Putting the life back in science fiction

Orality, Literacy, and Enchantment as a Survival Skill
November 15, 2017, 2:30 am
Filed under: climate change, disasters, futurism, Speculation | Tags: ,

Since I’m avoiding reading two EIRs right now (I commented on a third last week), I figure I might as well play with some ideas that floated up since the previous post, about our modern conceptions of magic being the residue of previous methods for storing and propagating information in an oral culture.  Right now, my bedtime reading is Walter J Ong’s 1982 opus Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.  I wanted to highlight a point that Ong makes in great detail, echoed by others (like Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein): people process data differently depending on whether they know how to read and how to write or not.

Ong breaks the continuum of human experience into three types of culture, although he makes it quite clear (as does Foer) that there’s not just a continuum of cultures, but a diversity of personal states within cultures.  The three classes presented here are a mnemonic device.  Ong’s categories are oral culture, chirographic culture, and typographic culture.  He also goes into what technology is doing to typographic culture, but that’s something else again.  Anyway:

  • Oral cultures (or non-literate people) don’t know how to write.  They experience speech as a totally oral process.  While obviously they know what words mean, they don’t see words as text in their heads, the way everyone who has learned how to read text does.  This has some profound and impacts on how they interact with the world.  Memory is the primary way they store information, and information can only be transmitted from one person to another directly.
  • Chirographic cultures have text, but they do not have printing.  What this means is that they can see words in their heads, so there is the fundamental concept of a word that can be both spoken and written.  Information can thus be abstracted.  Ong gives some interesting examples if how literate, semi-literate, and non-literate people answer questions.  Literate people are much more comfortable with abstractions and abstract questions.  For example, the question “what is a tree?” encourages literate people to scan their knowledge, look for commonalities, and come up with summaries of abstracted categories and characteristics (a plant, generally woody, that you can walk under) that group their experience of trees together.  A non-literate person might answer the same question with, “we’re surrounded by them, and every tree is different.  What kind of a person wants to know what A tree is?”  This doesn’t mean that non-literate people are stupid or ignorant, but they do process information differently.  Chirographic people, though, don’t have the explosion of words that came with the printing press, so they’re limited to the handwritten accounts  (that’s a key word, because it looks like writing always starts as a form of accounting and becomes more general from there as other uses are found).  Because of this, chirographic people likely to not have read huge numbers of books, and to have memorized the texts they did spend quite a lot of time with.  Rote memorization is a norm here.  Handwritten texts may be ornamented simply to help make them more memorable, as well as precious.  Note that our world still depends on chirographic texts.  Apparently the US President’s football contains the equivalent of handwritten orders and information (much of it from previous presidents), and that’s what he can use to start a nuclear war if he so desires.
  • Typographic cultures have access to the printing press, and there’s much less of a limit on how much information is stored outside people’s skulls.  With the printing press, an educated person becomes known less for how much information they have in their skulls, and rather more for being able to find information in external sources.   With widespread printing, memorization becomes less crucial.   Arts like the Method of Loci, which was an essential part of oral culture and a foundation of chirographic education, began to get sidelined, because people simply didn’t have to do massive rote learning of texts.

The differences between oral-based thinking and literary thinking shows up all over the place, if you believe Ong.  Rather than summarize them, I’ll leave you to read the text and judge for yourself whether you agree.  A lot of his points are about how people know things, the degree to which they abstract and categorize them, and the way creativity works.  A big example is the idea of formulas, which make it easier to memorize things in an oral context.  The Iliad and Odyssey are full of them, stock lines (clever Odysseus, blue-eyed Athena) that conform in Greek to the proper rhyme scheme.  If you’re reciting poetry, having a stock of standard lines, cliches, and other formulas makes it easier to recite, and having an understanding of plot modules makes it easier to your stock of formulas into art.  Today, second-rate business leaders use buzzwords in their speech to much the same effect.  Yesterday, I had a meeting with a Republican Congressman’s Chief of Staff, and got treated to a great example of repeated bullet points.  To someone who is extremely writing oriented, such speech is cartoonish and annoying, but to someone in a more oral tradition, this is the way you string ideas together, cliche by cliche (and yes, I did just accuse a Republican of being illiterate, didn’t I?  He’s obviously not).

Nowadays, we’re well past Ong, and into generations of “digital natives,” for whom memorization and even handwriting are silly relics of the past.  They start with keyboards, are trained that knowledge is for looking up, and that the best way to be good little worker drones is to be content producers (e.g. creatives, scientists, and engineers).  Control of information by the upper classes is as prevalent as it ever was.

One thing to realize is that as always, there is a wide spectrum of ability.  Even now, there are illiterates, just as there are people on both sides of the so-called “digital divide.”  Prior to the printing press, most people were illiterate, and the number of illiterate people stayed fairly high up into the twentieth century.  Indeed, Ong draws on studies (by Soviet researchers in Kazakhstan, of illiterate bards in Yugoslavia) to demonstrate the differences between how non-literate and literate people interact with others, process the world, and pass on information.

On big impetus for such work were arguments over the origin of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  This wasn’t just whether Homer wrote it, but whether he created the texts or was copying down a previously oral tradition.  Analysis back about a century ago demonstrated that the works were highly formulaic and cliched, and later work with the Yugoslavian bards demonstrated how the use of formulas, cliches, and standard structures allows them to perform lengthy pieces from a totally oral tradition.  Homer wrote down his versions of the Odyssey and the Iliad, and we’ll never know how similar to other bard’s works these epics were, unless some other text surfaces.

Ong’s work also highlighted just how hard it is for literate people to get inside the worldviews of non-literate people.  We’re not used to not being able to abstract spoken words into text.  We think in categories, not just in things.  We’re used to learning alone from a book, as much as from listening to and watching other people.  Having the Word as a thing that can be both written and spoken, heard and seen, changes the way we handle information, and it’s no surprise that The Word is deified in religions that rely on written texts.

In each case, chirography, typography, or digitography (gack!), some human functions are outsourced to tools and machines, at least by some people.  This is a tradeoff, because it opens up new abilities at the cost of old ones, allows abstraction at the cost of memory.  Under normal conditions the cost is not just easy to pay but often mandatory.  In emergencies, though, our lack of primitive skills may bite us.  A bunch of survival books on your computer isn’t the same thing as having them in paper, and neither is as good as having the knowledge in your head, practiced and ready to go, if an emergency hits.

The idea of (re)enchantment as a survival tool is that we need to train our memories to hold lots of information and remember it for years with only the most minimal of external memory storage.  Ways to make memorable things include funny songs (music and humor are both memorable), cliches, buzzwords, sayings and slogans (if they work for politicians and businesscritters, why not put them to use saving your life? ), dances (for non-spoken knowledge) and so forth.  When you think about the skill you would have to use to turn ten ways of making fire into an earworm that someone can sing on a chilly evening to help them get their fire lit, you realize why I’d call anyone who could do that an enchanter (singer into) or a magician.

The thing Ong’s making me realize is that it’s not as simple as learning Lynne Kelly’s methods (which should be published in 2019, according to her blog) to memorize mass quantities of information, which you’ll use along with your bug-out bag to get to wherever it is you flee to when your culture shatters. This is good, but not sufficient.  How do you teach your less “-graphic” heirs and descendants?  They’re not going to have the books, or maybe even the writing utensils, you had.  Can they even understand what you’re talking about?  For example, here’s a musical introduction to a crucial bit of biology.  This would be fun to use in biology class as a  memory prodder, but imagine teaching this to someone who never learned to read.  Can it help them? This is why, if we’re worried about cultural survival (or, just possibly, the survival of our species) we need enchanters to pass on the information our descendants need to survive, thrive, and remember us.  We need people who understand how to figure out what matters, and then develop the methods to educate apprentices who won’t have the resources we currently do.  Of course we hope they have printing presses and paper, but even in a chirographic world, memory matters.


4 Comments so far
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Starting fire became really easy only with the development of practical friction matches in the 1830s. Did 1820s New Yorkers learn practical fire starting skills from primarily from dances or songs? Perhaps in places where literacy was much less common at the time, like small villages in Russia, was such knowledge preserved mainly via song and dance? (It seems *weird* if so, but the past is often bracingly weird to someone born in the Anglosphere in the 20th century. More weirdness welcome!)

The printing press predates the Industrial Revolution and the fossil binge by centuries. Even if the end of fossil fuels means the end of industrial society, I don’t see typographic culture dying with it. The printing press is another one of those historical “ratchets” that doesn’t seem like it will easily spin backward.

Comment by Matt

Yes, printing presses are fairly straightforward. Paper’s doable, although getting the nice white clay that we use on writing paper now would be hard. The tricky bit making sure that the hobbyists who use primitive letterpress and papermaking to survive a crash, ideally with their tools intact. That’s where it gets a little trickier still.

However, what I’m less sure about, because I don’t hang out in survivalist forums, is whether the people who prep to bug out and go primitive after society collapses have thought through the problem of passing on information. If they’re not equipping their bunkers with papermaking equipment and a press (as well as a source of fiber, water, inks, and whatnot), they’re going to have to think about what to do when the books wear out or they can’t get their kids to read. This is where techniques like songlining and memory palaces come into their own, because they’be demonstrably worked, no real technology required. Moreover, they’re primitive skills, so that would appeal to a certain, erm, discerning type of prepper.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’m guessing that in primitive cultures most learning would occur in the family home and would not have a definite start date, set proficiency targets, or other contemporary measures/indices of success. In fact, most learning would not even appear to be ‘learning’ at all but only doing normal routine ‘everyday’ tasks. It’s only the non-routine or occasional tasks that would need to be treated to some sort of specialized learning scheme – possibly why our ancestors’ every day is harder to reconstruct than the glitzy once a year celebrations.

WRT to memorization – Modern times has even more data for the average person to remember, hence the widespread use of acronyms as a method of data compression and simplified retrieval.

BTW – thanks for pointing out the A Cappela Science videos – great stuff.

Comment by SFreader

Well, most learning gets passed along this way. The special stuff (genealogy, medicine, what to do in an infrequent emergency, where the water holes are) reportedly get taught differently, because the knowledge is infrequently used. If it is memorized informally, errors creep in that could be deadly. This knowledge was the focus of the ritualization that Kelly describes. I’d point out, from other reading, that with the Australian aborigines, one of the major causes of fights (other than relationships, stealing women, and other hot buttons) was the misuse of ritual knowledge. To me it sounds like the equivalent of bringing weapons to an academic brawl, but I can sort of see why they’d care so much, if people were goofing around with knowledge (as we always do) that was supposed to remain inviolate just in case. Or if, at least, the people who thought they had the knowledge thought that other people were debasing it.

Comment by Heteromeles

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