Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 11.

James J. O'Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. xii + 210. ISBN 0-674-05545-4. US$24.95, UKú16.95.

John Hilton
Department of Classics, University of Natal, Durban

A recent multi-volume study of our rapidly evolving network society, which explores the social consequences of the successive informational and technological revolutions in communications in the twentieth century, stresses their unique and unprecedented characteristics.[[1]] The emerging information age is a consequence of not one but many technical inventions (including satellites, fibre optic cables, lasers, transistors and silicon chips), boosted by the power of rampant global capitalism, that are radically transforming our postmodern way of life. What then, can the investigation of past innovations, such as the discovery of the alphabet, the codex, and the printing press (the 'avatars of the word' of O'Donnell's title),[[2]] tell us about what we are experiencing and what we should expect in the future? This is one of the questions the book under review sets out to answer. According to O'Donnell the lesson we can learn from the past is that: 'we can expect no simple changes, that all changes will bring both costs and benefits, loss and gain' (p. 9).

The argument that supports this conclusion is presented in the first five chapters (pp. 14-123), in which contemporary developments are compared with the advent of literacy in Greece, the establishment of Greek and Roman libraries, the use of the codex, the transfer of manuscripts to printed texts, and the rise of classical studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the first chapter, 'Phaedrus: Hearing Socrates, Reading Plato' (pp. 14- 28), O'Donnell provides a brief account of Plato's critique of writing in the Phaedrus in the context of the work of Havelock and Thomas on the interface between orality and literacy in Classical Athens.[[3]] Typically for this book, which intentionally ranges freely over traditional discipline boundaries, the discussion is introduced by a broad comparison between Jesus, Confucius, Socrates and the Buddha, all of whom are placed in the same intellectual border zone between the spoken and the written word. The discussion develops into a critique of Plato's arguments that does not, judging by my own experience of South African oral cultures, pay sufficient attention to what is lost in this process -- the sense of community and the shared world-view evident in such societies.[[4]] In contrast, O'Donnell is at pains to point out the disadvantages of the transition from writing to print (pp. 75-83) -- clearly (and this emerges strongly in his writing) he is 'an old-fashioned, text-consuming, text-producing gatekeeper of our culture' (p. 195). This personalised authorial stance is again a deliberate strategy in the book, which positions itself in content and format on the frontier between text and hypertext, past and future.[[5]]

The positive side of the change from spoken Greek and Latin to their written counterparts was (from the point of view of those cultures) the extension of these languages to the eastern and western ends of the Mediterranean and the establishment of libraries to house their literatures. This is the focus of chapter 2, 'From the Alexandrian Library to the Virtual Library and Beyond' (pp. 29-43, with a 'hyperlink' on 'The Instability of the Text', pp. 44- 49), in which the ambition of Demetrius of Phaleron to gather together all the books of the world and the subsequent vision of Augustine, Cassiodorus, Dionysius Exiguus, Sidonius Apollinaris, and the later medieval collectors, are taken to constitute key stages in the growth of the idea of the 'virtual library'. Here O'Donnell's verdict is that 'the virtual library may already be obsolete' because 'the forms of organization of knowledge in electronic media do not resemble those of the traditional codex book' (p. 43). The usefulness of electronic texts is certainly restricted at present (especially by the linguistic intransigence of the ASCII code and the lack of a truly standard markup language and referencing system), but the underlying reason for Vannevar Bush's speed-reading machine -- the explosion of information -- has not gone away, and indeed is likely to become worse, so that the production of electronic texts and an adequate search engine to navigate them appear to be even more necessary now than they were in the past.[[6]] What remains to be achieved is an effective way of representing multilingual characters across all operating systems, an acceptable level of internet security and a way of protecting electronic copyright -- the latter being a problem O'Donnell confronts in a later 'hyperlink', 'Who Owns That Idea?' (pp. 92- 98). The economic advantages of the electronic distribution of texts, particularly those which require wide distribution and regular updating (most newspapers already have a strong presence on the internet), are simply too great to be withstood for much longer.

The exponential growth of knowledge in the last half of the twentieth century is a consequence of the invention of the printing press and the subsequent industrial and technological revolutions, but it is also, of course, more remotely contingent on the replacement of the scroll by the codex. Chapter 3, 'From the Codex Page to the Homepage' (pp. 50-63), shows that this change made non-linear access to the text possible in the form of synoptic tables and indices, for example, and suggests that the analogy of the modern journal rather than the scholarly monograph best describes the interconnectedness of networked information. Illustrations of exemplary manuscripts and codices would have greatly aided O'Donnell's argument at this point -- they are both intrinsically interesting and aesthetically appealing and would have helped to make the rather abstract argument clearer. Moreover, although alphabetization is mentioned as a way of facilitating cross- referencing (p. 51), far too little attention is paid to the psychological importance of the invention and utilisation of this intellectual tool in the western tradition.[[7]] On the other hand, the 'hyperlink' on the power of computer library catalogues and CD ROM facilities, 'The Shrine of Nonlinear Reading' (pp. 64-70), provides a salutary reminder of the increasing importance of these resources in modern scholarship.

O'Donnell emphasises the advantages of the change from the scroll to the codex rather than its disadvantages. I expected at least a brief discussion of the supposed change from reading aloud to silent reading at this point (with the consequent decline in the performance of literature?) and more could have been made of the losses to Greek and Latin literature incurred when some texts failed to make the transition from one medium to the other, although this point is well made. In contrast, chapter 4, 'The Persistence of the Old and the Pragmatics of the New' (pp. 71-91), clearly outlines the disadvantages of the change from manuscript to print, and the reader is left wondering about the beneficial consequences of the mass-production of key texts on society, such as, the stimulus to democratic institutions resulting from the wider availability of information. But this book does not aim to be a history of technological change in the field of communications. Both in this and the following chapter, 'The Ancient and the Moderns: The Classics and Western Civilisations' (pp. 99-123), O'Donnell's own standpoint as a classicist and a professor of the Latin writers of late antiquity is clear. He provides fascinating insights into the evolution of classical studies as a discipline (using Housman and Kipling as intriguing examples) and argues that classicists should problematise the current debate of Afrocentrism vs Eurocentrism in the curriculum, that we should 'teach the surprises' that the study of the past can bring, and that we should provide a frame of reference for our students from which they can approach the problem of constructing a cultural identity in the twenty- first century.

This leads O'Donnell to the second major theme of his book -- the changes that computer networks will bring to universities, or as O'Donnell puts it: 'what we can expect of traditional humanistic scholarship in an electronic age' (p. 133). In chapter 6, 'Augustine Today: Linear Narratives and Multiple Pathways' (pp. 124-43), O'Donnell foresees a transition from the single-author monograph to 'a multiplication of approaches and comparative interaction' (p. 133), and closer links between primary and secondary materials. Moreover, the ease with which connections can be made between texts, commentaries and interpretations, will have the effect of blurring traditional disciplinary boundaries and creating greater informality in the presentation of research. However, this reviewer for one was rather uneasy with the conclusion that: 'An economy of amusement will replace the economy of material sustenance, and the progression of humankind will be in directions that our nineteenth-century progenitors would regard as frivolity' (p. 142). Although internet authoring software makes the creation of marquees, hover buttons, animated gifs, and the like relatively simple, the promotion of style over content on the internet is a matter of concern, and the extended exposition of argument in thesis and subsequent monograph is unlikely to disappear soon, if only because of the inherently conservative character of academic accreditation. On the other hand, the creation of web-sites as part of post-graduate programmes provides clear evidence of research activity, and is increasingly likely to become a requirement for further degrees.

The implications for future teaching methods are no less significant. Networking technology may make possible greater economies of scale, particularly in the case of the ancient languages. In chapter 7, 'The New Liberal Arts' (pp. 144-62), O'Donnell suggests (p. 153) that the provision of on-line primers might make it possible for students of the languages to teach themselves, provided that local tutors monitored their progress. The present situation in which courses that attract less than ten students are replicated in all our universities is unlikely to continue. However, the disadvantages of networking language instruction are that the diversity of teaching methods will be lost and the personal contact between student and lecturer that is vital for language study will disappear. In chapter 8, 'What Becomes of Universities (For Professors Only)' (pp. 167-89), O'Donnell turns his attention to how American campuses are run. The discussion is not entirely irrelevant to the tertiary institutions of other nations, since many (for better or worse) are increasingly following the U.S. model. Internationally, universities are implementing the principles of 'outcomes based education', stressing inter-disciplinarity, the transfer of skills from study to workplace, and the notion of life-long education. If networking becomes a metaphor for culture and consciousness in the twenty-first century then it will be even more necessary to build internet skills and comparative studies explicitly into the curriculum.

In conclusion, 'Avatars of the Word' is an extremely wide-ranging, engagingly readable, and thought- provoking book.[[8]] The reader will learn much about O'Donnell himself from it: his ancestry, his education, his interests and his scholarship. The concluding chapter, 'Cassiodorus: Or the Life of the Mind in Cyberspace' (pp. 190-96), exemplifies this most clearly. Here the reader learns how the widely admired Bryn Mawr Classical Review, that has had such a marked impact on classical studies internationally, grew along with the emerging network technology and how, for one of its founding editors at least, Cassiodorus' aim to create 'a new kind of library' (p. 196) became an inspirational model for the enterprise. The closing years of the twentieth century are indeed exciting times for the academic world and perhaps the greatest contribution that 'Avatars' makes is to demonstrate the relevance and involvement of the study of classical antiquity in the debate. Classical scholars and teachers who are concerned for the continued well-being of their discipline in the rapidly advancing information age will enjoy reading it.


[[1]] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society. 3 Vols. (Oxford 1996) 31 n. 11, 327.

[[2]] The Sanskrit word from which 'avatar' is derived means 'a going down' and is used of a deity who manifests him or herself in human or animal form. O'Donnell uses the word of 'the form in which some abstract or powerful force takes palpable shape for human perception' (p. xi).

[[3]] Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass. 1963); Rosalind Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge 1989).

[[4]] See, for example, Jeff Opland, Xhosa Oral Poetry: Aspects of a Black South African Tradition (Cambridge 1983).

[[5]] The book recalls the electronic medium in the 'hyperlinks', or further discussions of points of interest appended to a chapter, and in the dotted lines in the page headers that resemble the continuous folded paper once used for dot-matrix printers. The book has its own homepage at Paradoxically, this site offers a far superior image of Antonello da Menina's portrait of Jerome in his study, than the black-and-white plate facing p. 1 or even the glossy cover illustration in colour. The website image clearly reveals the lion discussed in the introduction (p. 1) that is virtually invisible in the printed pictures.

[[6]] O'Donnell points to the electronic version of Vannevar Bush's article, 'As We May Think', Atlantic Monthly July (1945) 1-8, at the website: The editor's note to this article explains that Dr. Bush was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the U.S. during the Second World War. After the war American scientists, among whom was Norbert Weiner, the man who coined the term 'cybernetics' for his new branch of information theory in his eponymous book (New York and Paris 1948), turned their attention to 'massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.'

[[7]] See, for example, Johanna Drucker, The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination (London 1995).

[[8]] The text is exceptionally free from typographical errors. The few mistakes that I noted in reading are given here with a view to correction in a possible future reprint: p. 38 'know' for 'now', p. 47 'stands of' for 'stands for', p. 110 'achievment' for 'achievement', p. 117 'imaginzation' for 'imagination', p. 131 'complelxity' for 'complexity', p. 188 'simmply' for 'simply'. In addition, the punctuation of the text is sometimes erratic: a comma is required after 'of course' on p. 52, the construction of the sentence beginning 'Another hundred feet higher . . .' (pp. 120f.) is difficult to follow, and there is something rather nebulous about: 'Among the Mediterranean peoples whom we acknowledge as ancestors, writing began on stone.' (p. 50). But these are exceptions -- O'Donnell generally writes in a lucid and elegant style that is highly readable.