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Avatars of the word (review article)

Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. By James O’Donnell (Cambridge Mass, London: Harvard University Press, 1998; paperback edition, 2000). 

This is the paperback version of a paperback argument, addressed to ‘people who read books and use computers and wonder what the two have to do with each other’ (ix). The argument is roughly that the age of cyberspace is understandable as a return to practices that began with the manuscript. Surfing the web is like using canon tables to jump between sites in the Gospels; clicking hypertext links is like using the bound manuscript that broke radically with the enforced linearity of papyrus scrolls; the great libraries of antiquity are no different in ambition from the internet as virtual library; collaborative scholarship was as common before as it should become now; a text like Casiodorus’s guide for scribes can effectively be read in terms of a word-processing handbook; user-made anthologies were once the norm and may return to that status; and thus, to bring it all together, ‘the relative stasis of the printed book that we are familiar with is an anomaly in the history of the written word’ (78). 

What does this mean? On one level, O’Donnell appears to be arguing there is no need to panic: the only thing we really risk is a return to a late classical or early medieval stage of grace. Yet the sociological differences are surely so great between our globalizing mass cultures and the isolated scholars of antiquity that few could or should take the comparisons seriously. O’Donnell is rather more productive when he uses such perspective to argue, for example, that the individual author will no longer prevail, that our information economy is now based on managing abundance rather than scarcity (thus ‘an economy of amusement’), that the university is becoming a youth camp with an intellectual shopping mall, that we might cheerfully abandon the restrictions of Western civilization (‘not something to be cherished’), and that serious issues such as internet copyright concern only the commercialization of Disney videos and dubious contemporary music: we must merely ‘look hard at the new media for ways to keep free and open economy in ideas, while letting the idea-less thrash each other with lawsuits and threats of trade wars over cartoons and noise’ (98). Well written, closer to the stuff of many current debates, but not many of these reflections will provide much help to anyone making actual decisions in or about cyberspace. 

The big historical hyperlinking, freely offered as stimulating comparison and fully justified in terms of this book’s own approach to being a book, must inevitably be more obvious to the author than to most. As a professional classicist, an expert in Augustine and Casiodorus, co-founder of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review and Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania, O’Donnell is modestly self-described as ‘an older practitioner of the new’ (89). And yet, born in 1950, he is surely not old enough to sound quite this old. Depth and nuance is all very well, but these issues merit rather more. Here there is simply too much professorial mucking about, too numerous too brief excursions to only half-developed thoughts, and too much delight in placing Augustine next to Derrida, or Nietzsche next to Sting, for anything like a substantially coherent approach or critique to emerge. For instance, McLuhan is mentioned several times and belittled for the limits of theory, but is strangely deigned unworthy of discussion on anything the level of ideas. We are somehow expected to know and agree with our author’s hidden winks. Unfortunately both the book and cyberspace hide the subtle intimations: O’Donnell might be surprised to find he reaches rather less community than his erudition presupposes. 

What we have here is ultimately a series of fascinating university lectures, the relative immediacy and orality of which seems to escape theorization. The context and style is inescapably American; the presupposed reader is a real or would-be American university professor, apparently unaware that a wider world is now catching the words. From this listener’s non-American perspective, O’Donnell thus gratuitously mixes memories of books with an adventure of the self in history, family and media, devolving into first-person narrative whenever some kind of sincerity seems called for, failing to convince beyond those necessarily distant depths. 
 

        © Anthony Pym 2000
         
         
 
Last update 20 July 1999  
 

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