04 Feb 2010 [ Prev | Next ]

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.

In Chapter 2, Havelock notes that Greek culture truly flowered when its muse (the creative force that drove both literature and philosophy to unheard-of heights, creating echoes in Western Civilization that still reverberate) began inspiring writers to the same greatness that earlier cultures had inspired speakers.   Chapter 3 jumps ahead to the mid 20th century, and briefly summarizes a handful of influential works that all appeared in the 1960s, which variously pursue the question, what happens to language, and the society, and the brains that use it, when language makes the transition from orality to litearcy?

Chapter 4 uses radio as a case study for how mid-20th century was becoming more oral.  How can we usefully extend his arguments to examine our 21st century culture?  Is an iPod playlist an oral interface, or a textual one? Is text messaging more oral or more textual?  What elements of oral culture does a word-processor encourage, and what elements of oral composition does it preclude?

Chapter 5 usefully asks us whether it is meaningful, or possible, to think of language objectively, since we must use language to think about language.  Page 39-40 offers an interesting discussion of how memory helps us recall details. 

"Primary orality" (mentioned on 45) refers to texts that are composed for and by pre-literate societies.  Young children learning "Miss Mary Mack" or "Eeeney meeney miney moe" are engaging in primary orality.  On the other hand, a poetry slam -- where a performer recites a poem that he or she first encountered as a written document -- is participating in secondary orality, where the oral performance stands for -- and is judged by its fidelity to -- the written text.  In Ch 6, Havelock observes the challenges that come from trying to recapture primary orality (the true significance, structure, and content of oral texts) from our position in a post-oral society, where we no longer have access to the oral tradition.  (A related issue -- we have no idea what ancient Greek music sounded like, and no way to reconstruct it.)  In general, the written word permitted linear thinking across a sustained span of time, and texts that stayed constant on subsequent readings.

Let's imagine an oral storyteller composes a hymn of praise to a newly-appointed leader who eventually turns out to be a disappointment.  That storyteller could tell a story every day for a year, gradually recording a shift in the public opinion of this figure, but only the most perceptive listener would notice the gradual change.  But if you write praise down, then look at it a year later, the change of opinion is marked and sudden, and leads you to start piecing together reasons for the change.  The scientific method arises from harsh contrasts between predicted behavior and observed results, and writing is better at preserving these contrasts.

Chapter 7 presents a discussion of written Greek as an efficient means for storing spoken language, in part because the Greeks were the first to separate vowel and consonant sounds into separate symbols.  (The Hebrews had no vowels; the Egyptians used pictograms; Chinese have separate symbols for combinations we would render as "ka" and "ko" and "ki".)  (Note this innovation is very similar to the innovation of movable type, and the later innovation of digital text -- continuing a process of breaking up what used to be a linear process into fundamental components that could be rearranged in unexpected and unpredictable ways.)



Step right up people! Now you can feed both your ears and your eyes at the same time!!

I'm not talking about firing neurons, but how do we think?http://blogs.setonhill.edu/EricaGearhart/2010/02/more_simply_did_human_being.html

Could we really survive without technology? Or has it made us too lazy to care??

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