Lesson 1:2; Assignment 1:3; Question #1

In just a few short sentences J. Edward Chamberlin completely opened my mind to the fact that separating cultures into “oral” or “written” is misleading at best and disparaging at worst. The few sentences are:

…the central institutions of our supposedly “written” cultures — our courts and churches and parliaments and schools — are in fact arenas of strictly defined and highly formalized oral traditions, in which certain things must be said and done in the right order by the right people on the right occasions with the right people present. (If this is your land, where are your stories? 20)

This quotation complements a main point in Chamberlin’s book If this is your land, where are your stories? that language is a form of ceremony (2). Be it in the retelling of a Creation myth, a nursery rhyme, a weekly call to your parents two provinces away, or the passing of judgement in a court of law, language is often accompanied by ceremonial actions, sacred or ordinary. This is why separating cultures into “oral” or “written” is redundant — the “separate” cultures utilize language, and its ceremonies, in similar ways: to tell stories, initiate ceremonies, pass laws, even to swear in citizenship.

The distinction which Chamberlin tries to eradicate between oral and written cultures is similar to the one between men and women’s clothes which Virginia Woolf addresses in a footnote in Three Guineas:

… the late Mr. Justice MacCardie, in summing up the case of Mrs. Frankau, remarked: “Women cannot be expected to renounce an essential feature of femininity or to abandon one of nature’s solaces for a constant and insuperable physical handicap… Dress, after all, is one of the chief methods of women’s self-expression… In matters of dress women often remain children in the end. The psychology of the matter must not be overlooked….” The Judge who thus dictated was wearing a scarlet robe, an ermine cape, and a vast wig of artificial curls… the fact that the singularity of his own appearance… was completely invisible to him so that he was able to lecture the lady without any consciousness of sharing her weakness, raises two questions: how often must an act be performed before it becomes traditional, and therefore venerable; and what degree of social prestige causes blindness to the remarkable nature of one’s own clothes? (150, emphasis mine).

The fact that the judge in this case chastised women for their love of clothes while wearing an ostentatious costume is remarkably similar to a Christian who has just finished attending a compline service looking down on a traditional Native American sun dance. While I wouldn’t call a shared use of language in written or oral forms as a shared “weakness,” the essence of Woolf’s sentence is the same — the similar use, the similar recognized importance, of words written and spoken in Western and Native/other “oral” cultures is blatantly obvious. Courtney MacNeil, citing Henri Meschonnic in her article “Orality” underscores the cohesion of oral and written language:

… orality is not the opposition of writing, but rather a catalyst of communication more generally, which is part of both writing and speech” (“Orality”).

In high school and some university classes the distinction between written and oral cultures is still made. I believe that the distinction is beneficial, for it allows for the more traditionally orally-dominated cultures to have their stories and histories taught, instead of shoved to the sidelines for not complying with what we define as literature. However, the distinction should not be accompanied by hierarchical ordering of importance. As MacNeil says in her article, orality is “part of both writing and speech,” inextricably linked as anyone who speaks aloud a to-do list or signs a marriage certificate while also proclaiming “I do” at the altar will realize. In the end, let us not be judges in scarlet robes and ermine capes, looking over our pulpit at respectably dressed women and shaking our heads of cascading artificial curls over their materialism.

Works cited 

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If this is your land, where are your stories? : Finding common ground. Toronto: Random House, 2004. Print.

“Compline at Keble.” Keble College. N.P. N.D. Web. Accessed May 22, 2016.

MacNeil, Courtney. “Orality.” The Chicago School of Media Theory. The University of Chicago, 2007. Web. Accessed May 22, 2016.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harbinger Book, 1966. Print.

“Sun Dance”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. Accessed May 22, 2016.

Pinterest. “British Judge in Court.” Accessed May 22, 2016.

3 thoughts on “Lesson 1:2; Assignment 1:3; Question #1

  1. natasha heine

    Hi Mia!

    I really like how you compared Chamberlain’s writings on distinguishing “oral” and “written” cultures with Virginia Wolfe’s writing on the distinguishing of men and women’s clothing, a very interesting parallel. I agree that some distinguishing in the case of “oral” and “written” cultures can be beneficial in privileging the histories and stories of cultures that are not usually taught in Western academia. You said that this distinguishing must be done without a hierarchical ordering, but I’m wondering if this can really be done given how entrenched “Us vs. Them” mentality is. Is it possible that “oral” and “written” cultures can be distinguished without verging on the problems that Chamberlain outlines in his chapter? I’m not criticizing what you have said, merely interested in your thoughts!

    1. Mia Calder Post author

      Hi Natasha,
      I see what you mean — the words oral and written when applied to cultures do have inherent negativity, even if negativity isn`t the intention of the speaker. But I was trying to think up other words — performative versus literary, or inclusive versus individual — and those just sound not-quite-right and also a little condescending. I do think it`s important, however, for a distinction to be made, because it`s my belief that if you don`t protect, not necessarily weaker cultural practices but less prevalent, the risk of them being subsumed by a dominant culture is greater. If we lived in a perfect world, and colonialism and cultural genocide hadn`t happened, and oral cultures existed in strength and number equal to written cultures then there wouldn`t be a problem, I don`t think, in not distinguishing between the two. But that`s not the case, and so… I don`t know what the answer is really, and now I`m rambling so I think it`s time for breakfast. Thanks for the question!


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