I left my anger in a river running highway 5
New hampshire, vermont, bordered by College farms,
hubcaps, and falling rocks
Voices in the woods and the mountaintops
I used to search for reservations and native lands
Before I realized everywhere I stand
There have tribal feet
running wild as fire
Some past life sister of my desire
Indigo Girls, Jonas and Ezekial
Over the last couple weeks, Ron Amos over at Kvina Mondo has written a bit about language structure and the way it can effect our thinking processes. His focus has been on the right-to-left vs left-to-right division in written language, but I would like to take a step further back and discuss orality versus literacy.
We have been raised to see literacy as one of the most positive and useful tools in our modern civilization. Achieving universal literacy has been a goal of educators and liberal, people-centric activists for years. Although I am quite certain that this has been with nothing but the best of intentions, it may be that it has not always been with the best of results.
Over the years, cognitive scientists, linguists and psychologists have studied the effect of language on thought leading to theories such as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Linguistic Determinism. Whether asserting that we cannot think anything for which we have no words (ala Orwell’s 1984), or simply asserting that the way we understand the world we perceive is effected by the language we use, it seems clear that language does effect our thinking on some level.
Looking at language and thought more deeply, Father Walter J Ong PhD presented the idea that there is a functional difference in the way that literate and oral societies think and inter-relate with their world:
We find the similar distinction in the anthropology. Lévy-Bruhl, disciple of Durkheim, argued that the mode of thought of preliterate people was so different from the formal logic that it can only be mystical and expressive of emotions. Sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (like Freud), following the way Lévy-Bruhl opened, considered almost all religion, art and morality as essentially non-logical. The observation that led Lévy-Bruhl to deduce preliterate people’s thought is their personalization of the universe, that is feeling their life in unity with plants and animals that means violation of the law of identity (or law of non-contradiction). (Ong, Orality and Literacy, 1982)
I have previously written about monism and intuitive thinking. I find that Levy-Bruhl’s argument is completely appropriate: that formal logic is completely disparate from the thinking of native oral peoples. But unlike him, I believe that this is a strength as opposed to a weakness. Scientific reductionism and logic have gotten us to where we are today: but perhaps we could achieved equal understanding without the horrific cost of suffering inherent in hierarchal society, if we had continued to expand our intuitive, pattern recognizing and systems thinking skills.
Additionally, Ong pointed out that through the written word, we have created facts, ideas, thoughts and concepts that have become static and unyielding. Once an idea is committed to paper it ceases to grow and change with the environment that gave it form and meaning. At the same time, because an idea has been recorded, we give it greater veracity and weight than the same idea presented orally and simultaneously.
We do not need to look very far to see where words written long ago continue to influence and, in my opinion, damage and degrade individuals, societies, and future possibilities. The current, worldwide battle between religious fundamentalism and everyone else is a function of this staticity of the written word. Stories that once carried real world information and lessons in the form of oral parable and verse, now are read as literal commandments to be directly applied in our modern world. Oral stories could never hold this power, as they would subtly change with each generation as the world of the storytellers changed.
Note, this is not the same as the degradation found in a game of telephone. Many anthropologists have written and commented on the outstanding memory recall of primitive peoples. Through the tools of meter, rhythm and metaphor, they are able to encapsulate oral information in such a way that the essence is preserved over generations. In the same way, they use their memory with such frequency that one can only assume they have ‘developed their memory muscle’ to its greatest potential.
One final thought: I have a great love for metaphor, and I use it often to express complex ideas. Metaphor, by its very nature explores relationships — both in time and space. However, my honey will often get discouraged with me because the metaphor never perfectly applies, although we both know this, we can easily get drawn into stretching the metaphor to (or sometimes past) its breaking point.
In pre-literate societies, metaphor is one of the most flexible tools they have for creating and maintaining the stories that they use to explore their world and knowledge. Yet, it seems clear that these same peoples seem to have a clear understanding of metaphor and its limitations. For all of the anthropologists that have taken their stories literally, I think we would find that the peoples of these cultures hold no such illusions. An example of this type of metaphor appears in David. Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous:
The next morning I finished the sliced fruit, waited for my hostess to come by and take the empty bowl, then quietly beaded back behind the buildings. Two fresh palm leaf offerings sat at the same spots where the others had been the day before. These were filled with rice. Yet as I gazed at one of them I suddenly noticed, with a shudder, that one of the kernels of rice was moving. Only when I knelt down to look more closely did I see a tiny line of black ants winding through the dirt to the palm leaf. … I walked back to my room chuckling to myself. The balian and his wife had gone to so much trouble to daily placate the household spirits with gifts—only to have them stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned within me. What if the ants themselves were the “household spirits” to whom the offerings were being made?
The idea became less strange as I pondered the matter. The family compound, like most on this tropical island, had been constructed in the vicinity of several ant colonies. Since a great deal of household cooking took place in the compound, and also the preparation of elaborate offerings of foodstuffs for various rituals and festivals, the grounds and the buildings were vulnerable to infestations by the ant population. Such invasions could range from rare nuisances to a periodic or even constant siege. It became apparent that the daily palm-frond offerings served to preclude such an attack by the natural forces that surrounded (and underlay) the family’s land. The daily gifts of rice kept the ant colonies occupied–and, presumably, satisfied. Placed in regular, repeated locations at the corners of various structures around the compound, the offerings seemed to establish certain boundaries between the human and ant communities; by honoring this boundary with gifts, the humans apparently hoped to persuade the insects to respect the boundary and not enter the buildings.
It seems to me unreasonable to assume that the Balinese were unaware of the ants taking the pro-offered rice. That implies to me that they literally understood the metaphor of the ‘household spirits’ as referring to the ants (and perhaps other ‘pests’ as well). So this begs the question: when an Anthropologist speaks with tribal peoples and they tell them of their ‘spirits’ is it possible that those spirits have no relationship to our western, dualist idea of spirits and everything to do with metaphor and real, practical interactions with their world?
So the point? I am driven to wonder if, in fact, our modern tendency (assuming my honey and I are not alone in this) to stretch and distort metaphor is caused by the same assumptions that lead to the written word becoming static. We are so uncomfortable with truth, changing that we seek to pigeonhole all of our experiences as precisely and unchangingly as possible.
What I really want to know, however, is whether there is any way that we, as literate, civilized people can recapture the gifts of orality. Is there any way that we can begin to retrain our minds to engage the ever-changing world, to develop our own capacity for memory, to integrate ourselves into our visions of the world? Personally, I do not believe we will ever be able to achieve the mastery that primitive people share, but perhaps we can get closer and provide our children (and their children) with the skills and ideas to eventually recapture the full capacity of our forebearers. I’m still working on how to go about this. But there are three avenues I have identified so far:
- Intuitive Thinking: I have not yet figured out how to explain (or teach) this to others, but I am starting to grasp how it works in myself. Others will undoubtedly intuitively understand what I am talking about and perhaps together we can begin to express it fully.
- Story Telling: This relates on a couple of different levels. On the first, this is expressing who we are through the stories of our lives. Stories that truly encompass who we are and how we think and feel. On the second, developing stories as teaching tools: parables, metaphorical teaching stories and stories about thought itself. By engaging the parts of our brain that make connections as opposed to simply storing data, we are creating an environment of self discovery.
- Being in the world. If you accept monoism, then the best place to understand how and why the world works is to experience it. It is what it appears to be and we are an integral part of it. When we engage the world personally, we start to feel like a part of it and it starts to speak to us (metaphorically).
(Originally Posted October 10, 2006)