Monday, September 8, 2008

Orality and Literacy: Is Isolation Inherent in Both?

A reaction to an article written by Jack Goody and Ian Watt called "The Consequences of Literacy":

There is an interesting parallel I noticed that Goody and Watt bring up between alphabet-based societies and those that rely primarily on oral tradition. The authors mention that in protoliterate (non-literate) societies, one has the choice between submitting to and participating in oral cultural tradition, or thus being confined to solitude. The authors also bring to light that those in literate societies, namely literate specialists, who have a "vista of endless choices and discoveries" available to them find "a source of great stimulation and interest" (47), but that having endless amounts of knowledge can also lead to alienation. It seems, therefore, that participating too much in the system and reaping the full benefits of literacy in a literate society can lead to isolation due to the social interaction-based hardships that come with being a know-it-all, while in a non-literate society full participation is encouraged. This could also be due to the fact that oral tradition is not as detailed as written records, and therefore full participation in a protoliterate society is not nearly as involved as ultimate knowledge in a literate society. But either way, there is an element and/or risk of isolation inherent in each model.

This is referring to isolation in terms of consciously removing oneself from interactions on a day to day scale, not just when one is being actively literate and engaging in the act of reading. Isolation is a choice in the case of avoiding distraction when actively engaging with literate materials.

However, the authors' ideas surrounding the concept that those in a literate society who choose to become fully engulfed in all literate materials, documents and records available to their eyes usually have little interpersonal interactions (or interpersonal skills, for that matter) since the majority of their time is spent engaged in the act of being literate is quite interesting. Those who are more along the lines of a "literate specialist" tend to be "writers and philosophers" (47) who find few they can relate with in the world, usually because their knowledge is so astounding and/or specialized that they find few in the general population who can actually relate to them. Goody and Watt state that it is possible for "even members of the same socio-economic groups of literate specialists [to] hold little intellectual ground in common" (48), thus making conversations either stimulating and full of information or incredibly difficult. This isolation can also come about because a literate specialist could potentially align themselves with a different, higher caliber of person and therefore have a feeling of elitism, a sense of being "holier than thou."

A good example of this is a character named Ignatius J. Reilly from the book A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; he spends every day holed up in his room reading and writing and choosing not to socialize with anyone because (primarily) he thinks he is on a different level of intelligence than the rest of the world. There is also the fact that he is a slob and a gluten with flatulence problems, but that's another story...

Another interesting note: the author of Dunces committed suicide before the book was published, dismayed with the feeling that his day of recognition would never come. This book is a work of comedic and literary genius, and seeing as the author himself could be so closely tied to the character of Ignatius, the point I make that literate specialists (and in this case, eccentrics) feel the sting of isolation rings true within the representative (the fictional character) and the real-life context (the author).

In a way I believe that interaction with traditional print media (newspapers, books, etc.) is inherently isolating. We don't read as a social experience, unless the processing of and interaction with the text is done orally. Remember "popcorn" reading sessions in elementary school? One person would read a paragraph or two aloud for the entire class and then pass the reading/recitation responsibilities along to someone else, thus making the interpretation of the printed word a group effort. This is rare, however, and usually the act of interacting with text is a solitary one.

Again, back to the classroom: once an individual in a "literary specialist" category (I include students of specific disciplines in this) has committed the solitary act of interacting with and interpreting a literate work, their chances to make their experience with the text a social experience are available in a classroom setting. Although the initial act of reading is alienating, the process of then sharing what one has processed in a classroom/academic discussion section becomes social in its very nature. These statements make no judgment for one or the other (protoliterate vs. literate) society being superior. Both are essential in human interaction; just because a strictly oral society is missing the textual component does not mean they are actually missing out on anything.

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