Monday, May 12, 2008

Orality and Literacy II: Clarifying the Critique of Dunn

One of the benefits of writing a blog is that one is able to clarify earlier posts in the light of listening to the way that they have been read. Before beginning my series on Orality and Literacy, I was aware of the dangers of being misread, and in my first post I attempted to lay down a few markers, in particular aiming to make clear that I was not issuing any kind of challenge to the essential contrast between our literate culture and the oral culture of antiquity. It is, of course, in the nature of such posts that readers are tempted to skip over the position markers and infer a perspective more radical than the one the author actually holds. It is also important to bear in mind the sketch-like nature of blog posts, what I called "snapshots" of my thinking at a given moment.

There is actually little I disagree with in April DeConick's post on The Forbidden Gospels Blog, What is Orality? and, as always, I am grateful to April for taking the time to write with her characteristic fervour. As I wrote in comments over on her blog, though, the point of my post was to talk about the way in which we are inclined to caricature our own literate culture, to exaggerate the contrasts for rhetorical effect. I am in part being playful here, looking at how Dunn's conceptualization of our culture is in fact falling short -- I have not in this initial post even begun to deal with the ancient world. (April does not mention Dunn in her response but instead implies that my comments were targeted more broadly as an attempt to challenge contemporary work on orality in the ancient world.) It may take a few more posts in my series before my thinking on this is as clearly articulated as I would like, but let me mention here one element that I hope to return to, that we need to take seriously "secondary orality" in our culture (the term is, of course, Walter Ong's; cf. Loren Rosson's anticipation of the topic on The Busybody).

Where Dunn uses the interesting analogy of the computer's "default setting", he gives examples from word-processing, an important part of that heavily literate academic sub-culture that many of us live and breathe. But the computer could also provide a means of illustrating elements of secondary orality. The computer is now a telephone, a radio, a television and more. One of the most exciting challenges to us as early twenty-first scholars of antiquity is the exploration of comparisons and contrasts with the primary orality of the period we are studying.


David Creech said...

Prof. Goodacre,
Thanks for your posts on this topic. I have been reading your blog for a while (I first became a fan after reading your Case Against Q) and I am excited to read your thoughts on orality. Already your point about the caricature that we have created about our own culture has given me reason for pause in my own thinking on the subject. Thanks for bringing your ideas to the blogosphere (even if we don't always watch for the signposts and nuances!).

Geoff Hudson said...

How the ancients would have loved our word processors and the web! But fortunately for us they did not have them, that is electronic ones, so they couldn't so easily completely cover all their tracks by re-writing their manuscripts. In fact, re-writing would have involved production teams of scribes increasing the chances of oral influences in the process. But the ancients had one advantage that we don't. They could easily destroy back issues that they didn't wish to be spread around, such as the source of the gospel of Mark.

Geoff Hudson said...

As far as I know, April Deconick has not expressed a view that the remembrance of Judas in the Gospel of Judas has anything to do with orality. Yet to me Judas is the big bad wolf branded by earlier authors, whose folklore was then communicated through time to appear in a text such as The Gospel of Judas as a central figure. Some of that communication could have been through texts, but Judas as a central character in an anti-priest setting, and in a setting that echoed the sanctuary, as in the Gospel of Judas, must surely have come through secondary oral tradition.

Geoff Hudson said...

On second thoughts, the remembrance of Judas as a central character in anti-priest and sanctuary-like settings was more likely through primary orality. In other words they were memeories of Judas that the 'orthodox' texts did not record.