Human beings living at the beginning of the 21st century are freaks, and abnormalities. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing to be an abnormality, but there it is. In the 50,000 years or so that Homo sapiens has been recognisably human, that’s to say using language, playing music and inventing mythologies, our cultures and societies have been articulated, reproduced and recorded orally. An oral culture is not simply a culture without writing and literacy, to be characterised purely negatively. It is a different culture with a different way of conceiving of and inhabiting the world (Ong, 2002). It is a culture in which knowledge is not contained in books which must be silently studied, but in the body of the one who knows, who will then transmit that knowledge by means of stories, poems, song and mnemonic devices (Mignolo, 1995). This must establish a far more intimate connection between people than that that to which we are accustomed in literate societies. There is no reason to suppose that oral transmission is inferior to literary transmission. There is increasing evidence that the oldest and most venerated texts of western culture, the Bible and Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, were imperfect transcriptions of older oral “texts” (Ong, 2002). What’s more, there is no reason to suppose that the world of someone in an oral culture is in any way deficient with respect to the world of a literate person. Rather it will be qualitatively different, articulated exclusively within the resonant, intimate and inclusive medium of sound (McLuhan, 1963). Just as a bat inhabits a qualitatively different world from that of a human, one which is constructed through the medium of sonic echoes, so the oral conception of the world is qualitatively different from the literate one.
This matters when it comes to thinking about globalisation, because one central, yet often overlooked, feature of globalisation is the globalisation of a peculiarly European form of literacy. At its inception, with the advance party of missionaries preparing the territory, teaching the natives to read and write went alongside clothing them and converting them to Christianity. This represented, and continues to represent, an unquestionable hallmark of civilisation and development. I doubt that many people would raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of literacy in the United Nations Development Agency’s Human Development Index (HDI). Given the de facto development of the world since the early days of colonialism, this is hardly surprising. However, this doesn’t mean there is anything natural or inherently superior about a literate conception of the world, it simply demonstrates the extent to which colonialism and European influence generally, were able to dominate the territories that they encountered not only through force, but also through the imposition of alternative conceptual frameworks, in terms of which the dominated were obliged to re-orientate themselves.
None of which is intended as post-colonial hand wringing. I think territorial aggression and domination seem to be a virtual universal constant in human history so we can hardly be surprised that European peoples exploited their technologies for just those reasons. It is equally unsurprising that their conceptual apparatus should end up suffocating indigenous schemata much as the Strangler Fig smothers its host. What’s more, whilst the capitalist political economy that currently dominates the world clearly has its origins in European thought and practice, it no longer respects the well-ordered geo-political system of nation states. Rather those in a position to mobilise capital are able to link up with each other irrespective of geography and tradition (although both these still exert a powerful influence). However, the conceptual framework which we employ in order to map and understand the world and which, consequently, lies at the heart of our understanding of the process of globalisation could have been very different. An interesting, though unfashionable, way of exhibiting this is to try to imagine how peoples unaffected by European colonialism might have conceived of, or still conceive of, time and space.
In his article, “Steel Axes for Stone age Australians” (Sharp, 1952) Lauriston Sharp described how the Yir Yoront aborigines, in what was fast becoming Australia, orientated themselves within a temporal framework that was quite different from that of modern Europeans, one that must have produced an entirely different sense of identity.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Europeans imagine themselves to be irreducible individuals, existing at one moment along a temporal sequence that stretches far into the past and will, presumably, stretch far into the future. The individual is, of course, greatly influenced by his predecessors and by the historical conditions that gave rise to the present, but he is essentially different from them, by virtue of the fact that he is just this one here, occupying precisely this position in the historical progression of time and the geographical expansion of space.
The Yir Yoront, however, did not experience themselves as just this one here. The name of a member of the tribe refers to an ancestral archetype which both defines who the person is and how they are expected to behave. That behaviour, the basic pattern of the person’s life, his or her relations with others in the village and, to a certain extent, his or her personality, is thus experienced as an ahistorical garment which the tribe member wears, the origin of which is to be found, not within the person, but within the archetypes which, in fact, define who the person is.
“A man called Dog–chases–iguana–up–a–tree–and–barks–at–him–all–night–long had that and other names because he believed his ancestral alter ego had also had them; he was a member of the Sunlit Cloud Iguana Clan because his ancestor was; he was associated with particular countries and totems of this same ancestor; during an initiation he played the role of a dog and symbolically attacked and killed certain members of other Clans because his ancestor (…) really did the same to the ancestral alter egos of these men; and he would avoid his mother–in–law, joke with a mother’s distant brother, and make spears in a certain way because his and other people’s ancestors did these things. His behavior in these specific ways was outlined, and to that extent determined for him, by a set of ideals concerning the past and the relation of the present to the past.” (Sharp, 1952)
In one sense this doesn’t seem so different from the European experience. I’m English because my forefathers were English. I associate myself with certain places and symbolically important objects because of my antecedents. What seems to distinguish the case of Dog–chases–iguana–up–a–tree–and–barks–at–him–all–night–long from John Smith is that whereas the later has a personal identity which is constituted in large part by the idiosyncratic choices he makes and fortunes that befall him, the later seems to be defined entirely by his communal heritage, right down to the most idiosyncratic details of his life story. In no aspect of his life can he be considered just this one here, he always orientates himself with respect to a mythological past which is, in fact a-historical. A reasonable objection by a European observer would be that, whilst the psychological disposition of this relation to time might be comprehensible, it would surely not stand up to the contingencies of the real world which would guarantee that the events of an individual’s life would not conform to any pre-ordained archetype. Sharp acknowledges this, but explains it in the following way,
“But when we are informed that Dog–chases–etc. had two wives from the Spear Black Duck Clan and one from the Native Companion Clan, one of them being blind, that he had four children with such and such names, that he had a broken wrist and was left handed, all because his ancestor had exactly these same attributes, then we know (though he apparently didn’t) that the present has influenced the past, that the mythical world has been somewhat adjusted to meet the exigencies and accidents of the inescapably real present.” (Sharp, 1952)
To this extent, the mythical world, as well as producing and defining the world of the present, is also always in the process of being produced. So this oral relation to time might be considered to be homeostatic in nature. Whereas the past for European peoples is nailed down in books and on databases, for the Yir Yoront it is, or was, contained exclusively in memory and that which is forgotten, consequently, ceases to exist. That which does exist, in terms of mythological memory, is in need of continual adjustments to ensure its isomorphism with experiential reality just as experiential reality needs constant adjustments to ensure its isomorphism with the mythological past.
An illustration of the extent to which the Yir Yoront is capable of regulating its reality is shown by the fact that some eighty years before Lauriston Sharp carried out his research, in one of their rare encounters with Europeans, the Yir Yoront were confronted by, and confronted, a party of cattlemen, who, in response, opened fire on them, killing 30 of their number. This was all well recorded by the cattlemen, however in extensive interviews with Yir Yoront just 70 years later they had no collective memory of the events. It had obviously not been considered expedient to preserve that aspect of reality, so it was discarded (Sharp, 1952)
Once again, the reasonable European observer would reasonably say that irrespective of what the Yir Yoront choose to remember or not, the event did take place. It is hard to argue against that. Nonetheless, I am inclined to think that this gets to heart of the conceptual colonialism that the European peoples have so successfully imposed upon the rest of the world. This will be a recurring theme.
Mignolo, W. (1995). The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Colonization and Territoriality. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
McLuhan, M. (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge
Sharp, L. (1952). Steel axes for stone age Australians. Human Organization, 11(1 )