2 min read

rectangles bad

I was talking to David MacIver recently about David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. I read (most of) this a few months ago and for whatever reason it went in one ear and straight out the other, so that all I remember now is “it’s about language and stuff, kind of like Ong’s Orality and Literacy, but also bla bla bla something about nature”.

David pointed out that this book does actually have a pretty clear thesis statement that I’d mostly overlooked. I can’t give a great summary of it because I did such a bad job of reading the book, but based on our conversation and skimming a few pages again I think it’s something like this:

“People are supposed to live surrounded by the natural world, with deep connections to the local plants and animals. Now we live surrounded by other people and are mostly only connected to the human world and human technologies. Written language is an especially important human technology and takes us away from the more direct experience of the world that oral cultures have, and this is bad for various reasons."

David’s pretty suspicious of the language part of this thesis statement, because a simpler explanation for the disconnection would be “we live in cities now”. Which, yeah, fair enough. But thinking about this some more, I realised I do have a kind of implicit sympathy for Abram’s view, at least enough that I could leave it in the background while reading the book and not isolate it strongly enough to want to argue with it.

The sympathy comes from a semi-crank theory I have that we’re adapted to look at lots of not very ontologically distinct stuff all day, basically tangled messes like forest undergrowth and rocks and scrubland, and modernity gives us far more separate defined objects than we’re supposed to handle.

I say “semi-crank”, but the idea is not too crankish and probably exists in a developed form somewhere? In my case though it’s not really thought out, more something I cobbled together from a few places and seem to have running in the background. I have this sense that the perceptual system naturally wants to be sort of combed out gently like a cat, with shallow broad activation of lots of pattern detectors at once, and natural landscapes are good at this. Whereas what we tend to give it in the modern world is lots of sharply defined manufactured objects, so that the rectangle detector is getting totally slammed and most of the others are just sitting around not getting to do much, and this is somehow Bad. Like the perceptual equivalent of junk food being a superstimulus for sugar and salt and fat.

Or whatever. I’m deliberately making this sound a bit silly because I don’t want to fixate on a mechanism, I just want to indicate that something in this broad area is compelling to me.

So on this view, yeah, “we live in cities now” still does a good job of pointing at the problem, because cities are full of great big rectangular buildings everywhere. But the language explanation is also a fairly strong one, particularly if you take an extended Derridean concept of "language" as repeatable systems of marks in general. Language is one of the most extreme forms of the tendency towards distinct objects, tiling space over and over with the same few symbols that have been deliberately designed for visual distinguishability. And maybe looking at all this tiling all day is actually the main Bad bit, worse than the buildings, and it’s good to go and stare at some trees for a while afterwards.

I’m wondering if I should go and look at the book again now that I have some handle to engage with it, and see whether I think there’s something to his ideas.