Oral Narratives (Sophomore LA)

Oral Traditions: The Problems of Literacy

This weeks discussions looked at the ideas of literacy and its impact on oral traditions and histories. Drawing from Walter J Ong’s seminal work Orality and Literacy, we discussed the nature of language. By employing language as the tool of communication, the questions that we raise become central to our argument on the nature of oral traditions. In the absence of a written document, how do oral cultures encounter and engage with material? The process of recall and remembering is tied to our ability to create visual material as keys that unlock the box that once belonged to Pandora.

Drawing on this we began to think about the work of neuroscientist V S Ramachandran who, in his study Phantoms In The Brain, talks about the visual imagination of the brain. He states that a rabbit seen through a fence will not be interpreted as a sliced rabbit but as a whole. This ideas are echoed in the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein who speaks of need for a precise language and vocabulary, where language is the tool that follows the patterns of, what he termed, “language games”.

The students of the Liberal Arts program (Sophomore Year) responded to this through an understanding of the relationship between oral narratives and the senses – did we remember because of the ways in which our senses responded to them? Using the deeply (and complicated) proposition: ‘If a tree fell in a forest would you hear it?’ And this opened up new ways in which we hear, speak, recall and remember.

Our senses are also linked in many ways to our ability to engage with sound, action, smell etc. “Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic aids recall, even physiologically. House (1978) has shown the intimate linkage between rhythmic oral patterns, the breathing process, gestures, and the bilateral symmetry of the human body in ancient Aramaic and Hellenic targum..”(Walter Ong: Orality and Literacy, page 34)

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