It fascinates me how often political arguments in the United States revolve around the words of America’s ‘founding fathers’. Of course it is not all their words that matter, just the ones that were written down. And specifically, Americans are obsessed with the words these fathers wrote in the founding documents of American nationhood, namely the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Literate culture reveres written words, and the words of America’s founding fathers have been granted what amounts to divine authority in America. Defenders of democracy on both the right and left in the USA support their arguments by referencing these words written over 230 years ago by people who would be utterly confused by American society today. Even Lawrence Lessig, in his courageous post in support of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, feels compelled to support his position by referring to the words of the founding framers.
How weird is that? Well, in literate culture it is not so weird. But if our frame of reference extends beyond literate culture, it is weird indeed.
Who is to say that these words represent an optimal foundation and framework for American democracy in the 21st century? I think most of us would agree that they are wise and worthy words that have generally served America very well, but it is only in a literate culture that they could become written in stone, and that the mere idea of tweaking them should be seen as treasonous. The ‘right to bear arms’ is a classic example of how the meaning of these written words has become utterly distorted, and requires updating to reflect today’s reality. But is there any chance of this happening? Not a whit.
So we see a country grappling with ancient written parameters that have been received from on high, understood as commandments delivered by the nation’s great fathers looking down from heaven, words that have become the playthings of the prejudiced and of predatory politicians, words all too often used as cudgels to defeat diversity of thought and action, and to defend misery and greed.
In a non-literate culture you would not find such reverence for a fixed unresponsive history, for monological imperatives. On the contrary – for better and worse – you would find the past at the service of the present. In fact, I would argue that in America today this is just what we do find, despite all these claims to constitutional integrity. America’s political culture is no longer ruled by literate principles such as facts, fixity and truth but on rumour and impulse. Its economy is no longer based on familiar literate norms like value creation, accurate record-keeping and transparent systems of exchange, but on speculative and fraudulent financial dealings.
So although lip service is constantly paid to the written words of its founding fathers, America’s national culture is increasingly post-literate, recreating the past in its own fearful image and rejecting literate objectivity in all its flavours, choosing instead a tribal subjectivity enabled by digital networks. In so doing America is freeing itself from the very literate legacy it celebrates, a history that despite its flaws has achieved much that is admirable and of collective benefit. As America turns away from the written word, undermining its power even as many rally round its empty shell to demonize perceived enemies within and without, the question becomes: what next?
Do Wall Street protests, rooted as they are in feedback loops between oral and digital cultures, represent some kind of transformative post-literate uprising against literate economic hegemony? Perhaps so. Even though Wall Street’s banks, which publicly maintain their allegiance to literate laws and documents, have already migrated to post-literate speculative networks that are rapidly destabilizing the world’s economies. In fact, Wall Street is so far ahead of the game that it may only be by enlisting hackers in their cause will the Wall Street protesters make any meaningful impact.
Because the battle is no longer about the written word. All of America’s players – rich and poor, right and left, institutional and individual – are becoming more and more post-literate, even as they often rely on the founding fathers’ sacrosanct writings to promote their agendas.