plato's Cave

The beauty of interdisciplinarity is that one's field becomes whatever one knows and one's research becomes whatever one does not know. More often than not, what little one knows serves mainly to point to wonderful new areas unknown. Or, as they were once infamously phrased--"the unknown unknowns." Teaching a class about storytelling from an evolutionary perspective this spring has opened whole new areas of those previously "unknown unknowns." Despite a long interest in the evolution of language and of symbolic culture, I don't think it ever occurred to me before this term that it is a complete mystery to all of us when the telling of stories actually began. Now that I think about this particular mystery daily, I find the world once again transformed by a new question. Genetic evidence for modern human origins (currently pointing toward somewhere in eastern or southern Africa perhaps a couple of hundred thousand years ago, see Tischkoff et. al. in Science, April '09, The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans), plus archaeological evidence for ornament and symbols as far back as the South African Middle Stone Age, and the ambiguous evidences from linguistics, genetics, archaeology, neurology, and so forth for much earlier use of language and control of fire, perhaps rooted well before our emergence as this particular species of Homo, all begin to rearrange themselves as fuzzy pointers to when people might have first begun that quintessential and universal human activity, telling tales, short or tall, around the common campfire.

Recently, Genevieve Von Petzinger, a graduate student at the University of Victoria in BC, made a sensation in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and rock art scholarship when she documented a comprehensive pattern to the simpler cave "signs" found among the famous Upper Paleolithic rock art sites of France, such as Chauvet cave. (For a laudably readable news article on her work, see The New Scientist cover story in Feb '09, The Writing on the Cave Wall.) While the really spectacular paintings on those caves have received by far the most attention, Von Petzinger focused on the dull little dots, squiggles, half-moons, and hand-stencils found scattered around the beautiful depictions of aurochs and horses. Turns out that there's a pattern to those squiggles, a pattern that echoes, with variations, the basic repertoire of rock art squiggles found around the world.

What do those squiggles mean? What stories did they once help tell? Down in Canyonlands, Sarah Jeffreys has been documenting and studying the layers of rock art left by indigenous Americans. Lo and behold, many of the same simple patterns reappear. Is there an innate fondness for certain fragmentary geometries, dots, lines, and so forth, shared by humans without knowing what they share? Do the stories connecting those dots have much or little in common? If much, is it because of the common psychology of humans everywhere, or were some fragments from tens of thousands of years ago still living as glowing narrative embers carried around the planet by far-flung foragers? Any discipline at all might bring some new perspective to bear, some new way of seeing the evidence all around us.