Thursday, March 28, 2019

On "Fame" by Siamak Vossoughi (1261 words) ****

Vossoughi is an Iranian American writer whose book of stories showcases his unique style, a style that is also on display in this piece. His stories often aren't stories in the conventional American sense. They aren't heavy on plot or even on character development. Instead, they are often philosophical asides, opportunities to explore what something means or is--in this case, fame. And while this piece isn't perhaps as thought provoking as some of his other work, it is a good introduction to it. Read it here at Hobart.

On "The Two Powers in Heaven" by Alan F. Segal ***

This rather technical monograph attempts to trace the concept of "two powers in heaven" within early rabbinic writings in order to find the origin of the heresy (and just what it was the rabbis were responding to: Christianity? gnosticism? paganism? something else?). Segal spends a lot of time quoting and analyzing the rabbinical texts, most of which I'm not familiar with. What this meant for me, as one who has not read the Mishnah and other such works or who has spent a lot time reading about them, was that I found Segal's book at times difficult to follow--and a little dull.

Things pick up a bit toward the end, once Segal turns to intertestamental writings, Christian writings, and gnostic writings. In part, that was because I was more familiar with them, but also he spends a lot less time on these than he does on the rabbinacal work--so he's not quite so punctilious and technical.

The basic point that Segal is able to make is that the rabbis were responding not just to ideas that were around at the time in which they were putting their sayings down but to ideas that had been around for a century or two, ideas that go back to at least the first century. Some of these ideas may have come from Hellenistic Jews such as Philo, some from Christians, and some from gnostics. He also finds that most gnostic ideas probably had a route in Judaism rather than in Christianity, though of course such ideas drew from all sorts of sources.

Segal's book is referenced in the work of a number of other scholars, so there's no doubt that it is important. But writers such as Larry Hurtado discuss a number of the same things, only in a way that is much more accessible. So unless one has an interest in the real technical side of this discussion--and specifically of the rabbinical side--it's probably not the book to start with.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

On "From Beyond" by H. P. Lovecraft (3046 words) ***

Lovecraft here warns of science and philosophy. Those who don't succeed live on in despair; those who do go crazy. The friend in this story is one of the latter, who invents a machine that makes the invisible visible--in such a way that it kills those who use it. One senses a link to ideas of gnosticism, how the physical cannot grasp the nonphysical without becoming utterly impotent. Read the story here.

On "Writing on the Wall" by Tom Standage *****

Standage makes the intriguing claim that new media is in fact very, very old media. That is, with the exception of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during which we had an exceptional emphasis on mass media, our media has generally been focused on the social--people sharing things among each other, and things becoming virally popular among them.

Standage starts his evidence with tales from Rome and how messages were passed along in the ancient city. Most specifically, he writes of Cicero, who was a known letter writer. Within Rome, men of higher class, like Cicero, had a network for postal carriers who would carry messages to and from others, many times a day. When traveling afar, there were other means of carrying messages to and from Rome, via soldiers, sailors, and officials. Cicero always wanted to be in the know and pressed his friends to send him news of state while he was gone. In Rome itself, he passed on messages to others, copying parts of other messages he thought interesting, telling others to share his messages. This was not unlike Facebook in a sense, with popular ideas and messages being shared among friends and friends of friends, with some going "viral."

Books were passed along in a similar manner. Since one had to write out the book, there being no press, people would copy out books or passages of books they most liked. A few who could afford it might buy a book that had been copied out by slaves who often served as scribes. To get a book into circulation, writers often dedicated their works to patrons who had libraries from which they lent out to others. This was a way to get into such people's good graces.

Writing a book itself often involved a couple of drafts. Sometimes portions of a work in progress might be shared with close friends with an understanding that that draft was not to be passed on to others.

There was even a Roman "newspaper." This singular document was written out and posted in a public place each day. People could come and read it and copy out passages that they found of interest, which they then included in messages to others. We have no copies of the paper itself, but we have passages that were copied from the paper.

Christians used letter writing to pass along messages also, as is evident from the New Testament, the majority of which is made up of letters. These letters were shared with other churches and people--and were expected to be.

Next, Standage drops into the Reformation and looks at how Luther's message went viral. By that time, of course, there was a printing press. This meant ideas could be spread faster and more easily--but they were still not reproduced in a fast manner. A press might make two hundred copies of something in a day. Phamplets were printed and shared.

From here, Standage looks at the royal court of Britain in the seventeenth century. Knowing the power of print, governments put limitations on who could print and what could be printed. Printers often had to have licenses or get government approval for what they put into circulation. Special taxes also often applied. There was no shortage of people who tried to skirt these laws.

But what this also meant was that people also continued to pass along messages by hand, as in the royal court, where people imprisoned by Henry VIII kept a kind of public journal of sorts, writing out verses for one another--sometimes their own, sometimes those of others. In fact, poetry was, it seems, a kind of private affair. We think of Donne and others writing for a large audience, when in fact it was written for a few friends, friends who then ended up sharing those poems among their friends, much of this by hand.

Another innovation was the coffeehouse. In it, people gathered to discuss issues of the day. When it first became popular, such houses often focused on one kind of person--sailors, officials, intellectuals. Thus, some people held office hours there, and meetings took place there, allowing for the free exchange of information. It was via such a house we get our learned societies, and by them that we get our scholarly journal publishing. A society of scientists thought it a good idea to gather said information into a document to be shared among such thinkers. Only the best was to be included, meaning that they would review each others work before putting it in to print. Some knew others overseas and, with peer review, got those other Europeans into the publication. Such made me think a bit about scholarly publishing today, about how it costs so much and how one has to pay for it. There's much bandied about about open access, but even this has costs. Still, much of our practice goes back to these older times and to the need to print. I do think there are other models that could be used, models that might still cost ten thousand dollars or so to put out a quality product but that would be cheaper and more effective than our current system.

Finally, Standage gets to mass media. Around the early 1800s, steam printing allowed for a much faster process. Instead of a mere couple hundred copies a day, printers could now turn out a thousand or more copies. Most newspapers still printed for a very small audience, charging exorbitant prices of a half days' wage or so, but the New York Sun decided on a different model. It would print vast quantities and sell the paper for cheap. How would it recoup money? It would sell ads. Mass media was born.

Whereas newspapers earlier had largely been full of letters to and from people and material from other papers, things printers found of interest, the new mass market paper needed more info to include, so it hired reporters to go out and gather stories.

From here, we then move to radio and television. Radio started out as social, with people exchanging messages back and forth, but it became a one-way medium soon after the Titanic disaster. Radio was used for emergencies, and so many amateurs clogged the wires that it was hard for government messages to get through. In the case of the Titanic, amateurs were blamed for the message about ice not getting through to the ship (the real case, however, was that the ship had told another ship to quit sending messages to it because there were too many messages the Titanic itself was trying to send out for its passengers on board).

NBC/RCA took an early lead in gathering together a bundle of radio stations to forge a network. The fledgling CBS did similarly. When TV came about, NBC used its special interest clout with Congress to keep small stations from being able to compete or be formed, pushing out some early upstarts that would have provided competition, meaning that TV became almost wholly national in scope. In Britain, the government took an active role in forging media, with its BBC--there, individual licenses paid for the programming, which was to be for the "betterment" of the citizens. In America, the ad model form newspapers became the means by which money was made. Social media was no longer.

Until the Net, which Standage then goes into the history of.

But to some extent this is a bit of a broken argument, even if a neat one. For one, people never stopped sending letters or copying them out. Social media did not disappear during the TV era. And for two, the ideas that caught on were often those from the rich and the elite, even in the eras before mass media. After all, it was those who had power and money who were most able to spread their message, whether via TV or via a handwritten book. Similarly today, even with Facebook and the like, it is those with large platforms who have a larger role in shaping the discourse, and the larger platforms often belong to the elite. This isn't to say that a regular joe's message doesn't go viral at times, but it is to say that those who already have power more often have the likelihood of going viral.