• Kate West

Towards 'Exquisite Ladders of the Mind': The persistence of linear thinking, reading, and writing.

A plethora of assistive technology can, according to neurotypical discourse (‘have you tried Dragon Dictate?’), redress the dyslexic academic paradox (whereby our ‘excellence’ is measured by our ability to effectively communicate by writing when writing disables us). One such technology is speech-to-text software (‘have you tried Dragon Dictate’). I’ve explained here how, as a dyslexic, I am a better orator than author, a better listener than reader (which is why I use a screen reader). And, so, ‘great’, neurotypicals might think, ‘have you tried Dragon Dictate’? 'Yes. Yes, I have, many thanks for the suggestion'. But the oral input is designed to produce written output. When I use it, I think about how the output should read (that thing I am shit at) as writing (that other thing I am shit at, approximating something in the region of shit squared). Add to this that I have to read what I am writing through speech and I have to do that at pace to keep up with what I am saying, which, because I’m dyslexic, I can’t do, leaves me pretty stressed. ‘Walk around the room’, trainers say. ‘Don’t look at your screen’, they say. Sure, but I have to read it at some point because I have to neurotypical-proof (curiously known, as if to give it some veil of legitimacy, ‘edit’) the thing. As I’ve said elsewhere, I can write shitloads, but what I can’t do is neurotypical-proof my work, because I am neurologically unable to do it, though I’m expected to do so on a daily basis on the neurotypical academy’s behalf (hello, research sp. publications and administration sp. email).

So that we dyslexic academics might communicate as effectively as our neurotypical colleagues I’ve thought that a neurodivergent academy needs a type of output that challenges writing as the normative standard. Now, though, I’m less sure there’s something intrinsically bad about writing. Instead, I’m starting to think it’s the character of contemporary academic writing that’s bad. This character is still modern. It demands one-dimensional, linear progression whereby what comes next is determined by what came previously. It is disabling.

[Contemporary academic writing] demands one-dimensional, linear progression whereby what comes next is determined by what came previously. It is, in short, disabling.

Dyslexia sees me returning to each word within each sentence as well as those within sentence preceding it dozens of times because it holds my working and short-term memories captive (my diagnostic report measures these to be in the bottom tenth percentiles of the adult population). I can’t retrieve what precedes each word and/or sentence the way 90 percent of the population and a much higher percentage of academics do (since neurotypical education slowly but surely filters as out with each primary, secondary and, especially, tertiary step) which makes it very difficult and at times impossible to comprehend contemporary academic writing.

I’m not quite sure what the answer is yet, but I know I’m with the critic Lewis Hyde on this: [my] memory sucks. Hyde argues that forgetfulness is akin to a kind of emancipation of the imaginary. I’m also with the theologian Dan Holloway who takes a middle ground: there’s more to knowledge than just memory. Holloway shows how pre-modern ways of knowing relied less on the to-me seemingly infinite memory reserves that modern ones did and contemporary ones do. Take what they call ‘Exquisite Ladders of the Mind’, a title they bestow upon the worthiest of images—the ‘First Figure’ from medieval philosopher Ramon Lull’s Ars Brevis, a circle comprised of nine parts, each one corresponding to the significance each letter of the alphabet held at that time, all of which are united by interconnected lines that come together in a diamondic (apparently not but should be a word) fashion so that the image appears to soar from the page. Holloway explains how memory allowed the ‘memory artist’ to access a single idea that could be safely ‘banked’ thus capitalizing on poor working and short-term memories and, importantly allowing the memory artist to move or ‘dance’ laterally between each bank of ideas. Exquisite Ladders (I’ve been running around for the past few weeks sort-of yelling ‘Exquisite Ladders’) appeal to me because, first, shit memory (see, above), and second, because of said shit memory, my brain works in a multi-dimensional, non-linear way where there’s no start or end point and instead it’s a bit like an Exquisite Ladder.

Exquisite Ladders already exist in the twenty first century in Web 2.0 (ILU), that second mode of the internet that dispensed with HTML and introduced XML or hyperactivity and expressed so brilliantly by the anthropologist Michael Wesch’s early viral video ‘The Machine is Using Us’ (I am, entering into a debate that digital visual anthropologists have been discussing forever since the 1990s is way older than Lull’s thirteenth century). If you are continuing to read write (right) now, I'm going to speculate that you’re probably not only neurotypical but you’ve been duped by your own kind. Stop. Go back. Follow the link! It takes you to just one of the many other dimensions neurodivergents experience simultaneously all day every day as they navigate the social world. Then stop, again. Go back, again. Follow the link, again, because it turns out you're duping yourself. Alan Howard (I’ve lost the hypercitation, sorry, not sorry) describes how (neurotypical) people don’t think and read linearly. Guys, seriously, what the actual fuck are you doing; who are you even writing for?!