22 December 2007

Stories in Pre-Literate and Post-Literate Societies

This post is my final extract from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Book” article in the latest New Yorker. Folks who want to read more of his insights into the history of literacy will have to visit Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.

The most interesting part of the article for me described theories of how pre-literate cultures preserve and explore thoughts--through stories rather than as abstractions divorced from contexts (and thus applicable to many).

Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to [Jesuit scholar Walter J.] Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to “think memorable thoughts,” whose zing insures their transmission.
We might link that “zing” to other neurological research indicating that we remember things because of the emotional meanings we attach to them. Stories, of course, generate emotional meaning.
In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There’s no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in “enthusiastic description of physical violence.”

Since there’s no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.
That last observation concerns pre-literate societies while Crain is hypothesizing about a post-literate society, where information is increasingly shared in the form of moving images and sounds rather than a code of abstract symbols. However, such a society would develop only because those images and sounds are recorded. We will therefore be able to revisit and recheck them just like written documents, and probably won’t [be able to] return to ignoring inconsistencies between one version and another.

On Thursday I quoted the passage from Crain’s article about a decline in Americans “reading for literary experience,” meaning elements of stories: themes, events, characters, settings, language. It therefore seems circular that stories are apparently the basis of pre-literate cultures, perhaps even more important there than to us because of how they concretize abstract concepts.

Recently my mother posited that the world needs more Saturday Evening Post serials. Like many other magazines in the early and middle 1900s, the Post published several stories in each issue, some self-contained but most continuing from one issue to the next; the magazine pictured above started serializing P. G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. From what I’ve sampled, those stories tended to be competent, plot-driven, reassuring narratives, not literary masterpieces but compelling enough to entertain and bring folks back for the next installment. We indeed don’t see those sorts of stories anymore. Or, rather, we do see them, on television.

Our culture is consuming more stories than ever. In the past 130 years we’ve gained the technology to share those stories in moving visual images and sounds rather than just in live performances, still pictures, and written words. Crain’s most provocative arguments suggest that moving away from written stories and arguments might change the way we think, or at least change how often we think in one way over another. But a post-literate society will be so different from a pre-literate one that I don’t think we really have any idea what will come. Trying to map one from the other is simply another attempt to answer life’s mysteries through stories.

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