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Article

Lee Morrissey

Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.

Article

Indigeneity is the abstract noun form of “indigenous,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Born or produced naturally in a land or region”; in conventional usage, it refers primarily to “aboriginal inhabitants or natural products.” Indigeneity has a conceptually complex relationship to American literary history before 1830, insofar as, for most of the history of the field, “early American literature” has predominately referred to works written in European languages, scripts, and genres, produced by peoples of European origin and their descendants. Within this framework, until Native Americans began adopting and adapting these languages, scripts, and genres for their own use, there were no literary works that might be simultaneously characterized as “indigenous” and “early American.” Four conceptualizations of the relationship between indigeneity and early American literature provide a basis for this history and its historiography. Three of these pertain to cultural works produced at least in part by Native Americans: these are (1) written representations of Native American spoken performances, or “oral literature”; (2) writings that register various degrees of participation in literacy practices by Native American converts to Christianity; and (3) cultural works that employ non-alphabetic indigenous sign-systems, or “indigenous literacies.” These formulations variously challenge conventional ideas about literature and related terms such as authorship and writing; in the case of the Christian Indians, they can also challenge notions of indigeneity. A fourth conceptualization of the relationship between indigeneity and early American literature is premised on narrow definitions of these seemingly antithetical terms: it pertains to the aesthetic project of some settler-colonial authors who hoped to connect their prose and verse works to the domestic landscape, to assert their cultural independence from England, and to enact the replacement of Native American cultural traditions with their own.

Article

David Nowell Smith

The concept of “voice” has long been highly ambiguous, with the physiological-phonetic process of sound production entangled in a far more extensive cultural and metaphysical imaginary of voice. Neither purely sound nor purely signification, voice can name either a sonorous excess over signification or the point at which sounds start to signify. Neither purely of the body nor ever extricated from its body, it can figure multiple kinds of meaningful embodiment, the breakdown of meaning in brute materiality, or even a strangely disembodied emanation. Voice can be both intentional and involuntary, both singular and plural, both presence and absence, both the possession of a subject and something that possesses subjects or is uncontainable by the subject. Voices may signify immediacy and be experienced as immediate, and yet they are continually mediated—by text, by technology, by art. In literature, the status of voice is particularly fraught. Not only do literary works deploy this imaginary of voice, but voice is crucial to literature’s medium. If this is most evident in the case of works composed or transmitted orally, it also holds for written works that, while destined for silent reading, nevertheless construct a virtual soundworld destined for its reader’s inner ear, to be subvocalized rather than read aloud. Literary works have been crucial in the development and deployment of the cultural-metaphysical imaginary of voice, precisely because “voice” poses such a diverse set of questions and problems for literature. These problems change focus and force with the development of technologies of inscription and prosthesis, from printing to sound recording to automated speech.

Article

While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day. Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.

Article

Style  

Daniel Hartley

Modern style emerged from the ruins of the premodern “separation of styles” (high, middle, and low). Whereas, previously, only the nobility could be represented in the high style and commoners in the low, modern style harbors a democratic, generic potential: in principle, anyone can write about anything in any way he or she likes. The history of modern style, as a central critical and compositional principle, is thus deeply imbricated with modern democracy and capitalist modernity. It has a unique relationship to the history of realism, which was itself premised upon the demise of the separation of styles. Many critics (e.g., Erich Auerbach, Roland Barthes, and Fredric Jameson) stress the way in which, as a concept and linguistic practice, style connects the body to a generic, Utopian potential of the everyday. Feminist critics, such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, have pursued style’s relationship to the body to delineate a specifically feminine mode of writing [écriture féminine]. Marxist critics, such as Raymond Williams, have argued that style should be understood as a linguistic mode of social relationship. The corollary is that social contradictions are experienced by writers as problems of style (e.g., in Thomas Hardy: how to unite the “educated” style of the urban ruling class with the “customary” style of the rural working class into a single artistic whole). Other critics (e.g., Franco Moretti, Roberto Schwarz) have extended this logic to the scale of “world literature:” they identify stylistic discontinuity as a feature of peripheral world literature that seeks to imitate European realist forms; it is caused by a mismatch between prevailing modes of production and dominant ideologies at the core and the (semi-)periphery of the capitalist world-system. Free indirect style, which merges narrator and character into a new, third voice, has been identified as a key feature of prose fiction in the world-systemic core—the symbolic embodiment of modern, bourgeois forms of power (an “impersonal intimacy”). Finally, “late style”—a concept associated with Theodor W. Adorno and Edward W. Said—has become an influential way of characterizing works of artistic maturity written as the author approaches old age and death (though it is certainly not limited to biological maturity). It is a style in which form and subjectivity become torn from one another, the latter freeing itself only then to subtract itself (rather than “express” itself). Style thus hovers between the impersonality of the demos and the grave.