Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale

Article excerpt

Current trends in textual studies have shifted their attention away from traditional text types toward a focus on non-literate sign systems. Specially created archives for orally transmitted text corpora stress this new orientation and the extension of literary studies to "texts" that are no longer "literary" in the narrow sense of the word, that is, "written in letters." Initiated early in this century by Milman Parry's hypotheses regarding the oral character of early Greek epics, the approach has been expanded through field studies, such as Ruth Finnegan's work on African narratives, and related attempts to define features of purely oral (non-literate) cultures. In this context, contemporary research on orality appears to be a continuation of those ethno-linguistic theories which see language as a paradigm that constitutes reality and which try to configure a certain weltbild by analyzing the structure and usage of a given language. As Edward Sapir put it: "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society....The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group" (qtd. in Whorf 74). Whereas early linguists scarcely differentiated between different kinds of media, current research stresses the differences between cultures that are based on orality, handwriting (chirographics), print-technology (typographies), or electronic-data processing.

According to the influential work by Walter J. Ong, the key terms for discussing oral cultures include: "subjectivity," "concreteness," "presence" and "context dependency"; the correlative terms for literate cultures are "objectivity," "abstract thought," "historical perspective" and "objectivizing distance" (36-57). Innocent as they seem, however, these terms can also easily be used to distinguish between the marginalized groups in society and the dominant race, class and gender. Thus in Gynesis, Alice Jardine has compiled a similar list of contrastive pairs when trying to throw light on stereotypes of masculinity and and feminity in Western culture:

Male Female

mind vs. body

techne vs. physis vs.

activity vs. passivity vs.

logos vs. pathos

form vs. matter

same vs. other

Jardine explains that these pairs are always connected with gender-specific connotations and are fundamentally linked with the Western cultural tradition as such (72), so that their recurrence in various discourses about orality and literacy is hardly accidental.

A related potential danger lies in the way that on a long-term basis, oral traditions develop a tendency to support existing systems and have a conservative effect, whereas literate cultures have destabilizing and innovative potential. If these characteristics of oral cultures are consciously used by the elite of a literate culture they can be made to support hierarchical and gender-specific structures. Enforced orality is at odds with the kind of historical scope which contains a revolutionary potential and could consequently threaten the inner equilibrium of the state. By thus controlling the very structures of language and thinking, the leading class is able to consolidate the basis of its monolithic state and keep all others in their assigned positions.

Although the banning of books and the ensuing "orality" of the whole population is a common topos in dystopian literature--of which a classic example is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451--in The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood adopts this dichotomy of literacy and orality in a new gendered way: she depicts not only a comprehensive power structure but one which is designed to suppress women by restricting them to an oral cultural tradition. …

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