The Thin Film of Thinking
In a church in a remote village in Herefordshire, there languishes an old tombstone inscribed with the words, ‘Here lyeth the body of John Walters who departed this life October 4 Anno Domini 1719. Also, in memory of Samuel Walters who died the 16th of June 1801 aged 96 years.’ It was quite unusual in the eighteenth-century to live for a century – as indeed it still is. If one survived childhood at that time, life expectancy hovered at 50 years. However, there are cases of centenarians stretching all the way back to antiquity (even if one takes biblical accounts of Adam dying at the age of 930, and Noah at 950, with a pinch of salt). It’s not unreasonable to contemplate a life-span of one hundred years. What is perhaps more extraordinary is the realisation that it would only take about 120 centenarians – holding hands, so to speak, across historical time – to take us all the way back to the dawn of civilisation. Just 120 people! That would take us to 10,000 BCE, when the first permanent human settlements are recorded – about 4,000 years before the origin of writing.
Of course, one can, quite legitimately, trace the dawn of civilisation to the mists of pre-history if one wants to, but the development of permanent buildings and writing are nevertheless uniquely significant markers of this epic moment because they constitute the first enduring institutions in which human values were invested. That is to say, they perpetuated those values beyond the transient lives and life-practices of the individuals in which they had previously been embodied and with which they necessarily died. This shift towards permanence meant that such values were abstracted (literally ‘taken away’) from the flow of moment-to-moment human consciousness, and were registered in independent forms in the environment, from which they could then be elicited by subsequent generations. As the environment became increasingly coded with enduring values, it gave rise to cultural ‘traditions’ which also became embedded in the human imaginations that engaged with them.
The development of writing was perhaps the most significant milestone in this process because it not only concretised values and meanings that had previously prevailed in spoken language; it also enabled people to develop new values and meanings. How this may have happened can be sensed as clearly from modern languages as from ancient ones. Thus, many of the meanings English-speakers use today, especially abstract concepts, are referenced by words that were developed from templates, with prefixes and suffixes – for instance, co- and ex-, and -tion and -ity, as in in-forma-tion, ex-huma-tion, com-patibili-ty, ec-centric-ity and so on. New words were systematically developed in keeping with the formats of words that already existed: e-volve, in-volve, re-volve; ex-ist, in-sist, re-sist; e-ject, in-ject, re-ject.
These examples are based on Latin roots which are relatively recent by comparison with the earliest examples, but the template-principle surely holds for all periods. Moreover, it is arguable that all ‘formulaic’ words of this kind could have only been developed by people who were aware of their structures as words, and that these structures would have been difficult, if not impossible, for them to objectify without the words having some visual form. The emergence of writing therefore cannot have only given visual form to pre-existent meanings, it must have also facilitated the development of new meanings. Indeed, it is arguable that certain types of meaning would have been inconceivable without writing.
These thoughts can have a direct impact on the way we think about our own lives. During the course of a mere 10,000 years (100 centenarians), we have become so deeply habituated to the traditions of written language – our minds are quite literally shaped by them, like a gourd that is grown into a mould – that we don’t notice how deeply historiated and conventional they are. They seem to be a perfect fit. This is not necessarily because they are a perfect fit. It may just be because, like all manifestations of human civilisation, they were generated by humanity in keeping with its own capacity, and therefore, as if seen in a mirror, they reflect us to ourselves. Nevertheless, words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘experience’ are indeed mere constructions. Moreover, they are relatively new ones. They are not in our DNA, stretching back millennia. On the contrary, in their English form, they are a few hundred years old and their sources in Latin (with slightly different meanings) are just a couple of thousand years old. This raises significant questions about the role they play in our self-understanding. Even more to the point is the realisation that it’s not just the words that are relatively new; it’s also the very inclination to think in highly abstracted concepts which, in the grand scheme of things, is just a thin film of mental activity on the surface of consciousness. This inclination has arguably taken no more than 100 lifetimes – like that of Samuel Walters – to evolve. Although it plays a central part in shaping our sense of ourselves as individuals, a glance at its history suggests that it is not as integral to our fundamental natures as it may sometimes seem.
Andrew Spira is an independent art historian, author, lecturer and curator. For many years, he worked at the Temple Gallery (specialists in Byzantine and Russian icons), the Victoria and Albert Museum and Christie's Education, all in London. His work focuses on the interface between practical spirituality/psychology/epistemology and the history of art and culture. His books include:
- The Avant-Garde Icon: Russian Avant-Garde Art and the Icon Painting Tradition (Lund Humphries, 2008)
- The Invention of the Self: Personal Identity in the Age of Art (Bloomsbury, 2020)
- Simulated Selves: the Undoing of Personal Identity in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2020)
- Foreshadowed: Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ and its Precursors (Reaktion Books, 2022).