Hyperlinks, Leo Strauss and the return of esoteric writing

I have been thinking recently about the phrase “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies.”  I argued in an earlier blog that this was not the case.  I suggested that hyperlinks reflect hierarchies and those hierarchies are networks.  In that approach, I only considered the statement from a management or network issue. What I failed to consider was that it could also have a deeper meaning about political philosophy. I do not think the authors intended that deeper meaning. However, I want to use the surface meaning to explore the idea.

When we consider hyperlinks, we often skip them as we read the text.  For the most part, they have become so common, that we rarely click them. What this suggests to me is that we may be missing something, which will be hard to recover in the future, especially if the web moves beyond using the hyperlink.  An interesting question, but one takes us away from the central point.

Hyperlinks offer us a way to connect the reader to a second text, a second meaning, that may or may not be consistent with the surface, or original text.  In some cases, the hyperlink may take us to a work that qualifies the text, negates it, or tells us something else.  The author can impart a “hidden” meaning or begin a “dialogue” with an attentive reader.  In the past, an academic writer may have done this in footnotes.  Alternatively, before the academic use of footnotes, one would have done this by writing in a specific style.  The writer would construct arguments and structure them to lead readers to different conclusions, depending on their understanding.  Today,  hyperlinks are used in a way that reminds us of that possibility.

In considering these issues, I was reminded of Leo Strauss and his work on esoteric writing. He wrote an interesting essay, which was collected with other writings to form a book by the same title: Persecution and the Art of Writing (PAW).  In the article, and the book, Strauss argued that ancient writers had pursued a writing style to mask their teachings within their works.  They wrote with this style to avoid persecution from authorities (religious or political) who would find their argument dangerous because it could undermine the official teachings.  They were philosophers who sought to understand the good even if that conflict with what society had claimed to be the good.  In this, they were trying to find the truth without letting the truth undermine the political regime.  Their writing style conveyed an exoteric (outer) teaching, which followed the orthodoxy of the day, and within which an esoteric (inner) teaching could be found.  However, the texts were not written for two audiences, the public and the elites, but rather for a small audience.  The smaller audience would be aware of and sensitive to the esoteric teaching being conveyed.  As such, it is not a secret teaching, but rather a way of writing to convey a teaching or meaning.

So what does this have to do with hyperlinks?

The issue before us today is whether social media monitoring is such that we can no longer have free speech.  If everything you write online can be tracked and traced, what hope is there for open, free speech?  One might consider that hyperlinks, which subvert hierarchies, offer a possible answer.  (See for example PAW p.24-25).  If we are writing this way, can we see it?  Will hyperlinks themselves become obvious targets for scrutiny?  Here we return to the enduring theme, how does writing reflect and shape our thinking as writers and as readers? How is writing changing our social and political lives?

We need to reconsider writing’s role in a society that monitors public expressions unlike any before.  To write effectively today, we need to find language and arguments that allow us to communicate with each other without revealing to those who would disapprove what we mean.  I do not mean speaking in code. Instead, I mean recovering the political philosophical understanding needed to make arguments about the good life, about democracy, about privacy, and most, of all, about freedom. In other words, the search for the best political order continues.  Yet, the social media society has an implicit, perhaps explicit ethos, which threatens to subsume, weaken, or empty the meaning from such arguments.  Instead of robustly restraining ourselves, to sustain freedom and the inquiry into the good, the social media and Facebook encourage us to reveal our privacy.

Without privacy, we lose a necessary restraint without which society simply succumbs to its basest passions. In this world, the mantras are “if you have it flaunt it” and “if you have nothing to hide, you do not need privacy”. Such socialization, though, reduces our understanding of true friendship and debases us persons. We see our inner strength drawn from a private study of religion or philosophy weakened.  At the same time, our children, growing into a world that already knows more about them than they know of it, rely upon a public affirmation of their worth. (see PAW p.22 fn2)  When we believe our worth is predominantly determined by society we become dependent upon it.  We lose the perspective of an individual, or an association, that stands part of but apart from the group.  In such a system, our children are no longer thinkers able to resist the dominant messages, the promoted messages; they become followers happy to repeat what has been said.  Yet, it does not have to be that way.

We know of a different world. We know what it means to think critically and to examine the arguments, motives, and intents of those who give us those messages. If we are to retain our freedom, our dignity, our humanity, we need to rekindle our capacity for thought and reflection.  We need to renew our ability to stand alone with our thoughts, with what makes us human, and share that with each other.  We need to rebuild our education, so that we can educate our children, and ourselves, about what the good life means.

Hyperlinks do not subvert hierarchies because hierarchies adapt to them.  They act as a way to connect a network of users.  What the network allows us is a more efficient and effective way to communicate.  The challenge, then and now, as it was for Leo Strauss, is to find something good to communicate.  To paraphrase an influential thinker of the social media age writer, content is king.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to Hyperlinks, Leo Strauss and the return of esoteric writing

  1. I agree. We need privacy even when we say freedom is the way to speak louder about me, you and society and so on. Brain doesn’t like flat land and open speech and mind seeks always to find a deeper way into the world. Our brain is a shaman one. Other way without level of speech, writings, hidden cognition, there is no possibility to produce signification about ourselves, world and we cannot communicate with others. Open speach is a sort of ‘mode d’emploi’, weak.

    • lawrence serewicz says:

      Thanks for the response. I really liked the idea of a landscape for our thinking. Perhaps we shall find ourselves returning to where our brains belong, with nature and contemplating the mysteries that make us human. As it stands, we still have to deal with the technological challenges before we can return to that state.

  2. Writing about writing in a very accessible writing. Small words about big questions, as the Norwegian sociologist Nils Christie puts it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nils_Christie


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