Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Day Nine

For the rest of this week, in between my dabblings in various poets including John Cage and Eileen Myles and Robert Creeley and etc., and readings of Dada texts from Robert Motherwell's Dada anthology which I finally got my hands on today, I will be mostly focussing on theories of orality and literacy. This means writers such as Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Jack Goody, Gregory Nagy, and Paul Zumthor. I've read all of them before: I had a great class in my first year here with Catherine MacKenna, focussing on this topic. But I need a refresher course.

Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word is probably one of the best known and most influential books in this field; it came out in 1982 and gives a sort of overview of the development in the 20th century of the received understanding of the differences between orality (that is, purely oral culture) and literacy (culture affected by writing). Ong makes it clear that he thinks the study of language over the last few centuries has had a prejudice against oral culture: written literature has been taken seriously by scholars while oral art forms have been seen as not worth the trouble. He suggests that this is part of a long-standing trend instigated by the historical switch from oral culture to literate culture and the effects that the switch had and has on the way we think. Once a society is literate, it can no longer think in terms of orality, he says, and therefore literate communication takes precedence. This is not what his book is mainly about, but it is the fundamental premise of the book. It's interesting to apply this to the neglect of performed poetry in literary studies, of course: the fact that the kind of work I'm doing - seriously studying spoken word - is a bit of an anomaly in an English department. The very term literary studies excludes that kind of work. Ong sets out to rectify this state of affairs, and starts by insisting not just that oral culture is worth study, but that oral culture is primary and therefore more fundamental to humanity than written culture. He wants us to return to our oral roots, in essence.

If the idea of orality being "primary" or fundamental sounds a little vague it's because Ong is dangerously unclear about what he means by this, aside from the fact that historically spoken language precedes written language. It seems to be an article of faith for him that in losing touch with oral culture we lost something that we should be trying to regain. Ong's ideas resonate strongly with Marshall McLuhan's (who was Ong's teacher at one point in St.Louis), in the sense that both think of the evolution of communication in a fairly strict diachronic way: first, we made noises and gestures. Then we spoke. Then we drew pictures. Then we wrote. Then we had print. Then we had radio, then television, and now other kinds of electronic communication which have engendered a "secondary orality". And in each transition, while we gained many abilities, we also lost certain capacities for thought. In Mcluhan it makes a lot of sense for me, I think because he is not overtly judgmental about the changes. Ong, though, is sort of chauvinistic about orality, characterizing it almost as the victim of literate culture. In his introduction to Zumthor's book, he even uses words like "magical" and "sacred" in talking about the power of using the human voice. This reminds me of certain strains of spoken word where the performer acts like some kind of fiery shaman empowered by the very use of his or her voice.

It's really interesting to read this theory, then, in parallel with Derrida's ideas in Limited inc. (and in Of Grammatology as well), where the perceived bias against spoken language is inverted: Derrida's concept of logocentrism is based on phonocentrism, the idea that spoken language is given preferential treatment as a form of communication closer to the true intentions of the sender. Writing therefore is relegated to the status of a parasitic imitation of speech. Of course, Derrida goes on to say that writing can not be expected to convey meaning transparently but neither can speech; both are susceptible to - in fact inevitably characterized by - a disconnect between thought and communicated meaning. Neither is purely representational. It would seem that Ong and Derrida are saying opposite things, but in his book Ong addresses Derrida (along with what he calls the "textualists" - structuralists and post-structuralists, who he says are obsessed with textuality) and manages to suggest that they are actually in agreement, although Derrida doesn't go far enough in his historical analysis. Where does logocentrism come from in the first place? he asks, and then answers his own question: it's a product of literate culture and the thought processes it creates. Ong is glad for Derrida's theory because he says it shows how writing is not speech. I can't help feeling that Ong has seriously missed the point in some of his analysis of Derrida; he seems to suggest that Derrida is basically just saying what McLuhan said - "The medium is the message." McLuhan seems to be Ong's prescription for everything.

I find Ong's writing extremely interesting, and his basic idea that orality and literacy promote different kinds of thought is a valuable one. But at the same time I feel that his project is fundamentally conservative. By claiming that literacy has become dominant over orality he is at the same time asserting the (unacknowledged) primacy of speech, and in the very ways that Derrida would identify as logocentric: speech as voice, speech as presence.


Blogger Vince said...

Gail Scott brought Eileen Myles up to read in Montreal a couple of months ago. She read a hilarious piece about when she toured with Kathy Acker in Europe in the eighties. I don't know if she's had it published anywhere yet.

1:39 PM  

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