Sunday, January 27, 2008

Print and Oral Tradition

Intellectual Production Task:

In our “Day 3” class we spent a good deal of time discussing the two articles for this week. ( Havelock and Illich/Sanders) Both authors contrast the role of print in a literate society with the role of oral expression in a pre-literate culture. In his article “The Instruction of Preliterate Cultures” (taken from Language, Authority and Criticism) Havelock speaks about the power of the printed text. There is a sense that the written word exercises a form of tyranny; it becomes “a court of appeal” and “a source of reference”. (p.224 - see snippet above, right) My reactions are twofold: a) in what ways do word choice affect our way of understanding the world (This may not be a function of print vs. the spoken word, but rather a function of culture and language, and how both represent reality.) and b) given our new digital environment, is the printed word now as “permanent” as Havelock implies?

I’d like to begin with the first point: how does word choice dictate reality? How does our vocabulary, the particular words we use, shape our perception of the world? It is true that the rules of syntax constrain how we understand things. The placement and choice of words or the grammar of a language may even prevent us from thinking about certain ideas. Ken raised this point when he gave the example of the Navaho language that does not use time markers. Perhaps this language is the best way to express concepts in quantum physics in a way that English cannot. Ken also gave an example of how we use certain spatial modifiers (ie “ahead” and “behind”) to refer to future and past. What if we were to use “above” and “below” to refer to these? Or as this article references, flipping the past and future the other way. How would this change the way we think about and value the past? (To use another example, the Burmese have no past tense, and use the present tense to talk about long ago events. How does this change their sense of time and history?)

While Havelock maintains that syntax and grammar in printed language freezes history and fixes our understanding to the page, I think that this is a function of languages in general, not simply a result of writing things down. Havelock’s distinction between oral and print language seems somewhat artificial. There is also a sense in Havelock’s article that oral traditions are somehow to be valued more highly than printed text. While oral traditions may allow for a dynamic refashioning of story and history, that may not be desirable in the long run; there are downsides. When we rely solely on memories, the death of an elder is as catastrophic to culture as the burning down of the library at Alexandria.

What about the permanence of print? Havelock seemed to be saying that once a version of events was committed to print, it was fixed forever. In Havelock’s time, once the printed word was produced, it was not easily subject to change. However, in the new digital word, publishing happens “in wax”, not “in stone”. We can make changes at the last minute, or even AFTER the last minute. Blogger, WordPress, Lulu on-line printing, on-demand printing: each of these media forms allows for a “final” version to be edited and re-edited. In a very real way, Wikipedia is the poster child for this new way of publishing. (Textbooks may be a new frontier: read this post on my blog.)


As an aside, the Havelock article and my subsequent ruminations, reminded me of a book I read recently about disappearing languages. The book is called "Spoken Here" ; the link will let you view the first few pages on the Amazon site. Very interesting read! Also, I stumbled across this blog post on the same topic.

1 comment:

Frank Zander said...

Hi Gordon,
I have this niggling seed of thought that keeps troubling me. As we move towards an online digital world, few seem to be worried about the delicate and impermanent (transient and fluid) nature of the web. Although web sites like take intermittent snapshots of the web history, there seems to be a general degradation of content over time. By degradation, I mean the loss of data. The number of web sites that go offline or have the site data corrupted is staggering. Dead URLs and broken hyperlinks are becoming more the norm.

Hmmm…. I wonder if was created specifically to address a way of mapping articles without having to rely on short-lived URLs?