The canon of literature has historically been biased to western thought. Similarly the debate over the impact of orality versus literacy is also biased to western ideals and as a result literate culture is seen as superior to oral cultures. Walter Ong (1982) in his book argues that literacy fundamentally alters information processing and makes an individual more logical and a culture more scientific. This is compared to orality that leads an individual to be more superstitious and a cultures more ritualistic and religious. This belief is rooted in the idea that technology is a natural indicator of progress and the more technology a culture has the superior it is, however on closer inspection it is evident that the divide between oral cultures and literate cultures is not as great as it seems and that they share as many similarities as they do differences.
One of the major arguments used to distinguish literacy from orality is a comparison between the literature produced by the two cultures. Ong (1982) does a good job in outlining some of the fundamental characteristics of oral literature, and cites specifically Milman Parry’s study of the oral tradition of modern Balkan poets. In summary of Parry’s and other studies Ong (1982) notes oral literature tends to be characterized by repetition and individual focused narrative. This is contrasted to written literature that tends to be more descriptive and analytical. Ong (1982) attributes theses differences as a direct result of the technology used to produce these works, for example writing allows for one to spend more time making lexical choices and reworking the focus of the work, whereas orality forces one to be more spontaneous. It is not wrong to note that there are differences between written literature and oral literature but it is wrong to highlight these differences while ignoring the similarities. Emevwo Biakolo notes it is more important to study a piece of oral literacy on its own terms than to use it as an example of the totality of the oral tradition. Comparing and contrasting individual pieces of art work does not necessarily indicate how the technology used to create that art work shaped the culture or the individual who produced the art work. (Biakolo, 1999) For example novels written by pencils are not less complex than novels written by typewriters. Every culture has produced a lot of “bad” literature and most have produced some “good” literature, this does not mean that one form of technology is better than others or that one culture is more advanced than another, it simply indicates that cultures are just as unique as individuals and the work they produce.
Repetition tends to be considered a key feature of the oral tradition and it is true that the literature of many oral cultures is marked by repetition. In many ways this is colored as a negative, for instance repetition is considered necessary in the oral tradition so that the artist can organize and memorize their material, and also so that the audience can understand the material; essentially because of its inefficiencies in communicating it must repeat itself to get its ideas across. (Biakolo, 1999) The use of repetition is connected to formulaic stories and stock characters, again so that the artist can master their work and the audience can understand it. (Ong, 1982) These techniques are not unique to the oral tradition though and they can also be found as abundantly in written literature, however when noted in the oral tradition these techniques are often highlighted pejoratively. With much of this negativity being associated with the ritualistic and religious nature of oral cultures. The idea being presented by these associations is that oral traditions are conservative and traditional, that they struggle against change and are content to remain stagnant as long as it maintains the status quo. Written literature on the other hand, though it shares many of the same techniques employed in oral tradition is seen as a force of change. (Biakolo, 1999) Thus while oral tradition is marked by magic and tradition, written tradition is marked by exploration and science.
Much of the debate in the comparison of orality to literacy is focused on the struggle between magic and science. To many the greatest achievement of western thought was the development of the scientific process. It was this process that led to a culture that is built upon logic and deductive reasoning. Many of the scholars looking at oral cultures and the traditions there in are as Biakolo (1999) says “… working backwards to answers assumed from the start”, specifically they see scientific thought as the pinnacle of western accomplishment and that oral cultures as a rung on the ladder to achieving this pinnacle. As a result, many examinations of oral cultures and traditions go into the process trying to discover how oral cultures and the individuals there in are different than individuals in literate cultures. This process leads to similarities being ignored, for example though it is true that literate culture has scientific elements it is also true that literate cultures also have many of the religious and conservative elements that are used to describe oral cultures.
As a society and a culture we want to see ourselves as better. It is important that when we look back on our history that we can see a path of progress. Technology is one of the easiest ways to show that our lives have improved and that our society as a whole has developed. Unfortunately by trying to reassure ourselves of our achievements, there has been a tendency to contrast western accomplishments against the accomplishments of other cultures. Ong’s (1982) argument that literacy fundamentally changes how we process information is an example of such an occurrence. The truth behind how cultures develop and how individuals in these cultures process information is much more complicated than their primary technology for communication. This is becoming even clearer as technology becomes more integrated into our lives. This is not to say that these is no differences between oral and literate cultures, but instead that the differences are no more important than the similarities and that we must look at both equally if we are to understand the impact of orality and literacy on a culture.
Biakolo, E. A. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65.
Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen