Anne Carson in Eros, the bittersweet draws on the work of Eric Havelock postulating a shift in the Greek mind with the coming of literacy. She evokes this line of thought in the following terms:
At the same time, a more private revolution is set in process by the phenomenon of alphabetization. As the audio-tactile world of the oral culture is transformed into a world of words on paper where vision is the principal conveyor of information, a reorientation of perceptual abilities begins to take place within the individual.
An individual who lives in an oral culture uses his senses differently than one who lives in a literate culture, and with that different sensual deployment comes a different way of conceiving his own relations with his environment, a different conception of his body and a different conception of his self. The difference revolves around the physiological and psychological phenomenon of individual self-control. Self-control is minimally stressed in an oral milieu where most of the data important for survival and understanding are channelled into the individual through the open conduits of his senses, particularly his sense of sound, in a continuous interaction linking him with the world outside him. Complete openness to the environment is a condition of optimum awareness and alertness for such a person, and a continual fluent interchange of sensual impressions and responses between the environment and himself is the proper condition of his physical and mental life. To close his sense off from the outside world would be counter-productive to life and to thought.
I quote at length to make a few points: self-control is not alien to an oral culture, indeed regulation of information received is important for sorting out life and thought. Carson’s individual could be a tool maker or a creator of artefacts — and would there not be need for periods of introspection to build and create?
Substitute tool-making for reading and writing in the continuation of her account to see that all that is ascribed to the power of reading and writing can and does exist in prior oral cultures.
When people begin to learn reading and writing, a different scenario develops. Reading and writing require focusing the mental attention upon a text by means of the visual sense. As an individual reads and writes he gradually learns to close or inhibit the input of his senses, to inhibit or control the responses of his body, so as to train energy and thought upon the written words. He resists the environment outside him by distinguishing and controlling the one inside him. This constitutes at first a laborious and painful effort for the individual, psychologists and sociologists tell us. In making the effort he becomes aware of the interior self as a entity separable from the environment and its input, controllable by his own mental action. The recognition that such controlling action is possible, and perhaps necessary, marks an important stage in ontogenic as in phylogenetic development, a stage at which the individual personality gathers itself to resist disintegration.
What I do grant is that reading and writing permit affordances that enhance recursivity. It is easier in writing to inscribe the writing moment into itself. And easier for the reader to be aware of his or her own reading. But self-relexivity is not alien to an oral culture.
Instead of a historiography of rupture between literate and oral eras, one can following Carson’s own triangulation of beloved, lover and the distance between the two, propose a schema between environment, interior self and the distance between them. The structure may vary from historical instance to historical instance but it is not totally absent from any given formation. I still maintain that storytelling in an oral culture demands self-control and writing as a practice can lead the self to disintegrate along lines of flight. In either situation, one can take on or resist voices. Voice-distance-self.
And so for day 1875