‘Collective composition, modularity, iterability, and virtuality’

Haun Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies

Fordham University Press, 274pp, £27.99, ISBN 9780823270477

reviewed by James Williams

In its subtitle, ‘Orality and Its Technologies,’ The Ethnography of Rhythm anticipates comparisons to what doubtless remains the most familiar touchstone in discussions of orality, Walter J. Ong’s 1982 work Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Haun Saussy’s account, though, amounts to a deft sidestepping of some of the temptation toward grander narrative which Ong’s classic reading may provoke. Instead of insisting upon any sharp distinction between orality and literacy, less still maintaining the more anthropological divide between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ cultures, Saussy offers a history of the emergence of attempts to theorise the oral in which he remains suspicious of any hard-and-fast distinctions. The work, he states, ‘does not attempt to set up orality as an answer or a rival to written culture . . . nor is it about themes or situations of orality in literature. It examines the history of the concept’s formulation and seeks to understand the difficulty of articulating “oral literature”.’ It is thus the very emergence of an idea of orality, and its definition through recourse to what writing is not, that Saussy takes as his subject.

Academic interest in orality has shown little sign of waning since the publication of Ong’s account, not least in the wake of the latest round of alarmist proclamations of the death of the book, alongside the remarkably healthy status of spoken word in popular culture. Acknowledging the prevalence of the issue, Saussy opens by remarking that ‘even large and visible objects in the humanities sometimes gain from the indirect approach’, proposing ‘an investigation of oral tradition, not by starting from a description of oral tradition, but from the observation of the difference it made for people to be talking about oral tradition.’

What thus emerges is a fascinating intellectual history of the emergence of critical conversations about orality and oral tradition, which is both historically compelling and wide-ranging. It suggests a scholar of some learning that writes that ‘the book's center is in Paris in the years 1660-1960 and its main character Homer’ and sounds vaguely apologetic about it. Saussy begins with Jean Paulhan’s ethnographic observations of Malagasy oral poetry in the first decade of the 20th century, charting a compelling narrative of early academic ideas of orality, not least in their importance for his own field of comparative literature. Saussy’s comparatist credentials are herein put to good use, pursuing the influence of Paulhan’s work through a generation of scholarship and deftly taking stock of Marcel Granet’s reading of the Chinese Shijing (also the subject of Saussy’s first book) and Antoine Meillet’s work on Homer.

Inspired throughout by a kind of post-Derridean scepticism toward the possibility of maintaining any distinction between orality and literacy, Saussy argues that, writing is not a technologising of the practice of language; instead, orality itself is just one of many ‘poetic technologies’. Through a compelling reading of the Odyssey and generations of scholarly response to it, Saussy ably demonstrates that attempts to explain orality through writing are doomed to incapacity, since orality is a technology whose emphases – ‘collective composition, modularity, iterability, and virtuality’ – are unlike those of writing.

Particularly fascinating are the analytical moves undertaken in the latter half of the book, wherein human and non-human technologies are brought into productive dialogue. Having already demonstrated the folly of understanding the oral simply by virtue of its not being writing, thereby considering orality against a standard of precision which it does not seek to match, Saussy moves onto a consideration of the limitations of writing as they have been historically understood. The analysis amounts to an inversion of the assumptions which underpinned early perspectives on orality, drawing out a counter-current of thought which instead regarded writing as a defective or incomplete technology, limited in its ability to transcribe the human voice. The chapter thus weaves a narrative around the technological pursuit of new forms of writing, operated through kymographic transcriptions of the voice, and their implications for, to take on example, French verse conventions and their reliance upon a standard written language.

It is a gesture of considerable erudition to pursue a relatively circumscribed historical narrative while also attending to such a wealth broader detail. It is no criticism to suggest that the concerns raised in this volume dovetail with areas of literary study (and wider) to which it does not attend. It would, to give just one example, be fascinating to pursue Saussy's observations concerning Paulhan's study of hain-teny poetry and its unsettling of European notions of originality and authenticity into the high modernist tradition, with all of its own fraught complication of these same underpinnings of classical poetics. Doubtless, scholars working across a wide range of fields of literary and linguistic study will find a wealth of insight here.