Tuesday, May 5, 2009

[Yasmin_discussions] oral tradition and the digital arts

I'd like to expand on Cynthia's reference to the Jewish oral tradition as documented in the Talmud and digital arts based upon the "Talmud and the Internet" section in my book "The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness."  Both the typographical design of the Talmud and the design of the Internet are structured so that they facilitate and encourage creative, associative, and multiple perspectives.  The confluence between the media ecologies of Talmud and the Internet generate common Jewish and digital age structures of consciousness media. 
When I was art professor at Columbia University, Marshall McLuhan came down from Toronto to lecture there.  He talked about how the linear pattern of information resulting from print technology limited the thought patterns of people who learned from printed books.  Word follows word, line follows line, paragraph follows paragraph, page follows page, chapter follows chapter, in a single necessary order from the first page to last.  Learning through a medium that is a one-way street prevented creative, flexible, associative, open-ended, multidirectional, and multidimensional thought.  Instead of just being authoritative, books became authoritarian, demanding thinking in straight lines from a fixed point of view.  The book medium became a stronger message than its content.  Designed to be read in privacy, in seclusion from others, the book ended dialogue. It conferred the values of isolation, detachment, passivity, and non-involvement.
I invited McLuhan to my office to show him how the Jewish dialogic mindset, which could not tolerate unidirectional thought, used print technology to document the evolving Jewish oral  design in multilinear books.  I took a volume of Talmud off my shelf and showed him non-linear pages designed in 16th century Venice.  I opened it to page 2 (there is no page 1) and pointed to the patch of text in the center of the page that starts with the Mishnah, written in Hebrew, followed by the Gemara, in Aramaic.  On one side is a column of Rashi's commentary in a different alphabet from the central text.  On the other side is a column of Tosafot followed by references to Rashi in Tosafot.  In a narrow fourth column next to Tosafot, stacked vertically, are four different commentaries on commentaries that span centuries of dialogue over time and space. Sometimes, explanatory diagrams are printed on the side.  In the margin are numerous references to biblical
passages and to other books.
The Talmud, the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars, has the characteristics of an oral tradition coming alive in our day.  Freshness, vivid spontaneity, and acute awareness of every subject permeate every argument and discussion.  The spirit of life breathes on every single page.  It is not a set of books to be read in quiet solitude.  We give life and continuity to the dialogue that began millennia ago by restoring the oral tradition by engaging hundreds of voices talking across the folio pages in active dialogue with a learning partner.  The two learners, a hevrutah, enter a page and move around within it while arguing with each other and calling for support from all the scholars before them.  They can begin their learning on any of its 5,894 pages.  The multivolume Talmud has no begining and no end.  The hevrutah can jump around within a page, between pages, between different Talmud tractates, look into the Bible, kabbalistic texts,
or any other sources.  A study hall in a yeshiva filled with many learning teams is a noisy environment of oral dialogue, quite different from the eerie silence of a library for linear books.
When I began surfing the World Wide Web, it seemed a familiar place to me.  I felt I had been there before.  Talmud study had prepared me for its vast multidirectional options, hyperlinking and its non-sequential organization.  I felt at home seeing home pages that had an uncanny resemblance to Talmud pages.  As a member of the panel, "Toward an Aesthetic for the 21st Century: Networking, Hypermedia, and Planetary Creativity," at the 1990 conference of the College Art Association, I explored this confluence between traditional Jewish media experiences and encountering the emerging Internet. See http://cgi.gjhost.com/~cgi/mt/netweaverarchive/ideas_of_planetary_creativity_1290.htmland my paper "An Interactive Dialogue: Talmud and the Net" in Parabola (Summer 2004).  
You can enter into this Jewish oral tradition through an interactive Image-Map site of a Talmud page http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~esegal/TalmudPage.html created by Canadian professor Eliezer Segal to serve as a port of departure on a voyage through centuries of oral tradition.
Mel Alexenberg
  Professor Mel Alexenberg, Head of the School of the Arts, Emuna College, Jerusalem, Israel
Author of The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) and
Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass House) in Hebrew
Editor of Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press)
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