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  • Information and the Paradox of Perspicuity
  • Samuel Gerald Collins
Review of: Albert Borgmann, Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.

Reacting against the Boasian study of myths for “historical data,” Claude Levi-Strauss urged anthropologists to look behind myths to what they might reveal of cultural and cognitive structures:

The myth is certainly related to given facts, but not a representation of them. The relationship is of a dialectical kind, and the institutions described in the myths can be the very opposite of the real institutions. This conception of the relation of myth to reality no doubt limits the use of the former as a documentary source. But it opens the way for other possibilities; for in abandoning the search for a constantly accurate picture of ethnographic reality in the myth, we gain, on occasions, a means of reading unconscious realities.


The twenty-first century finds the myth-making apparatus producing a surfeit of narratives chronicling the emergence of the “information society.” Some of these posit a decisive break with the past, an information society so different from preceding Fordist or Gutenberg eras as to engender entirely new modes of being. Other works locate the information society at the apex (or the aporia) of developments in culture, politics, or library science. In these, the information society is only explicable in light of earlier epochs—a “Gutenberg Galaxy” giving way to more “cool” mediums, the vertical organizations of Fordism giving way to post-Fordist, flexible networks. But all of these formulations remain “emergent”; the information society has proven notoriously resistant to empirical description, and to argue for a summary break with the past or for a selective genealogy is, in these works, ultimately a metaphysical question. Nevertheless, the tremendous outpouring of commentary suggests that information—whatever its status as a bona fide object of social inquiry—is an important site for cultural work. What is at stake here is, I would suggest, nothing less than the shape of the future: the possibilities engendered in the new and the continuities with what has gone before.

Albert Borgmann’s Holding On to Reality is an ultimately mythological narrative outlining a highly selective vision of the past parlayed into a Procrustean manifesto for the future. Uneasily jumping between Dionysian novelty and Apollonian continuity, Borgmann’s work is, finally, conservative and even Arnoldian, recapitulating the moral-redemptive message of his 1993 Crossing the Postmodern Divide. And yet, there is much here that might prove useful to the student of the information society, even if one sometimes works against Borgmann’s text.

Unlike technocratic definitions of information as a thing, value, or signal:noise ratio, Borgmann’s information is relational: “INTELLIGENCE provided, a PERSON is informed by a SIGN about some THING in a certain CONTEXT” (38). That is, given some pre-acquired information literacy, people are able to ascertain something about the world from signs in a particular social or cultural milieu. It’s this phenomenological reading that has changed over the course of millennia, from Edenic beginnings in “natural information” to the contemporary postmodernity of “technological information.” Ultimately, Borgmann’s information is the motor informing both his historical narrative and his moral judgments on the efficacy of information for modern life.

Like the savage for Rousseau, Native Americans function for Borgmann as the architectonic origin of information, the “ancestral computer,” as it were. The Salish, according to Borgmann, lived in a world characterized by natural information: for example, “Snow-capped Lolo Peak was the sign that pointed the Salish toward the salmon on the other side of the Bitterroot divide” (25). People (with proper knowledge) are surrounded by a world of signs and things in the “fullness” of natural contexts. Humans inhabit an inherently perspicuous world. In any paradise, of course, there must be a myth of the Fall. For the Salish (uncomfortably subsumed as “our” ancestors), this means the erection of monumental signs across the landscape, cairns, and “medicine wheels” that while “well-ordered” and “eloquent” nevertheless gesture to things expelled from the garden of presence. And yet, these monumental signs have only a limited capacity for reference...

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