1:3–I didn’t know how culture worked.

Explain why the notion that cultures can be distinguished as either “oral culture” or “written culture” (19) is a mistaken understanding as to how culture works, according to Chamberlin and your reading of Courtney MacNeil’s article “Orality.

Them and Us.  The doodlers versus the babblers.  Civilization and barbarians.  The first part of Edward J. Chamberlin’s If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground discusses why the distinction between an “oral culture” and a “written culture” is a misconception.  In his attempt to bring the reader to this same understanding, he explains that

Human beings are often defined as animals who have language; so it is not surprising that the categories… first take shape along lines of language with the dismissal of a different language as either barbaric or so basic that it could not possibly accommodate civilized thoughts and feelings.  (13)

While sometimes this dismissal of cultures can take a more polite regard, it is no less harmful.  Some classify an oral culture as one whose majors forms of expression are in speech or performance.  This is considered to be more natural and connected with the world than writing and reading, which are “cultivated and complex” (19).  I admit that this was my own understanding before reading Chamberlin’s text; an easy-to-understand borderline of two separate ideas of culture that did not mix.  He points out that some of the most important rituals of the “civilized” or “doodlers” society–such as in baptisms, funerals, weddings or coronation–rely on words or ceremony conducted in a specific, performative manner using language that is archaic/outdated, or even another language altogether.

Perhaps one of the strongest defenses for Chamberlin’s position that there is no distinct line between an oral and a written culture are MacNeil’s points in her article “Orality.”  SJ-cyberspaceThanks to the realm of cyberspace, the supposed line between oral and written culture is even more indistinct.  If an oral culture is defined by its lack of substance and malleability, how do we define such categories as audio-recordings or sound-files which can now saturate the online world in a permanent way?  We cannot only store this form of oral culture, but re-play it in its exactness again and again, just as one could read and reread a written text.  In contrast, if written work is defined by its permanence or ability to endure the ages, how to we categorize the instant message or websites (like Wikipedia) that are left free to editorial change by the masses?

The aspect I find most interesting about the orality/literacy debate is that while many may have a strong association between literacy and civilization, for a long period of time literacy was accessible only for the privileged.  It is not until the invention of the printing press that literacy became more wide-spread and accessible to the masses.  Suddenly, millions of people became readers, and stories became public.  But what were they before?  To share their stories, they would have had to have been both a written and oral culture: one to read the written stories, and another, perhaps illiterate, to listen.  I wonder if, following its creation, the printing press could have been heralded or viewed as the end to orality.  However, it was quickly followed by the invention of the telephone to replace the telegraph, the radio, and the television to replace newspapers.  When you pause, it is easy to see that there is no distinct line, and that traditionally viewed literary and oral cultures dip into each others territory.

Works Cited

Chamberlin, Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. AA. Knopf. Toronto. 2003. Print.

Coffee, Peter.  Image. Diginomica. Salesforce, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 May 2016.

Hansen, Erin.  “Oral Traditions.”  Indigenous Foundations.  University of British Columbia, n.d. Web. 15 May 2016.

MacNeil, Courtney.  “Orality.” The Chicago School of Media Theory. Uchicagoedublogs, 2007. Web. 18 May 2016.

“Rite for the Baptism of One Child.”  Liturgical Texts.  The Catholic Liturgical Library, 1970.  Web.  20, May 2016.


2 thoughts on “1:3–I didn’t know how culture worked.

  1. Gillian,

    I enjoyed your blog post, especially your comments about oral versus written culture. A message that Chamberlin is trying to portray is that just because the story is oral, does not make it untrue. He has several stories that he tells to reinforce this point. A big reason it is necessary for him to do so, is due to the Western view that oral stories are considered folklore, and as such are not verifiable. Since they are not verifiable, they are not true. However, in Aboriginal beliefs, verbal story telling reflects, explains, and helps create the world.

    One thought that I would like to add to this discussion, is the civilized view of written culture. First there are the peer reviewed science articles. In science, data is considered fact if it is written, and there is some proof to back up what is written. It has further weight if it has been peer-reviewed. However there are numerous flaws in the system. One of the biggest is bias. Researchers work on proving something tend to discard what doesn’t support their theories, and instead stand by and support those that do. I have included a link to this article about the flawed process of peer review: http://jrs.sagepub.com/content/99/4/178.full History records are often written, and rewritten, to support specific agendas. In fact Carl R. Trueman wrote the book, “Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History”. History is written according to interpretation, and at times is fluid, because it is dependent on who is doing the writing. These two examples bring into question the Western view that something needs to be written in order to make it true. There is as much support for written culture to be inaccurate, as there is that oral culture is accurate. Therefore the claim that all oral cultural stories are untrue, is as untrue as claiming all written cultural stories are true.


    • Hi Linda,

      Thank you for adding that point. The subject of peer review process is not something I ever would have considered, but seems quite valid. Also, that we write and rewrite history to suite specific purposes is something I wish I had room to discuss in my post, as I feel it is quite important to note. I think that the subject of “truth” vs “untruth” is an important one to discuss in this course, and hope it will come up frequently for discussion as we progress.
      Thank you for your comments and feedback. I also really appreciated that you took the time to add links to your discussion!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *