Visual Democracy

Last year a colleague told me about Ivan Illich.  “Ivan Illych?”  I asked.  “No, the other one,” he replied.

I had never heard of him before.  His Wikipedia page mentions that he was a Catholic priest, but most Ivan Illichknown for his social criticism.  One look at his bibliography shows a wide range of interests.  His book In the Vineyard of the Text lives up to all of my friend’s hype.  I can’t call what follows here a “Book Review,” because the book is too dense, and the material too far out of my league, for me to fully grasp.  But I am excited by it and hope to make progress as time goes by.

In this book Illich looks at what he calls the origins of the age of the book.  He does not locate this with the printing press or the Englightenment, but with Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion written in the early 12th century (something else I had never heard of before).  Of course books existed before this particular work.  But Illich makes the observation that up until this point, books were made to be heard and not seen (i.e. The Illiad), or so visually stimulating that the text took a backseat.  The words were entirely secondary.

With Hugh of St. Victor Illich believes a significant transition took place, whereby Hugh writes to be read rather than heard.  Form follows function, so St. Victor writes in a way that allows for reflection.  Plays rely on visualization, but books ask you to exercise methodical reason.  Arguments build, and you have the opportunity to refer back.  WIth that opportunity comes expectation, and so on.   St. Victor, for the first time (according to Illich) writes with a thought towards creating the discipline of reading, which leads to the development of certain modes of thought, and for the next 800 years or so, we have the age of the book, an age which lent itself towards the formation of deliberative wisdom.

Illich, writing in 1993, notes that the age of the book has long since passed us by in favor of visual mediums.  While he does not address this transition, he notes that it will of course have dramatic consequences for society, and I wondered what consequences it might have for democracy.

Does democracy needs books to thrive, or perhaps even survive?

Democracy predates the age of the book.  We don’t need to think only of ancient Athens–we can think of innumerable local village assemblies from before Christ through the more official village and township elections of the Middle Ages.  But I’m not sure these small scale democracies should really count as examples that pertain to us today.   These  local democracies did not need a “mass-produced” way of making decisions.  Their communities were usually small enough for everyone to know each other.

Republican Rome had many democratic elements, but remained an oligarchy, for better or worse.  They had a variety of structures in place to prevent the people’s ability to make quick decisions, and the patrician Senate dominated policy until the army, another kind of oligarchy, did so starting ca. 100 B.C.

So, although it’s almost boring to say so, we are drawn back to Athens.

Athenian democracy had many more wide-open features than modern American democracy.  They made the majority of their decisions in the Assembly, which met 10x a year.  Anyone could attend and vote in Assembly meetings, provided you arrived early enough, and there may have been as many as 5000 seats.  Anyone in theory could speak, provided that you could hold the floor and didn’t get booed off stage.  Voting often took place on the same day that laws or policies were proposed.  It seems much more exciting than C-Span.

But the critics of Athenian democracy from Thucydides to Plato had a point when they argued that they often lacked the capacity for deliberative wisdom (I think both eminent men overstated their case, but they did have a case).  If we believe Thucydides, Xenophon, and others we see that they had moments where passions got the best of them and led them to disaster.  So while they were not a visual culture per se, they did seem to demonstrate the faults of visual cultures.  That is, they are easier to manipulate.  Now I do not agree that Athenian democracy had no brains behind it.  Many speeches passed down to us by Thucydides had wit and reason behind them.  It was not a smoke and mirrors show.  But at crucial moments they seemed to lack the ability to reason carefully.  This is a human fault, of course, not just one of democracies.  But the lack of “deliberation” built into their government and society made it so they were more vulnerable to the swings of emotion and powerful rhetoric.

If Illich is right that we are long past the age of the book than we may be back in the situation of ancient Athens.  I thought of this when I heard someone discuss our possible intervention in Syria.  He opposed it but admitted that if video existed of the chemical attacks and it went viral on the internet we would have no choice but to intervene.  The images would force our hand.  I think that would almost certainly be true.  Aside from whether or not we should intervene in Syria, would it be a good thing if images dictated our policy?  Will democracy experience a seismic shift in the You Tube age, or did this shift happen 20 years ago?

As a parting aside, I feel I must read Illich’s Deschooling Society  at some point.  His quote from that book, “School is the advertising agency that makes you believe you need the society as it is,” in itself offers much food for thought.