Sometime, I may get used to having my world view rocked almost every day. But until then, I suppose I’ll keep blogging about it. A long time ago, I read Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato. It was an eye-opening experience, but now my eyes are even wider.

The Muse Learns to Write is even better. It’s the same topic really, oral vs. written culture, but it was written much later and has nearly as much information in a shorter read. The revolutionary nature of Preface to Plato is placed into context with several other books that were issued the same year (1963), and the subsequent developments are explored. Havelock now attributes the birth of these new perspectives on the rebirth of oral culture through radio. He also draws some innovative new connections regarding the persistence of oral characteristics in communication. We repeat things and memorize them because it gives us pleasure. Think of children’s nursery rhymes, with their repetition. Think of the way that a child prefers to watch or listen to the same tapes over and over. Orality is still programmed into us, even in these days of literate culture.

I read the whole thing this afternoon, but I keep coming back to it. Havelock raises interesting differences that slipped by me before. Oral cultures do not deal with abstract concepts, only agents and actions. Memory is the only tool to preserve society, rather than a fall-back written text. Things must be dealt with directly and without artifice, because otherwise they won’t be remembered. Havelock states the case for narrative well:

The narrative format invites attention because narrative is for most people the most pleasurable form that language, spoken or written, takes. Its content is not ideology but action, and those situations which action creates. Action requires agents who are doing who are doing something or saying something about what they are doing, or having something done to them. A language of action rather than reflection appears to be a prerequisite for oral memorization.

This is a really powerful spin to place on the communication process, and new media, according to Havelock, are perhaps accelerating this return to narrative.

Big stuff. I’ve only glanced at it so far, but The Older Sophists is an incredible collation of texts. Briefly reviewing the entries on Protagoras, it seems as if he’s the one responsible for the first sort of speech-act classifications for discourse. I think there’s a paper in here somewhere, I just need to find it and write it.