Orality and Literacy

In the last few days, Mark Goodacre has begun and April DeConick (here and here) and Loren Rossen have joined in on a discussion on how text-based our culture really is.

Mark says:

Outside of that academic sub-culture, the world we live in is a world still dominated by orality. Many more people receive their news through television and radio, oral media, than through newspapers. And many who do use newspapers are now no longer simply reading them but they are combining the reading experience with watching online videos, listening to podcasts and so on. I describe myself as an avid Guardian “reader” because of the familiarity of that expression, but my “reading” in fact incorporates Guardian podcasts and sometimes also video material.

While I agree that there is a lot of non-text material out there, I think that the big difference is in how we choose to preserve information that we think is important. We clearly didn’t stop using oral communication just because we could now write. What we did was to choose a more reliable way of passing on information that we regard as important.

In an oral culture, words are spoken and once they have been said, the only “record” of them is in the memories of the speaker and any audience. Because untrained human memory is not a particularly reliable medium for the accurate preservation of information, oral cultures typically train(ed) people so that information that the community considered important is/was retained more reliably.

All the things that Mark mentions are not ephemeral in the same sense as is the spoken word. Podcasts are made available precisely because the people who make them want to make it possible for those who were unable to attend to know exactly what was said. They can be downloaded and played over and over or transcripts produced, if the podcast wasn’t presented as a script. The same with videos. They can be bookmarked or downloaded and watched as often as is necessary to glean the information contained in them.

You can tell when a podcast or video hasn’t been tightly scripted beforehand – it tends to ramble and make poor viewing, especially for the time-poor. My denomination’s national youth convention has chosen to provide information updates as podcasts. The people who do them are clearly delightful human beings, but even the GenYers at whom they’re aimed complain that they don’t have time to watch three hours of podcasts (that are very heavy on your download limit) in order to get four pieces of information and are asking that a summary be put up on the website!! The shift to oral/video is by no means complete.

I think that one of the big shifts that has been made for those (only about 3% of the world’s population) who have easy access to the internet is that it is now possible for more people to preserve the things that perhaps only they or a very small group of people think are important and make them available to a much wider audience than was possible before. I am not sure that this is necessarily a good thing, but it’s very post-modern. 🙂

Picking up on one of the things that Loren quotes Robert Fowler as saying about characteristics of oral cultures, another significant shift is the development of sense of knitting people who have never met together into community. This, however, is largely illusory, at least in my opinion and experience. It is very much easier to maintain community with people you don’t have to get along with in real life. I have quite a number of e-acquaintances whom I’ve “known” for years and about whom I know quite a bit, assuming that what they share on the email list to which we belong is true. While there are several that I think I’d get along with in real life, many of them are so different to me in so many ways that the interest we share that keeps us together on the list simply wouldn’t be enough to keep us together in real-time. The only demands we make of one another on the list are to read the posts and even then, I can decide that I don’t like X and ignore all her/his posts, or that I have no interest at all in topic Y and delete all the posts on that thread unread and no-one else will know, whereas ignoring people in public in real time is much more obvious and destructive of community. There is community of a sort, but it isn’t tightly knit, like the communities to which I belong physically. From what I can understand communities in oral cultures tended to be significantly more tightly knit than the real-time communities in which we live now.

In summary, I think that in the end what is important in defining whether a culture is oral or literate, we need to look at what the culture does to preserve the information that it thinks is important. An oral culture will use the spoken word. A literate culture will use text-based media. We may be shifting towards being a multi-media culture, but I don’t think we’re going back to being oral.


4 thoughts on “Orality and Literacy

  1. Pingback: Snickerdoodles: 60-40-20-0 « Lingamish

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  3. Pingback: Popping up for air - Orality and Literacy again « Judy’s research blog

  4. Pingback: Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival XXX

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