Thursday, December 30, 2010

on songs, tales, and paroles

In the summer of 2005 I settled upon the metaphor of langue and parole to express my view of the relationship between any particular expression of a living tradition and that tradition per se. These terms—langue and parole—are technical terms in structural linguistics. Langue refers to the "system of language," the patterns and rules and conventions that precede and enable any specific utterance. Parole refers to a specific, particular utterance, an actualization of the language-system, a concrete mobilization of the potential provided by langue. The important point for my purposes is that you can never speak langue; that is, you can never say everything that a language-system enables you to say. I can read the finite number of sentences in a book or on a blog, but I can never read all the sentences in the English language. As a language-system, "English" enables an infinite number of sentences. "English" is the potentiality—the langue—that enables the sentences—the paroles—you're reading now.

The problem I was addressing via this metaphor isn't new in oral tradition studies. Albert Lord, in his seminal 1960 work, The Singer of Tales, entitled his fifth chapter, "Songs and the Song" (99–123). According to this distinction, the plural "songs" refers to any specific performance of the tradition (or parole), and the definite singular "the song" refers to the tradition itself, the langue that precedes and envelops "songs" but is itself unsingable, unutterable, only ever potential. Lord refers to "the song" as "a flexible plan of themes, some of which are essential and some of which are not" (99). And, consequentially, the transmission and preservation of "the song" in these terms differs dramatically from from the transmission and preservation of any given parole. Lord says of the singer of "the song":
His idea of stability, to which he is deeply devoted, does not include the wording, which to him has never been fixed, nor the unessential parts of the story. He builds his performance, or song in our sense [i.e., parole], on the stable skeleton of narrative, which is the song in his sense [i.e., langue]. (99)

If all of this seems a bit confusing, think about any of the seemingly endless versions of any classic Christmas song we've been listening to for the last five weeks. I heard at least three different versions of "Santa Baby" this month, one each by Eartha Kitt, Madonna, and Taylor Swift. These songs are all very different in terms of their style and their affect, and they each evoke a different response from me (e.g., I viscerally hate Madonna's version). Their words may be exactly the same across all three versions (though I haven't checked whether or not they are), but the variation between them is important. So what makes them the same song? And what enables their variations without any of these versions becoming "a different song"? These are the questions I'd like to see us raise, mutatis mutandis, of the four gospels.

In order to raise a similar issue, John Miles Foley refers to the "tale within a tale" in his 1995 book, The Singer of Tales in Performance, which in its very title evokes Lord's earlier work:
[W]e could observe that any performance/version is fundamentally a "tale within a tale," with the avenues of implication necessarily running both ways. The present tale [parole] both enriches and is enriched by the larger, implied tale [langue]—itself unperformed (and unperformable) but metonymically present to the performer and audience" (48, n. 44)

In fact, I first read Foley's book in the summer of 2005, so my landing on the langue/parole metaphor to express these issues was in direct response to Foley's discussion.

All of this comes back to my mind because I'm reviewing The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres (A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Today I started John Miles Foley's essay, "Plentitude and Diversity: Interactions between Orality and Writing" (103–18). In the overview to his article, Foley refers to "rule-governed variation" and the navigation of "webs of potentials" (103), both of which get at precisely the issue of how any "oral-derived text" relates to the living tradition it expresses. These phrases, I think, provide a more helpful way for thinking about how the gospels, for example, relate to each other and to the larger "Jesus tradition" of which they are but individual instances or expresses (paroles). Indeed, the phrase "rule-govered variation" nearly depends on the langue/parole metaphor for its explanatory power: the set of rules that governs variation in the expression of any tradition is the system of potentials (langue) that enables the expression (parole) in the first place.

Gambl[ing] again, a story of relapse

I've returned to Harry Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). But it's okay. I can stop whenever I want to.

The first part of Gamble's fifth and final chapter, "The Uses of Early Christian Books" (203–41), begins with a discussion of the form and function of written texts in early Christian liturgical practice. (Recall that Gamble spent considerable time discussing the form of early Christian texts—as codices [i.e., books]—in a previous chapter, where he postulated the Pauline epistolary collection as the formative influence over the early Christians' preference for the codex over the scroll; see my comments here.) The opening sentence deserves citing here:
Books are written to be read, but they are read for many purposes and in many contexts, and the act of reading varies accordingly. (203)

I have argued elsewhere that what it means to read is, for us, so self-evident that we assume we know what we're looking at when we find people doing it in ancient texts. When Jesus stands up ἀναγνῶναι ("to read") the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, he must be doing the same thing I do when I read Isaiah 61, right? Of course, he's physically handling a scroll rather than a book; but still, his eyes and his brain are doing the things my eyes and brain are doing, right? Of course, the problem here is that what Luke reports that Jesus read doesn't exist on a page anywhere, until, that is, Luke writes it. If Luke can emphasize the image of Jesus reading the way he does in 4.16–21 and still report a nonexistent text, and all this without any sense whatsoever that anything is amiss, perhaps to read doesn't mean what we think it means. I know, I know: Inconceivable!

Gamble goes on to provide a marvelous explanation of the act of reading in antiquity. He makes a lot of the difficulty presented by scriptio continua ("continuous script"), though I think we need to recognize that no one in antiquity complained of the lack of spaces between words (at least, not as far as I am aware; Gamble certainly doesn't provide an instance of such a complaint). Even so, reading the "relentless march of characters across the lines and down the columns" (203) involved the voice and the ears in a way that "reading" in the modern sense doesn't, as ancient readers "organized [written syllables] as much by hearing as by sight into a pattern of meaning" (204). This aspect of "reading" in antiquity results in a more broadly social dynamic of texts, a social dynamic that vitiates, somewhat, the modern dismay at the shockingly low levels of literacy that scholars have estimated for antiquity since, at least, Harris's landmark study, Ancient Literacy: "the illiterate were as capable as the literate of hearing books read. Thus the absence of literacy had limited consequences in the context of public reading" (205; remember Gamble's phrase, participation in literacy, which I discussed here).

Gamble turns to the function of written texts in the early synagogues as an entrée into the function of texts in the early churches. The relation between Palestinian synagogal practices and the practices of synagogues in the Greek Diaspora is unclear.
It is less clear whether strictly Gentile Christian communities of the first century, though they were often spawned from hellenistic-Jewish missions, adopted synagogue usages. For these reasons it cannot be uncritically assumed that scripture reading belonged from the outset to specifically Christian worship or, if it did, that it played the same role that it did in the synagogue. (212)

Gamble may be right, but we need to remember that we're talking about specifically liturgical (i.e., as part of the worship service) uses of texts. The point is less debatable that the early Christians, like their Jewish neighbors, were from the start oriented toward textual traditions irrespective of whether and/or how written texts functioned as part of their worship. Behind a number of our earliest evidences (Paul [1 Corinthians], Matthew, Acts) are specifically and emphatically textual sources of tradition, even if those sources functioned symbolically more than textually. Paul is emphatic that Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection happened "according to the scriptures," even though he doesn't bother to clarify which, specifically, he has in mind. Matthew famously links to written biblical tradition in his account of Jesus, even to the point of explaining Jesus' return to erets Israel in terms of Hosea (11.1). Acts, too, appeals to written authorities in the disciples' actions in chapter 1, in the first presentation of the gospel in chapter 2, in Paul's denunciation of the Roman Jews in chapter 28, and at nearly every point in between. Whatever the early Christians did in their worship services, they were oriented to their world, at least in part, by means of written texts.

I'm also a little skeptical of an important assumption about written texts that Gamble accepts (uncritically, I might say); in an off-handed comment he says, "the text was fixed" (227). In light of the amazing textual fluidity we find within and between manuscripts, I'm not sure how we can say this. I assume he means that once a manuscript was written, that manuscript was no longer subject to change. This is close to true, though we are awash with ancient manuscripts that have been "corrected" (or simply emended) by later hands, sometimes by multiple later hands. Writing a manuscript was not the same as inscribing a stone tablet or stele. But Luke's citation of Isa. 61 in Luke 4, Mark's reference to "Isaiah" in Mark 1.2–3, James' enigmatic reference to "the scripture" in 4.5, and a host of other examples serve to suggest that if "the [written] text," ἡ γραφή with all its theological freight, "was fixed," its fixity looked and functioned rather differently than the stability of our own printed texts.

Gamble makes another interesting point, especially in the face of the claim made recently by a number of scholars (e.g., Richard Horsley) that written texts were prohibitively expensive. In his explication of "the private use of Christian books" (231–37), Gamble argues that Christian texts were rather widely available to anyone who wanted them and that Christian preachers often expected their hearers to have access to make use of written texts. Indeed, the problem for these preachers was often that not enough of their hearers did so! "Apparently the problem was not that Christian books were especially difficult or expensive to procure for private use, but that few troubled to obtain them, and fewer still to read them" (233). This doesn't suggest that Christians were broadly or usually literate; Origen, for example, "certainly does not assume the literacy of all Christians, but he does presuppose the availability of texts to those who could read" (232). The material costs of written texts, apparently, were not nearly as high a hurdle as the educational costs. Gamble concludes,
It seems clear that literate Christians were able to obtain Christian texts for private reading. Because the matter of their cost almost never comes up, expense does not appear to have been an obstacle. Some cost was involved, no doubt, but it was not prohibitive for most. (237)

Finally, Gamble raises the question of "the magical use of Christian books" (237–41), which provides perhaps the most striking difference between ancient and modern uses of written texts. Gamble rightly rejects the idea that only the common, vulgar populace used texts "magically"; Origen, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all attest such uses. The issue is interesting, and Gamble's discussion of it is helpful if only too brief.

Overall, this is a great book that deserves its near-classic status. For those of you interested in media criticism, literacy, the form and/or function of written texts in Christian antiquity, or a host of related questions, I highly recommend Gamble's book.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

a fortuitous find

I have assigned a selection of readings from Plutarch's Moralia (the Quaestiones romanae et graecae) and from Seneca's Epistles (the Epistulae morales) in my graduate course, World of the New Testament. I'm interested in both Plutarch and Seneca as presentations of features of the Greco-Roman world from elite, pagan perspectives. Plutarch explicitly is trying to explain features of Latin culture to his Greek readers; Seneca, on the other hand, is exploring and commending certain behaviors or ways of thinking to his friend, Lucilius.

I'm certainly no Latin scholar; still less do I know anything about Seneca. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across the following:
I shall therefore send to you the actual books; and in order that you may not waste time in searching here and there for profitable topics, I shall mark certain passages, so that you can turn at once to those which I approve and admire. Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly. (Seneca, Ep. 6.5–6)

Seneca's view of texts—what they are, what they're good for, and how to use them properly—is particularly interesting to me, given my own interests in media criticism and Christian origins. Seneca is a member of the Roman elite social class (he was Nero's tutor!), highly educated, familiar with the range of philosophical texts produced by and for the Greek and Roman upperclasses, able to live a life of relative leisure even in comparatively difficult times (see Ep. 1.4), and sufficiently resourced to send a barrage of letters to a friend who is physically distant from him. Even so, Seneca is no raw bibliophile; he isn't interested in amassing and reading texts for their own sake (see Ep. 2). Instead, although he exhibits familiarity with texts from outside his favored Stoic tradition (Epicurean, Platonic, etc.), he exhorts Lucilius to confine himself to familiar and more profitable texts. Reading too many texts is akin to knowing too many people, and being a friend to none (Ep. 2.2).

So how does Seneca suppose texts function (or ought to function) in order to maximize their benefit? Texts only work properly, according to the excerpt quoted above, within the context of social relationship. The value to Lucilius of Seneca's Moral Epistles isn't in the reading but in the relationship between the two men established prior to the epistles and evoked, strengthened, and furthered by means of the texts. Similarly, Cleanthes embodied and furthered Stoic philosophy via his relationship with Zeno rather than by reading his texts. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, of Socrates' followers; indeed, famously Socrates didn't even leave behind any textual remains!

And so Seneca says (and this really is quite amazing), "Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns." The written text enables Seneca to face and overcome the problem of geographical distance (he is physically removed from his friend, Lucilius). But the text is no substitute for the interpersonal relationship and interaction that is given concrete expression in face-to-face conversation; indeed, the text—when it behaves properly—mimics social interaction. Seneca becomes present to Lucilius via the written text. For this reason, Lucilius read a different text than the one before me; when I read Seneca, there is no extratextual relationship invoked (and evoked) in my act of reading.

Notice that this is a far cry from the standard opposition between "orality" and written texts we find in much biblical scholarship. We're not juxtaposing oral tradition over and against written text. Rather, we're on the lookout for how written texts functioned in a world conditioned by and geared toward the actual social engagement of human beings with one another. Thus the significance of Seneca's allusion to social script of autopsy (eyewitness testimony) when he says men prefer their eyes to their ears. On the surface this may seem to elevate written texts—accessed with the eyes—over spoken words—perceived with the hear. But in fact this is exactly the opposite of Seneca's point! Seneca privileges the concrete experience of knowledge shared through interpersonal relationships (including words spoken between people) over that gained second hand, through the reports of someone else or mediated by means of written reports.

My Visual Bookshelf