Competing Methodologies: Orality and Literacy in coexistence

Can orality and literacy coexist? On the face of it it seems a simple question. In our society, for example, orality and literacy coexist in a fairly stable way. Witness the example of a joke, or an urban myth, either of which can go through numerous retellings without being substantially altered, despite their lack of literate codification. In another instance, take a look at medieval European society, where the largest proportion of people did not read or write; their oral traditions developed over time, such as the troubadours, the fabliaux, etc. But these coexisted with the existence of a lettered class of people, who did codify the elements of the oral culture which they thought to be worth preserving, and these codifications, looked at synchronically, failed to substantially affect the perpetuation of an oral tradition. The body of this essay will then look at orality and literacy and their places in African literature, and will, I hope, show that there is no essential volatility to the oral tradition of African literature as a result of literacy.

To begin with, I offer a couple of terms. Illiterate and Inarticulate, where the former signifies a lack of familiarity, or a certain comfort level with the devices and conventions of written literature, and the latter means a lack of familiarity or a certain comfort level with the devices and conventions of oral literature.1 Each, on the face of it, would seek to subsume the other, by, in Spencer-Walters’ words,

the devaluation of orality [as a] colonial preoccupation (p. 2) and [the belief that] colonial literature [was] disabling and chimeral (p.5)

But it is not as simple as even Kalu would make it. Throwing around the gross generalization “western”, where she means “European” she asserts that literacy in an African context seems to separate literature from society due to European methodology. She implies that African thought espouses or engenders unity among disciplines such as art, literature, and cosmology, whereas “western” thought would view these as separate disciplines. But she falls back on Foucault, a “western” thinker4 to begin her essay.

She declares a fallacy in trying to transpose an oral tradition to a literacy context, by saying that

The fallacy here is in the assumption that either Tutuola or Achebe was writing [in English] for the speakers of English (p.29)

If written in English, then for whom other than those equipped to handle the text in English might the text have been written?

Essentially Kalu seems to make her point, that literacy in the world at large overwhelms the oral tradition, by drawing upon the thought methods of the “westerns” she dismisses. There still exist grand oral traditions among the Igbo5, for instance, which don’t seem in any danger of subsumption, as they are so multidimensional that they could not be translated into the strictly written medium. Because of their involvement, though, and the difficulty of presentation other than as a complete whole, the only problem seems to be one of dissemination.

If any problems in analysis and interpretation exist, is this to the detriment of the oral tradition itself, or to its threat as a continued form? I say no. Just as the Mbari, for example, will continue, different methods of analysis and interpretation will always exist for it, and, for that matter, any given text, whether codified in the written or spoken word, the dance, the ritual, or whatever. The analysis is no threat to the text itself. As Derrida has shown us, any sign can take any signifier, and, as analysis is often the attempt to exploit this fact, it has little to do with the survival of the oral tradition in a sea of literacy.

So, can orality and literacy coexist in a stable manner? In a word, yes. Kalu’s arguments have less to do with the thing itself than they have to do with the interpretation of the thing . Its academic or scholastic interpretation will have little to do with its interpretation by those to whom it was addressed, who will encounter no problems with a satisfactory interpretation of their own.

Works Cited

  1. Kalu, Anthonia C. “The Oral Narrative in African Literature: African Literary Theory Revisited”, in Spencer-Walters, Tom, ed.Orality, Literacy and the Fictive Imagination: African and Diasporan Literatures Troy, MI:Bedford, 1998
  2. Spencer-Walters, Tom. “Introduction: The Convergence of Orality and Literacy in African and Diaspora Literatures: An Overview”, in Orality, Literacy and the Fictive Imagination: African and Diasporan Literatures Troy, MI:Bedford, 1998

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