Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nothing is Sound

I start this post with word play (again!). Why? To me, it's a way around arrogance, and boredom, I suppose. Not to allow play in words is what, for some, is the purpose of the dictionary. To name precisely, for some, is the real value of science and logic and philosophy. So there's this authority thing in locking down a single meaning to a single word (so there's no wiggle room, and not much fun).

And this authority thing shows up in many who want to name "men" as over "women." The whole issue becomes central in translation debates. For example, people translating and theorizing translation of the Bible into English often try to presuppose a male dominance in the "authoritative" writings and the "original" languages. Fortunately, this doesn't go unnoticed. I'm glad Suzanne McCarthy challenges the notion of "an unbroken line of uniquely 'male authority' in the Bible narratives," especially as this notion gets cloaked in English translation of the Hellene and Hebrew words.

In a more recent post, McCarthy also raises the issue of "The Spoken Word." Orality is associated, in reading, with a thing children do. Although McCarthy doesn't tie the orality-literacy question to male dominance, I'd like us to play with this. Plato ostensibly (ironically) wrote against writing; but, as Eric A. Havelock shows, Plato saw dangers in the orality of the Greek poets. Ever since, so it seems, peoples have seen the originality of orality but the preferred "soundness" of literacy. Now, you should see (and if you're reading aloud, you should hear) how I'm playing. We want this notion of text as dominant, as (more) stable, as better and more meaningfully locked down. It's more "sound."

I believe textual and male dominance go hand in hand. But I'm not going to "say" much more on that here. Let this suffice for now. Richard Leo Enos has a wonderful article "The Archaeology of Women in Rhetoric," in which he sees, in the British Museum, artifacts of literate women. (Patricia A. Bizzell has a great follow-up article on "difference" entitled, "Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric"). What I think is important to notice is how early, how primary, how powerful, literacy and women are. Orality and men do not necessarily dominate.

Take a "look" at this "Woman writing on a folding tablet Cyprus, 4th century BCE." And read silently or aloud in the Illiad a similar reference to something "written" long before Homer:

ILLIAD.6.169 γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ θυμοφθόρα πολλά,
ILLIAD.6.169 which he inscribed in a folding tablet, enough to destroy life,

and just to continue with the word play, I must confess how I love but didn't coin "Nothing is Sound." That's the wonderful written title of an "album" by Switchfoot, who are wonderful to hear.(Get this: some Switchfoot listeners say this one has a "dark" sound. And we might agree: beauty is in the "ear" of the beholder.)


Suzanne McCarthy said...


Here are a few of my thoughts on textual and male dominance. Yes, whatever is authoritative tends to be associated with the male. However, this varies from culture to culture and depends on the situation.

For example, in China the Nushu writing system, basically a simple syllabary, is a female literacy. However, the Vai writing system in Liberia is a very similar writing system technically but it is restricted to a male literacy. Some will say that the syllabary is more female in some intrinsic way, but, of course, not, it depends entirely on the context.

I would think that there are situations today where speaking, addressing a crowd orally, is male dominated, but writing is a female domain.

However, that does not change the historic tendency for textuality to be male dominated. It is important to be careful and realize that this is just the way it happened, there is nothing intrinsic in textuality that associates it with the male.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Suzanne, for your examples here in the comment and in the post referenced above. You show that male is not inherently dominant over female, and that women are equally and naturally adept at communication, whether oral or written.

Then, there’s the question of origin and originality. You suggest the biblical account does not give “adam” or “earth-ling” a male dominance, right? Is there any reason, from the Hebrew scripture (or from a "historic tendency" in its translation or its rhetoric), to think that orality precedes literacy, and therefore that the former is dominant over the latter?

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Orality precedes literacy. It is a natural trait of humanity. To be truly human one must communicate through language, and for most that is oral, and for the few that are not oral, their body actually adapts so that they interpret sign language through the same channels as others perceive speech.

However, literacy is not natural, it is acquired. It is a form of technology. What precedes in time is not going to dominate, the primitive is at a disadvantage. Technology is a form of power, I guess. One speaks of the mechanical advantage but surely there is the technical advantage. This has no connection to moral progress, however.

When literacy is the dominant technology then it is associated with the male as a dominant channel. The same with any technology, but later that same technology may be adopted and become even the favoured domain of the female. Of course, in many domains young women are doing very well these days, I would think.

This is just off the cuff but I am not sure if it fits in with what you are thinking.

J. K. Gayle said...

That's wonderfully clear for being off the cuff. What you write really makes sense!

What's not so obvious, to me, though, is how literacy is so much more advanced than orality. In other words, how is it that hand-and-eye language is a technology more to be acquired than face/vocal chords/tongue-ear language?

Linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen tend to distinguish “competence” in and “acquisition” of language by babies from invariably-later “performance” and “learning” language by adults. The former is innate, is pristine, and is natural (hence, Krashen’s “Natural Approach”); the latter is always external-surface-structure, sloppy, and artificial. But what about Linda Acredolo’s and Susan Goodwyn’s and Joseph Garcia’s findings on the primacy of signing in babies (before the technology of oral language is learned)? And for adults, such as Helen Keller and many second-language learners, how it is that hand-and-hand and hand-and-face/eye and script-and-eye communication comes before the technology of utterance?

I love Robert de Beaugrande’s article “Theory and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Disconnection, Conflict, or Dialectic?” (in Applied Linguistics and online) in which he contrasts the theory/practice of “homework linguists” such as Krashen with “fieldwork linguists” such as Kenneth L. Pike. The former can theorize innate language in the individual while the latter insist also on language in the context of talking and, dare I add, writing human beings in society together. Orality and literacy (i.e., language along various arrays of acquired and learned technologies) depends entirely on people and our interaction. I love the line from the film Shadowlands in which the character C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we’re not alone.” And I love Larry Wall’s insistence that the computer language Perl, to be modeled on human language (with it’s technology motto, “there’s more than one way to do it”), must grow in a culture of human beings.

Is the reason we tend to think of orality as prior to and more basic than literacy because we tend to think of language as possible without society? And doesn’t this thinking go in 2 unnecessary directions? (i.e., 1, in Chomskean terms, there’s a baby’s innate, universal, language wiring independent of anyone else; 2, in Krashen terms, there’s a baby’s natural and automatic acquisition of oral language despite what the adults around say, or sign, to him/her)?

Sorry to get so technical in writing here. You’ve really prompted my thinking (and my talk!) on orality and literacy. Thanks for the dialogue!

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Great stuff, its a while since I read all these authors and I'm feeling rusty.

However, I would differentiate between signing, that is, just because it is a hand-eye communication does not connect it to literacy. It is processed more as orality, IMO.

Literacy is a second level of representation, using a system which represents speech, itself a system of representation. Signing is speech, a primary mode of representation. So just because the modalities seem similar in signing and literacy, they are not comparable.

Society can exist without literacy, many have and many do. But society cannot survive without orality.

On top of that, the alphabet was only invented once and then transferred. Writing was invented in 5 places but only developed in two highly hierarchic societies. Even Chinese writing may owe a considerable amount of its phoneticization to contact with early Brahmi phonemic writing.

I am interested in the fact that you are in an English dept. I am considering going back to do a PhD but really am not sure which dept. to look at.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for your thoughts on orality and literacy, Suzanne. I'd encourage you to pursue the PhD, especially with your good insights into so many interesting things. After the MA in Linguistics, I decided on the English studies PhD because the program here combined Literacy Studies, Rhetoric, Composition, and Literature. Since I have these interests, and because I work running university-level ESL learning programs, this is a good fit. The profs in this program are excellent too!

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks for the ideas.