What’s Heard vs. the Written Word: Collisions Between Literacy & Orality

By September 27, 2012New Media

I recently got ahold of Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, a book that tells the story of a tremendous 20th-century upheaval, one which many of us (at least I myself) have taken for granted: the downfall of print media and the origins of an oral “renaissance” led by radio, audio recording technology, television, and film.

It won’t come as news to very many people that print media and with it, the features of a print society, have lately had their share of troubles, viz. declining newspaper circulation (but rising digital subscriptions), the recent bankruptcy of Borders Books, even the disappearance of handwriting from grade school curriculum, etc. This might make it easy to write off (no pun intended) the significance of this decline, but historically speaking, it was very recent that writing and print media were modernity’s only way of archiving itself, the basis of all long-distance communication, as well as the means and the measure by which one became and was judged to be “literate.”

Thus the translators of Gramophone, Film, Typewriter are right to point out how momentous it is that print has found itself overtaken by a return to oral culture. Oral culture once carried the connotation as something that only interested medievalists and scriptural scholars. Now, it is back and bigger than ever, sustained by early technologies like radio, film, and the phonograph, that both extend the range and enable the recording of the human voice.

And yet at least since 1999, when the edition I’m reading was published, the fate of print media has grown less clear. Back then, neither mobile technology nor the Internet had reached maturity. It’s arguable that today, between texts, tweets, email, and blogs like this one, people read and write more now on a daily basis than they probably ever have before. The barriers to entry are certainly much lower today than in the past. Consider this: a typewriter in the late 1800s would have cost you about $100–nearly $2400 today when you adjust for inflation, well over the price of a decent tablet or laptop.

So rather than displacing print, it seems the technology of the oral renaissance has now merged with print in unpredictable ways, and the two have come to supplement one another–hence the increasing emphasis on literacy in multiple modalities, which you’ll not only find in today’s English 101 textbooks but on any website whose designers care about creating an immersive experience.

Allen Ginsberg, 1985

However, what I think is worth pointing out is not that print has reinvented itself to survive in a newly oral-ized culture, but that these kinds of crossings and intersections have been at work for some time. We might wonder what it meant to be a writer when radio, recording, and film were first growing into their own. The Beats are the first to come to mind for me, and their most famous faces–take Kerouac and Ginsburg–were clearly interested in the consequences that the new orality bore upon text. There’s a self-awareness of sound on display that is the hallmark of a culture undergoing an oral renaissance. In particular, their experiments with fusing prose, poetry, and jazz would likely not have been the same without gramophone records of Charlie Parker in easy reach and late night AM transmissions of jazz drifting through the radio. To get what I mean, check out the video below.

I’d like to see both literary and writing studies scholars turn a similar lens upon print media today, so as to move beyond the clichés about dying newspapers and suffering writing skills, and to better understand exactly how the oral renaissance is affecting text’s production.