Wednesday, July 27, 2011


A French schoolmaster and statistician, Louis Maggiolo, proposed, in the 1870s, to track the rise of literacy in France using, as an index, the signature on marriage documents. Signatures by the married couple or by their representatives were required from the 1670s, when Colbert, under Louis XIV, reformed the state administration of civil affairs – births, marriages, deaths. Now, there are many problems, as various historians have acknowledged, with using the signature as an index of literacy. For instance, we are projecting schooling that joins together reading and writing onto a period in which it wasn’t necessarily the case that they were taught in conjunction – it was for instance not uncommon for women to know how to read, but not how to write. And a signature can also be learned as a gesture, or a drawing, without the performer knowing how the letter signs really connect up. However, the very requirement tells us something about the changing relation between the state and its subjects. Literacy, on one level, was imposed by the state as an instrument of order and control. I’m less concerned about the rich uncles of the marriage certificate – the poem, the novel, the essay – than I am about the gradual awakening of the third life – the life of media, of reading, of visual, aural and print culture. Not as a rarity, but as an intrusion into both the private and public spheres (if we can use those terms to designate spaces in semi-literate societies).

I’m thinking of the everyday encounter with signs that label parts of the world. Imagine: once, the world for the vast majority of Europeans was criss-crossed by songlines; gradually, that world becomes shadowed by real signs, images, arrows, text.

I think about this a lot in Atlanta. I drive a lot in Atlanta. And as I just got married in Rockdale County, Georgia, in the presence of fifty witnesses, I have done a load of driving and a load of getting lost – the two have sort of merged in my experience – and I want to purge this storm of roads and directions and misdirections, to drain it from my blood.

Metro Atlanta is folded, spindled and mutilated among hillsides, obscure creeks, and mucho forestry. From the side of Stone Mountain, the bald granite peak that juts up a thousand or so feet in Dekalb county, you can see Atlanta skyscrapers rise apparently from a jungle on the horizon, so deep and extensive is the arboreal cover. But the trees cover the houses, shopping centers, roads, and business of a couple million people. The sheer mass of the people is a key to Atlanta’s chief business, which, for a long time, was growth itself – selling cheap houses to in-coming, and developing subdivisions out of farm and wasteland. And when you develop farm and wasteland, you have to have roads, plenty of roads. Because the in-comers have to incomes, which means they have to drive to work, such is the tear-bent nature of things in this part of the world, and they have to drive home. And because they have to drive, they have cars, and because they have cars, stores, pawn shops, Army-Navy stores, Chinese restaurants and a million Waffle houses spring up about five to ten miles from wherever you sit yourself down.

Literacy and transportation go hand in hand. For the roads, which are dumped on the landscape like God’s own spoiled spaghetti, clumping here and there and everywhere among the sea of trees, must be labeled somehow.

The first labels honored the developers, the only honor they would ever experience in their fishy lives, and various real or imagined flora, fauna, or sites. Then the old name streets are broken up by new developments that want to gloss off the old names and thus produce variations on them – here a Rockbridge Road, NE, there a Rockbridge Drive, NE, there a N. Rockbridge road, NE, there a S, Rockbridge Road, NE, ad infinitum. Then the state comes in and dubs certain of these roads parts of the greater Georgia Highway system, giving them numbers. Then the locals persist in hanging names on streets that have long shucked those names and assumed other ones. And finally, in the age of the GPS, the nautical grid of directions, all the southeasts and northwests, become ever more important in driving and hence in the way directions are disseminated, while left and right as cues become subordinate or quaint.

Into this soup there came a man – me – fresh from the streets and signage of Paris. Signage that was set up to lead a million tourists to a thousand monuments. Signage that forms its own dense culture, signage that sings of obscure histories, what with a plaque on every other building. This man, faced with a dark night in Lawrenceville, lost all sense of whether he was traveling east or west, north or south. On some days, he would miss every turn, and spend a good fifteen minutes going back and forth on a road, looking for the key to get into some parking lot.

Plus, I had the songline of my family – a family who has existed in this part of the world for a long time, now, and done many deeds, and had many adventures –singing in his consciousness, and sometimes on the phone, when I called up my brothers or sister and asked for directions. My friend Dave thought this was funny, and then he thought it was exasperating – to hear me, utterly lost, take a cell phone (a cell phone! So much have I become embourgeoisified since landing in the New World!) in hand and call my brother and hear him sing me across the private monuments of Stone Mountain to the arthritic flow of traffic on I 20.

But surely the impulse to sing the lines of family force across the landscape is merely buried under maps and GPS-es. And under those family lines, there is the great dying, and the Conquista, and our history – that is, the things that have exploded like big joke cigars in the face of humanity – as a planetary culture.