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or coronation–rely on words or ceremony conducted in a specific, performative manner using language that is archaic/outdated, or even another language altogether.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.” Thanks 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.
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.