The apparent division between oral and literate cultures is an ongoing issue under discussion in academia and increasingly in the public forum. It is relevant to Buddhists because it relates directly to the validity of Buddhist texts which are believed to have been transmitted orally for some time before being written down.
Walter J. Ong has suggested that the making of lists is a distinctively *literate* activity and that such abstractions are not used in pre/non-literate cultures. (I’m citing the discussion of his work by Donald Lopez in Elaborations on Emptiness, p.32f). I haven’t had time to follow this up. It either means that Indian oral culture was completely unique in the level of it’s sophistication (and abstraction), or they started using writing a lot earlier than they let on. Certainly there must now be a question mark over whether the texts we have inherited “are the end products of an oral society”.
I’m also still pondering Bhikkhu Anālayo’s recent article about the distinctions in the way memorisation worked in Vedic and Buddhist Milieu, and contemporary research on memory. “The Vicissitudes of Memory and Early Buddhist Oral Transmission”, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2009, vol. 5 pp. 5-19. He also discusses the Buddhist uses of lists.
As to the second part of the comment, when this volume of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies is available in on-line archives I’ll have a look at this article but for now I haven’t access to it.
But the first part of the comment brought a few thoughts to mind that are tangentially related. I don’t have the book which contains Lopez’s thoughts on the matter, but I am quite familiar with the work of Walter J. Ong. There is no doubt that Ong had a huge influence on communications theory, anthropology, post-modern philosophy and dozens of other disciplines. His thesis supervisor was no less than Marshall McLuhan so one can realize the influences of that luminary on his work as well. While we might disagree with some of Walter J. Ong’s theoretical standpoints at present, he helped lay the groundwork, with highly original thought and theory, that a lot of current theory rests upon.
So the points to address are:
- Walter J. Ong has suggested that the making of lists is a distinctively *literate* activity and that such abstractions are not used in pre/non-literate cultures.
- It either means that Indian oral culture was completely unique in the level of it’s sophistication (and abstraction), or they started using writing a lot earlier than they let on.
- Certainly there must now be a question mark over whether the texts we have inherited “are the end products of an oral society”.
Ong’s theories and some of the criticisms of those theories directly related to this issue can be outlined (just a quick take-much more in the links at the bottom-particularly Chandler) as:
Technology and Consciousness
One of Walter J. Ong’s primary theses relates to the proposition that technology alters structure and function of consciousness. And that writing has brought about a radical change in consciousness. And therefore radical changes in cultures including values, political structures, self-perception and many other aspects. (see the criticism about Technological Determinism below).
Theorists involved in the comparative analysis of modes of communication frequently assume or refer to a binary divide or dichotomy between different kinds of society or human experience: ‘primitive’ vs. ‘civilized’, ‘simple’ vs. ‘advanced’, ‘pre-logical’ vs. ‘logical’, ‘pre-rational’ vs. ‘rational’, ‘pre-analytic’ vs. ‘analytic’, ‘mythopoeic’ vs. ‘logico-empirical’, ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’, ‘concrete’ vs. ‘scientific’, ‘oral’ vs. ‘visual’, or ‘pre-literate’ vs. ‘literate’. Such pairings are often also regarded as virtually interchangeable: so that modernity equals advanced equals civilization equals literacy equals rationality and so on. (Chandler)
Clearly one can deduce the dangers in this kind of thinking. It is a fundamental error to equate these concepts and where one concept such as literacy is in the primary focus to attribute causality to it when no such causality can be demonstrated.
This underlies many of the further criticisms of the theories presented. And is some ways I think it underlies the current “distrust” of what is written in Buddhist texts.
The “Great Divide” between the Literate and Non-literate Cultures
The “Great Divide” criticism has been suggested with regard to Ong’s work. There is no clear division between the time when oral transmission waned and writing ascended. It is not as though an entire culture one day just stopped talking and picked up writing instruments. So certainly the possibility exists that at least some of the Buddhist texts were written down earlier than was presupposed. They might have served as models for later writings. And the way they are written with the Vedic style mnemonic devices intact for the most part is also of some interest. (more on that later)
Ong has emphasized the accuracy of written work especially with regard to it’s replicability. One obvious example that belies this is the copying of medieval manuscripts in Europe. Changes are introduced due to error by the copyist, censorship, local inflections, dialectical adjustments, spelling variations due to change in language use etc. Consider the revisions the Christian Bible has undergone.
With the availability of early manuscripts some of this can be checked by way of comparison. Fortunately it has been the habit of Buddhists to write commentaries rather than to revise original texts on a wholesale basis. This allows, to my way of thinking anyway, a somewhat greater degree of confidence as to their accuracy.
Even when a snapshot of cultural contents are captured by a technological innovation such as writing, it is in the succeeding snapshots, quickly superceded. Culture changes, spoken language changes, conditions change and the repetition of cultural contents will also change even if they are codified. Consider how many “revised editions” there are of books for example. The Oxford English Dictionary is in it’s 2nd edition (20 volumes) but it is updated quarterly.
Technological Determinism and Media Neutrality
Technological determinism focuses on causality – cause and effect relationships – a focus typically associated with ‘scientific’ explanation. Any exploration of communications technology has to recognize the difficulty of isolating ’causes’ and ‘effects’, or even in distinguishing causes from effects. As an explanation of change, technological determinism is ‘monistic’ or mono-causal (rather than ‘multicausal’): it offers a single cause or ‘independent variable’. It represents a simple ‘billiard ball model’ of change (Chandler-Technological Determinism)
Culture is a highly interdependent complex and to apply such simplistic thinking is reductionist in the extreme.
Additionally media is not a one way street. People affect media which further affects people in something of a feedback loop. One also has to consider the fact of vested interests who wish to manipulate, consciously or subconsciously, the media. There are factors of hegemony as well as other cultural factors that feed into the loop. Media of any type is not a neutral element.
Ethnocentrism in a rather general way means to view a situation from one’s own particular view point exclusively and to impose that viewpoint or framework of analysis upon another culture with little or no regard to the relevance of the other culture’s indigenous explanations or theoretical framework. It is often an institutionalized mindset of dominant cultures and privileged groups.
To be able to visualize sentences and to consider them as referring to a realm of
“truth” or “mind” that is connected to but separate from the physical world meant the genesis of a new kind of silent thinking—of a private, interior mental dimension. This led, in Ong’s view, to the individualism, abstraction, and intellectual separation from the human lifeworld that are part of what characterizes Western culture. These developments led to especially Western values of privacy, individual freedom, democracy, objective fact, and technological control.
Causality in any of these instances has not been nor can it be established definitively or even tangentially. And many of these values are not exclusive to Western culture.
On Ong’s most well known book from 1982 Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word:
Ong devotes the first three chapters of seven to “thought and its verbal expression in oral culture” something which he admits is likely to seem “strange and at times bizarre” since we are so immersed in our own literate culture (Bingham)
These kinds of statements used to appear with some regularity in anthropological literature as well, particularly in studies related to culture and personality. But as biases were increasingly challenged there emerged, and is emerging, a clearer picture.
Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies, as is commonly assumed. Differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated….There is a real danger that seeing non-literates societies as different from ours may be associated with seeing those who live in such societies as inferior to ourselves. The notion of ‘primitive mentality’ is now rejected by most anthropologists, though it survives amongst some conservative theorists. And the alternative danger of romanticizing ‘oral’ societies as more ‘natural’ than those in which we live is no less a problem. (Chandler)
Unfortunately in popular cultural mythology though such challenges to bias are not often considered.
Problems with Developmental Theories
Developmental theories in general carry a lot of baggage. Due to the evolutionary paradigm early stages labeled as simple and later stages labeled as complex or refined come to represent growth. And complexity comes to represent somehow “better” in terms of value judgement. (Just compare this with controversies of primacy in Buddhism!) And it does not take into account parallel forms of advanced communication.
Developmental theories are often simplistic in nature. That leads to a certain type of reductionism.
Reductionism and Graphocentrism
Walter Ong maintains: “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.” Or, like Jack Goody, one may regard writing to be “a technology of the intellect.”(Burkdall)
Graphocentrism (Chandler) is to place the written utterance in a relative position of higher importance than spoken words. It is often used by intellectual elites to bolster political and social positions. It is also often tied to developmental theories. In the comment Jayarava left regarding listing as a literate activity early Buddhist texts would somewhat belie this. There are so many lists and counted items. Consider Ven. Shrivasti Dhammika’s comments in his post on Oral Transmission:
Many of the Buddha’s disciples who became monks were brahmans and they brought with them the mnemonic skills they had been educated in…Like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly designed to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices – rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc.
Anyone with familiarity with the Vedas will realize this.
Writing is but one method of recording data accurately for later retrieval or wider dissemination. I would like to bring up several parallel or pre-existing cultural developments in data recording that are overlooked by Ong’s theories. It’s a bit of a tangent from the lists issue but it demonstrates that there are other possible methods of accurately transmitting important cultural contents.
Several Examples that Fall Outside Most Communications Theory Paradigms
Ong’s form of literacy focuses on phonetic alphabets. It therefore omits the pictographic for example which is an alternative form of development.
Consider Chinese writing. There are many types of Chinese script including pictographs, ideographs, compound pictographs, compound ideographs, semantic-phonetic compounds, simple and complex numerals. There is some discussion that Chinese writing is wholly ideographic, meaning that written symbols directly related to ideas without speech as an intermediary step but this has been challenged . (One such challenge is in the article Ideographic Myth by Mark Swofford.)
Ong’s thesis on literacy deals with the most widespread writing types which are phonetic type alphabets (phonemes and morphemes and related syntactic structures-ie verb tenses indicated by suffixes). With the diversity of written types in Chinese language there is no accounting for them in the theory. Does that make Chinese written language a cross between writing and art? Perhaps. I don’t know. The prevalence of the practice of calligraphy and the use of calligraphy within artistic productions among Chinese intellectuals throughout history brings up this question.
An interesting example of non-written data recording and list-making can be found in Kipayu strings used by the people of the Incan culture in Peru. They were used as methods of recording events, transactions and other data.
the quipu (or khipu) is a fascinating communication device used in the pre-Columbian world for everything from accounting and record keeping to, it is believed, recording detailed text… names, words, a full written language not in symbols but in lengths of string and knots tied at points along them. from en Peru
It is something that could be replicated and transmitted to others and those with an understanding of the process could “read” the strings and glean the message contained therein.
The use of pictographs as a recording and memory device is as old as the images in the Lascaux caves or the rock images (petroglyphs) in the Australian desert. (See Petroglyphs link below for more on this type of communication)
Since I mentioned the Australian desert it might be pertinent to bring up the subject of songlines as well.
Songlines, or Yiri in the Walpiri language, are tracks across the landscape created by Mythical Aboriginal ancestors when they rose out of the dark Earth and traveled, creating mountains, valleys, waterholes – all the physical features of the land. from Songlines
The songlines of the Australian Aboriginal people are in addition to their mythological orientation and clan designators, a form of data keeping that is passed on through the generations. Each clan is a keeper of the songlines relevant to their area. A songline is like a connection between nodes in a network of the landscape. It lists relevant landscape features for the nomadic traveler. It is like a non-visual form of map in this regard.
Many of the features delineated by the song lines appeared in petroglyphs across the Australian continent.
Examples from contemporary aboriginal art show that many of the symbols are similar to those from the petroglyphs. The petroglyphs are thought to be associated with journeys taken and function as proto-maps just as the songlines do. Images from Jinta Desert Art-Iconography
Thunder and Lightning Kangaroo Waterhole
These are somewhat abstract symbols, which are non-phonetic yet carry a particular meaning in a semiotic manner. They demonstrate that many cultures without phonetic writing can indeed produce products of the mind that do indicate:
…a new kind of silent thinking—of a private, interior mental dimension. This led, in Ong’s view, to the individualism, abstraction, and intellectual separation from the human lifeworld that are part of what characterizes Western culture. (to reiterate the Litwin quote above)
These characteristics are not limited to Western culture by any means. And all of the examples given demonstrate that to some extent.
Uluru Australia-a meeting point of many of the songlines-(photo 2001)
I would even propose that writing is another form of art rather than a technology, as much as song, decoration and painting, in that it is a recording of a snapshot of particular mental or physical events in time. Technology is a Western paradigm to denote a particular category of creative elements developed in any given culture. There are many other ways to view cultural creations. (There’s a dissertation in that assertion likely so I won’t put it all here.)
So thanks to Jayarava for the comment. I don’t get much chance to deal with this kind of stuff as I didn’t think any of the readers of this blog had interest in what may be a rather esoteric set of subjects. So it’s been kind of fun to dig into this a little and I appreciate that opportunity.
Links on Questions about Buddhist Texts
Modernism and post-modernism– on Ven. Sujato’s blog
Ven. S. Dhammika has numerous posts on the subject of Buddhist and other ancient texts (not all directly related to this discussion but tangentially interesting) as well, such as:
- Oral Transmission
- The Parayanavagga
- I Hate The Dhammapada
- Copy Cat Buddha?
- Dhamma On Wikipedia-on problems with Wikipedia entries and quotations by scholars.
Links on Cultures and Anthropological Topics Mentioned
Petroglyphs – Pictographs – Cave Paintings – Geoglyphs – explanations with good photos
Types of Chinese Characters from Omniglot-writing systems and languages of the world
The Origins of Chinese Script– examines the myths and archeological evidence
Songlines across the Wollemi-on discoveries of lithographic images and their tie to songlines in Australia
First Australians-an excellent documentary on the Australian aboriginal history entitled First Australians told from the viewpoint of the First Peoples.
The Songlines-a video clip and discussion page for the Australian Government’s digital learning initiative
Links on Linguistics, Communication Theory and Related Philosophy
Walter J. Ong – a summary of his work from Wikipedia
St. Louis University archive of the work of Walter J. Ong including some of his essays and papers
ORACY ! by Hosein Moeini – gives a brief overview of some of the criticisms of Ong’s theories
Communication Theory/Orality and Literacy-a paper from Wikibooks outlines Ong’s theories, contributions and influences within the scope of Communication Theory
Critical Thinking and Media Shifts: Exploring the Ethical Implications of Technological Change through the Thought of Walter Ong and Other Media Theorists by Rory Litwin (paper presented at MIT6 conference April 24-26, 2009 MIT)
Biases of the Ear and Eye: ‘Great Divide’ Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism-Daniel Chandler outlines numerous criticisms of various theorists including Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Ong and others in a well researched discussion
Technological or Media Determinism by Daniel Chandler
The Persistence of Writing by Thomas Burkdall in EDUCAUSE Review