It’s Still Orality to Me – or – But, We Still Teach Orally

September 13th, 2007

In Chapter Two, “The Theory of Transformative Technologies,” in Michael Heim’s Electric Language, he discusses Walter Ong and Eric Havelock and their (separate) studies of orality. The background for my next point is essentially his discussion of the reason for epic poems and sagas of oral cultures being not for poetic purposes as we generally think them to be. That is, they were not for any aesthetic purposes, but rather, they were tales constructed in very structured, rhythmic style for the purpose of memory. Because oral (preliterate) cultures preceded writing and, of course print, speakers came up with various methods, such as these to enhance both understanding and retention of anything that was to be remembered. To help one remember something that was taught, he or she (mostly “he” in ancient Greece) repeated the speech, sometimes many times.

I agree with this point and will soon expand on it, bringing in other examples, such as the passing on of the Koran for many years before it was finally written. However, it was a different point of Heim’s that sparked today’s entry. In discussing the transformation of oral to written culture (and Ong’s theory of the chirographic culture), Heim writes:

Memory, the storehouse of knowledge, no longer depends on repeated vocal performances. Manual writing preserves knowledge beyond ephemeral speech and beyond the lapse in memory. In chirographic cultures, the performance of language by a speaker is no longer essential. (Heim pg. 62).

In some ways, this citation refers to instruction, and the relationship of teacher to learner, not just speaker to listener, in that in oral culture, one reason to repeat a speech so many times was to pass it on and, as Heim notes, writing it it down preserves knowledge in tht it can be more easily and accurately (presumably) passed on. However, I immediately thought that his statement is not wholly true – that the speaker is no longer essential if all text can be put into a book. What of the classroom? Read the rest of this entry »