Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Oral Fixation

Guest blogger cntodd has a post up over at Majikthise in which he discusses attitudes towards what he refers to as "truth-telling" and how they vary according to medium. He asks us to consider these examples:

  • In oral cultures, sayings and proverbs are themselves a medium for truth-telling – bits of wisdom passed down from the elders. Such bits of wisdom both guide daily life and adjudicate civil disputes.
  • In the American legal system, oral truth gets displaced by written truth – briefs, citations, law books, etc. – but in the courtroom speech itself gets privileged over print in that testimony is the medium for truth-telling. The short proverbs and sayings of an oral culture would not be accepted as a valid form of testimony or evidence.
  • In academic writing, the printed word is privileged over the spoken. Postman tells of a story in which a doctoral candidate was rebuked by his dissertation committee because of a citation that read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981.” The committee said, you are not a journalist, you are supposed to be a scholar. The academic practice of truth-telling takes the medium of print to be essential.
There are a few problems here, starting with the (mis)characterization of oral traditions. In the oral tradition with which I'm most familiar, speech is broken down into three major categories: plain talk, prayer, and narratives. Cntodd is referring to items within the narrative category, but narratives are further broken down into six minor categories: myths, histories, sagas, gossip, coyote stories, and sexual stories. The two which really concern us at this time are myths and histories.

Myths concern the creation, how the world and the things in it emerged and achieved their present form. These stories take place "in the beginning," are only told by holy men and women, and their primary function is to instruct, although they may also provide some entertainment. Histories take place in the "long ago" time frame, when we were emerging as people and developing our ways and customs. They also instruct and entertain, but their primary purpose is social criticism, they demonstrate the consequences of improper behavior.

What cntodd calls "sayings and proverbs" probably refer back to myths and histories. It's very important to recognize that there are internal distinctions made between what is myth and what is history; histories are items which are known to be facts, even though they have not taken place within the memory of the speaker. Histories represent a shared body of knowledge which tends to be learned by rote and spoken in public, where any deviations from what is known may be identified and corrected. It is important that these messages survive unchanged, because they tend to represent very real survival lessons which are being preserved precisely because they did play a critical role in our previous survival. As a side note I'd like to add that in a pre-literate culture there's nothing worse than being labeled a liar, not even being called a Republican.

I'm going into long, boring detail because it's important to realize that recognition of speech events frequently involves an implicit understanding which doesn't lend itself readily to outside observation, and it's easy to miss these distinctions. Beyond that, cntodd has fallen into a bit of a trap in failing to recognize how even modern Americans distinguish between different types of speech events; there is a world of difference between reciting proverbs and giving sworn testimony. Or lecturing, sermonizing, telling bedtime stories, or delivering stand up.

In other media the rules and categories are also traditionally well defined; in a bookstore or library we have these divisions between fiction, non-fiction, biography, religion, reference, and so on. On television we recognize rather implicitly the differences between Tom Brokaw, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dr. Phil. Where we get into trouble is when one category gets all dressed up as another and goes out on the town, as we've seen in the Gannon controversy and the fake news segments the administration has been pimping. Trouble arises from violation of the rules which have been established regarding how we identify different types of speech. In the case of the tv ads, when an advertisement is constructed in a manner which is consistent with another type of speech (news) so as to possibly be misleading, an explicit statement is expected to counter the implicit assumptions.

Man, I can ramble. Anyway, I don't really think our problem is that too much weight is given to certain types of media, or that certain media are favored for certain types of communication, what I get from cntodd's post is that there is a lot of confusion over the rules governing speech acts, specifically in regards to what constitutes journalism, and how we can regain an implicit recognition of journalism vs. bullshit. Thanks for plodding through.