February 4, 2010 Archives

Assigned Text:

Havelock (19-62)

I didn't assign the introduction, mostly because its purpose is to situate this book in the landscape of research that was current at the time the book first came out, rather than actually promote an argument. 

I do think that what Havelock says on pages 7-8 is worth noting.  In that passage, he explains the reasoning that led him to argue (for the first time in such a convincing way) that what happened when the Greeks shifted from an oral culture to a literate (manuscript) culture was the key to the greatest advances in Western culture. 

While I cannot pretend to understand the details, Havelock argues that a particular quality of the Greek written language made it an extremely efficient and useful tool for recording the richness and detail of spoken language. 

The poets had the important ritualistic job of preserving and passing along Greek culture (telling stories about heroes and gods, illustrating the values that Greeks felt they needed to pass along to the next generation).

In The Republic, Plato famously bans poets from the ideal society, arguing that poets arouse emotions by making up stories about imaginary things, and that these stories distract people from the facts.  Havelock says it's not so much the poems that are bad, but the fact that the bards who compose and/or recite those poems become authorities in the subject, without actually knowing anything about the subject (ship-building, or war) other than how to tell a good story about it. 

Plato wrote (or whose students and followers undertook to write) his teachings, was consciously promoting a writing-based body of knowledge (Plato's own teachings) to replace the traditional oral learning.  Havelock (and others) compared our existing transcribed (written-down) versions of ancient materials of many cultures, and concluded that, while it was impossible that the Greeks were evolutionarily more advanced than peoples of other regions, something about the Greek writing system did a far better job of capturing the fullness of scope and richness of detail that must have been in the original Greek myths. (I'll insert my own observation here... in the stories that are passed down to us from the Bible, we almost never get a detail such as the speaker's tone of voice, or facial expression.)

Rather than imagining that the ancient Greek epics were wholly oral, and then written down for the first time in the form we have them now, Havelock sees evidence that these epics were "the result of some interlock between the oral and the literate" (13), so that the "acoustic flow of language contrived by echo to hold the attention of the ear [oral communication is noted for call-and-response patterns, refrains, rhythms, and stock phrases] has been reshuffled into visual patterns created by the thoughtful attention of the eye."

In short, the rhythms and patterns of oral communication are aids to the memory.  A blues song starts with a line, then repeats that line, then goes on to provide a rhyme for that song.  One of the benefits of this structure is that you can compose the first line on the spot, then while you sing the line over again you can think of a good rhyme, and have it ready by the time the third line of the song comes around.  Then there's a bit of a music break, while you can think up the next line.  (I don't pretend to be any kind of musician, but my daughter enjoys making up songs -- this pattern really does yield better results than, for instance, always having one person make up the first line, and the second person make up the second line.)

A few notes on the chapters.

Assigned Text:

Di Renzo (GriffinGate)

Di Renzo, Anthony. "His Master's Voice: Tiro and the Rise of the Roman Secretarial Class." Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 30.2 (2000) 155-168.

Read the full article via GriffinGate (under "Handouts").
Abstract: The foundation for Rome's imperial bureaucracy was laid during the first century B.C., when functional and administrative writing played an increasingly dominant role in the Late Republic. During the First and Second Triumvirates, Roman society, once primarily oral, relied more and more on documentation to get its official business done. By the reign of Augustus, the orator had ceded power to the secretary, usually a slave trained as a scribe or librarian. This cultural and political transformation can be traced in the career of Marcus Tullius Tiro (94 B.C. to 4 A.D.), Cicero's confidant and amanuensis. A freedman credited with the invention of Latin shorthand (the notae Tironianae), Tiro transcribed and edited Cicero's speeches, composed, collected, and eventually published his voluminous correspondence, and organized and managed his archives and library. As his former master s fortune sank with the dying Republic, Tiro's began to rise. After Cicero's assassination, he became the orator's literary executor and biographer. His talents were always in demand under the new bureaucratic regime, and he prospered by producing popular grammars and secretarial manuals. He died a wealthy centenarian and a full Roman citizen.
The phrase "His Master's Voice" would be well-known to the boomer generation as the slogan for RCA Victor records.  It was part of a long-running advertising campaign that was at the time as iconic as the dancing iPod silhouettes. See ("Nipper Hears 'His Master's Voice'").

As you read this article, note the stakeholders -- who benefits from the new writing technology that Tiro devises? Who stands to lose?  This story takes place long after the Roman Empire was well on the path towards a manuscript culture, but we still see the interplay between Cicero's reputation as an orator, and his servant's skill as a writer (which, historians tell us, was largely responsible for Cicero's reputation, just as Socrates' reputation largely comes to us thanks to the fact that his student Plato used Socrates as a character in his written dialogs.)

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