Tour of Christian History
Powell, Barry. "Text, Orality, Literacy, Tradition, Dictation, Education, and Other Paradigms of Explication in Greek Literary Studies." Oral Tradition 15/1 (2000) 96-125.
Powell, speaking primarily of Homeric studies, sees a myopia among scholars who attempt to interpret Homer using their own cultural context, rather than Homer's. In this article, Powell considers six different features of Homeric studies, reflected in his title. For each, he attempts to describe how the term has been used in a relatively perplexing way (Powell 2000, 96).
The challenge of a textcomes first. Powell maintains that the evidence we possess is a text, consisting of words written in a document. We don't have a non-physical text. Though the poetry was likely an oral composition, at least in part, we are left with a text (Powell 2000, 98). Powell observes that attempts to collect and codify speech always suffer from challenges. They are subject to one type or another of technological failure. Powell suggests that the practice of writing and the oral composition of hexameter verses are not naturally compatible (Powell 2000, 99). Homer's world itself seems nearly devoid of writing and does not understand what writing is for. Thus, it seems clear to Powell that the epic was written down after the time of composition, notduring the composition itself(Powell 2000, 100).
This brings Powell to theconcept of orality. in his view, oral cultures do actually compose works, but they are not in writing (Powell 2000, 100). Many are never written down. Orality, then, is "a Ding an sich with infleunce by no means primitive" (Powell 2000, 101). Orality should not be considered primitive or inferior to literacy, merely different.
Having discussed orality, Powell moves on to literacy. He notes that Ong views writing as enabling thought patterns which are not available in an oral environment (Powell 2000, 103). However, not all literate cultures engage in the same kind of linear thought patterns as the Greeks, who developed a purely alphabetic form of writing. Powell therefore takes literacy to be more fluid than would Ong (Powell 2000, 105). Speech can not necessarily be adequately represented by alphabetic text. In essence, then, Powell considers there to be a significant, though somewhat elusive, distinction between speech and language (Powell 2000, 106).
The nature of tradition is another area which has proven difficult for scholars. Powell observes that literary elements of many stories have parallels in traditions of other cultures (Powell 2000, 108). Identifying the actual roots of these traditions has proven elusive. Homer uses significant pictoral languate, but it doesn't appear to be original. Powell considers it to be borrowed from other cultures (Powell 2000, 109). He suggests then that while people can be multi-lingual and multi-literate, they may also function in multiple cultural and traditional mileus at the same time (Powell 2000, 112).
Powell makes brief mention of the use of writing as it developed, first, for dictation or transcription of oral compositions, then became a means of composition itself, by about 800 B.C. (Powell 2000, 112).
Education is another issue of importance. Powell notes that traditions are passed down through the process of education (Powell 2000, 114). Holding to a tradition is not a denial of originality or a sign of being ignorant. Tradition is seen as a tool which enables communication of important concepts. These concepts, especially as preserved in writing, are passed on through purposeful education (Powell 2000, 116). This process, as writing spread particularly in the Greek world, led to composition in writing rather than oral composition. These compositions frequently took the form of works based on traditional sogs (Powell 2000, 117).
In his conclusion, Powell focuses our attention more directly on Homeric studies. He finds a difference between tie aoidoi, such as Homer and Hesiod, and the rhapsodes, who learned and receited pre-existing works (Powell 2000, 118). Speech, which is always rhythmic, can follow specific rhythmic patterns, thus becoming poetry. The ability to create metrical works, though it requires training, should not surprise us. Writing the metrical work should not be a great surprise, but needs to be seen as an act secondary to the primary work of composition (Powell 2000, 120). Awareness of the progression of technological work and the nature of composition is of great value as we try to avoid interpretive errors.