Communicating, Grooming, and Gossiping

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September 10, 2020 by libroshombre

            Some books really stick with you, and Harold Innis’ “Empire and Communications” is one of mine.  It’s “a sweeping historical survey of how communications media influence the rise and fall of empires” and was required reading for my favorite class: “History of Books and Writing,” but, as Innis’ Wikipedia article states, his “highly condensed prose style, which frequently ranges over many centuries and several key ideas in one or two sentences, can make his writing … difficult to understand.”  No fooling!  Ninety-five percent of our final grade was based on a paper defending or supporting any single sentence from Innis’ book.  I got an “A” and have reflected on the book’s validity for decades.

            Innis wrote, “Time-biased” media, like clay tablets and hieroglyphic writing, that are bulky and utilized by only those few who can understand it, favor decentralized governing systems.  Ancient Mesopotamia had writing, books, and readers, but those were only used by the elites: priests and rulers.  The Phoenicians, traders on the edge of Mesopotamian empire, needed “a swift and concise method of recording transactions.”   Papyrus paper and the Phoenicians’ easily understood alphabet beat clay tablets for administering larger areas.  Every subsequent advance in communications technology has led to larger, more controlling governments.

            Innis was a brilliant Canadian professor who died in 1952, still suffering from physical and psychic wounds suffered in WWI, but not before writing a series of seminal books focused on economic history.  As the Worldcat record of his book notes, “It’s been said that without Harold A. Innis there could have been no Marshall McLuhan.  ‘Empire and Communications’ is one of Innis’s most important contributions to the debate about how media influence the development of consciousness and societies.”  Worldcat is a “union catalog” that combines the collections of 17,900 libraries in 123 countries, and is crucial for a prime public library function: interlibrary loans.  Possessing a large personal library can lead to trouble locating a specific book, and so it is with “Empire.”  It’s somewhere in my house.  Worldcat includes a feature that shows which libraries nearest you own a title, but the nearest to Fairbanks is 1300 miles away in British Columbia.  Unfortunately, Covid-19 has brought our national-wide interlibrary loan system to its knees due to long decontamination periods.  Even Alaska’s statewide ILL program is temporarily halted.

            So, we read what’s at hand, such as Robert Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.”  Dunbar, an “evolutionary psychologist and specialist in primate behavior, is best known for “Dunbar’s number,” 150, that’s “the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, ” i.e. “relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.”   Dunbar based his findings on brain size ratio: the bigger the brain, the more relationships can be handled.  According to the’s “Dunbar’s Number: Why We Can Only Maintain 150 Relationships,” subsequent researchers found “this rule of 150 remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: offices, communes, factories … 11th Century English villages, even Christmas card lists.  Exceed 150, and a network is unlikely to last long or cohere well.”  

Dunbar proposed that human language evolved from gossip, the main purpose of which is allowing “us to keep track of what’s going on in our social circle when we don’t have time to keep track of things.” It began with African apes mutually grooming each other and thereby calming each other and showing affection and leading to Homo erectus using vocal sounds to soothe.  It never went beyond that with Neanderthals, but Homo sapiens developed spoken language 250,000 years ago, perhaps along the lines of “scratch lower, please.”  As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and children’s book author Phyllis McGinley put it, “A bit of trash now and then is good for the severest reader.  It provides the necessary roughage in the literary diet.”

            Reading Nicolas Chamfort’s 1794 Parisian gossip certainly feels refreshing after Innis’ challenging, albeit worthy, writing.  Unususally handsome, strong, and witty, Chamfort was a renowned playright, but today is remembered for his maxims (“A day without laughter is a day wasted” and “If it wasn’t for me, I’d do brilliantly”). He habitually wrote maxims, and gossip, on little squares of paper, such as how the duc de Chartres, upon hearing that his wild-hair sister had been insulted, said, “How pleasant it is to be neither her father nor her husband.”

            Chamfort’s beauty was disfigured by disease, but he found true love with a widow twelve years his senior only to have her die in his arms six months later.  About to be re-imprisoned during the French Revolution, he locked himself in his office and shot himself in the face, but the gun misfired, only blowing off his nose and jaw.  So, he repeatedly stabbed his neck with a paper cutter, failed to cut an artery, and stabbed himself in the chest. He lived a year in intense, frustrated pain.  How Paris talked!  As Phyllis McGinley, said, “Gossip isn’t scandal, and it’s not merely malicious.  It’s chatter about the human race by lovers of the same.” 

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