Wednesday, February 02, 2005

John Waide and I talked a bit about Encoded Archival Description (EAD), which is a XML-based encoding scheme for archival finding aids. As I've mentioned before, the plan is to make the Ong collections' finding our first guide marked up as such. My hope is to create tags to identify particular items such as a lecture typescript to differentiate them from publication typescripts and so that one could run an automated search the guide for lectures or note cards or letters.

From "Oral Culture and the Literate Mind." Minority Language and Literature. Ed. Dexter Fisher. NY: MLA, 1977. 134-149:

"Because oral cultures and literate cultures are so different, the problem of the literate's approach to oral cultures plagues us still, and it plagues no one more than teachers, who are very likely to approach an oral culture in the wrong way. When oral cultures were first approached by literates, they were actually not recognized as oral cultures; and then, after they were recognized as oral cultures, they were interpreted as retrograde variants of literate cultures" (136).

A useful quote, I think, as Ong has been accused of doing just this by people who haven't read him closely enough.

"Primary orality is the orality of cultures that know absolutely no writing at all; secondary orality is the orality of cultures that know writing, and particularly the orality that we have today in our electronic world (where we cultivate sound and orality very differently, with the help of writing)" (141).

All too often, people who misread Ong don't understand the difference between primary orality, residual orality, and secondary orality, and they especially don't realize that Ong's description of the psychodynamics of orality only holds true for people from primary oral cultures. The oft cited work done by Heath, especially those that refer to Heath through Beth Daniell's work -- cited or not -- doesn't work as a critique of Ong because any person who comes from a culture that knows about writing doesn't live in a culture of primary orality. The following serves to emphasize this point:

"The evolution from orality to writing and print took about 6,000 years in the West; the first writing in all the world was only invented about 3,500 B.C., so almost all of our ancestors were illiterate. This 6,000-year evolution was largely unconscious; nobody knew what was happening, and we ourselves discovered oral cultures as such only a few decades ago. But in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, the evolution is taking place often in one or two generations and in full consciousness. You meet people in African universities who were born in a village in an almost totally oral culture but who are now superlatively literate, delivering to learned international societies carefully composed written papers on orality. Such persons have a foot in both worlds" (141).

And, finally, we again find Ong stressing the need to treat oral culture on its own terms, a long-held theme which often gets misread as valorizing orality over literacy:

"We should be chary of speaking unreflectively of oral cultures as preliterate. Oral peoples don't know they're preliterate. The earlier ones certainly didn't. What are we illiterate folk today? Pre-what? The terms 'oral literature' and 'preliterate' subtly downgrade the oral, even in mouths of those who are consciously trying to upgrade it. Let us speak (and write) simply of oral (or primary oral) culture and of oral (or primary oral) performance. By meticulousness in terminology, we can help ourselves and others to recognize the characteristics of oral culture and to search out the reasons for them. It will increase respect for the primary oral world, too, if we recognize that all literate cultures have in them a greater or lesser mix of residual primary orality" (146-147).


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