Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What is secondary orality?

Mark Goodacre and Loren Rossen have each new posts about orality. Mark Goodacre mentions secondary orality, which is a matter of much confusion, mainly because scholars in our field, including myself, have been too free with its use.

Walter Ong coined the term "secondary orality." I wonder if it was indeed such a good idea because it tends to confuse the issue of orality in oral and oral-rhetorical cultures with verbal utterance in print cultures. He used the term secondary orality to discuss orality in print cultures where orality is completely dependent on print. It is the opposite of primary orality where orality is not dependent on print.

Ong understood orality in our culture to be completely dependent on literate mentality and modes of thinking. Electronically processed words are either dependent on written words (as in books on tape) or a script (as in radio or TV) or, in the case of talk shows, the electronic word becomes its own form of print that can be edited, replayed, resequenced, etc., just as we do with writing. This new age of "secondary orality" (Ong often put quotations marks around this phrase to indicate caution that it was not the same thing as orality) has some similarities with orality in that it draws in audiences to participate thus fostering a communal sense, it focuses on the present moment, and can even use formulas. BUT "it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well." Although we might see some of these common features, Ong writes, "It is not the old orality." For this discussion, see Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, chapter "Print, Space and Closure."

Now what, if anything, does secondary orality have to do with oral-rhetorical cultures like the one we study? Here things get even more confusing. Scholars, including myself, have used this word to refer to possible moments when we think we see preserved in a piece of literature orality that is dependent on another piece of literature. An example? A saying in one of the gospels that is not literarily dependent on another piece of literature (that is, it hasn't been copied from one text into the other). Rather the author may have heard the saying read and is writing that down, or some such scenario.

But is this really secondary orality? I have struggled with this for a couple of years now. And I will continue to struggle with it when I return next year to my orality-scribality experiments, and my study of human memory. For now I want to say that I don't think it is the same thing. And I wish we had never started using this term in this new way. What I think we have to do form now on is leave the term "secondary orality" to discuss the type of orality we enjoy today - one that is completely dependent on the literate word and electronic forms - an orality that is NOT the same as what we find in oral or oral-rhetorical cultures. This means that we need to create a new language to discuss the different forms of orality that we observe in oral-rhetorical cultures. This is a project again for our generation of scholars to sort out the best we can.

If you think we make too much of the difference between orality in the ancient world and verbal utterance ("secondary orality") in our literate culture, I invite you to try this exercise in class sometime. Ask your students to put away all their computers, their pencils, their pads of papers - everything. Nothing can be written down or recorded during or after. And you too. Don't bring anything to class, and don't use the chalkboard. And you can't check your notes or bible passages before you come to class! And just have a whole session - or better a whole week - where you just orate and your students just listen and discuss.

Observe what happens - how completely uncomfortable everyone is, and what they actually remember, and how they remember it. You might even try allowing one person to write and no one else. How would any of you view someone who could read and write? What kind of power would that person have? Then think about this in terms of the ancient world and the teaching of Jesus. And then the teaching of the churches. How did transmission of Jesus' sayings happen? What happened to the material during that process even when it was written down?


J. K. Gayle said...

Seems a bit over speculative to speak of "secondary orality," and to talk of it as newer than "(primary) orality." This assumes a very technical and limited definition of orality and of literacy, as binaries, with the one always purely before the other. Even when some of us try your great exercise in the classroom (i.e., using no literacy), then we still may use our hands--yes, I know technically that's not literacy. But it is "graphe," it is hand-eye stuff (not mouth-ear stuff). How old is Homer--and there's literacy in his oral epic of Illiad. Even older are the oral histories of Exodus and of Job, but both (if captured in our extant texts) include instances of "writing." What if literacy and orality have always grown up together, influencing one another back and forth?

April DeConick said...

J.K. Gayle,

What you are talking about here is rhetorical culture. This is where orality is the primary mode - the mode that most of the people are using since most are illiterate. The few literate people will use writing for very specific purposes. And yes, yes, yes, there is an interplay as oral goes into writing and writing comes back out into the oral and so forth. There is no sense in Ong or in my own work of a pure binary. BUT the consciousness in rhetorical cultures where orality dominates is DIFFERENT from the consciousness of literate cultures or even transitional cultures.

Unknown said...

Just a thought: what about rhetorical/oral styles in literate cultures that grew out of fairly recent illiterate cultures? I'm thinking particularly of African American preaching that grew in illiterate slave society and then continued in use when first the preacher and later the congregation learned how to read. Watching the preaching and congregational response in this culture it seems to me the rhetorical/oral style was developed before anyone learned to read and continues to a certain extent.

I don't think the same can be said for White/European preaching as the preachers have been literate for over 400 years.


geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

The so-called sayings of Jesus were probably the fertile imaginings of an author who first wrote them. Once they were written down who would dispute that they were not the spoken words of Jesus?

But when I read "Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it", I can't help but think this is a remembered allusion to sanctuary worship in which the prophet was surrounded by the smoke of incense. The "voice coming from the cloud" seems like a remembered allusion to God speaking to the prophet in the sanctuary. And where else would the "scribes" have had jurisdiction to arrest the prophet, but in the temple? Judas was there. Around this area, the Gospel almost looks as though it has been adapted from a source document written in a Jewish context. And Jesus is always illusory, more like a spirit, which again was probably a memory of Judas as a prophet of the Spirit.

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

Birger is blinkered in seeing Judas of the Gospel of Judas only in a gnostic context. Judas had been a bogey-man for Jews and Christians alike, and now it seems he was for gnostics too. That kind of folklore must surely have some foundation in Jewish oral traditon and history. Even some of the language of the gospel has prophetic overtones that leads one to think that the writers had before them prophetic source material as a basis of their document. Words and phrases such as: "revelation", "appearing on earth", "began to speak", "spirits stand before him" are the language of prophets led by the Spirit. Other extant phrases look as though they have been adapted from a prophetic source.

The Gospel has all the hallmarks of coming from Jewish prophetic source material. And Birger stays in his bounded comfort zone choosing to ignore the Jewish roots of the Gospel of Judas.

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

"But their spirits dare not stand before him, except Judas."

Make no mistake, Birger and April, this is definately prophetic speak. It was Judas the prophet who believed that one could 'stand' before God with a cleansed spirit, never mind about animal sacrifices. For prophetic 'standing' language just read Eisenman, see page 1069 of James The Brother of Jesus.

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

Just as many think there was an earlier source document for the Gospel of Mark which was subsequently adapted for the extant version, so I am coming to think there was an earlier source for the Gospel of Judas.

Leon said...

There are a couple of big differences between an experiment in class and what the ancients were doing (the experiment could still be interesting). One is that, in class, everyone would be conscious of doing something different from what they usually do and the difficulty of it, while the ancients had been doing things this way for many generations and had probably developed techniques for helping them to remember more accurately.

A second difference is context. In class, it would be an interesting experiment regardless of what exactly was being discussed. For the ancients, the significance of the subject would have an impact on how important it was to remember this. They might have felt their culture, their society was at stake if they did not get things right. In the case of Jesus, if he was the Messiah to them, there is an extra incentive in the stores they tell about him. They are not just passing the time of day. And if knowledge in general was passed down orally, then this was not just a game to them.

A comparable modern example to what the ancients were doing might be, for example, people in a concentration or prison camp who are desperate to remember and report what happened to them to the outside world. The emotional context can make all the difference in the world to the preciousness and accuracy of the memory.

Leon Zitzer

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...

Leon, among the ancients there were often powerful forces that would seek to suppress what others remembered, to the point where those who knew the truth would be eliminated (and there are modern examples of that too). I have no doubt that the Flavian dynasty was one of the most ruthless in that respect. Not only that, they were vigorous in promoting their own version of history, particularly as we read it in the writings attributed to Josephus, where we see the name of Judas and his activities garbled in all sorts of ways. If they wanted to brand Judas as bad, they had all the power to do so, and they did. They gave him a bad name and it stuck like mud - they even blamed him for their war against the Jews. I continue to be astonished at the way modern historians of ancient history quote from these writings as though they were God's honest truth.

Bill Heroman said...

Thank you for explaining the terms simply at the start of your post. I think I'm starting to understand them a bit now.

Your classroom experiment suggestion was intriguing and I have one thought that may prove helpful. I'm only 33, but I remember going on car trips before I had mobile internet access and I remember making airport pickups before we ALL had cell phones. *We used to plan ahead better.*

I'm sure you see my point. :)

Just offering the analogy...

Mark said...

I was thinking about your experiment, where no one can use or review the materials before class. It begs the question, "why not review the materials?"

God thought it important enough to have the written word that He gave us the bible, God's word, in written form. The point of oral teaching is to effectively communicate the Gospel which is already written for us. Therefore we should be reviewing the information and if necessary referencing the "stories" during presentation.

Orality in any form is a tool, not a religion. It is a form of communication, not the means to an end in itself but as part of a bigger whole.

Call secondary oral learners lazy, slow, illiterate or whatever; but it is the way they have been trained and/or chosen to learn. The goal is to meet them where they are and share the gospel of Jesus saves, and then enable them to duplicate and share with others, that's it, nothing else matters. In my opinion anyway. ;-)