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Oral Culture in Pre- and Post-Literate Societies


Oral Culture in Pre- and Post-Literate Societies Ben LeMaster LIS 60001 Question: Writing doesn t exist. How are you supposed to pass important information on to ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Oral Culture in Pre- and Post-Literate Societies

Oral Culture in Pre- and Post-Literate Societies
  • Ben LeMaster
  • LIS 60001

Question Writing doesnt exist. How are you
supposed to pass important information on to
others? Think about it
  • Answer You package it in a memorable form, so
    not only can you pass it on to posterity, but so
    can the entire community.

In pre-literate cultures, this memorable form is
called Oral Narrative
  • Oral Narrative is poetry performed in
    accompaniment with music and subject to strict
    metrical conditions.
  • These conditions allow poets to develop and
    memorize versatile phrases that, when repeated
    fill beats in a line.
  • By filling out the line in this fashion, the poet
    gives themselves time to improvise the details of
    their story.

  • Over centuries, these phrases change, and an
    entire system of phrase repetition develops.
  • The phrases organize concepts within the
    narrative, as well as
  • filling empty beats.
  • Which allowed poets like Homer to improvise
    enormous narratives in the midst of performance.

Oral Culture is fluid and Participatory
  • After studying Homer, Milman Parry studied
    Eastern European oral poets in their own element.
  • He learned that the culture was highly
    participatory, that poets borrowed from one
    another and that the idea of individual
    authorship so common to us had no currency in
    oral culture.

What happens when people start writing?
  • Bookmaking is slow and expensive.
  • Only the social elite can afford to read books.
  • So, only the social elite read (and play these
    strange games).
  • In the meantime, common people keep oral
    tradition alive.

  • In the schools where reading and writing are
    taught, rhetoric (itself an aspect of oral
    tradition) continues to command respect.
  • Even though writing is taught, speaking and
    hearing are prized.
  • To this day, PhD candidates defend their
    dissertation orally.

Gutenbergs Printing Press Changes Everything

Books, which had been slow, difficult and
expensive to make


Were now replaced by books, which were relatively
easy and inexpensive to produce
Marshall McLuhan Argues That
  • Technology externalizes the abilities of the
    human body the wheel externalized the work of
    our legs while language externalizes, transmits
    and stores internal information.
  • If a technology stresses the use of one of our
    senses over the others, the ratio of use among
    all of our senses is altered.

  • This reduction of all experience
  • to the scale of one sense is the effect of
    typography on the arts and sciences as well as
    human sensibility.-Marshall McLuhan

Only a fraction of the history of literacy has
been typographic
  • The habit of a fixed position is natural to the
    reader of typography.
  • Typography is a consistent series of static shots
    or fixed points of view.
  • A fixed point of view becomes possible with

Which leads to the condition of linear space
Oral cultures perceive a curved acoustic space,
reflecting the contours of sound
Acoustic space is prevalent in medieval art
  • Medieval culture was primarily oral. Writing was
    seen as training for rhetoric.
  • Oral cultures perceive a unified visual field of
    spatiality, rather than a focused point of view.
  • In this picture, notice how the separate elements
    work together as a whole image.

The Primacy of Sound
  • Walter Ong studied the unique qualities sound
    imparted upon consciousness in oral cultures.
  • No other sense is as strictly bound up with time
    as sound it exists only as it is leaving
    existence, indicating that something in the
    present moment is occurring. The Hebrew word
    dabar means both word and event.
    Considering that sound indicates action is afoot,
    this is rather apt.
  • Sound is force. When we speak, we can feel the
    muscles inside our throats expelling the sound.

Sound reveals interiors because its nature is
determined by interior relationships
  • . If we rap against a wall we can hear the
    reverberation. Musical instruments sound because
    they are hollow.
  • . In this way, sound reveals information about
    the structure of objects.
  • Sound is uniquely suited among the senses to
    transmit thought.

Peter Ramus
  • Peter Ramus was a major educational reformer
    during the renaissance. His idea that the
    audience (the classroom of students) was an
    adversary has had major impact on educational
    systems in the following centuries.
  • Under the oral medieval scholastic system of
    education, students were expected to participate
    and contribute to discussion. Under Ramus, any
    participatory behavior was eliminated.
    Essentially, he classifies the classroom as a
    group mules that need to broken in.

The Electric Age
  • With the arrival of electricity came immediate
    oral communication between two or more people at
    a time.
  • Not just the telephone, but radio and television
    signaled the beginning of a new shift in media,
    and consequently perception and consciousness.

Sound and Vision
  • Radio brought the human voice into mass media,
    while television and film fused sound and vision.
  • Although reading books seems to be in decline,
    the creation of television and film was a natural
    outgrowth of the visual bias engendered by print

John Miles Foley
  • John Miles Foley studied oral poets in Serbia,
    carrying on the work of Milman Parry (who
    originally determined the nature of oral poetry).
  • Considered the foremost authority in the world on
    comparative oral traditions, he has recently
    founded The Pathways Project.

The Pathways Project
  • http//pathwaysproject.org/pathways/show/HomePage
  • The Pathways Project is designed to chart and
    study similarities between oral and internet
  • Like oral tradition, the web is a participatory
    medium. Various media can be cut up, remixed and
    made to say entirely different things than they
    previously did.
  • The Pathways Project gives credit to the printed
    word, but integrates its character into those of
    oral tradition and web culture.

  • The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord
  • The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan
  • Presence of the Word by Walter J. Ong
  • Walter Ongs Contributions to Cultural Studies by
    Thomas J. Farrell
  • All the other stuff by Ben LeMaster
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