The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Spaces between words, spaces between souls

The origin of modern individual consciousness: not perhaps Shakespeare (sorry Harold Bloom) but rather the humble space:

In the course of researching modern camel case, I stumbled across the medieval phenomenon of run-together text, formally known as scriptura continua, and could not resist chasing it down the rabbit hole. The pioneer and dean of this paleographic subfield is Paul Saenger. As I explain in my article, Saenger believes that the introduction of space between words in the seventh and eighth centuries laid the psychic groundwork for modern individual consciousness—that most of the intellectual breakthroughs that Marshall McLuhan credited to Gutenberg are more properly to be attributed to monks in Ireland and England […]


That’s from Caleb Crain’s blog post addendum to his NYT Mag post about camel case. (Ha! I just called it an “NYT Mag post,” totally on instinct. I shall let it stand.)

I like this twist. There’s a whole huge section on Irish monks in Alex Wright’s book Glut, and of course you know The Irish Saved Civilization. (Note the one-star comments.) What I like about this new angle is that we’re not relying on the Irish monks to save civilization—just transform it.

It’s not just spaces between words, either; it’s also silent reading. More to say about this at some point.


Tim Carmody says…

I was going to post about this! But I wanted to read some Saenger in the original first.

I should note, though:

1) Silent reading definitely predates spaces between words; the most famous account of silent reading in late antiquity is St Augustine’s of St Ambrose, and there are precursors. Spaces between words may make silent reading easier, but they’re not necessary for it;

2) Print does a whole lot of other things besides the reconstruction of optical space, and print arranges space still differently from Irish manuscripts;

3) I think the bigger issue might not be the typographic innovation, but the fact that the Irish monks were able to manipulate, understand, and edit text in a language they couldn’t understand (or necessarily misunderstood) as a spoken tongue. It’s an extra metastasis in the production of the written word as an entity independent from speech in the mind;

4) I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that there are a LOT of revolutionary moments — little mini-revolutions, which aren’t really moments, so much as evolutionary spurs — in the development of writing and modern consciousness. It’s futile to say “ah, aha, X is the REAL revolution” — once we reach a certain threshold, they’re all innovations, and they’re all important, and psychological/social transformations can be localized in each of them with a greater or lesser degree of plausibility when considered over a long durée.

Let’s start a print magazine that conceives of articles as posts, and see what a difference it makes. The post, like the space, alters consciousness.

Tim, I like everything you say here—especially the bit about being predisposed to the model of lots of little revolutions—some textual, some peri- or paratextual—*and* the sense that there’s a threshold at which innovation *becomes* the longue durée.

That’s funny I encountered this phenomena in 4 different ways this vacation, and was pondering despite having a snarkmarket-free Thanksgiving. (For lack of a computer, not love.)

1) A young guest at Thanksgiving dinner was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for school, and showed me the pages of text where this effect is apparently employed for some particularly dark passages, the words and then letters getting closer and closer together, until the page is black. She told me quit she was far more interested in the typography, layout, and use of pictures, than with the text itself.

2) The book I myself had packedto read on the trip, a cheap mass market paperback, had encounterd some mishap at the printer, and many of the pages in the first 3rd had word drop shadows, so there was effectively no space, and I found myself reading much, much more slowly.

3) Friday was the advent of the Gita and in quietly observing it too myself I once again remarked on how much more compact Dev Nagari is than roman letters, the words and even the letters scrunched up into themselves. I can report that my parents, at least, seem to read silently just fine from this scrunched up alphabet.

4) This oddly neolithic comic was on the breakfast table today.

Typographic effect, printing mistake, cultural habit, visual joke. All in the space between the words.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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