3.02 Literary versus Oral culture

Writing arose from an amalgam of visual signs and phonetic glyphs. Based on the earliest existing traces it has been suggested that writing allowed contracts to develop, accounts to be kept and bureaucracy to develop to allow the organisation of complex societies.[1]

Writing stayed as the domain of a minority of monks and aristocrats until the development of printing in 1450. The manufacture of books by machines shifted the control of knowledge into the secular realm.[2] It also began a shift of knowledge from oral circulation to literary encapsulation which was to have a decisive influence on culture. Before the printed book there had been a technological revolution which had occurred with regard to wind and waterpower. This involved a sophisticated and widespread use of mechanics on a large and dynamic scale. This knowledge was in the main circulating in the oral domain. Another example concerned midwifery. The skill of midwifery was an area of women's knowledge that circulated orally. The process by which male doctors ousted the traditional midwives and healers is well known.[3]

In such areas the book allows a particular class to encapsulate and develop these knowledges by increasing the intensity of discourse and quality of systematic thinking that can be brought to bear on any specific issue. But in this process the class that is most literate and who own the means of the production of books, and commodity production in general, also gradually gain control of this new knowledge.[4] This information is the basis of a process in which production is mechanised on an unprecedented scale making the owners of these industrial manufacturing processes very wealthy and so forming a new section of the owning classes.

In fact this goes so far as to make knowledge and rationality appear to become associated with the literary sphere and the new class. In contrast most oral cultures are represented as an inferior realm associated with the working classes and base sensuality.[5]

Although it is true that the circulation of written studies produced certain new powers and enclosed areas of knowledge that had previously circulated orally, the oral realm is still an essential part of human communications. It seems that the literary discourses have had some trouble in admitting the vital capacities of the oral particularly with respect to the reproduction of culture. It is rapidly becoming apparent that the literary is in fact simply a temporary historical communications medium within the much larger realms of performative oral communications which itself is embedded in the totality of our trans-sensory coding systems.[6]

If the basic elemental purpose of culture is, as Williams said, to make an ongoing dynamic and total qualitative assessment of our situation then it is largely in the realm of oral culture that these assessments, in their most fluid and mercurial form, are brought to consensus.

Oral communications is not simply the spoken word. Oral communications is essentially performative and the most open of public spheres. It may be informed by written texts but the culture is in its greatest state of flux when communication is least limited by mediation. A new idea then has the potential to spread through a population like a contagion. When the oral communication is less intense and widespread we might find Walter J. Ong's descriptions of the process as rhapsodic or like weaving or stitching as appropriate.[7]

Culture is essentially a set of meaningful materials and processes held and used in common. A social process of communication by which a consensus, on the form and symbolic content of these materials, has been arrived at is logically necessary. We may assume that if conditions change then some of these symbols will also change as the qualitative assessment procedures of culture respond to the new conditions. If a culture does not change in response to changing conditions then it has become rigidified and that society is in danger of being unable to be reflexive and successfully adapt. The survival of such a society is not then assured by the collective process of intelligence that has so far supported the successful evolution of humankind.

As all the senses are synthesised in our body leading to action so the arts must be synthesised by the social body to produce an intelligent cultural response to our environment. Discourses that are contained within narrow media disciplines are of limited use to such a broad response.



[1] See Roy Harris, The Origin of Writing (Duckworth 1986), or for a good recent overview of writings on this area see, Spoken and Written Discourse: a multi-disciplinary perspective by Khosrow Jahandarie (Ablex USA 1999)


[2] The seminal reference here is The Coming of the Book: the impact of printing 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin (Verso 1990 orig. Paris 1958). See also 'Booking InÉ' by Stefan Szczelkun in Artist's Book Yearbook 1994/5 (Magpie Press)


[3] See Witches, Midwives and Nurses: a history of women healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (Writers and Readers Publishing Co-op 1973)


[4] For a detailed account see The Rise of Robert Dodsey: creating a new age of print by Harry M. Solomon (Southern Illinois U.P. 1996)


[5] Certain oral cultures are omitted from the designation as vulgar; e.g. a dialect was adopted as a national standard (BBC English). In addition the spoken discourse in legal courts and university debating chambers is carefully circumscribed from the common tongue.


[6] This discussion is continued within the methodological considerations that precede my semiotic analysis of Exploding Cinema programmes.


[7] Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the technologising of the word (Routledge 1988, orig. 1982 p13)