J D Fleming, The Mirror of Information in Early Modern England: John Wilkins and the Universal Character

J D Fleming, The Mirror of Information in Early Modern England: John Wilkins and the Universal Character (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017) xi + 292 pp. £74.50 Hb. ISBN 978-3-319-40300-7

Known in the United States as 'Telephone', in the UK as 'Chinese Whispers', and in France as 'Téléphone Arabe' the children’s game of passing from one recipient to the next a whispered message seems to have an almost universal appeal. The game has no winner or loser, but rather a shared outcome of (usually) hilarity, when the final recipient’s message is announced, and when it is revealed that, almost invariably, it bears very little relationship to the original utterance. A fault of language, perhaps, or a product of human fallibility (or malevolence), 'Telephone' might also be understood as a parable of the modern fascination with information theory and, more specifically, the ways in which message systems of different types are subject to the distorting effects of 'noise' –  resistance, interference, distortion, vitiation.

We do not know if the seventeenth-century polymath, John Wilkins played some early form of the game of 'Telephone', though it would have appealed to him, I suspect. Reading J D Fleming’s dense, fascinating, and utterly engaging (if at times infuriating) book on Wilkins and his masterpiece of invention, 'the Universal Character', the ur-message of 'Telephone' – that spoken language is a medium subject to almost infinite recursive distortion – comes to mind again and again.

That seventeenth-century natural philosophers were intensely concerned about the mis-prisoning effects of natural languages – languages that is, which exist in the wild, rather than as artificial constructions – is hardly news. But, when compared to the 'new science' of Galileo, or Harvey, or Boyle, Wilkins’s attempt at rectifying what he saw as the imprecisions of language by inventing an entirely new form of utterance – a universal character – is usually seen as a magnificent dead end, a fit subject for the (later) satirical genius of Jonathan Swift.

But Fleming’s book reverses this familiar story, in asking us to understand Wilkins’s attempt (published in 1668) at creating a 'sign system that denoted notions directly' as a shady harbinger of modern information theory – the theory which underpins those algorithms which, in the hands of Google or Facebook, are directly impacting upon our daily lives. As such, Fleming’s Wilkins is a prophet who stands alongside Marshal McLuhan or Walter Ong (whose relationship, incidentally, Fleming muddles rather badly) as explorers of the information age, whose own work, in turn, rested on early-modern foundations. So, the opening chapters of Fleming’s book take us into the interstices of modern information theory, before launching into a fascinating account of the genesis of the 'Character' – Wilkins’s invented sign system – as arising out of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century obsession with various forms of shorthand or 'secret writing'. Fleming’s major insight is that Wilkins was conducting a kind of epistemological war on the very notion of orality (again the game of 'Telephone' might be recalled), in that he was devising not so much an artificial language as a system of 'notation that refers directly to things', which, in turn involved cataloguing the relationship between things: a wholesale reorganization, in other words, of the means by which we encounter and record the world and all it contains. The core chapter of the book undertakes to reverse-engineer Wilkins’s system, to show us 'how Wilkins’s real character works'. This endeavor, in its attention to detail, and in its wide-ranging understanding of Wilkins’s system is, I would hazard, quite possibly the most sustained attempt at 'reading' the Wilkins system since the late seventeenth century when (as some intriguing evidence that Fleming uncovers in his survey of existing copies of Essay Towards a Real Character demonstrates) readers wrestled with the minutiae of the system, leaving their struggles in spidery ink blots on the printed page. Finally, Fleming takes us back to the great fable of language confusion – the disaster of Babel recounted in Genesis Chapter Eleven – and shows us how Wilkins (along with his contemporaries) dreamed of a linguistic system which began, as it were, once more from the beginning by fabricating a means of recording the 'objective and universal denotation of the mind' untrammeled by God’s curse of linguistic multiplicity. As such, Fleming speculates, Wilkins’s work can be thought of as analogous to modern attempts at creating a universal 'machine language' – the technology behind Google translate and its competitors and imitators.

Fleming begins his book with a note to the reader to the effect that, if they find his 'paraphrases and descriptions' to be 'confusing' they should read his words alongside an opened (e-book) copy of Wilkins’s Essay. This might be considered a rhetorical white flag to wave on the part of any author, but to some extent Fleming is exactly right: in order to understand Wilkins’s project, you do indeed have 'to see it to grasp it' in all its orthographic, symbolic, and tabular detail. And it was presumably in an effort to counter the very complexity of the topic, that Fleming elected to adopt what could, charitably, be termed a 'reader-friendly' register. Thus, on page after page of The Mirror of Information we encounter jocular asides, puns, verbal cues, and up-to-the-moment terminology which will (I fear) soon become very dated indeed: 'game-changer', 'upgrades', 'gobsmacked', 'on-message', 'mash-up' and even 'hip'. Which is (to adopt one of Fleming’s own locutionary tics) an enormous shame, because this is a deeply serious book which deserves to be read and talked about with equal seriousness. The author’s grasp of the complexities of modern information theory, his theoretical alertness, the perspicuity with which he pursues his argument, his wide and deep-learning in the highways and the byways of seventeenth-century philosophy – all of these amount to an exhilarating exploration of the mind and method of an individual who has been all too often relegated to a footnote in the history of science. Fleming’s The Mirror of Information, despite its stylistic quirks, is, simply, the best account of a remarkable project, which is perhaps even more remarkable when considered from our modern vantage point.

Jonathan Sawday, Saint Louis University

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