Oral Cultures

Art by Atjecoutay
Oral culture differs very much from literate culture which is in possession of alphabets, writing, print and electronic media. In a tribal culture which is primarily an ‘oral’ culture, the knowledge needs to be organized in such a way that it is easy to recall. In a tribal culture, which is deeply embedded in an oral intellectual structure, sound, speech and memory play a fundamental role. Thus, knowledge is stored and retrieved in and through memory. Things have to be committed to memory and then recalled.
Unlike literate cultures, given the interpersonal immediacy that is required in orality, oral/tribal cultures show a remarkable tendency towards conformity to the group and adherence to tradition. In oral cultures people tend to solve problems by common consensus and in the tradition of the tribe. Oral cultures also institutionalize public pressure on individuals to ensure conformity to tribal modes of behavior. Orality tends to encourage personality structures which manifest strong kinship patterns. Given the close-knit tribal kinship pattern, conformity to the tribe is seen as an important value.
Orality, which organizes its complete supply of knowledge around memory, speech and personal immediacy, entails certain characteristic features. Oral cultures prefer a descriptive approach in their interpretation of reality. This interpretation tends to reflect their proximity to the life-world with which they are most familiar. Further, given the interpersonal immediacy that is required in orality, oral cultures tend to have a strong ‘communitarian’ dimension. Instead of abstractions and analytical categories we find in oral cultures a basic orientation towards descriptive approach to reality in the form of myths, stories, and songs. Vast amount of descriptions arranged according to formulations of memory skills are possible in oral cultures. Thus, oral cultures show predominantly descriptive tendency, which is close to the life-world.
In the above context, Plato’s lamentation over the disappearance of orality and the use of script is highly significant: “The discovery of alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust external written characters and not remember of themselves… You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will gradually know nothing” (McLuhan et al. 1967: 113). Oral world of Plato is a lively world full of epics, verbal contests, debates, rhetoric, and dialogues – all spoken words. Written and printed word is inert, it is tucked away in manuscripts and books. It does not have the same dynamism of the spoken word.
Tribal myths, which embody a significant portion of tribal worldview, follow the same patterns exhibited by the predominance of oral-aural culture. The same is true of epics, which are prime examples of oral structures. Originally they were either sung or recited by specialists who did not ‘memorize’ verbatim, they rather assimilated the narrative in terms of themes and formula. They used striking visual symbols in their narratives. If the poets did not engage in the activity of repetition, saying things again and again, then, much of the knowledge in an oral-aural culture would disintegrate. The mystery of the universe and the wonder of the world are what speak to us through all myths and rites.
Literally when a worldview is established in written form, most will take this as the ultimate truth. Thought out written history we find that it is usually the oppressor who writes the stories for the ones who have been oppressed, we can find the evidence of this manipulation of the written word, in the Aryan invasion of india or the bering strait theory, these are examples of the inconsistency in the literate cultures, that have no truth in the oral history of tribal peoples of the world !
Tribal-oral cultures have coexisted with the natural world for millions of years, whereas the literate cultures in comparison have only existed for a very short period of time, and in doing so have managed to destroy most of the natural world, in its effort to dominate, subjugate and to tame the wild, though this domestication of people, animals and land, we have the current dysfunctional condition of our species, who will eventually destroy its ability to live with the earth, in other words most of us have been coerced through the written word to cooperate and then to collaborate with this destruction.
Though our eating habits – monoculture plants, animal agriculture where the deforestation happens to accomodate these industries, ocean fishing industry, gas and oil and other products that need the natural resources to feed an industrial society, who depends on them for survival. All this effort have written policies in government that make the destruction legal and acceptable.