Epistolatry vs. Oral Fixation

Epistolatry vs. Oral Fixation

Now wait a minute (methinks TV doth protest too much— I suspect he enjoys the discussion as much as the rest).

Oh yes, wait a minute Mister Postman
Wait Mister Postman

Please Mister Postman, look and see
(Oh yeah)
If there’s a letter in your bag for me
(Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why’s it takin’ such a long time
(Oh yeah)
For me to hear from that boy of mine

There must be some word today
From my boyfriend so far away
Please Mister Postman, look and see
If there’s a letter, a letter for me

The lowly epistle is indeed a uniquely important variant form of the ever-metamorphosing grapholect. Examination of the syntagmatic features of letter-writing need not fall into the great divide that many misread into Ong’s orality theories, where phonocentrism is poised to pounce upon graphocentrism. I’m actually quite curious what we can learn from both. Kathleen Welch strongly describes the phonocentric primacy of television, and spends little time on the more graphocentric nature of web discourse. So, recalling the evolution of the letter is not at all spurious, though it requires careful qualification, as Turbulent Velvet assuredly has attempted.

Conversation can be simultaneously one-to-one and one-to-many. As TV pointed out, the early history of the letter showed a similar character. Trust is perhaps the largest problem involved in any form of discourse that attempts to stand in for face-to-face interaction. For the Greeks in 400BC, the letter was suspect. Euripides’ Phaedra is a powerful example of what happens when you believe what you read, instead of what you hear. In many reviewer’s eyes, any attempt to discern the difference between aural truth, and written truth must privilege one over the other. Ong is usually read as privileging the “noble savageness” of oral constructions; when I read him, my impression was quite the opposite. It seemed to me that he privileged the rising levels of abstraction made possible by grapholects. Go figure. Welch blasts Havelock for being insensitive to women’s issues, and raises Ong to a new level of phonolatry. All of this actually matters very little to me. What matters most is how well the distinctions highlighted by each signifying practice mesh with blog discourse. One thing seems certain though: logocentrism cannot stand. The construction of reality through language is colored by nuances far outside the reach of words alone; it’s a matter of context.

The letter metaphor shines in that respect. Without external knowledge, most people get very little out of reading other people’s letters. The emergence of somewhat self-referential “blogging circles” points out the value-added nature of reading not only one, but many people who may respond to the common topoi. Letters score big regarding periodic, turn-taking behaviors where questions are raised and answered (still conversational, and yet not a conversation). One of the most common usages of letters was to pass along the juicy bits of gossip (also not unlike web behaviors) but where did this exchange of gossip take us? Into the novel. That’s where, I think, the usage of epistolary metaphors breaks down. Is blogging going to evolve into a huge group novel? I don’t see many signs of that. I suspect there is a limit to the complexity of blogging, largely due to its context-dependence. The focus on strictly graphic behaviors denies larger issues of syntagmatic construction which orality theories more directly address— these theories present, not an ephemeral packet, but instead direct insight into some rather counter-intuitive things about oral storytelling practice.

To justify my oral fixation, I thought I’d take a moment to summarize Ong’s defining tropes of orality, so that those who have been confused by the proximity of the term orality with notions of conversation might better understand what features I’m talking about. Oral discourse is (not the google-game):

Additive rather than subordinate (discussed by me on numerous occasions)

Aggregative rather than analytic (or, phrased another way, associative rather than dialectic)

Redundant or copious (Bloggers copious or redundant? Most of the ones I read are)

Conservative or traditionalist (resistant to change)

Close to the human lifeworld (Lanham thinks electronic writing is, and I agree)

Agonistically toned (Warblogging anyone?)

Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced (Blog as performance!)

Homeostatic (self-organizing communities anyone?)

Situational rather than abstract (take a look at a typical day on blogdex or daypop)

Of course, I’ve been thinking about all of these features of orality, and trying them on for size regarding blog discourse. None of this addresses the problems of public vs. private as well as the epistolary model. However, orality theory addresses other features which I think are poorly addressed by the letter-writing analogy. Expanding on all these points would take much more grapholecting than the typical attention span would allow, so I’ll stop here.

Welch addresses the “Great Divide” reading of orality theory quite nicely in her book. Nowhere do any of the primary researchers say that it’s an either/or proposition. There is, as Lanham would put it, an oscillation involved between all these signifying practices. “The Great Divide” is a creation of the critics of orality theory, not the theorists themselves— but then that is just my opinion, due to my preference for descriptive rather than prescriptive theory. Does orality theory describe the phenomenona reasonably well? I think it does.