What Thomas Cromwell had in common with the Dewey decimal system

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Thomas_Cromwell.pngThe organization of information is a particular passion of mine.  How a society organizes its information determines its culture, its values and the means by which it exercises power.  

For example, as Walter J. Ong explains in his brilliant contribution to human thought, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, oral cultures must organize their information so that the important bits are retained and readily accessed in memory (p. 32-77).  Hence, oral cultures emphasize proverbs (as a distillation of wisdom), rhymed and rhythmic verse (easier to remember), and vivid, gory rhetoric that glorifies violence (makes a strong impression on the listener).  The results for culture, values and the exercise of power?  Epic poetry; devaluing critical thinking (too destabilizing to communal wisdom); superstition (a result of a critical thinking vacuum); and non-rational, superstition-, brute force- and violence-heavy means of exercising power.

So I was intrigued to see Joan Acocella explain, in her review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in The New Yorker, that the reign of Henry VIII was a period of radical reorganization of information in England.  Citing the historian G.R. Elton, Acocella writes that, under Thomas Cromwell (the protagonist of Wolf Hall), "English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period."

The need for these bureaucracies arose, of course, because of the proliferation of information.  The greater the quantity of information that needs to be organized, the less likely that an individual mind can manage it with proverbs and epic poems (although both get people pretty far, pace Homer).  

And, sure enough, both these points - the limits of memory, and the proliferation of information - are emphasized in leit motifs in Wolf Hall.  In a sub-sub-plot, Thomas Cromwell tries to obtain a memory device built by Guido Camillo.  The thingamajig is a cabinet with drawers inside of drawers, described as

a theatre on the ancient Vitruvian plan.  But it is not to put on plays. . . . The owner of the theatre . . . stand[s] in the centre of it, and look[s] up.  Around you there is arrayed a system of human knowledge.  Like a library, but as if - can you imagine a library in which each book contains another book, and a smaller book inside that?
(p. 472.)  In a foreshadowing of the fate to befall prodigious memory in a literate future, Cromwell never obtains the device.  (Indeed, Camillo never finishes building it.)

Mantel also makes sly and amusing references to the information "avalanche" burying her sixteenth century characters:

[King Henry VIII] slips into his mouth an aniseed comfit, and snaps down on it.  "Already there are too many books in the world.  There are more every day.  One man cannot hope to read them all."
(p. 472)

When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of.  [Thomas Cromwell] feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.
(p. 492)  In a month!?  Cromwell, pity us the Internet!

Historical periods of reorganization of information are particularly rich, since they invariably involve upheavals of culture and power as well.  In such periods, opportunity (as much as ruin) abounds.  Out of the churn, the long shot can win; the lowborn son-of-a-blacksmith can become the adviser to a King and second-most-important in the nation.  

While Cromwell has long been paired with the adjective "Machiavellian," Mantel suggests that his patron saint may not be Niccolo, but Melvil Dewey.  Mantel makes a persuasive case that Cromwell's greatest asset was not his cunning, propensity to manipulate others or hunger for power, but his awareness and understanding of how information was being reorganized and the ramifications of the new order - especially the increasing importance of the financial industry.  Here, for example, is the commoner Cromwell besting the noble Earl of Northumberland in a battle of wills over Anne Boleyn:

How can [Cromwell] explain to [Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland]?  The world is not run from where he thinks.  Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.  The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun.  Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
(p. 378).  Whether Mantel is correct, historically, about Cromwell's gift, the lesson for us is clear.  We are currently living through a historic moment during which information is being radically reorganized.  Digitization of traditionally printed materials, along with decreases in the consumption of printed materials (which face massive competition from television, movies, Internet, and video games), are only two of the monumental shifts in information organization that are impacting our era.  Awareness and understanding of these changes are our keys to leveraging them for profit (personal, political, financial or otherwise).  Short of this consciousness, we'll have to fall back on being Machiavellian to succeed.

(Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Daily Mail)
 

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on April 29, 2010 1:53 PM.

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence was the previous entry in this blog.

Ready for the shovel is the next entry in this blog.

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