Saturday, May 10, 2008

What is orality?

Mark Goodacre has a post about orality this week. He raises some issues that I wish to comment on. First, verbalizing things is not orality in the sense that we use it to indicate an oral or even rhetorical culture - neither of which we are. An oral culture is one where there is no writing. So everything transmitted is done so by human memory and voice. Think about what it would be like to have nothing written to store information, to refer back to, to help you or the next generation with the transmission of knowledge. It is daunting to those of us from a literate and information oriented world. Transition cultures, where writing is used to store bits of information by a very small percentage of the population, are still largely oral, in that the vast majority of people are still operating as completely oral transmitters.

Oral and transition cultures tend to transmit information that is more concrete (less or not abstract), accretive, formulaic, redundant, conservative, situational, additive. They do not have external sources of information, except in rare situations, to consult. If they do, they are less trusting of written materials and would rather talk to people about whatever it is that they want to know, because they know who is trustworthy and who is not, and because they can ask questions.

Analogies to pod casts and giving talks at conferences have absolutely nothing to do with oral culture or oral transmission in a oral culture. We are today totally operating from a literate mentality and consciousness which allows us to write things down, to remember them, to store them, to refer to them, to develop them, to memorize them verbatim, and so on. We trust external sources, the written word, things we can consult, and even in court when we have oral witnesses, we are all about documentary evidence and challenging the witnesses against written records of what happened or what they might have said on another occasion.

If you want to understand oral culture, read Walter Ong - everything or anything he wrote.


David Creech said...

Thanks for the post. I was thinking about Ong (esp. Interfaces of the Word) as I read Goodacre's piece, but I still feel like too much of a novice to trust my gut on orality studies. It's nice to know that I'm not out in left field!

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, thanks for the post, April. I hope that it will be obvious that agree with most of what you say; the point of my post was to talk about the way in which we are inclined to caricature our own literate culture, to exaggerate the contrasts for rhetorical effect. I am in part being playful here, looking at how Dunn's conceptualization of our culture is in fact falling short -- I have not in this initial post even begun to deal with the ancient world. It may take a few more posts in my series before my thinking on this is as clearly articulated as I would like, but let me mention here one element that I hope to return to, and which you helpfully anticipate with your mention of Walter Ong, that we need to take seriously secondary orality in our culture. One of the things that is a little surprising about Dunn's computer analogy ("default setting") is that he is not, apparently, thinking about secondary orality when it might have been an interesting way of exploring the comparisons and contrasts with the primary orality of the ancient world. In so far as I have a point in the current post, it is that we may need to try a bit harder to describe our culture if we are to be able to apply our minds to a culture so completely distant from ours. Anyway, more anon. Tanks again for the comments. I may also comment on my blog when I find a moment.

Geoff Hudson said...

The study of historical orality without sound recorders must be a pseudo science. We have texts and archaeology.