Orality and the Problem of Memory

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Orality and the Problem of Memory

A professor of mine once posed the question: “What do you truly know?” My obvious initial response was, “What do you mean, what do I know? Isn’t that why I’m here? To expand upon the wealth of knowledge that I already know?” After tossing the question around for a few days, I finally realized what she was getting at--knowledge equals experience, and experience promotes memory. In today’s culture of hypertext and cyberspace, the opportunities for experiential learning are becoming a thing of the past. The bard has been replaced by digital and virtual technology that effectively stores the information we need to know into a confined space, thus giving the modern literate a license to forget. The elimination of experience squelches memory.

This is the concept that Michael Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman explore in the “Orality and the Problem of Memory,” a chapter in the book Information through the Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. “For us,” they say,

The term ‘memory’ evokes the image of a thing, a container for information, or the content of that container. Thus, from our literate viewpoint, the Iliad preserves the knowledge of the Trojan War. But in jumping to this conclusion, we lose sight of the Iliad as an oral phenomenon, as the singing of a song. It is not so much a thing as an act, a gestalt uniting bard and audience in a shared consciousness. This phenomenon has little in common with that desiccated thing we literates call “memory.” In the world before writing, memory is the social act of remembering. It is commemoration. (15)

The memory of oral culture is a holistic experience, combining mind, sight, and situational relevance. The ba...

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...ity of commemoration continually reinterprets the past in the light of an ever-changing present. In so doing, commemoration enables the community both to cohere in the present and to (re)define its aspirations for the future: memory working forward. (27)

The cohesion of the members of the oral community is achieved because there is no separation of the knower from the known. The meters, sounds, and images can “not be abstracted beyond commemorative practices…they do not constitute information as a separable body of mental objects” (30), but rather function as an aid to memory. Print culture cannot bridge this gap. Although “writing” permits communication over space and time” (13), the reader is forever distanced from the content. There is no immediacy of knowing, no necessity for memory, and the print culture is provided a license to forget.

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