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The Technology of Literature-a summary and critique

HannahB's picture

For my fourth class this semester, an independent study with an anthropology professor revolving around the topics covered in the 360, I have explored in the last week a series of pieces of literature delving into the differences and paradoxes between oral-based cultures versus those that have developed systems of writing. Specifically, my studies started by looking at Jack Goody's theory on the "technology of writing" in which he essentially argues that societies that have developed a system of writing have created a new tool or "technology" which has enabled them to be cognitively more advanced. The argument has been widely critiqued and problematized and I think the literature in general raises some critically important, provoking ideas.

I will summarize here a few of the contentions I found most stimulating. The first is the presence of logic and the potential way writing enables various ideas and works from different authors and different times to be consolidated in a way that is more logical and thus helpful than what can be done via oral tradition only. A second contention is that of audience. Whereas oral tradition requires, at least seemingly, an audience, written works can be written and transmitted without knowledge of a specific audience. I find this idea particularly interesting because it feeds directly into a third point about variability. Written works are stagnant to a certain extent, copyright and authorial presentation are limited to the page, lacking change with time, speaker or audience. In contrast, oral traditions by their very nature allow for a degree of variability; the speaker can shift the story depending on the audience.

These few points I think are of critical value to examine further. Specifically, I think it is very interesting to consider the relevance of audience. So much of academia today within the humanities particularly but I would think in other fields as well focuses on authorial intent. What did the author want to convey by this story or this word? In oral traditions it seems that the necessity of author might be less, rather the speaker has themself a critical value and a level of autonomy with the nature of what they are presenting, even if the words are not their own. Such lack of structure, at least in the sense we think of it, makes for a very different presentation and way of thinking about words and literacy.

I enjoyed exploring these issues because I think as we discuss "literate" versus "non-literate" societies and individuals, some of these differences are particularly salient within the context of our Western, colonialist mindset--reminding us that the written word is not essentially better. While I believe Goody raises a fair argument surrounding the contention of logic and the way writing may allow for a more clear consolidation information, ultimately, I think intent, audience and the role of variablity in being a different, but not necessarily wrong part of words and stories is important to consider. If speaker, voice and personability were still not valuable, even in written cultures, we would not have the emphasis on public speaking, and story telling, plays, slam poetry or spoken word that exists today.

Thinking about all of these things, I would like the class to continue exploring conceptions of "literacy" and "non-literacy" and oral versus written cultures. I think by seeking the value in oral tradition while also being able to fairly understand some of the advantages and disadvantages to each form allows for more critical inquiry into larger conceptions of individual versus community based societies, audience and literacy with performance, the presence of logic and what type of information is passed on how and finally, deconstructing a mindset that our way is the only right way.


alesnick's picture

"non-literate" societies and advantages of print

This is really rich and I am excited to learn more from and with your independent study!  I wonder about the fusion of logic with print/writing . . . I also wonder about the logic of logic!  

The question of audience is so interesting.  Is any writing for no audience?  If we include self and the divine as part of audience?  ancestors? progency?

Fun to think with this!