Monday, July 16, 2007

Composition in an Oral-Literate Culture and a Book Note: A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World (Amin Sweeney)

What does a book about contemporary literacy in Malay have to do with biblical studies? Quite a bit actually. As I continue to prepare my paper "Memory and the Sayings of Jesus: Contemporary Experimental Exercises in the Transmission of Jesus Traditions," I find myself drawn to all kinds of studies on orality and literacy. Sweeney's book, A Full Hearing, is particularly interesting to me because it examines a society dominated by orality but encountering literacy. Fascinating is Chapter 9, "Oral Orientation in Written Composition," in which Sweeney describes the shape of Malay literature, a literature preserving orality. He writes on pp. 307-308:
"The introduction of print literacy - which brought with it the possibilities already realized in the 'donor' cultures - did not cause a clean break with the past. Even those highly literate in a Western language who rejected the old modes of expression found themselves in a battle with the past when they wrote in Malay, for the language brought with it the past, a past of radically oral manuscript culture...The introduction of print literacy did not cause an immediate change in the general state of mind. The natural tendency was to perceive the new in terms of familiar schemata. The result was that even the educated sector of the populace continued to favor a paratactic, formulaic, copious, repetitive, narrative, and concrete mode of expression. Such a mode was necessary for effective communication in an oral or aurally consuming society; in a print culture, it is not: what became redundant in print now strikes us as mere verbosity."
When we think about the oral-scribal culture of the ancient world, and the type of literature that we are dealing with by and large, we see a similar oral mode of expression dominating the writing. What our early Christian literature is, is literature produced within orality, often as a support for oral performance behaviors, including reading which was an oral-aural enterprise.

I am more and more convinced as I continue to immerse myself in these studies, that our old way of framing the Synoptic Problem (and the Thomas Problem) just is not correct. We don't seem to have a good enough handle on how the ancient peoples actually composed literature, and for what purposes. We must push head on in the direction of orality-scribality if we are ever to have a chance to work out these issues fully, and we must leave behind the cut-and-paste literary redaction model, which may work for our world of composition, but has little to do with oral consciousness and composition of works within that type of environment.


Stephen Hebert said...

Thanks for highlighting this book. I'll check it out as the the oral nature of ancient "literacy" has been an interest of mine for some time.

David said...

I am currently reading Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible by Karel van der Toorn, which addresses these issues. Not sure I agree with his dating scheme, but he focuses on the nature of scribal culture as rooted in orality in the OT.

David said...

I have been enjoying your comments on orality and have struggled, like many modern people, I think, to connect with that approach on a personal level. But I realized earlier this week that I have actually experienced the compositional interaction of text and oral performance in a deep personal way.

Before taking my current job, I was a technical trainer for 20 years. For the last 10 of those years, I trained people on Lotus Domino and used courseware provided by Lotus. But of course one cannot read course materials verbatim; that would be the worst kind of training approach. So I would follow the outline or at least keep it in mind, while I filled in the gaps with my own interpretation of the relevant knowledge. I became quite conscious that my teaching was very much a performance, including techniques for engaging the students on a personal level, using humor to keep the mood light, asking probing questions to inspire them to think, and making the material relevant to their (professional) lives.

I mention this because I suspect that we moderns, deeply embedded in the book world, have trouble relating to how orality and text can interact in performance. Yet if we think about it a little, probably most of us have experienced this in some way.

Jim Watts said...

I think David Carr has advanced our understanding of the orality/literacy dynamic in a major way with his Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (2005), which compares how orality functioned in the educational systems of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Israel.

Leon said...

There is one thing (at least one thing) that oral and writing cultures have in common. It is captured in a quote that April offers at the head of Ch. 9 of her book "Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas". It is from P. Connerton: "Whatever is written demonstrates a will to be remembered." The same is true in oral cultures. That will to be remembered and repeated in oral storytelling can be very strong — and identifiable in a number of places in the Gospels.

The metaphor I use in my book is the example of prisoners who are taken away in trucks or on trains by a totalitarian regime. If a prisoner saw people on the side of the road, he or she would write their name on a piece of paper and throw it the bystanders. The message was clear: Tell them you saw me, remember my name.

Notes like that are scattered throughout the NT. It is a great shame, in my opinion, that the majority of scholars have acted to suppress these notes, to suppress this "will to be remembered".

Leon Zitzer