goody, writing, consciousness etc

N.R.M. Bethel (nrmb100@CUS.CAM.AC.UK)
Sat, 12 Oct 1996 02:00:45 +0100

like kathleen, i've been sitting back swearing i'm not going to get
involved in the discussion though it is right up my alley *now*, as i'm in
the process of finishing up research on "orality", "literacy" and national
identity in the bahamas. as a cambridge student, jack goody's work has
naturally formed a central part of my study, as have (and this is the
legacy of my canadian schooling) mcluhan's theories on *media* (i.e. modes
of communication). and i'd just like to say a word on behalf of both
these thinkers. the way i read them is quite different from the way
others on the list read them, thus resurrecting the idea of 'interaction'
with a text perhaps. i agree that goody's early writing on writing can be
- indeed has been - construed as advocating so-called 'levels of
consciousness', marked differences between societies with literate
traditions and societies without; and i would also agree with many
critiques of goody's work which insist that things ain't that simple.
however, as a person whose work and life takes place in a society where
literacy is most certainly not the primary medium of communication (the
bahamas) i have to say i found goody's theories, even as they are
presented in _domestication_, liberating. and i found mcluhan's even more

what i got from these two authors was an ability to place literature in a
context, an anthropological framework which enabled me to understand many
of the so-called 'contradictions' in bahamian society in terms of what
both goody and mcluhan term *technology*, rather than in terms of progress
or development or whatever else may be invoked. goody's later work
focuses less on a cognitive divide between literacy and orality and more
on (i) the different emphases on social structure exhibited by societies
with writing and those without (_the logic of writing and the organisation
of society_, 1986) and (ii) the interaction between different modes of
communication (_the interface between the literate and the oral_ 1987),
and i found _logic_, certainly, extremely helpful in providing an
explanation for why, for instance, bahamian elections seem so often to be
fought according to the personalities of individuals rather than according
to issues. it's not a question, as scribner and cole prove, of what a
given culture *can* do; it's a question of preference. bahamians are
quite capable of discussing issues and voting according to them; but such
action doesn't carry quite the same meaning in a society where most local
transactions take place face-to-face, by word of mouth, rather than on

mcluhan's theories intrigued me, although i wouldn't push them
nearly so far as he does. what i find tantalizing about them, though, is
the idea of technology's effect on cognition. mcluhan doesn't express
this in terms of 'levels of consciousness', at least not in the way these
have been discussed on this list, but rather in terms of *difference*; he
argues that writing, and particularly alphabetic (read consonantal too)
writing, emphasizes the visual above other senses, as one creates and
follows a line of thought across a page in the same way that eyes focus on
fixed points. and societies/cultures that rely on visual modes of
communication (which reaches a high point, for him, in print) tend to view
the world according to fixed categories, making clear distinctions between
one thing and the next, desiring above all specificity and definition.
(this is explored most fully in his last book, _the global village_, 1989)
speaking/hearing, on the other hand, he considers far more
all-encompassing; just as one hears from all directions at once, societies
that communicate largely in oral fashion tend to be more tolerant of
ambiguity and contradiction and tend to make less rigid distinctions
between categories of persons and things. i'm not sure i buy it all, but
i like to think about it.

one final word about the critiques of goody and other proponents of the
so-called 'autonomous' approach to literacy and literature (the group that
seem to preach the existence of a cognitive divide between literate and
oral cultures): while i agree with many of the points they raise - such
as arguments about the equivalence of oral and literate cultures'
analytical abilities, and the political implications of assuming a
difference in cognition, etc - i find many of them as confining as goody's
initial approach has been considered. the critics take it upon
themselves to prove that 'other' societies can use literature just as well
as goody's society can. this, for me, has never been a question; i'm a
product of an oral culture, who nevertheless can use the literate medium
as well as anyone. what has been more difficult for me to explain (on
paper; i do fine when i'm talking about it - i have lots more things at my
disposal, like props, gesture, tone of voice, and so on) is the strength
of the oral in my culture - one which, despite having being exposed to
literacy for hundreds of years, despite producing local masters of the
literate, despite using the literate in a whole variety of ways when it is
necessary, nevertheless chooses, when dealing with anything important,
word of mouth. (just think; there are no international bahamian
novelists, despite a wealth of other caribbean writers; there are some hot
playwrights though). goody and mcluhan gave me the tools i need for that
explanation, not by providing me with the cop-out of 'levels of
consciousness' - that is arguably a literate construction anyway, which
fits into some hierarchical conception of different cultures' abilities -
but with the concept of writing as artefact. and i'm glad.

Nicolette Bethel