Anthony Pym


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The world on paper - review

The World on Paper. The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading, David R. Olson (Cambridge University Press, 1994), xix+318 pp., $18.95 (£25.95) Hb. First paperback edition (1996), £12.95.

David R. Olson's wide-ranging divagation on the consequences of literacy starts from the tradition of Havelock, Goody and Watt and finishes in eight general principles (cited here from pp. 258 -279: 1) 'writing was responsible for bringing aspects of spoken language into consciousness', 2) 'no writing system, including the alphabet, brings all aspects of what is said into awareness', 3) 'what is represented [nevertheless] tends to be seen as a complete model of what there is', 4) 'once a script-as-model has been assimilated it is extremely difficult to unthink that model', 5) 'the expressive and reflective powers of speech and writing are complementary rather than similar', 6) 'while scripts well represent lexical and syntactic properties of speech they do not adequately represent the author's audience-directed intentions [illocutionary force]', 7) 'once texts are read in a new way, nature is "read" in an analogous new way', and 8) 'once the illocutionary force of a text is recognized as the expression of a personal, private intentionality, the concepts for representing how a text to be taken provide just the concepts necessary for the representation of mind'. Stated as such, at the end of the book, the arguments do more or less cohere, with the key links being supplied by principles 5 and 6: Olson's underlying purpose is to point out the limits of epistemologies based on writing, and hence the limits of everything based on those epistemologies. Yet the path taken to state this case is by no means as clear as the conclusions might appear; readers should not wait on tenterhooks for the culminating 'representation of mind'. Olson tends to lead his reader into dead-ends, not to say pitfalls; his evidence at certain key points is second-hand and debatable; and he does little to discount alternative theories of the phenomena he purports to describe.

The primary problem is no doubt considerable ambivalence about what Olson's actual object of study is. At some points it is the history of scripts; at others a focus on literacy as competence; and at its most innovative level this becomes the history of reading, later glossed as the ability 'to think about texts in particular ways' (64), at which point the main finding is tautologically embedded in the definition of the object. Elsewhere, Olson musters evidence in which writing is never separated from the general social practice of 'schooling' (43), which in turn allows him to rope in research on childhood cognitive processes, all of which is problematically universalized. In short, the object itself is construed differently at different stages in the argument, such that writing - or whatever it is to be called - can indeed be seen as a cause of all things. Most surprisingly, though, this protean object actually lacks a few materialist dimensions: although Olson sets great store on the origins of "literal understanding" in the 13th century, he entirely overlooks the fact that paper became common in Europe precisely at that time, with major consequences for the development of literate bureaucracies (see Burns 1981). It seems that this 'world on paper' embraces just about everything except paper!

A second flaw in Olson's argument is his unfalsifiable idealizing of spoken discourse: statements such as 'Speakers can generally make their meanings embarrassingly clear' (189) not only assume some magical non-spoken access to those meanings but also place the speaker's intention in spoken utterance (121) and thus underlie the primacy of pragmatics as 'how the speaker or writer intends the utterance to be taken' (118). This hopelessly overstated primacy of illocutionary force enables Olson to idealize everything that writing cannot represent, at the same time as he falls into the very epistemology of representation that he initially set out to challenge. At many points he conveniently forgets that some thoughts may be thought only to be written; some languages exist only to be written; grammatical metaphor and literary devices have their own pragmatic force; and writing may do far more than fail to represent non-writing.

Olson's penchant for slick generalizations was justly criticized when much of this was published in article form (cf. Halverston 1991). Although some work has been done to shave off a few of the wilder claims, there are still fascinatingly giddy jumps from childhood psychology to medieval poetics, from ethnographic quips to the history of English law, from a series of quick truths about a 'Renaissance' that lasted from the 12th to 17th centuries, to a very weak section on 'fiction' somehow understood as 17th-century realism (don't ask me!). Much of the material is indeed fascinating; some of the suggested parallels are truly stimulating. But great care must be taken with a mode of argumentation that takes second-hand generalizations from one small domain and projects them on the rest, basically because everyone, it seems, is basically the same: 'of course all people are rational' (22). Well, all individuals might be the same at one level or another, yet since this search for 'cognitive change' only really looks for effects on the individual it bypasses serious attention to social causation or interest-based ideologies. Since everything is assumed to be connected on the level of the individual who speaks, writes or reads, everything can ultimately be seen as the cause of everything else. If literacy should have any pride of place here, it is perhaps simply because, as Olson admits, his 'concern is with the conceptual implications of writing rather than with the history of ideas' (242). At least the second part of this claim may be true.

© Anthony Pym 1998


Burns, Robert I. 1981. "The Paper Revolution in Europe", Pacific Historical Review 50. 1-30.

Halverston, John. 1991. "Olson on Literacy", Language in Society 20. 619-640.

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