Competing technologies

Competing technologies

In The Muse Learns to Write Eric Havelock proposes two theories, a “general theory of orality” coupled with a “special theory of orality” which applies only to Greek culture before the 4th century B.C. It’s a fascinating perspective on the impact of technology with deep resonance to many contemporary fields. The reason for a “special theory,” rather than an all encompassing one is that because we live with the weight of centuries of being literate, and all things are considered through the lens of our perspective as literate humans.

This was not the case when writing as a technology was new. There were no established “rules,” no dominant literate culture to measure and compare with. The impact of a fully developed literate culture on non-literate people can be measured now, however, in the case of Greece, literate culture was just beginning to form. There were no dominant “rules” for it, just competing proposals. Obviously, Plato, and later Aristotle, won. The world hasn’t been the same since. But why Greece? The common explanation is that the Greek alphabetic technology was the first to equivocate the written word completely with the sound of orality. It made it possible to move from an auditory culture into a visual one. It was the proximity to the word as spoken to the word as written.

I really need to learn Greek. The differences introduced by translations pointed out by Havelock really make it difficult to get a sense of what it was like, when writing was new. The verb “to be” was not used much at all in early, orally influenced writing. Things did not have a presence in and of themselves, they were defined solely by their actions. It wasn’t until Plato’s time that concepts like “self” were discussed.

It wasn’t until language could be dealt with visually, as a representation outside the speaker, that the concept of “speaker” or “author” became part of our vocabulary. It’s hard to fathom a world without self. Havelock’s case is convincing though, that our concepts of “self” were only made possible through the separation of language from our being through coding it in visual representation. It was making language visible that made us leap into the distant realms of abstraction.

However, it seems as if modern technologies may be the source of yet another quantum leap. It is our ability to record sound, to be able to play it back unaltered, that reintroduces the values of oral culture back to the forefront. All the things that were good about sound-based culture can be recaptured, but with a higher degree of sophistication and complexity. Sound, rather than being immediate and physical, becomes separated and abstract as well. It can develop beyond its tribal roots, and into a new means of transmitting culture. It’s interesting to me that folk music also lacked the notion of songwriters, until music could be recorded. Only composers that could write their music down, in visual notation, survive as known quantities, or selves.

I’ve often thought that contemporary music has been richer and more progressive than modern poetry. Music becomes the code of a lifestyle, much like the oral poetic tradition was in the age before writing. The world exists as a mesh of conflicting technologies, and perhaps we are returning to our roots in a way that few people are really taking notice of. The transitions are subtle, and hard to identify when they are in process. Significant differences get lost in the translation.

Rather than surviving in a fleeting world of auditory information which is fixed solid in visual representation, we are now faced with the prospect of dealing with both modes as a source for transmitting societal codes. They are in conflict, not just because of their syntax, but by their paradigm. Sound appears and is gone, but now it’s not gone forever. We can return to the voices which please us, any time we like.