Orality and Literacy

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Orality and Literacy Leslie Dawes
Commentary #1
While reading chapter three of Orality and Literacy, by Walter J. Ong, I became intrigued by the comparisons he makes and the studies that he cites to support his work and the problems associated with the data collected. Ong in discussing Conservative or Traditionalist uses a quote from (Oppenheim 1964, p.232) “Writing is of course conservative in its own ways. Shortly after it first appeared, it served to freeze legal codes in early Sumeria.” Another quote he uses states, “But by taking conservative functions on itself, the text frees the mind of conservative tasks, that is, of its memory work, and thus enables the mind to turn itself to new speculation.”(Havelock 1963, pp.254-305) This description synthesis the comparisons by saying that text societies can use their minds for all sorts of thinking, rather than be occupied with retaining information that is needed for retrieval. As I was reading that particular section certain bias were coming to mind, such as text societies are more creative and therefore more highly evolved. Ong states that oral cultures have their own kind of originality as a particular narration or story must be delivered in a unique way so that audiences can respond. Goody states,”Yet these new universes and the other changes that show a certain originality come into being in an essentially formulaic and thematic noetic economy.” (1977, p.30) I can see the originality in what is being examined as creative, but the basis of individual oral societies has a very high incident of being in constant change where their law and religious beliefs are concerned. Since there is nothing ever written down traditional beliefs and practises can easily be forgotten through the generations or distorted. Information can be misconstrued or inaccurate. This was the case of much of the history written on scrolls used in the books in the Bible. Many of them were written many years after the actual events. They were then translated many times into other languages. In societies where orality is the only means of history, much can be lost in individual conversation. Written history suffers from bias as well as it depends on who is the writer and what their perspective is.
Ong examines further on in chapter 3 the work by Michael and Sylvia Scribner in Liberia (1973), James Fernandez (1980) when they point out that “syllogism is self- contained.’’ They summarize by saying, “its conclusions are derived from its premises only.” In other studies that tried to compare the characteristics of oral societies to literate societies do so from a certain bias before accurately understanding the dynamics and framework of an oral group of people. It was interesting to think about the illiterate man asked to define in words what a tree was. His reply was why. He goes on to say that, “everyone knows what a tree is, so they don’t need me telling them.” The man is right from his perspective.
Another interesting concept that came out of the work done by Luria is that after all the interviewing in his studies of illiterate and non literate peoples Ong states that the research was not optimal because questioning was not relevant to the individual’s experience. So the issue of bias being present even before any studies were conducted is a given. Ong points out that oral cultures simply do not relate to specific things as do literate people, as he put forth that thought is highly derived by text based thoughts. How is it then that literate society can postulate and form ideas with cultural bias to describe the characteristics of oral societies? Are the studies already biased before they begin? That seems to be a problem discussed in current research essays and theories.
One of the most valued assets in oral cultures is the skill of memorizing. Ong, states that there is a fundamental difference between oral and literate societies when it comes to memorizing. He says that literate societies base their ability to remember most things from text whereas oral cultures achieve the same result through repeating verbatim. Although, interestingly the point is made that there is a huge room for error when reporting the facts whether they are written down or shared verbally. The example discussed in Org chapter of Some Psychodynamics of Orality tells about the text referring to Jesus’ directive that does not appear the same in any two places in exactly the same way in the New Testament. I remember hearing an unknown source quoted that says , “ If you study to remember, you will forget, but, if you study to understand, you will remember. Even with that there is room for error when interpreting.
After searching Cambridge University website for articles and books related to the subject of researching data in oral cultures I noted a new publication set to be released in October this month on interpretations of oral societies and oral literatures in literate societies. This book is basically a compilation of research on the Lo Dagaa peoples in Northern Ghana. The author is Jack Goody who is a social scientist who has cited many of the problems that Ong has brought forth. These problems center around the methodological problems and analysis of material collected and studies about oral traditions. It is interesting to note that that are numerous challenges in this type of research study; orality and literacy, that must be acknowledged to have data and theories be authenticated and recognized.
Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: New York.
Draper, A. Jonathan (2003): Orality, Literacy and Colonialism in Southern Africa. Atlanta, GA: U.S.A. library of congress Cataloguing in Publication Data: Society of Biblical Literature
Goody, Jack (2010) Myth, Ritual and the Oral. New York: Cambridge University Press:
www.cambridge.org 9780521128032

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