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Italo Calvino, Cybernetics and Ghosts

Italo Calvino, Cybernetics and Ghosts



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Categories:Types, Speeches
Published by: Vincent_M_Gonz_8783 on Aug 25, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Cybernetics and Ghosts
Lecture delivered in Turin and other Italian cities,November 1967.
It all began with the first storyteller of the tribe. Men werealready exchanging articulate sounds, referring to the practicalneeds of their daily lives. Dialogue was already in existence, andso were the rules that it was forced to follow. This was the life of the tribe, a very complex set of rules on which every action andevery situation had to be based. The number of words waslimited, and, faced with the multiform world and its countlessthings, men defended themselves by inventing a finite number of sounds combined in various ways. Modes of behavior, customs,and gestures too were what they were and none other, constantlyre-
Source:Calvino, Italo. (1986).
The Uses of Literature.
San Diego, New York,London. Harcourt Brace & Company pp. 3 to 27
peated while harvesting coconuts or scavenging for wild roots,while hunting lions or buffalo, marrying in order to create newbonds of relationship outside the clan, or at the first moments of life, or at death. And the more limited were the choices of phraseor behavior, the more complex the rules of language or customwere forced to become in order to master an ever-increasingvariety of situations. The extreme poverty of ideas about the worldthen available to man was matched by a detailed, all-embracingcode of rules.The storyteller began to put forth words, not because hethought others might reply with other, predictable words, but totest the extent to which words could fit with one another, couldgive birth to one another, in order to extract an explanation of theworld from the thread of every possible spoken narrative, andfrom the arabesque that nouns and verbs, subjects and predicatesperformed as they unfolded from one another. The figuresavailable to the storyteller were very few: the jaguar, the coyote,the toucan, the piranha; or else father and son, brother-in-law anduncle, wife and mother and sister and mother-in-law. The actionsthese figures could perform were likewise rather limited: theycould be born, die, copulate, sleep, fish, hunt, climb trees, digburrows, eat and defecate, smoke vegetable fibers, makeprohibitions, transgress them, steal or give away fruit or otherthings-things that were also classified in a limited catalogue. Thestoryteller explored the possibilities implied in his own languageby combining and changing the permutations of the figures andthe actions, and of the objects on which these actions could bebrought to bear. What emerged were stories, straight-
forward constructions that always contained correspondences orcontraries-the sky and the earth, fire and water, animals that flewand those that dug burrows-and each term had its array of attributes and a repertoire of its own. The telling of stories allowedcertain relationships among the various elements and not others,and things could happen in a certain order and not in others:prohibition had to come before transgression, punishment aftertransgression, the gift of magic objects before the trial of courage.The immobile world that surrounded tribal man, strewn with signsof the fleeting correspondences between words and things, cameto life in the voice of the storyteller, spun out into the flow of aspoken narrative within which each word acquired new values andtransmitted them to the ideas and images they defined. Everyanimal, every object, every relationship took on beneficial ormalign powers that came to be called magical powers but should,rather, have been called narrative powers, potentialities containedin the word, in its ability to link itself to other words on the planeof discourse.Primitive oral narrative, like the folk tale that has beenhanded down almost to the present day, is modeled on fixedstructures, on, we might almost say, prefabricatedelements-elements, however, that allow of an enormous number of combinations. Vladimir Propp, in the course of his studies of Russian folk tales, came to the conclusion that all such tales werelike variants of a single tale, and could be broken down into alimited number of narrative functions. Forty years later ClaudeL6vi-Strauss, working on the myths of the Indians of Brazil, sawthese as a system of logical operations be-

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