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Ask Dr. Time: Orality and Literacy from Homer to Twitter

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 05, 2018


Dr. Time is a nickname some friends gave me within the last couple of years. Its origin is silly, as nicknames’ often are: “Tim” autocorrects to “Time,” so hasty typing in a private Slack turns into a pseudo-persona. I also like that it’s a slant rhyme on Doctor Doom, my favorite supervillain. And in case you haven’t noticed, I have a pretty strong interest in time.

When Jason and I started talking about different ways we could collaborate on the site, the wildest was his suggestion that I write an advice column called “Ask Dr. Time.” I laughed out loud. The proposition was absurd. I don’t want to wade into the disaster that is my life, but the idea that anyone would ask me for personal advice, and that I would be foolish enough to give it, was laughable. Let’s just say I’ve made some poor choices and had some sad circumstances, and leave it at that.

One of those poor choices, however, was spending a lot of time studying philosophy, literature, mathematics, history, and metaphysics. Jason eventually got me to see that “Ask Dr. Time” didn’t have to be an advice column in a conventional sense. What if readers had problems that didn’t require common sense or finely honed interpersonal skills, but an ability to make sense of abstruse reasoning? What if they didn’t need a fancy Watson but an armchair Wittgenstein? What if kottke.org hosted the first metaphysical advice columnist? That proposition is still absurd, but it’s absurd in an interesting way. And “absurd in an interesting way” is what Dr. Time is all about. Not practical solutions, but philosophical entanglements and disentanglings. That I could do.

So on Fridays, from time to time. Dr. Time is going to appear, to answer reader questions that admit of no answer — sometimes here on Kottke.org, and sometimes at the Kottke newsletter I write, Noticing. For this particular entry, the blog seemed more appropriate — and besides, the newsletter was full.

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Our first question actually comes from Jason, who, like many of us, is enjoying Emily Wilson’s magnificent contemporary translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Jason was struck by this passage in the introduction, on the oral roots and possible oral composition of the Homeric epics:

The state of Homeric scholarship changed radically and permanently in the early 1930s, when a young American classicist named Milman Parry traveled to the then-Yugoslavia with recording equipment and began to study the living oral tradition of illiterate and semiliterate Serbo-Croat bards, who told poetic folk tales about the mythical and semihistorical events of the Serbian past. Parry died at the age of thirty-three from an accidental gunshot, and research was further interrupted by the Second World War. But Parry’s student Albert Lord continued his work on Homer, and published his findings in 1960, under the title The Singer of Tales. Lord and Parry proved definitively that the Homeric poems show the mark of oral composition.

The “Parry-Lord hypothesis” was that oral poetry, from every culture where it exists, has certain distinctive features, and that we can see these features in the Homeric poems—specifically, in the use of formulae, which enable the oral poet to compose at the speed of speech. A writer can pause for as long as she or he wants, to ponder the most fitting adjective for a particular scene; she can also go back and change it afterwards, on further reflection—as in the famous anecdote about Oscar Wilde, who labored all morning to add a comma, and worked all afternoon taking it out. Oral performers do not use commas, and do not have the luxury of time to ponder their choice of words. They need to be able to maintain fluency, and formulaic features make this possible.

Subsequent studies, building on the work of Parry and Lord, have shown that there are marked differences in the ways that oral and literate cultures think about memory, originality, and repetition. In highly literate cultures, there is a tendency to dismiss repetitive or formulaic discourse as cliche; we think of it as boring or lazy writing. In primarily oral cultures, repetition tends to be much more highly valued. Repeated phrases, stories, or tropes can be preserved to some extent over many generations without the use of writing, allowing people in an oral culture to remember their own past. In Greek mythology, Memory (Mnemosyne) is said to be the mother of the Muses, because poetry, music, and storytelling are all imagined as modes by which people remember the times before they were born.

Wilson goes on to consider the implications of the poem’s origins in orality for trying to figure out if there really was an historical Homer, a single author of the great poems — and if so, whether and how we could tell. She also rightly gives some of the Homeric critics a shot in the ribs for their assumptions about oral cultures, which tended not to be drawn from very many historical sources: if Parry had visited with Somali bards rather than singers from the Balkans, he may have come away with very different conclusions.

Orality, even primary orality, before any writing whatsoever, exists in rich and wide varieties. And Homeric orality was probably not so primary as all that: it’s exciting and accessible to us exactly because it’s on that seam between a dominant oral culture and an emerging written one.


Jason’s question is a little bit different. Since I don’t quite remember what he originally asked, I’ll do a very oral-to-literate thing and paraphrase. What do we make of digital media forms like Twitter that are highly interactive and speechlike? Is this a kind of return to orality? Is there a little bit of the Homeric world in our smartphones, where we both “chat” with our mouths and our thumbs?

The answer to this last question is Yes — but in a different way from how it might first appear. We’re a little Homeric because we’re also on the cusp of multiple media regimes, making a great transformation of great civilizations. However, with some exceptions, we’re not especially oral. We’re exceedingly literate. We’re making written language and literacy do things even our grandparents, raised in the age of industrial print, wouldn’t quite recognize.

I used the phrase “primary orality” earlier, and it’s one I borrow from Walter Ong. Ong was a Jesuit priest and influential scholar of language and literature. He was very much in this Milman Parry tradition of thinking about the relationship of orality and literacy to forms of thought and shared culture. You can draw a line from Parry to Eric Havelock, who wrote the influential Preface to Plato, and to communications scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, and from there to Ong, Hugh Kenner, Northrop Frye, and a number of the more dominant media thinkers of the twentieth century in the English language.

What Ong helped conceptualize and popularize, especially in his book Orality and Literacy, was that in cultures with no tradition of literacy, orality had a fundamentally different character from those where literacy was dominant. It’s different again in cultures where literacy is known but scarce.

For instance, we tend to associate writing with official culture. We ask for papers, and papers are official. An official record has an official written form that unofficial forms of writing or any form of speech are considered less proper. Literacy and paper are also widespread enough that we expect everyone to have some paper.

A nonliterate culture, for obvious reasons, doesn’t work that way. You need an entirely different system of conventions to differentiate formal from informal, permanent from ephemeral — those concepts might not have even hold the same relationships to each other. One of those conventions, so common that it even exists outside the species, is song. And the songs we attribute to Homer are, for us, who exist in their shadow, the best songs ever written.

In the Romantic version of the Parry-Lord thesis, the oral world of Homer is a lost paradise, and our post-literate one, a fallen world of lesser creatures. This probably borrows too much from how Homeric poets feigned to feel about themselves relative to the Mycenaean civilizations that preceded them, and how the classical Greeks appeared to feel about Homer. It’s all representation of lost paradises all the way down.

Ong dodges more of this nostalgia than he’s usually given credit for, but there’s still an element of it, one that he sometimes seems to regret. (Regret for Nostalgia would make a good biography title for Ong.) In his case, it’s conflated with a methodological problem — how do we talk about primary orality (the orality of cultures with no knowledge of writing) in a culture that’s saturated with writing, whose entire intellectual edifice is premised on writing? In fact, oral culture never goes away: it persists in its own logic and suborns the existence of writing to its own ends.

Ong’s great example is classical and medieval rhetoric, which used books, book-based scholarly culture, and book-based modes of training to elevate oral argument to exquisite sophistication. You might also look at hip-hop, which seamlessly blends freestyle vocals, dance, graffiti, and turntable manipulation to create new forms of recording and improvisation. It’s never an either-or, but a constant restructuring.


So, as to the original question: are Twitter and texting new forms of orality? I have a simple answer and a complex one, but they’re both really the same.

The first answer is so lucid and common-sense, you can hardly believe that it’s coming from Dr. Time: if it’s written, it ain’t oral. Orality requires speech, or song, or sound. Writing is visual. If it’s visual and only visual, it’s not oral.

The only form of genuine speech that’s genuinely visual and not auditory is sign language. And sign language is speech-like in pretty much every way imaginable: it’s ephemeral, it’s interactive, there’s no record, the signs are fluid. But even most sign language is at least in part chirographic, i.e., dependent on writing and written symbols. At least, the sign languages we use today: although our spoken/vocal languages are pretty chirographic too.

Writing, especially writing in a hyperliterate society, involves a transformation of the sensorium that privileges vision at the expense of hearing, and privileges reading (especially alphabetic reading) over other forms of visual interpretation and experience. It makes it possible to take in huge troves of information in a limited amount of time. We can read teleprompters and ticker-tape, street signs and medicine bottles, tweets and texts. We can read things without even being aware we’re reading them. We read language on the move all day long: social media is not all that different.

Now, for a more complicated explanation of that same idea, we go back to Father Ong himself. For Ong, there’s a primary orality and a secondary orality. The primary orality, we’ve covered; secondary orality is a little more complicated. It’s not just the oral culture of people who’ve got lots of experience with writing, but of people who’ve developed technologies that allow them to create new forms of oral communication that are enabled by writing.

The great media forms of secondary orality are the movies, television, radio, and the telephone. All of these are oral, but they’re also modern media, which means the media reshapes it in its own image: they squeeze your toothpaste through its tube. But they’re also transformative forms of media in a world that’s dominated by writing and print, because they make it possible to get information in new ways, according to new conventions, and along different sensory channels.


Walter Ong died in 2003, so he never got to see social media at its full flower, but he definitely was able to see where electronic communications was headed. Even in the 1990s, people were beginning to wonder whether interactive chats on computers fell under Ong’s heading of “secondary orality.” He gave an interview where he tried to explain how he saw things — as far as I know, relatively few people have paid attention to it (and the original online source has sadly linkrotted away)1:

“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’

I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).

So tweets and text messages aren’t oral. They’re secondarily literate. Wait, that sounds horrible! How’s this: they’re artifacts and examples of secondary literacy. They’re what literacy looks like after television, the telephone, and the application of computing technologies to those communication forms. Just as orality isn’t the same after you’ve introduced writing, and manuscript isn’t the same after you’ve produced print, literacy isn’t the same once you have networked orality. In this sense, Twitter is the necessary byproduct of television.

Now, where this gets really complicated is with stuff like Siri and Alexa, and other AI-driven, natural-language computing interfaces. This is almost a tertiary orality, voice after texting, and certainly voice after interactive search. I’d be inclined to lump it in with secondary orality in that broader sense of technologically-mediated orality. But it really does depend how transformative you think client- and cloud-side computing, up to and including AI, really are. I’m inclined to say that they are, and that Alexa is doing something pretty different from what the radio did in the 1920s and 30s.

But we have to remember that we’re always much more able to make fine distinctions about technology deployed in our own lifetime, rather than what develops over epochs of human culture. Compared to that collision of oral and literate cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean that gave us poetry, philosophy, drama, and rhetoric in the classical period, or the nexus of troubadours, scholastics, printers, scientific meddlers and explorers that gave us the Renaissance, our own collision of multiple media cultures is probably quite small.

But it is genuinely transformative, and it is ours. And some days it’s as charming to think about all the ways in which our heirs will find us completely unintelligible as it is to imagine the complex legacy we’re bequeathing them.

  1. Thank the Internet Archive for the save! See also here.