Calling All Bards

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.)

5 thoughts on “Calling All Bards

  1. The short answer, though not the best and incomplete, is “for any language, at the point at which notating (in the form of ‘writing in L’) becomes possible,” perhaps?

  2. The short answer, though not the best and incomplete, is “for any language L, at the point at which notating (in the form of ‘writing in L’) becomes possible,” perhaps?

    The lame answer is “one couldn’t possibly say!”

    Obliquely, an aslant answer might hint thusly:

    When engaged in affixing jelly to a wall these approaches may be helpful –

    Avoid the use of nails as a general rule.

    Tilt the room, thus treating the wall as a floor, or position a sufficient mass at a sufficient distance perpendicular to the wall to achieve pretty much the same effect, and proceed thencefrom forward.

    Cool the jelly to decrease its ability to deform. (Sometimes nails can be used here, though the temperature must be kept low in most cases.).

    Add more solvent, then paint the resultant liquid on the wall.

    Separate the two components of the gel and affix separately to the wall along with instructions for their recombination (at least two additional elements are required here, one to contain the fluid component of the gel, and an agent to do the recombining, though nails can be of real use here.)

    More straightforwardly, you switch from ‘literature’ to ‘poetry’ a few times: why? Are the two terms usefully substitutable in this context (sic)? Could there be an “oral prose”?

    Accepting that non-fiction is not necessarily factual, though it can be, is there an analogy in oral literature to the distinction between fiction and non-fiction?

    Does the distinction between fiction and non-fiction usefully analogize with the distinction(s) between different types of poetry (e.g. lyric and narrative)? Narrative poetry can be fictional and could be factual, obviously, but can lyric poetry be fictional? And can lyric poetry be factual?

    Assuming that a dialogue between a storekeeper and a customer does not fall under the rubric of “oral literature,” at the present time, are there circumstances in which it could be reclassified and, if so, what are they? At what point in the progress of these circumstances – if they exist – would the conversation be transformed into ‘drama’?

    If a person listens to a sermon, through which a previously written text is conveyed via the medium of sound to an attentive congregation, and then that person rushes home and tells her family what the preacher had said, would this be an example of oral literature ‘happening’? If one of the family then related what had issued from the lectern, would that be oral literature? Repeat ad nauseam both phenomenon and question: what happens?

    (Repetition sounds very important here. Here, in answering this question, transmission by repeating is important.

    Repetition refines, fractionates, perhaps, sorts into sets. As we are speaking of the gelatinous, it seems apposite to suggest that repetition might form part of a hypothetical ‘communicative refinery.’ Might oral literature be a result of filtration and refractory processes, which remove the unnecessary and preserve the essence, however intrinsically volatile?

    Anything that is included in the set “oral literature” must cease to be an element of the set when there is no one alive who remembers it so it may no longer be repeated. Unless it has been notated or recorded and the notation is decoded, the device required to play the recording survives, can be redesigned using information present in the recording itself, or preserved elsewhere, then the lost piece of oralit (sic) cannot re-enter the set from which it has been subtracted. (The same ‘falling out of the set’ would happen were there to be no one alive to pass it on to, though here the net would have to be cast widely indeed, certainly wide enough to allow the proposition that “no one was alive” to become, effectively, universal. Though this is non-trivial it may, I think, be ignored. This conveniently steers away from the question of the status of a lost-yet-notated object of oral literature during the period between its “death by silence” and its resurrection by reverse transcription, a term I deliberately lift from the lexicon of microbiology.) The point is that falling out of the set is possible, as is re-inclusion in it.

    It might be useful to note which cultural products can NOT be oral literature? Or what can NOT be literature at all?

    You ask a very important question, on which these are just thoughts, and these just for starters, though I hope something useful can be found herein.

  3. I’ll make the grandiose hypothesis that there can be no fundamental difference between “literature” or “written down literature” and “oral literature.” Writing is a technology, and no technology is neutral, but the switch from oral to written didn’t change the fundamentals of literature, any more than the switch from the technologies of manuscript to print or print to digital changed literature’s fundamentals (that is, insofar as anything such as literature has any fundamentals, fundaments, or funding left!).

    The only reason we find “oral literature” to seem like a self-contradictory phrase is, I hypothesize, because the term “literature” came into existence as we know it in literate societies. That enabled beliefs in certain features such as stability and identity, both of text itself and of textual meaning, which might appear more durable in textual transmission than in oral transmission. But considering things like scribal errors, editorial or political fiat, censorship, and translation, especially from the p.o.v. of post-structuralist insights that have deconstructed, problematized, and undermined concepts like “original” or “stable,” it’s pretty easy to see that textual transmission of literature and its meaning has never been very stable, either. I’m sure I’m not saying anything very different here from what Derrida says about Levi-Strauss, btw.

    Basically, then, the answer to “when and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse?” is, I hypothesize, whenever literate societies pushed up against the boundaries of their own knowledge, and wanted to find ways both to link and differentiate their literature from their “literature proper.” Their “origins,” which they were “transmitting.” If “written literature” requires a belief in stability and originality, it needs to invent a stable origin to originate from, even if what it invents about the origin is that it is unstable.

    That’s my hypothesis, which I had transcribed via voice-recognition software.


  4. I’m sure I didn’t mean “wanted to find ways both to link and differentiate their literature from their ‘literature proper.’” No real idea what I did mean, though. Maybe “link and differentiate their precursors’ oral literature to their ‘literature proper'”? See what I mean about textual instability!


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