at any rate so say the peirceans, intergalactic anthropologists come back from the future, who've taken their on-site name from our very own charles sanders peirce

[pronounced 'purse', thus 'PUR shuns';  they see peirce as a prophet of the age of puteracy, and, incidentally, call us "imputerates"];

i'm paraphrasing here [hector leary has a better take on this stuff than i do], but the peirceans contend that literacy and the piety which perpetuates it constitute a sociopathology, somewhere in between what we call superstition and mob hysteria... in short, a complex of broadly shared hallucinations of the sort that plague schizophrenics;

and little wonder, they say: literacy's beginnings signal our first tentative steps out of tribal xenophobia toward global linguistic interaction [a gregarious sociability unique to our species];  spurred by material necessity and fostered by mercantile enterprise, this venturing forth from the ancestral hearth was entirely compatible with the essential human impetus, our innate curiosity;  at this early stage, however, as we exploited "social" occasions to exchange, say, woven baskets for dried fish, we turned out to be ill prepared for cultural interpenetration;

you see, long before the era of literacy, having spent untold millenia gripped by mute, mind numbing primordial terror

[after all, we were the only sentient beings on the planet],

we had recourse first to oral language as a means of relating to our environment and to each other;  but in the pre-literate era of orality, language functioned only as a metonymic tool;  impulsive cries and onomatopoeic utterances, then articulated words, we discovered, could be used to represent things;  naming things with words encouraged us to see ways in which these things were related;  and so, by extension, we realized that things once named and clustered could stand in for other things;  that's metonymy;

systematic, and shared, metonymic associations were essential to our early spiritual growth; for example, the overwhelming anomaly of death [which left even the creatures we totemized evidently unperturbed], could, it turned out, be negotiated; all we had to do was project phenomena like the seasonal cycle of a tree's death and regeneration onto a putative scenario for our own demise and after-life;  at the same time, as we hit upon more complex verbal gestures for manipulating each another, there evolved analogous protocols for propitiating the nameable forces of nature, like for instance the one in charge of the neighborhood fish supply;

•  •  •

so far, so good: prayers and curses sway the gods if one is pious, and fortunate;  time is obviously cyclical [diurnal, lunar, seasonal cycles], hence once we get the rite right, it's fixed for good;  ¿time again to go fishing?  No problem!  just invoke the appropriate supernatural facilitator, toss a few virgins into the local volcano [chanting the while] and get on with it;

gradually, with time and the inexorable progress of technology

[as sentient beings we were inclined by curiosity to at least rudimentary empirical procedures, no matter how scared we were],

humans formed societal groups, domesticated sectors of their environment and developed specialized skills like making fibres, then using the fibres to make fishing nets and baskets;  and once heretofore xenophobic communities could, in the event of a shortfall of fish, come across with a surplus of woven baskets, they began to engage in the mutually beneficial exchange of goods;  fortunately, models for this dicey business were at hand, for instance in the way intra-tribal clans had seen to it that a young man from clan B mated not with a sibling, but with the daughter of his mother's brother, from clan A;  this type of social interaction, then as now always elaborately verbalized, established ritual patterns of contact and even traffic among potentially hostile groups

[lateral conjugal access; women migrating from clan A to clan B, and into the menage of a "mother-in-law"];

just as we had confronted death by drawing on our verbal resources, so the challenge of extensive cultural interpenetration prompted us humans to invoke the mysterious power of language;

consequently, incipient bartering entailed the exchange of verbal rituals;  an example: certain pacific island groups are known to have come together only at elaborately determined intervals and, once they had secreted their surplus goods, to launch into extended recitations of their respective sacramental formulae, as if that were the point of the encounter;  only after the ceremony was completed would they part company, each, by tacit agreement, toting off the other's stash; another example: australian aborigines, at the point of entering a neighbor's territory, have been observed reciting the chants they grew up with, and then learning those of their hosts;  proceeding to a further domain entailed mastering another set of songs, and so on;

now the only trouble with this expedient is that it led to an unsettling awareness among the various interacting groups that their congruent verbal formulae didn't jibe;

["we've got that thing with the virgins and the volcano for when it's time to go fishing, while they do something unspeakable to barely pubic little boys... and they're the ones who got all the fish, which is why we're here in the first place;  ¿is it possible that our verbal behaviors, and the attendant rituals they define, are maybe not so absolutely, irrevocably, 'right on'?"]

well, that last disconcerting notion took a while to sink in;  in fact its acknowledgement was largely unspoken;  but with time it became obvious that the appurtenances of piety, verbal and otherwise, were the product of idiosyncratic figuration, when not of wholly arbitrary contingencies;  but, as hjelmslev has taught us, natural language, the "passkey" semiotic, was the one most appropriate for strategic manipulation [compared to human sacrifice and circumcision, which could be simply sublimated or rescheduled];  consequently, incantatory formulae began to take on the form of defensive, self justifying accounts;  in effect, the new incantations-become-stories ended up holding their proponents "accountable" to the very gods they were losing contact with, and for that matter, the other way 'round, too;

narrating truths did not, in itself, firm up the shaky status of those truths;  but with time the resultant myths did provide more and more articulate ammunition for fending off unwelcome intrusions into each discrete realm of orthodoxy;  and the more complex the rationalizing strategies of its ceremonial texts, the easier it was for each truth to ignore the peculiarities which distinguished it from other, analogous truths;  along with this sophistication of devotional orality, the business of marking primitive tokens down in clay ledgers [the original accounting procedure, remember?] was evolving to the point where full blown orthodox narratives, precarious but no less precious to their now fully literate proponents, could be recorded in the form of imperishable, eventually alphabetic, texts;  it was nietzsche who said that when people cease to believe their hallowed myths, they hasten to write them down;  sure enough!  sooner or later, nearly all the various local versions of pescatory propitiation got enshrined in written form;

this did at least provide for the slim possibility that if "our" version were, after all, the right one, the record would make damn' sure we didn't forget it;

[at this point, no one had gone so far as to suggest there weren't any gods at all, so hunkering down with the hearth dieties was the only option; to that end, vicaring, like basketry, was cultivated as a pragmatic tribal specialization;]

only, Yikes!  ¿guess what happened once we started writing down all that stuff?  it turned out that stories change over time;  that had never occured to anyone;  as parry and lord discovered, illiterate slavic bards in the balkans, as recently as a century ago, were convinced that they recited the same text, the one and only text, every time they told a given story;

change over time: this new concept was catastrophic for organized belief;  not only were the holy texts an arbitrary crock, they weren't even constant, and if they changed over time that meant everything changed, and kept changing, over and over time, and instead of reiterating those reassuring, self contained cycles [including life-cycles] time took on the contour of an infinite, careening roller coaster ride, heading who [¿god?] knows where...

well, here was another anomaly too big to ignore;  linear change proved even scarier than mortality, and simple metonymy [tropes] was not enough to handle it, which brings us to the problematic origins of literacy; with literacy, language behavior took on another dimension of meaning, pursued on the rhetorical level of symbolism;  as prayers and curses evolved into written narratives [in effect imaginative prose, rhythmic, rhymed or no], their topoi [characters, settings and events] assumed positive or negative charges, and were deployed along the new linear chronological vector;  in effect, cyclical time schemes ended up morphing into allegorical plots [skewed in favor of home grown mythical forces] whose unidirectional cause and effect apparatus was harnessed by petitioners as well as tracked and, it was hoped surreptitiously manipulated, by the implicated gods;  as men strove to get some sort of a handle on the chaotic progress of events they would come to call history, their ingenuous incantation of parochial myths was appropriated to promote a more urgent agenda, the propagation of prescriptive truth;

•  •  •

the evolution of language can be seen as the gradual overcoming of fear by innate human curiosity;  the first level of figuration, the one which determined the epistemological grasp of orality, was representation, per se;  in this, at least, chomsky must be right;  our species is hard-wired for the business of labelling things and coordinating their signifiers [tropes] into templates;  a second, cumulative, dimension of meaning was gained by attaching symbolic value to topoi, thereby assigning them allegorical roles in the ongoing drama of good vs. evil;  history, the triumph of literacy, is itself an unwitting allegory of our reason's struggle against chaotic change;

the first civilizations of the tigris euphrates valley, with their cuneiform tablets, represent the beginning of literacy's progress from symbolicized orthodoxy to the enlightenment, from the hope that one or more gods will see to it that right thinking folks get taken care of, to the understanding that we would do well to take matters into our own hands;  while incantations had enjoyed the status of magic among the proto-literate, fully literate myths and legends were merely true, hence sacred, and up to the renaissance, iconic [where plot is a reflex of character, as in saints' lives];  then came unabashed fiction [the ultimate liar's paradox];  the picaresque novel was a playful experiment [the peripatetic character's misadventures provided the pretext for a string of entertaining plot events];  the evolving "realistic" novel [which presumes to chart the reciprocal illumination of character and plot event] provided the final vehicle for prescriptive truth as the age of reason devolved into sentimentality during the course of the 19th century;

the declaration of independence thus marks the high point of an epistemological evolution, from the word as magic to the word as truth;  science and rational thinking, resurrected from their antique sources, had freed us from the more crippling encumbrances of piety by the late 18th century, and we confidently embarked on a quest for Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; but it has gradually become clear that our apprehension in the face of death, and the helplessness we feel caught up in the turmoil of infinite mutability, are just two symptoms of our psychological distress, and all along presaged a confrontation with a third and even more devastating anomaly, namely, affective human isolation;  never mind our mortality or moral frailty;  ¿what do they matter since we're all, every single one of us, ultimately alone, just as beckett, the ultimate modernist, says [and what about rabelais, cervantes, sterne, and dostoevsky before him]?

modernism, the final stage of functioning literacy, is effecting a transition from literacy to puteracy;  in response to isolation angst it has embraced a third cumulative dimension of figuration, for which the peirceans use our term metaphorization;  in their view, the metaphor comprehends writing and reading as a reciprocal act;  a good thing, too: peirce has taught us that words cannot be static labels for things, and the experience of a couple of world wars suggests that down home heroics is a chimera, so it looks like neither tropes nor topoi in themselves are reliable figural memes;  as a matter of fact, the literati of proto-modernism, like gogol, had already figured that out, which is why they chose to tamper with a third, superordinate rhetorical level, namely, discourse:  "¿ who is encoding, who is recoding, and why?"   this, it turns out, will be the bailiwick of the puterati;

now, of course, the simple logistics of communication dictates that all three levels of rhetoric must be operative at once, no matter how primitive or decadently deconstructed the languge behavior in question;  to take first the broadest and narrowest dimensions of figuration:  there has to be an encoder-recoder relationship, concrete or imputed, for language to evolve in the first place [were there such a thing as a wolf-boy, he would be mute], and there has to be an explicit inventory of mutually understandable tropes for that relationship to function linguistically ["How 'bout them Raiders!"];  furthermore, as the quote demonstrates, there has to be a topical context, a plot or argument, which obtains at an intermediary level between discourse and lexicon, although it is mostly implicit;  as language behavior evolved from its first oral utterances, through the ever more empirical stages of literacy, to the current turmoil of incipient puteracy, it was always phenomenologically 3-D but it is the awareness among humans of one, then two, then three cumulative dimensions of figurative meaning which has determined its conceptual grasp;

now, one might well ask: ¿if isolation, the "ultimate" challenge facing our linguistic coping apparatus, calls into question the basis of communication itself, what good are magic and truth, even incrementally, to say nothing of rhetorical hand shakes?  well, just as we must grudgingly deny the figures of metonym and symbol their decisive roles in the determination of meaning, so we will no doubt find that metaphor, a rapport between ostensibly incongruous signs and signers

[not the subordination of 'vehicle' to 'tenor', as i. a. richards had it],

won't provide the ultimate answer to life's anomalies, but will instead just be the major utility in puteracy's rhetorical toolbox;  ¿and, besides, who knows how many more anomalies we have to look forward to?

in any event, for now we know there is only one 'us', the brotherhood of man, on our lonely planet;  there are others, like the peirceans, who know about us, but we are light years, literally, from encountering them;  and every one of us is an entity unto himself;  we are wasting our time invoking dieties, and railing against wrong thinking enemies;  just as we once conscribed incantatory voodoo into our reasoned quest for stability, the only way to deal with our individual isolation now is to subordinate our concern with right and wrong truths to our need for rapport;  we have to negotiate with each other as neighbors;  the preoccupation of the final stage of literacy won't be the reverent semantics of metonymy, or the ethics of adversarial symbolization, but the metaphoric approximations which obtain [go ahead, say it one final time] "at the third, superordinate level of rhetoric";  dialog is what will allow us to seek each other out as ultimately congruent, thus compatible creatures; anyway, so say those peirceans;

•  •  •

that's it for now;  there'll be more;  and from time to time, the terms and concepts on these pages get linked out;  if you're imputerate and curious, feel free to drop by and poke around;  then email us [ pester hector ];  we could sure use your help sorting out these peircean prophecies;

and don't forget what they say:

"IT AIN'T WHAT YOU KNOW, IT'S WHO ELSE KNOWS IT;"