The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies

The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies

The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies

The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies


"Who speaks? The author as producer, the contingency of the text, intertextuality, the ""device""-core ideas of modern literary theory-were all pioneered in the shadow of oral literature. Authorless, loosely dated, and variable, oral texts have always posed a challenge to critical interpretation. When it began to be thought that culturally significant texts-starting with Homer and the Bible-had emerged from an oral tradition, assumptions on how to read these texts were greatly perturbed. Through readings that range from ancient Greece, Rome, and China to the Cold War imaginary, The Ethnography of Rhythm situates the study of oral traditions in the contentious space of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinking about language, mind, and culture. It also demonstrates the role of technologies in framing this category of poetic creation. By making possible a new understanding of Maussian ""techniques of the body"" as belonging to the domain of Derridean ""arche-writing,"" Haun Saussy shows how oral tradition is a means of inscription in its own right, rather than an antecedent made obsolete by the written word or other media and data-storage devices."


Olga V. Solovieva

What do the learning of the Druids, the abbé Rousselot’s “speech inscriber,” and Marcel Jousse’s little dancing girls have in common? The answer resides in the pocket of any user of a cell phone today. Every “text” we send or receive participates in embodied orality. To be sure, a “text” is made of letters, but letters supplementing what is conventionally known as writing with abbreviations, misspellings, diacriticals, capitals, emoji— introducing hybridity into the alphabet and making it a distance- projection of the gesticulating body.

If this is “secondary orality,” it is nonetheless not that predicted by Marshall McLuhan from his observations of the rise of radio and television in the 1950s. Those “post-Gutenberg” media simply recorded and transmitted speech as speech, perhaps increasing the presence of spoken words in our lives but not changing substantially the ontological status of oral versus written communication. Our habits of electronic mediation now tacitly reverse the very episteme that understood orality simply as the absence of writing. Text messaging pulls writing into the orbit of orality while capturing the movements of orality in a “writing machine.”

But this new paradigm, as always, is not entirely new. Though orally transmitted, the Druids’ sacred knowledge, we learn, was wired into the priestly minds like writing through decades of memorization. Rousselot’s phonautograph wrote down individual modulations of speech to capture forms of orality usually treated as peripheral to the system of language. Jousse, the inventor of the so-called rhythmocatechism, interpreted the . . .

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