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Nonfiction in Brief

February 21, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

A B C The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind by Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders (North Point Press: $15.95)

In previous books, Ivan Illich has demonstrated how people can be manipulated by social institutions--from education and medicine to politics and industry. Here, he and Barry Sanders, a professor of English literature at Pitzer College, fret about perhaps the most ubiquitous form of social manipulation: language. Like the pollution brought about by technology, "terminological waste merely generates noise in everyday conversation," the authors write, "and can be compared with the dull expanses of cement that economic growth has produced." Dense and detailed, "A B C" is not easy reading. Readers who stick it through, however, will be rewarded by the authors' cogent explanation of how writing gives knowledge a longer life than oral culture but also imposes a mindset on the thoughts it preserves. Language, as Illich and Sanders see it, is a landmark, guiding people orally along a narrow, well-traveled path.

Consequently, the authors write, historians seeking out truth must "develop the tools for recognizing which . . . records are original sources . . . texts that are not based on other texts, but (that) represent the first fixing of speech." "A B C," however, does not rigorously demonstrate how historians can derive original, a priori , meanings by, as Montaigne put it, "interpreting interpretations (rather than) interpreting things." The authors offer readers a deeper understanding of the oppression popularly seen in Jack London's "phrase slaves" and George Orwell's "Newspeak." But their discussion of value-laden language is not as involved as that of deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, who show that even speech is the "signifier" of an always absent "signified."

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