Jack Goody, an anthropologist, Eric Havelock, a classicist, and Walter Ong, a scholar and theorist of rhetoric, are among the figures who have explored what Goody has taken to calling “the literacy hypothesis.” They argue that the development of writing alters the way we relate to language, how we use it, and how we conceptualize it. This line of reflection (other key figures include Milman Parry, Albert Lord, Marshall McLuhan, David Olson, and John Foley) suggests, at the very least, that how literature functions and therefore how it means (which isn’t the same thing as saying “what” it means) is in part a matter of how writing as a particular modality of language operates under different historical and social and technological conditions. And this in turn suggests that textuality may be less an ahistorical category and more a set of historically conditioned practices.
For those of us in literature and rhetoric, Ong’s exploration of the literacy hypothesis in Orality and Literacy is still the central text. In it, Ong explores how the practice of writing (the dynamics of literacy) overtakes, even subjugates, and alters the cognitive and cultural styles based in orality. Ong’s work has been read as setting up a dichotomy—Orality vs. Literacy. But a more accurate reading, I’d suggest, is that Ong posits this dichotomy in order to bring the significance of the Oral—as something related to but also different from the Literate—into view. In any case, for the study of modern literature what matters is not the dichotomy of Orality and Literacy but rather the dialectic of Speaking and Writing which the emergence of Literacy creates. What matters, that is, is not only how Orality and Literacy support different cognitive styles and cultural practices but also how our experience of Literacy is entangled with our experiences of speech. The way we imagine the nature of writing as a medium is necessarily in part an imagining of writing not in isolation from speech but in relationship to it. How writers variously enact and exploit this dialectical relationship of writing to speaking matters, I’d suggest, for our critical and analytical work.
The several pieces gathered in this section (accessed by the links below) are provisional attempts to engage this question, by considering a possible point of intersection between the insights of those exploring “the literacy hypothesis,” suggestions about the nature of writing as a medium advanced by the linguists Josef Vachek and Roy Harris, recent directions in editorial theory (the work of Jerome McGann and others), and the reflections on the historical and cognitive dynamics of media and mediation in Friedrich Kittler’s work (most particularly the introductory chapter to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.
(I should add that three of the pieces posted here, written variously 8-10 years ago, predate my reading of Kittler. How Kittler might contribute to this approach is touched on in the text of the talk on Kerouac posted in that section of this site.)