As you know, the two main divisions of scholarly labor are nailing jelly to a wall and herding cats. I will be doing both today. The jelly I am taking in hand is the concept of “oral literature,” and the pack of mutually antagonistic cats includes Julius Caesar, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder, Michael Silverstein’s teacher Roman Jakobson, and many less famous thinkers, mainly from the last two centuries.
I often think how much easier it would be to take a nicely defined, solid, flattish object and nail it to a freshly sanded wall. Such enterprises do exist. And how much friendlier it would be to ask a species endowed with a strong instinct for cooperation to help me by fetching the hammer or holding the nail in place. But the fascination of what’s difficult, as Yeats named it, has kept me thinking about oral literature for more years than I feel comfortable sharing with you today. What follows is an interim report on the project of making sense of the jelly and the cats.
It’s too easy to say that “oral literature” is a self-contradictory phrase—that “literature” implies letters, and “oral” implies the lack of letters. What’s fascinating and difficult about the subject is the way the songs and sagas of people who are not in the habit of writing surface in literate culture, first as examples of technological backwardness, then as transcribed samples of text, eventually as sounds captured by a recording machine. They appear often indirectly, not in their own right, but as wards of their “next friends,” as they say in family court, the scribes and scholars who are capable of writing for them and about them and thus preserve an image of otherwise evanescent creativity. And this position, of being spoken for or rather written for by people who are not identical to them in either status or preoccupation, leads to a variety of knotty intellectual problems that we who have mainly a written record to go on must find ways of compensating for or reverse-engineering against. What distortions are introduced in an oral text when it is reduced to writing? What unconscious expectations about the character and purpose of text frame an utterance when it comes into writing from the space outside literacy?
Setting up to do something with the concept of “oral literature,” the first question is of course, “what is it?” Some of the writers on the subject would think that a stupid question, because the answer is so obvious: oral literature is composition of song, lyric or epic by people using only their voices to articulate and transmit their thoughts. An oral poet is a poet minus writing. This line of thought tends to an ostensive definition: here’s an example, from the Faroe Islands; and here’s an example, from Madagascar; and here’s an example, from the Sahara; and here’s an example, from Mongolia. But this is not very ambitious theoretically. “Cowboy poetry is poetry written by cowboys” is logically unassailable, but doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, and may in fact miss the point if we were to discover that cowboy poetry is largely composed in air-conditioned offices in Nashville, Tennessee and only sung out on the range; not to take anything away from Tex Ritter et confrères, but if we discovered that this was the actual state of affairs we would not then declare that there is absolutely nothing to say about cowboy poetry, case closed.
We get into a more ambitious zone when we see people trying to characterize oral poetry, which typically means defining it in its difference from written poetry. From this we might go to a theory of the different formal features of the two kinds of poetry, a theory that would put up a claim for the universal usefulness of the category “oral poetry” covering the examples from Greenland to Fiji, and perhaps even aspire to tell us something about the evolution of the human mind under different technological conditions. But here I find the record, though copious, somewhat disappointing. There are, of course, plenty of theories about writing and what it does to human societies, not just in their communications but in their memories, their political orders, their ways of imagining the relations of body and soul, and so on. For a time in the 1960s, under the joint pressure of Marshall MacLuhan, Jack Goody, Walter Ong and Eric Havelock, it seemed to be an obligatory theme, developing into such flora as the study of popular culture and the ethnography of performance. It has since retreated into the undercroft of media theory, whence I think it should be excavated, not to revive it in its 1960s form, but to give it a good hard look and ask questions about what assumptions it makes about the unaccommodated human, the person without writing or, we too easily suppose, other technologies of memory and transmission. The time is ripe for this, I think, because recent work in the history of technology and in the relations of mind and body permit us to see the human being differently from our historical forebears, and to propose that the human has always been a technologically augmented being and is always leaving traces out in the world, always reading the signs of the past, never unformatted. And in this enterprise the notion of oral literature, in all its jelly-like amorphousness, can turn out to be a convenient solvent for old encrusted ideas.
But here I am selling an article I don’t exactly have ready in prototype, so let me back up and offer a question subsidiary to this revision of the place of the oral in human technological history. We should first hear the question “what is oral literature?” as suggesting rather “when and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse?”
(This was the beginning of a talk at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago on February 12, 2014, on “The Curious History of Oral Literature.” Michael Silverstein kindly provided the introduction. The second half will follow in another post.)