Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Questioning the privalage of written text

In my weekend reading I started "Ojibwa World View: A Re-Examination" which sounded like it would be really interesting, but this article is 30 years old and most of the references are another 20 years older so this phycological assessment of the Ojibwa world view comes too close to racism to be comfortable to a modern reader.  I did not finish reading this one and I would suggest avoiding it.

More profitably I worked through, ""Orality in Literacy": Listening to Indigenous Writing" by Peter Dickenson.  Dickenson looks at how various indigenous writers have integrated oral features into their work.  This is something I have thought a lot about in having a blog to try and "talk" about my experiences.  Dickenson  sets out to encourage, "readers and critics alike to reconsider the traditional opposition of orality and literacy as mutually exclusive terms...." He wants to do this by exploring a couple of texts which are hybrid in nature and that, "at once give voice to Indigenous memory systems...and transform the usually solitary reading experience into a more cooperative and responsive act of listening." 

We had an interesting experience of this when working through a story from "The Road Allowance People" by Maria Campbell where she tells the one story without gender pronouns as it would be in Mischif.  This change challenges the reader, creates an obviously different voice and plays with conceptions of what is "appropriate speech".  The children hated it, but as I was reading the story aloud I appreciated the experience of trying another voice and cadence.  It brought back memories of the aunties when I was very young.  It felt forbidden.  Where was the line of parody and that of authentic voice for the story.  The questioning added a whole other element to the story experience. 

He argues that rather than a binary of oral/written, we should imagine a space which shows the continuity and relationship between these two ways of communicating.  He explicitly mentions that this is a possibility to bridge the current disconnect between the "non-literate and literate society".  While he does not mention decolonization, there are tones of this nonetheless, as the real change in his proposed view is to strategically question the low value that has been traditionally given to the non literate societies.  He also brings in the words of indigenous writers to weigh in on this question, creating a consistency between theory and practice.

The quotes by the writers are very powerful and I would like to highlight two.  First is Mudrooroo Narogin (Australia) commenting on attempts to assimilate indigenous speech patterns, "It is assimilation on the discourse level, though in actuality it does not mean that the Aboriginal person had the option of being assimilated."  This quote could be applied to so much more than language.  Indigenous people are expected to meet the standards, but may not be given what they need to do so if they want too.  How many places would this apply for Indigenous peoples?  The second quote is from Métis writer Lee Maracle, "We differ in the presentation of theory, not in our capacity to theorize." I found these to be powerful and empowering words.  Here again the decolonize word comes to mind.  The author continues with a number of other quotes by indigenous writers.  This lends credibility to his argument.

Dickenson continues by exploring the different modes the writers have used to create this bridge and how they explore the two voices (written and oral) to tell the story.  In a number of his examples, he shows how the authors also embedded their indigenous world view into the very creation of the text, through the choice of subjects (family), by their reproductions of the story telling traditions (transition of knowledge and energy) and even through their comfort with the creation of these liminal spaces which are neither text or oral.

Dickenson acknowledges the potential problem of creating a hybridized view of the lives of indigenous writers and questions whether by this whole discussion risks becoming a consumption of the "other" for academic interest.  "In this sense, not only am I in danger of modifying orality as the privileged site for the production of "authentic: Indigenous narratives, but also of fetishizing the very bodies which have engendered these narratives."  This crucial lack of self reflection is what was so flawed in the paper I reviewed yesterday and while just asking the question is not a solution, it is a very big step towards a healthy dialogue on the question.

In closing he turns to Judith Butler (see posts here and here) and her ideas of language as performance, as a means to negotiate through this question.  By reframing the oral as spoken performance (rather than a poor relative to the text) he suggest that we can obviate the dichotomy in question if, we can free this mental concept from the problems of gender in order to ensure that we do not create a new ghetto for the work of indigenous women writers.  This is a nice solution, but risks the trick of changing the name to hide the problem.  There is a lot more work that could be done to explore this option and this paper opens an interesting space to explore these questions from.

Dickenson finishes the essay by noting that the turn to the performative also solidifies the role of the listener to respond.  He says that for a white critic like himself this can shift the academic debate into a larger space where there is room for the text (however it is constituted) and the process of critique.

I really like this essay.  I liked his use of quotes by indigenous female writers themselves to back up his assertion.  The construction of the article itself furthered the argument he was making.  I like that he was aware of the obvious pitfalls of this investigation by someone of his own privilege.  I love Butler and I think her work has a lot to add to discussions about constructions of indigenaity and the processes of decolonization and issues of voice.  This article was smart and I felt smart reading it.  What was promised was delivered.

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