Notes for Eric A. Havelock The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Preset


1 Program of Investigation
(6) Ancient interpretations, no less than their modern equivalents, seemed to require that a metalanguage be imposed on the originals. A desire to explain why this was so may be said to have been the starting point for everything I have since published concerning the orality problem in Greece and beyond Greece.
(9) The invention [of Greek symbols] for the first time made possible a visual recognition of linguistic phonemes that was both automatic and accurate.

2 Introducing the Muse
(22) But as he [the husband in Euripides
Hippolytus] reads, he exclaims spontaneously, “The tablet shouts, it cries aloud. Look, look at what I have seen in written letters (en graphais) – a song speaking aloud!” (II. 877-880).

3 The Modern Discovery of Orality
(25) The works in question were
La Pensee Sauvage (Levi-Strauss), “The Consequences of Literacy” (Goody and Watt, an extended article), The Gutenberg Galaxy (McLuhan), Animal Species and Evolution (Mayr), and Preface to Plato (Havelock).

A fundamental question that texts and technology studies implies is whether thought qualitatively changes with media practices.

(27) technologies of communication as they vary exercise a large measure of control over the content of what is communicated. . . . More simply, did human beings once think differently from the way we do now, and do we now think differently from the way we may think in the future?

4 Radio and the Rediscovery of Rhetoric
(32-33) The electronic media to which we have attended ever since World War I have not, however, returned us to that primary orality and they never could. Beside and below the acoustic message there still lurks the written message.

5 Cross-Cultural Collisions
(39) A more radical question would be to ask: May not all logical thinking as commonly understood be a product of Greek alphabetic literacy?

6 Can a Text Speak?

Can a text speak obviously a different question now that we have formant synthesis.

7 Speech Put in Storage

Efficiency and distribution of Greek alphabet; invention of consonant first visual economical and exhaustive representation of linguistic noise.

(59) Surely, of all systems of communication used by man, the Greek alphabet has proven to be historically unique in its efficiency and its distribution.
(60) The Greeks did not “add vowels” (a common misconception: vowel signs had already shown up as in Mesopotamian Cuneiform and Linear B) but invented the (pure) consonant. In so doing they for the first time supplied our species with a visual representation of linguistic noise that was both economical and exhaustive: a table of atomic elements which by grouping themselves in an inexhaustible variety of combinations can with reasonable accuracy represent any actual linguistic noise. The invention also supplied the first and last instrument perfectly constructed to reproduce the range of previous orality.

Transformation of oral to written muse; can command let us compute likewise be replaced by interface manipulation?

(62) The use of vision directed to the recall of what had been spoken (Homer) was replaced by its use to invent a textual discourse (Thucydides, Plato) which seemed to make orality obsolete. Here was a paradox indeed of dialectical process, of transformational change. The singing Muse translates herself into a writer: she who had required men to listen now invites them to read.

8 The General Theory of Primary Orality

9 The Special Theory of Greek Orality

10 The Special Theory of Greek Literacy
(105) In the idiom suitable for this purpose the verb “to be” is used to signify not a “presence” or a “forceful existence” (its common use in oralism) but a mere linkage required by a conceptual operation. The narrativized usage has turned into a logical one.
(108) the narrative syntax of memorizable oralism has been invaded by the static syntax of literate description.
(111) The same opening toward the novel and the nontraditional, as it provoked history, also created philosophy and science. The new language of fact was accompanied by a new language of theory, which relied even more on the resources of the verb “to be.”

Compare self as invention of Socratic vocabulary to Kittler on metaphors for the soul tied to media technologies.

(111) Why choose vision as the metaphor for an intellectual operation, unless guided by the subconscious recognition that the operation had arise out of viewing the written word rather than just hearing it spoken?
(114) The “self” was a Socratic discovery or, perhaps we should say, an invention of the Socratic vocabulary.

11 The Special Theories on Trial

Classical humanism emphasizes written not spoken language; this prejudice could be transformed by ensoniment as simulacra of primary orality: why is this any worse than hallucinated sounds of subvocalization during reading?

(123) The understanding of classical humanism depends on continued study of the word as it is written, not as it may have hypothetically been spoken.


Bibliography contains other key texts about orality and literacy, texts and technology.

Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Preset. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986. Print.