January 30, 2008

What is the Purpose of my Blog?

This blog functions as the academic blog site of me, Stephanie Gai, student of the MA in Teaching Writing program at Humboldt State University. The purpose of this blog, other than to satisfy Dr. David Stacey's class requirements, is to marry modern technology with my current Master's studies, which combines modern rhetoric, improvisational creativity, genre theory, and developmental theory, as a means of developing a writer's ability to critically think, analyze, and compose.

How do we do the above? That's a good question and one I hope to soon answer for myself; I'm sure David's class will help me explore available options.

Before I get to the meat of the matter, I want to address Andrew Parker Nebin's timeless political speech written in 1895 and first published in the October 28, 1905 edition of Princeton's alumni magazine. Dr. Kathleen Doty introduced the class to this speech through her Moodle site, "The Joy of Kairotica," as a means of showing the power and skill of a good rhetorician. The purpose of this speech is to suit any candidate of any persuasion for any purpose. Nebin uses language and metaphors vague enough to be about anything, and he uses terms that incite and excite patriotism. He speaks of "
the crimson sunset [that] follows the golden sunshine" and "pressing onward and upward," both of which connote the Western ideal of exploration or duty. Words like "horizon," "drifting," "cloud," "future," "guided," "aspirations," "duty," "goal," "spirit," and "energizing" excite the listener, while words such as "perish" and "not drifting" speak to a nation's fears of growing stagnant or old. Brilliant.

Moving on, I have only read seven pages of David Blakesley's Burkian The Elements of Dramatism, and I already have something to say. Having recently reread a part of Walter Ong's 1980 book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, I find Burke's 1967 publication,
Language as Symbolic Action, an insensitive affront to our oral beginnings (as children and as a civilization). Granted, Burke wrote Language as Symbolic Action thirteen years before Ong wrote Orality and Literacy, but the symbol-central ideas of "naive verbal realism" overlook benefits and values of an oral culture.

In his essay, Burke describes naive verbal realism as the "refus[al] to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality" (p 5). What does he mean by symbolicity? Symbols? Symbol systems? The word "symbolicity" does not exist in the Oxford English Dictionary. While I admire those who are brave enough to make new forms of words (i.e. James Joyce), it would be helpful to include some explanation or a full context. I assume the root is "symbol," but the definition of the the first noun is religious: "A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian Church..." The second noun is obsolete, and the verb is described as "to make signs or signals."

So what does Burke mean to say in the phrase "naive verbal realism?" When the word "naive" appears before the word "verbal," it implies that those who rely on a verbal existence remain naive, which seems to place literate communities in a superior position. In short, here is what I get from Burke's phrase: the naive verbal realist is literate, but does not, and cannot, fully understand the affect that symbols has on them and on their world.

Ong challenges the notion that literate societies are superior. He asserts that with the invention of symbols and writing, literate humans began to free up their mind for more abstract thought. Unfortunately, the increased reliance on writing as a storage medium diminished the human capacity for memory; less practice equals less skill, which is quite possibly the balancing element between oral and literate societies.

Moreover, because symbols are so deeply ingrained and internalized in the literate person's being, they cannot even minutely separate the two. In Ong's
Orality, as he explains his dislike of the oxymoronic term "oral literature," he posits that literate people cannot imagine a world without symbols, and he proves that by asking his obviously literate audience to try to describe a horse to someone who is familiar with automobiles, but has never seen a horse. One cannot simply think of a horse in terms of an automobile; a wheelless automobile is in no way truly similar to an actual horse. To Ong, literature is written, and oral genres are purely oral; they are horses and automobiles. Furthermore, the term "oral literature" is a perfect example of how literate people cannot separate verbal from written. To many of us, "literature" refers to stories, myths, narratives, and poems, which are generally written or printed in our culture. The person who first referred to oral traditions as "oral literature" unthinkingly aligned stories with literature.

Is this a tangent? Yes and no.

As I read on in Blakesley's book, I find that my impression of Burke's insensitivity becomes murky. While Burke does not express an overt awareness of or an interest in the value of an oral culture, and therefore seems to inadvertently assert the superiority of literacy (or symbol systems), he does not exactly discount oral traditions. He seems to integrate the importance of verbal messages into his emphasis on symbolic action.

One is concerned with orality, and the other is concerned with symbols.
Are Burke and Ong horses and automobiles?

1 comment:

David said...

Hi Stephanie,

If I have time, I’d cut and paste this comment into your blog comment section, but I got a lot to do, so…

I think by “na├»ve verbal realism” Burke means something close to what Ong is saying, perhaps real real close: the ubiquity of symbols. He’s going after things like “words mean what they say” or “a word has only one meaning.” He’s saying that people who discount the power of words to create a reality are being “realistic” about “reality” and they’re narrowing their outlooks by doing so. “There’s language, and then there’s reality,” is their attitude, not his.

That’s my take on it, anyway. But I like how you’re taking the time to move through some difficult ideas, and taking the care to compare a couple of different readings.

For an interesting criticism of Ong et al., put “Patricia Bizzell” and “Ong” into compile, and or google, and see what you come up with.